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Egyptian hieroglyphs

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Were a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Less formal variations of the script called hieratic and demotic, are technically not hieroglyphs. Various scholars believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and ... probably [were]... invented under the influence of the latter ", although it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt..." (See further History of writing).


The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos), a compound of ἱερός (hierós 'sacred')] and γλύφω (glýphō 'Ι carve, engrave'; see glyph),[5] in turn a loan translation of Egyptian mdw·w-nṯr (medu-netjer) 'god's words'.[6] The glyphs themselves were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικὰ γράμματα (tà hieroglyphikà grámmata) 'the sacred engraved letters'. The word hieroglyph has become a noun in English, standing for an individual hieroglyphic character. As used in the previous sentence, the word hieroglyphic is an adjective, but is often erroneously used as a noun in place of hieroglyph.

History and evolution Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on Gerzean pottery from ca. 4000 BCE resemble hieroglyphic writing. For many years the earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to ca. 3200 BCE. However, in 1998, a German archaeological team under Günter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j of a Predynastic ruler, and recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphs, dating to the Naqada IIIA period of the 33rd century BCE.[7] The first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa'ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty. In the era of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, about 800 hieroglyphs existed. By the Greco-Roman period, they numbered more than 5,000.

Scholars generally believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs “came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter ...” For example, it has been stated that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia.” On the other hand, it has been stated that “the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt...” Given the lack of direct evidence, “no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.”[14] In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian glyphs date back to 3400 BCE which "...challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, which narrow down the meaning of logographic or phonetic words.

Hieroglyphs on an Egyptian funerary stela

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE), and after Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that hieroglyphs may have functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from some of the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.

By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 CE by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 394 CE.

Decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing

As active knowledge of the hieroglyphs and the related scripts disappeared, numerous attempts were made to decipher the hidden meaning of the ubiquitous inscriptions. The best known examples from Antiquity are the Hieroglyphica (dating to about the 5th century) by Horapollo, which offer an explanation of almost 200 glyphs. Horapollo seems to have had access to some genuine knowledge about the hieroglyphs as some words are identified correctly, although the explanations given are invariably wrong (the goose character used to write the word for 'son', z3, for example, is identified correctly, but explained wrongly to have been chosen because the goose loves his offspring the most while the real reason seems to have been purely phonetic). The Hieroglyphica thus represent the start of more than a millennium of (mis)interpreting the hieroglyphs as symbolic rather than phonetic writing.

In the 9th and 10th century CE, Arab historians Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya offered their interpretation of the hieroglyphs. In his 1806 English translation of Ibn Wahshiyya's work,[17] Joseph Hammer points out that Athanasius Kircher used this along with several other Arabic works in his 17th century attempts at decipherment.

Kircher's interpretation of the hieroglyphs is probably the best known early modern European attempt at 'decipherment', not least for the fantastic nature of his claims. Another early attempt at translation was made by Johannes Goropius Becanus in the 16th century. Like other interpretations before it, Kircher's 'translations' were hampered by the fundamental notion that hieroglyphs recorded ideas and not the sounds of the language. As no bilingual texts were available, any such symbolic 'translation' could be proposed without the possibility of verification. Kircher further developed the notion that the last stage of Egyptian could be related to the earlier Egyptian stages. [citation needed]

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

The real breakthrough in decipherment began with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's troops in 1799 (during Napoleon's Egyptian invasion). As the stone presented a hieroglyphic and a demotic version of the same text in parallel with a Greek translation, plenty of material for falsifiable studies in translation was suddenly available. In the early 19th century, scholars such as Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad, and Thomas Young studied the inscriptions on the stone, and were able to make some headway. Finally, Jean-François Champollion made the complete decipherment by the 1820s:

“ It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word. ”

This was a major triumph for the young discipline of Egyptology.

Hieroglyphs survive today in two forms: directly, through half a dozen Demotic glyphs added to the Greek alphabet when writing Coptic; and indirectly, as the inspiration for the original alphabet that was ancestral to nearly every other alphabet ever used, including the Roman alphabet.