Egyptian hieroglyphics is one of the earliest writing systems in the world, with the earliest exhibits dating back to the 4th millennium in the Early Bronze Age. While the writing system is synonymous with the era of the Pharaohs, it predates that period of Egyptian history by several centuries. The introduction of hieroglyphics was one of the hallmarks of human civilization, whose use (among other ancient writing systems) ushered humanity from the prehistoric era to written history. The hieroglyphics enjoyed widespread use in Egypt for centuries until the writing system died off entirely in the 5th century, triggered by the ban of pagan temples in Egypt by Emperor Theodosius I. The writing system remained a mystery for many centuries thereafter, until it was accurately deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822, with assistance from the then newly-discovered Rosetta Stone. Hieroglyphics are categorized into three distinct types of glyphs; determinatives, phonetics, and logographs. Egyptian hieroglyphics (1,070 characters) are recognized under the Unicode Standard, after being added into the standard in 2009.
Ancient Egypt witnessed many breakthroughs in culture and technology during the Naqada III era, dated between the 33nd and 31st centuries BCE. Many historians agree that the Naqada III era was the time when the origin of the hieroglyphics as a form of written communication was used. The oldest versions of hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt are dated back to this era. However, few hieroglyphic exhibits predate the Naqada III era, some going as far back as the 41st century BCE during the Gerzean era. These ancient examples are known as proto-hieroglyphics. Besides the introduction of hieroglyphics, the Naqada III era also saw Ancient Egypt’s first royal cemeteries, the earliest documented application of serekh art, and arguably the world’s first irrigation system. The hieroglyphics writing system in Egypt was itself predated by an earlier writing system from Mesopotamia known as a Sumerian script. Some scholars even believe the Sumerian script inspired the origin of hieroglyphics. Such claims are supported by Ancient Egypt’s proximity to Sumerian Mesopotamia, with the two ancient civilizations possibly engaging in trade. By the Second Dynasty, the use of hieroglyphics had become widespread all over Egypt, with the earliest complete sentence written in the script being dated back to this period.
Hieroglyphics continued to be used in Ancient Egypt for centuries after it was introduced in the Naqada III era, and gradually evolved and became more simplified as its usage spread in the kingdom. An estimated 800 hieroglyphics were in use, in the years between ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. The Late Period saw the rise of other related glyph writing systems; hieratic and demotic glyphs, whose simplicity endeared them to Egyptians, who by then had shifted to writing on papyrus. The use of hieroglyphics in Egypt persisted even during the Greco-Roman era when the number of hieroglyphics had risen to 5,000.
Early Greeks and Romans were of the belief that hieroglyphics had religious significance, and therefore thought that understanding the meaning of the writings would give one mystical and magical knowledge. In 391, during Roman Emperor Theodosius I’s reign over Egypt, all non-Christian places of worship in Egypt were closed, a directive that signaled the end of hieroglyphics’ monumental usage.
Historic Decoding Attempts
The last documented authentic hieroglyphic writing is dated to have been written in 394, known as the “Graffito of Esmet-Akhom.” By this time, even native Egyptians had little knowledge in reading hieroglyphics. Nonetheless, a 5th-century book known as the “Hieroglyphica” written by Horapollo, a priest, delt in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The book had an impressive degree of accuracy in interpreting about 200 hieroglyphics symbols. Other later attempts to decipher hieroglyphics were witnessed in the 9th and 10th centuries by Arab scholars Ibn Wahshiyya and Dhul-Nun al-Misri. In the 17th century, linguists and historians from Europe also became immersed in the daunting task. Athanasius Kircher, credited for inspiring the rise of Egyptology, published his famous “Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta” in 1643, in which he made a detailed analysis of the writing system. Despite the increased interest from scholars from all over the world, the accurate deciphering of hieroglyphics proved to be a near-impossible task, until a discovery was made in 1799.
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is a large granodiorite rock currently exhibited at the British Museum, which bears the inscription of a royal decree, written in three different writing systems; Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic script, and ancient Greek script. The current exhibit weighs 1,680 pounds and is just but a piece of the original Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone features the Memphis decree, written in 196 BCE under the instructions of King Ptolemy V, of the Ptolemaic dynasty. While the stele was discovered in the town of Rosetta by French troops in July 1799, historians believe that the stone was originally domiciled in a temple near Sais. The stele is believed to have been moved from the temple in the 15th century and used in the construction of a fortress in the site where it would later be rediscovered. Rosetta Stone is neither the only nor the earliest trilingual stele, as there were older and better preserved multilingual steles discovered soon after that. Egyptologists used these older steles to obtain a complete representation of the missing fragments of the Rosetta Stone. Nonetheless, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in the late 18th century was most instrumental in the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and gave scholars better insight into ancient Egyptian culture. Before the discovery, the interpretation of hieroglyphics was, for the most part, vague and inaccurate. Scholars relied heavily on the bottom Greek text on the stele to decode the other languages, as Ancient Greek language was known to them. That notwithstanding, the earliest translations were inaccurate as the scholars struggled to deduce the historical context of the inscriptions.
Related Writing Systems
Egyptian hieroglyphics is often regarded as the ancestor of all alphabets used in modern communication, as it inspired the establishment of the original alphabet, from which the Latin alphabet was formed. Hieroglyphics brought forth the Demotic writing system and the Cursive hieroglyphs, both of which were popular during the Pharaonic period of ancient Egypt.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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