The land of torrid deserts, pharaohs, river Nile and the beautiful Cleopatra has given the world many things. Apart from belly dancing and a significant contribution to mathematics and medicine, Egypt has also given us one of the world’s earliest writing systems. So join me this month as we discover a fact or two about this cool, ancient language of icons and images that we find sprawled across scrolls of papyrus paper, the walls of pyramids, temples and stone monuments, containing stories and secrets of the glorious civilization back then!
While the earliest writing system was introduced by the Sumerians (present day Iraq) and dates back to around 3000 BC, there are also plenty of archaeological discoveries from the same period that suggest that the Egyptian hieroglyphs were already in use then, and may possibly be the oldest form of writing.
Hieroglyphs – what’s that?
Hieroglyphs are ancient history’s emojis – they were essentially pictures, icons and symbols that represented sounds, things, words or phrases. This legit language comprised pictures that collectively told a story and could also have more than one meaning, depending on how they are written.
First developed by ancient Egyptians as a way to integrate writing into their artwork, there are about 700-800 ‘glyphs’ in all and these were mainly used by priests and to decorate temples. The Egyptians referred to hieroglyphs as “the words of God”.
As for the fun facts
Egyptian hieroglyphics are of two main types: ideograms (objects) and phonograms (sounds). When reading, syllabic signs represent a combination of two or three consonants.
Hieroglyphs can actually be read in almost any direction: left to right, right to left, and top to bottom. To determine how to read a specific set of glyphs, start by locating a glyph with a head. If the head is facing to the left, start reading from the left and work your way towards the head. If the glyphs appear in vertical columns, always start at the top and then head downward.
Tracing back the links
The main purpose of writing for ancient Egyptians then, was neither decorative nor literary or even commercial. Its most important function was to provide a means by which certain events could be recorded.
It started off with the use of pictographs and images that represented specific objects, until their full fledged development into hieroglyphics and symbols that represented sounds and concepts as well.
What else do we know about their culture?
Egyptian culture is a rich, heady mix of indigenous Egyptian and Western influences, which is also reflected in its music. It is known to be one of the most flourishing ancient civilizations, with its archaeological treats and Mesopotamian architecture. Did you know that they were one of the first major civilizations to codify design elements in art? As simple, elegant and intriguing as their wall paintings look, they followed a rigid code of visual rules and meanings.
For those interested, there are plenty of online courses available on topics related to Ancient Egypt and Egyptology, and how to read hieroglyphics.