Egyptian Writing - Decoding the Past

Egyptian writing is among the oldest forms of writing. It was employed everywhere, from religious texts to medicine, business and literature.

Most of what we know about Ancient Egypt is thanks to those scholars who were able to decipher the ancient inscriptions, principally Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion. Otherwise, Egyptian writing would mean to us merely a delightful ornament to temples and wall art. Ramses cartouche at Karnak For most of us visitors this is the way we contemplate these inscriptions. But if you want to impress your tourist friends with your expertise on Egyptian writing, you can easily learn to read the names of the pharaohs. They stand out easily from the rest of the inscriptions, because they are written in what is known as a cartouche. Gold cartouche pendantRemember Ramses? His name seems to be everywhere. Sometimes you see two cartouches side by side. That's because a pharaoh assumed a royal name along with his own when ascending to the throne. Popes still follow that custom.

Cartouches are one of the favorite souvenirs tourists bring back home from Egypt. You can have your own or a loved one's name written in hieroglyphs and embedded in a small gold cartouche for you to wear as part of a necklace or bracelet. The goldsmiths who prepare them rely on a simple alphabet that substitutes a hieroglyph symbol that has the same or a similar sound for each letter in your name.

Your name written in hieroglyphs

Egyptian writing is much more complex than that, of course, and it was no easy task for linguists to decipher all its grammatical rules. For example, some symbols are biliteral, the combination of two letters of our alphabet, others are triliteral. There are some that are simply used to clarify the meaning of a word, like a picture of a boat to mean, well...a boat. These are called determinatives.

Ancient Egyptian scribes did not separate words, much less sentences or paragraphs. There are no commas, periods, question marks or any other sign of punctuation. Writing could be done left to right or right to left, depending on which directions the symbols are facing, and even top to bottom.

The writing on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples are of an official nature. It mentions gods and pharaohs. Sometimes it gives an exaggerated account of a king's deed, like a heroic battle, peppered with all kinds of praises.

Hieroglyphs are not the only form of writing the ancient Egyptians used. Many papyri are written in a simplified form of hieroglyphs known to us as hieratic. It was employed for everyday affairs such as letter writing or record keeping. A variation of this type of script further evolved into what Herodotus called Demotic, which the ancient Egyptians named "sekh shat", meaning "writing documents". Demotic was principally used in business and legal documents. It was a form of writing more available to the general population, and that is why the Rosetta Stone has a transcription in this script of a decree by the priests of King Ptolemy V that he be worshipped as a god by all Egyptians.

Next: Understanding Hieroglyphs

Category: Ancient Egypt

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