Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing
“No limit may be set to art, neither is there any craftsman that is fully master of his craft” The Instruction of Ptahhotep
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic writing, numerals and mathematical problems using the ancient numbers and the Rosetta stone.
Champollion & Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing
Ancient Egyptian history covers a continuous period of over three thousand years. To put this in perspective – most modern countries count their histories in hundreds of years. Only modern China can come anywhere near this in terms of historical continuity.
Egyptian culture declined and disappeared nearly two thousand years ago. The last vestiges of the living culture ceased to exist in AD 391 when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I closed all pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire.
Hieroglyphs were called, by the Egyptians, “the words of God” and unlike the simple elegance of modern writing systems, this early attempt at recording words, used a number of techniques to convey meaning. The picture symbols represent a combination of alphabet and syllabic sounds together with images that determine or clarify meaning and depictions of actual objects which are the spoken word of the thing they represent.
All writing systems probably evolved in this way but their original forms were lost as pictures were refined to a simple abstraction making writing an efficient tool for day to day business. Indeed, the ancient Egyptian Hieratic script served this function but the Egyptians deliberately preserved Hieroglyphs, in their original forms, because they believed them a gift from the gods which possessed magical powers. So they inscribed them on temple walls, tombs, objects, jewellery and magical papyri to impart supernatural power not for mundane day to day communication.
It was not until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 that the wonderful artefacts of the Egyptians were seen in Europe and their ancient culture began to awaken from its long slumber. In 1799 a French captain named Pierre Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone which was carved with the same text in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, and three writing systems, hieroglyphic, demotic, and the Greek alphabet.
This was a tremendous piece of luck because it enabled scholars to unlock the hieroglyphic code and without the stone, we would know nothing of the ancient Egyptians, and the details of their three thousand years of history would remain a mystery.
The man who did more than any other to recover the words of the ancient Egyptians was Jean-François Champollion. He was an historian and brilliant linguist and by the age of sixteen had mastered not only Latin and Greek but six ancient Oriental languages, including Coptic, which was the late form of ancient Egyptian.
Champollion had a unique advantage over others in the task of cracking the hieroglyphic code. Because he understood Coptic he was able to translate the meanings of the ancient Egyptian words.
In the 1820s, Champollion established an entire list of Egyptian symbols with their Greek equivalents and was the first Egyptologist to realize that the symbols were not only alphabetic but syllabic, and in some cases determinative, meaning that they depicted the meaning of the word itself.
Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing
Hieroglyphic symbols are pleasing to the eye; everyone wants to see their name in hieroglyphs. But understanding the ancient script is difficult and, unless you’re interested in the finer points of Egyptian religion, make tedious reading (the contents of hieratic papyri are far more fascinating). However, gaining some understanding of the hieroglyphic writing system can be fun as well as instructive. With a bit of study it is possible to quickly gain enough knowledge to recognise the names of pharaohs – useful if you are planning a trip to Egypt.