Unlocking the secrets of a bygone civilization, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs captivate our imagination with their enigmatic beauty. These timeless symbols, etched into stone and papyrus, hold stories of pharaohs, gods, and a civilization that flourished along the Nile.
Egypt is a world of its own. Its history, legends, stories, and myths are one of a kind. It has soo much to offer. It is a land of many treasures. The iconic pyramids, enigmatic Sphinx, and haunting mummies are enduring symbols of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Yet, another equally captivating discovery is the intriguing form of picture-like writing known as hieroglyphs.
Despite their extreme importance, we have never given hieroglyphs their deserved spot in history, and not much has been said about them in general. Derived from the Greek term “hieroglyphikos,” meaning “sacred carving,” hieroglyphics date back more than 5,000 years and were used until the 4th century A.D. These artistic scripts, etched into stone and inked onto papyrus, lent an aura of majesty to Egyptian temples, monuments, and tombs. Here, we reveal eight enlightening facts about hieroglyphic writing.
Hieroglyphs: A Language Beyond Imagery
At first glance, hieroglyphics may seem like simple picture writing. But these illustrations, resembling people, animals, and objects, do more than just depict. Some hieroglyphs denote sounds in the ancient Egyptian language, akin to Roman alphabets, while others are ideographic signs that signify concepts without any attached sound.
The Royal Affiliation of Hieroglyphic Writing
“The earliest hieroglyphics often surface on artifacts from royal tombs at Abydos, predating the historical period,” elucidates Peter F. Dorman, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Hieroglyphics’ pictorial nature permanently binds it to early formal art, especially when depicting the king and his royal titulary on commemorative monuments. Despite evolving for other writing forms, hieroglyphics retained their aristocratic association, primarily featuring in commemorative settings like temples and tombs. The affluent non-royals also occasionally employed hieroglyphics in their private monuments and tombs.
Egypt’s Ancient Script Diversity
Hieroglyphic writing’s complexity paved the way for more convenient writing forms. The hieratic script, written on papyrus or limestone (ostracon), was primarily used on the more fragile papyrus. Demotic, another writing form dating back to the 800s B.C., was used for everyday documents and literary works.
Unusual Traits of Hieroglyphic Writing
Unlike modern English, hieroglyphic writing lacks spaces between words and punctuation. This absence necessitates a solid understanding of ancient Egyptian grammar and context to differentiate individual words, clauses, and sentences. Furthermore, hieroglyphics can be written left to right, right to left, or vertically.
Hieroglyphs: Privileged Literacy
During the later stages of ancient Egyptian civilization, only priests could decipher hieroglyphics, as stated by James P. Allen in his book “Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs.” Thus, inscriptions meant for larger audiences were usually carved in Demotic.
The Fade-Out of Hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphic writing slowly vanished after the Ptolemies, of Macedonian descent, commenced ruling Egypt in the 300s B.C., and Greek replaced Egyptian as the official court language. This decline culminated when the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius banned pagan religion in Egypt in 384 A.D., marking the beginning of the end for hieroglyphics.
The Rosetta Stone: The Key to Deciphering Hieroglyphics
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 by French soldiers was a game-changer. The stone, bearing inscriptions in three different scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic, and ancient Greek, enabled researchers to unlock the secrets of hieroglyphic writing. Ultimately, French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion, thanks to his in-depth study of Coptic, was able to decipher the text in 1822.
The Continued Puzzle of Hieroglyphic Writing
Despite these breakthroughs, interpreting hieroglyphic writing remains a considerable challenge. The full vocalization of ancient Egyptian is not written out, making the pronunciation of words and intricacies of the Egyptian verbal system topics of conjecture. Then again, this is probably what makes Egypt, its history and legacy so unique.