Ancient Egyptian Alphabet: What are hieroglyphs?
Ancient Egypt bequeathed to us images of tall pyramids, dusty mummies, and walls covered with hieroglyphics, symbols depicting people, animals, and objects with unusual views. These ancient symbols — the ancient Egyptian alphabet — bear little resemblance to the Latin alphabet we know today.
The meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs remained somewhat mysterious until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1798, after which the French scholar Jean-François Champollio was able to decipher the mysterious language. But where did one of the most iconic and oldest forms of writing in the world come from, and how do we understand it? And what is the origin of the hieroglyphs?
Since 4000 BC, people have used drawn symbols to communicate. These symbols, engraved on pottery or clay tablets found along the banks of the Nile in elite tombs, date from the time of a predominant ruler called Nakada or “Scorpio I”, and were among the earliest forms of writing in Egypt. .
However, Egypt was not the first country to know how to communicate through writing. Mesopotamia already had a long history of using symbols since 8000 BC. For while historians still debate whether or not the Egyptians got the idea of developing an alphabet from their Mesopotamian neighbors, the hieroglyphs are visibly Egyptian, and reflect the flora, fauna, and images of Egyptian life.
With the beginning of the Ancient and Middle Egyptian Kingdom from 2500 BC, the number of hieroglyphs was about 800. When the Greeks and Romans arrived in Egypt, more than 5,000 hieroglyphs were used. But how do hieroglyphs work? In hieroglyphs, there are 3 main types of glyphs.
First are the phonetic glyphs, which include single characters that function like the letters of the English alphabet. Second are the logographers, written symbols that represent a word, more or less like the letters of the Chinese alphabet. And that third were taxograms, which can change meaning when combined with other glyphs.
As more and more Egyptians began to use hieroglyphs, 2 types of writing appeared: the hierarchical (priestly) and the demotic (popular). Carving hieroglyphs on stones was a complicated and expensive process. Hence the need for a lighter italic type of writing.
Hierarchical hieroglyphs were more suitable for writing on papyrus made of reed and ink. They were mainly used to write about religion by Egyptian priests, so much so that the Greek word that gave the alphabet its name; hieroglyphikos means “engraving of the holy word.”
Demotic writing was developed around 800 BC, to be used in other documents or writing letters. It was used for 1000 years, and was written and read from right to left like Arabic, unlike previous hieroglyphs that had no space between them and could be read from top to bottom.
Therefore, understanding the context of the hieroglyphs was very important. Hieroglyphics were still in use under Persian rule during the VI-V centuries BC, and after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. Scholars believe that during the Greek and Roman periods, hieroglyphics were used by the Egyptians as an attempt to distinguish “true” Egyptians from their conquerors.
Although, this may have been more a choice of the Greek and Roman invaders themselves, not to learn the Egyptian language. However, many Greeks and Romans thought that hieroglyphics carried hidden, even magical, knowledge because of their continued use in Egyptian religious practice.
But during the fourth century AD, few Egyptians were able to read the hieroglyphs. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius I closed all non-Christian temples in 391, an act that brought an end to the use of hieroglyphics in monumental buildings. Medieval Arab scholars Dhul-Nun Al-Misri and Ibn Washshiyah attempted to translate the then foreign symbols.
But their progress was based on the mistaken belief that hieroglyphs represented ideas and not spoken sounds. Progress in deciphering the hieroglyphs took place after another conquest of Egypt, this time by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Imperial forces, a large army with scientists and cultural experts, landed in Alexandria in July 1798.
A stone slab, carved with glyphs, was discovered as part of the structure at Zhylien Fortress, a French-occupied camp near the town of Rosetta. The surface of the stone is covered by 3 versions of a decree issued in Memphis by Egyptian King Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196 BC.
The texts at the top and middle are in hieroglyphic and demotic scripts of ancient Egyptian, while the bottom is written in ancient Greek. During the years 1822-1824, the French linguist Jean-François Champollio discovered that the 3 versions differ only slightly from each other. The Rosetta Stone (now housed in the British Museum) became the key to deciphering Egyptian writing. Despite its discovery, today the interpretation of hieroglyphics remains a challenge even for experienced Egyptologists.