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Egyptian hieroglyph
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Egyptian hieroglyph

museum with Ramses II statue on the back.]]
Hieroglyphs are a system of writing used by the Ancient Egyptians, using a combination of logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements.

The earliest known hieroglyphic inscription has been dated to 4240 BC. The first appearance of hieroglyphs is found before the writing of the Sumerian cuneiform was developed.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek words hiero-, meaning "sacred", and glyph, meaning "carving". The traditional Egyptian name for hieroglyphics is transliterated as medu netjer, meaning 'words of (the) god'.

Hieroglyphics consisted of three kinds of characters: phonetic characters, including single-sound characters, like an alphabet, but also many representing one or more syllables, ideographs, representing a word, and determinatives, which indicate the semantic category of a spelled-out word without indicating its precise meaning. Champollion had this to say about the system:

It is a complex system, a writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word. Letter to M. Dacier, September 27, 1822

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified letter forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These forms were also more suited to use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed along side the other forms. The Rosetta Stone contains both hieroglyphic and demotic writing.

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), after Alexander's conquest of Egypt, and during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the complexity of late hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some belief that hieroglyphs functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from the foreign conquerors (and their local lackeys). This aspect may account for misleading quality of surviving comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs. Another factor is the pervasive attitude of "respect," coupled with a refusal to tackle a foreign culture on their 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. This respect engendered not interest, but ignorance.

By the fourth century AD, few Egyptians remained capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the "myth" of hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391AD by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from a temple far to the south not too long after 391.

Also in the fourth century appeared the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, an "explanation" of nearly 200 signs. Authoritative yet largely false, the work was a lasting impediment to the decipherment of Egyptian writing. But whereas earlier scholarship emphasized its Greek origin, more recent work has emphasized remnants of genuine knowledge, and cast it as a "desperate" attempt by an Egyptian intellectual to rescue an unrecoverable past. The Hieroglyphica was a major influence on Renaissance symbolism, particularly the emblem book of Andrea Alciato, and including the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna.

Various modern scholars attempted to decyipher the glyphs over the centuries, notably Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century, but such attempts either met with failure or were fictitious decipherments based on nothing but imaginative free-association. The most significant work on deciphering the hieroglyphs was done by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion beginning the very early 1800s. The discovery of the Rosetta stone by some of Napoleon's troops during the Egyptian invasion provided the critical information which allowed Champollion to make a nearly complete break into hieroglyphs by the 1830s. It was a major triumph for the young discipline of Egyptology.

Script

The hieroglyphic script has 24 main uniliterals (symbols that stand for a single sound, much like English letters), as well as many more biliterals (symbols that stand for two sounds combined). There are also triliterals (three sounds), although these are less common in writing than the bi- or uni-literals.

Note that most vowels are not written in the hieroglyphic script, and so pronunciation is aided by adding an e in between the consonants. For example: nfr -> nefer = beautiful, good.


p:t-wA-l:M-i-i-s
Ptolemy written in Egyptian hieroglyphs

The letters in the above cartouche are:

P
T
O L
M
E E S

though EE is considered a single letter and transliterated I or Y.

See also: ankh, Egyptology, hieroglyph

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