Of all the ancient scripts in the world, perhaps one of the most well-known is Egyptian hieroglyphs. Whenever people see the distinctive symbols, many of them remember the old adventure movies they grew up with, the ones where the hero explores long-lost tombs of ancient pharaohs, seeking danger and thrill.
However, beyond the film, Egyptian hieroglyphs are an actual part of Egyptian tradition, and understanding more about this unique script is key to knowing more about the culture of ancient Egypt.
The term hieroglyphics came from two Greek words: hiero, which means holy, and glypho, which means writing. Indeed, designating hieroglyphics as sacred writing is reflective of its religious roots.
Legends tell us that this ancient script was given to humanity by Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, to assist people in preserving their memories. Even now, hieroglyphic writings provide valuable insight into how ancient Egyptians lived.
History Of Egyptian Hieroglyphics
While still debatable, many experts believe that hieroglyphics originated from the inscriptions written on cave walls by people living near the Nile river. These symbols are mostly pictorial, depicting commonly seen objects in nature, such as reeds and various animals.
This system makes sense, as the development of written language typically starts with graphic depictions. The invention of papyrus near 3000 BCE led to a surge in writing, and the script evolved to become the Egyptian hieroglyphics that people study nowadays.
Hieroglyphics are most commonly depicted as being inscribed on pharaoh tomb walls, and indeed the writing was considered an art reserved for royalty and other elite classes. The writing was written not only on walls and pieces of papyrus but also on pottery, clay tablets, and coffins.
However, during the 1st century, the increasing influence of Roman culture and Christianity led to the disappearance of ancient Egyptian culture, and this system of writings was lost for millennia.
During 1799, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone led to the reemergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics into the public consciousness. This stone contained several translations of a decree by Ptolemy V, then the ruler of Egypt.
The text included Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic writing, which facilitated efforts to interpret and understand Egyptian hieroglyphics. This discovery propelled the understanding of this language to new heights, and experts can now understand most hieroglyphic writing, uncovering the long-lost aspects of ancient Egypt.
The Writing System of Hieroglyphics
Egyptian hieroglyphics contain three types of symbols: logograms which represent words, phonograms which represent syllables, and determinatives which give information on how to interpret other words.
Hieroglyphics are read either from left to right or from right to left, and one good way to determine the reading direction is to look for glyphs depicting animal figures: the course of their gazes identifies where to start reading. For vertically-aligned glyphs, reading is always from top to bottom. A peculiar trait of Egyptian hieroglyphics is that it only uses consonants, not vowels.
Understanding the exact meaning of this hieroglyphics is difficult, as the translation of each glyph to analogs from modern languages is not straightforward. The language is also dead and no longer used for official communications. Everything we know about the hieroglyphs comes from analysis and interpretations which always have the potential for errors.
Despite the dead status of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the language remains as a potent source of knowledge. The vast amounts of ancient Egyptian literature can only be properly deciphered if people have a solid grasp on interpreting hieroglyphics. Additionally, hieroglyphics is a capstone example of Egyptian art. Given all of these, this ancient script continues to live on as a testament to the legacy of ancient Egypt.