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Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Egyptian hieroglyphs were the formal writing system used in Ancient Egypt.  It combined logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements, with a total of some 1,000 distinct characters.  Cursive hieroglyphs were used for religious literature on papyrus and wood.  The later hieratic and demotic Egyptian scripts are derived from hieroglyphic writing; Meroitic was a late derivation from demotic.

Ancient Egyptian history covers a continuous period of in excess of 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 391 CE when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I closed all pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire.

Hieroglyphs were called 'the words of God' by the Egyptians, 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 manner 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 to be a gift from the gods which possessed magical powers.  Consequently, 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 (1771 - 1822) 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 (1790 - 1832).  He was an historian and brilliant linguist who, 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, he established an entire list of Egyptian symbols with their Greek equivalents and was the first Egyptologist to realise that the symbols were not only alphabetic but syllabic, and in some cases determinative, meaning that they depicted the meaning of the word itself.

Alphabetic Hieroglyphs

Horned Viper
Twist of Flax
Basket with Handle
Ripple of Water
Door Bolt
Fold of Cloth
Loaf of Bread
Tethering Rope
Quail Chick
Two Reeds

An Egyptian Typewriter?

Syllabic Hieroglyphs
Sandal Strap
Two Raised Arms
Game Board
Fox Skins
Pool of Water
Pool with Reeds

Word Examples Using Hieroglyphs

Some Numeric Examples of Hieroglyphs

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