Sunday, June 26, 2011

Egyptian Hieroglyphics: the Basics

When I was younger, I loved to study the Ancient Egyptians. I'm still not sure why, but their art, architecture, and culture fascinated me. I could spend hours as a ten-year-old, reading my dad's four inch thick college textbook about Ancient Egypt. Some time later, my interests shifted into the Middle Ages and I abandoned researching Egypt for several years, forgetting much of my knowledge with time.

My interest was renewed, however, when I signed up for a Middle East Study Abroad Trip with my university for this summer. The trip was scheduled to tour Egypt, Jordan, Syria, a touch of Turkey and maybe Lebanon, (Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon we had to cut because of the revolution in Syria) and then Israel. It would last for six weeks, two of which would be spent working on the Bethsaida Archaeological Dig in Israel.


Luxor Temple facade
What an amazing opportunity! The group of students and the professor leading the trip met every other week over the spring semester leading up to the trip, and it was not until a few weeks before our departure date that it finally sunk in that I would actually be going. With the realization that I would truly observe monuments such as the Giza Pyramids, Luxor, Petra, and countless Biblical sites (including Jerusalem), came the realization that I had a lot of research to do! I needed to brush up on all that precious Egyptian history and my Biblical geography. With studying for finals, and then a busy family vacation in Florida filling my time before the trip, the victorious flight of my researching glider barely got off to a running start and never quite leapt over the cliff's edge and into the air.

I did, however, begin learning the basics of deciphering Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

At the most basic level, Egyptian Hieroglyphics are alphabetic letters. They are difficult to correspond to the sounds of the English language, and scholars can really only speculate as to how they were really originally pronounced. The chart at right shows the generally-agreed-upon Hieroglyphic alphabet. It's not too difficult to learn, as it is comprised of only thirty characters, some of which roughly arbitrarily (for English-speakers, anyway) relate to their represented sound, such as the lion representing the "L."

Rosetta Stone
Archaeologists and historians studied Ancient Egyptians throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. Many people claimed to have deciphered hieroglyphics, such as Arab historians in the ninth and tenth centuries, but their meanings remained mysterious until 1799, when Napoleon discovered the Rosetta Stone during his invasion of Egypt. The Stone is a basalt stele with the same inscription in three different scripts. The first language was Greek, the second was Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the third was a sort of cursive Egyptian script (though not the same as cursive hieroglyphics). It was not until 1820, when Jean-Francois Champollion noticed that the hieroglyphics contained certain characters in little bubbles (called cartouches) which roughly corresponded to the placement of the names Cleopatra and Ptolemy in the Greek inscription...

Through comparing the names and the way in which they were spelled in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Champollion was able to determine ten of the letters of the Egyptian alphabet. From there, he deciphered the rest of the alphabet, as seen above, and the rest is "history!"

One thing that makes Egyptian hieroglyphics a bit confusing, though, is the direction in which it is read. hieroglyphics can be written both in columns and rows, and it can be read from right to left, or left to right. Confusing, isn't it? Well, the Ancient Egyptians did leave us two clues for knowing in what direction to read:
First, you always read from top to bottom. Easy.
Second, notice which way the characters (people, animals, etc) are facing. Read toward them.
The relief above is from the inner sanctum of the Luxor Temple, and the characters in the inscription face left, so you read them from left to right, top to bottom.

Now you can read Egyptian hieroglyphics, right? Well, of course, it's not that easy. The problem is that the characters can be alphabetic, phonetic, or determiners, even in the same word. Yeah. It is quite a bit more complicated than I thought, too! Let me give you a demonstration.

In the above sample, only the "kh" and "r" are alphabetic. The loaf/brick/thing, scythe, arm, and spear are phonetic, and the man is the determiner (telling us that this word relates to the mouth).

So, yes. Egyptian Hieroglyphics are actually rather sophisticated and very difficult to understand. I had no idea what I was getting myself into by diving into the world of hieroglyphics, but I now have a greater appreciation for the innovation of the Ancient Egyptians.

Now that you've got the bare basics of reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, you should attempt to master it with the book Egyptian Language: Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge.


  1. Google has been acting weird.I have been trying to comment on here for several weeks and at last I have made it!

    Firstly thank you so much for the post on the medieval castles Deanna. I have recently seen a documentary about a project in France where they used authentic methods. It amazes me how they managed to build using such weak looking ladders. There must have been so many fatal accidents.

    As for the hieroglyphics, well I think I might stick to medieval manuscripts for now, but it is absolutely fascinating!!

  2. I'm glad Google finally let you post! It's awesome to hear from you. :)

    Was that Chateau de Guedelon? I was fascinated by a documentary on that castle several years ago, and then blown away when I learned of a similar project here in the USA. I wrote about it here:

    And, yes. I will be sticking with medieval manuscripts rather than hieroglyphics, too. I'm actually really excited for my Old English Literature course this Fall. I'll also start learning Latin so that I can someday read the original, medieval Latin manuscripts.