Ancient Egypt conjures images of towering pyramids, dusty mummies and walls covered in hieroglyphics – symbols depicting people, animals and alien-looking objects. These ancient symbols – the ancient Egyptian alphabet – bear little similarity to the Roman alphabet we are familiar with today.
The meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics also remained somewhat mysterious until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1798, after which the French scholar Jean-François Champollion was able to decipher the mysterious language. But where did one of the world’s most iconic and oldest forms of writing come from, and how do we make sense of it?
Here’s a brief history of hieroglyphics.
What are the origins of hieroglyphics?
From as far back as 4,000 BC, humans were using drawn symbols to communicate. These symbols, inscribed on pots or clay labels found along the banks of the Nile in elite tombs, date from the time of a predynastic ruler called Naqada or ‘Scorpion I’ and were among the earliest forms of writing in Egypt.
Egypt was not the first place to have written communication, however. Mesopotamia already had a long history of using symbols in tokens going back to 8,000 BC. Nonetheless, while historians have contested whether or not Egyptians got the idea for developing an alphabet from their Mesopotamian neighbours, hieroglyphs are distinctly Egyptian and reflect the native flora, fauna and images of Egyptian life.
The first known full sentence written in hieroglyphs was unearthed on a seal impression, buried in the tomb of an early ruler, Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa’ab, dating from the Second Dynasty (28th or 27th century BC). With the dawn of the Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdoms from 2,500 BC, the number of hieroglyphs numbered around 800. By the time the Greeks and Romans arrived in Egypt, there were more than 5,000 hieroglyphs in use.
How do hieroglyphics work?
In hieroglyphics, there are 3 main types of glyph. The first are phonetic glyphs, which include single characters that work like the English alphabet’s letters. The second are logographs, which are written characters representing a word, much like Chinese characters. The third are taxograms, which can alter meaning when combined with other glyphs.
As more and more Egyptians began to use hieroglyphs, two scripts emerged: the hieratic (priestly) and the demotic (popular). Carving hieroglyphics into stone was tricky and expensive, and there was a need for an easier cursive type of writing.
Hieratic hieroglyphs were better suited for writing on papyrus with reeds and ink, and they were mostly used for writing about religion by Egyptian priests, so much so the Greek word that gave the alphabet its name; hieroglyphikos means ‘sacred carving’.
Demotic script was developed around 800 BC for use in other documents or letter writing. It was used for 1,000 years and written and read from right to left like Arabic, unlike earlier hieroglyphs which did not have spaces between them and could be read from top to bottom. Understanding the context of hieroglyphics was therefore important.
The decline of hieroglyphics
Hieroglyphics were still in use under Persian rule throughout the 6th and 5th centuries BC, and after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt. During the Greek and Roman period, contemporary scholars suggested that hieroglyphics were kept in use by Egyptians trying to separate the ‘real’ Egyptians from their conquerors, although this may have been more a reflection of the Greek and Roman conquerors choosing not to learn the language of their newly won territory.
Still, many Greeks and Romans thought hieroglyphics held hidden, even magical knowledge, because of their continued use in Egyptian religious practice. Yet by the 4th century AD, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs. The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I closed all non-Christian temples in 391, marking an end to the use of hieroglyphs on monumental buildings.
Medieval Arabic scholars Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya made attempts at translating the then-alien symbols. However, their progress was based on the incorrect belief that hieroglyphics represented ideas and not spoken sounds.
The Rosetta Stone
The breakthrough in deciphering hieroglyphics came with another invasion of Egypt, this time by Napoleon. The Emperor’s forces, a large army including scientists and cultural experts, landed in Alexandria in July 1798. A slab of stone, inscribed with glyphs, was discovered as part of the structure at Fort Julien, a French-occupied camp near the city of Rosetta.
Covering the stone’s surface are 3 versions of a decree issued in Memphis by Egyptian King Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196 BC. The top and middle texts are in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic scripts, while the bottom is ancient Greek. Between 1822 and 1824, French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion discovered the 3 versions differ only slightly, and the Rosetta Stone (now held at the British Museum) became key to deciphering Egyptian scripts.
Despite the Rosetta Stone discovery, today interpreting hieroglyphics remains a challenge even for experienced Egyptologists.