Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, their history as recorded through travellers to Ancient Egypt from Roman times and their deciperment by Champollion.
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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Historical Background and the Decipherment of the Hieroglyphs


Classical Authors

The first group of writers who wrote about ancient Egypt, in post Egypt times, were the classical writers, writing in Greek and Latin. The best known of these classical writers is Herodotus, who has been called the ‘father of history’. He is in fact the first historian, he wrote facts about the ancient world that he lived in. In his ‘Histories’, Book II is devoted to Ancient Egypt.

Herodotus lived and travelled in Egypt for a time, talking to the people, the priests living in Egypt. It is a factual account, not made up of fantasy, the things he writes about may often be fantastical, but Herodotus believed them to be true. The accounts are therefore factual and first hand knowledge of that period. His histories survived, but modern scholars have questioned some of his accounts, but we find more and more as his facts are tested, a surprising number do turn out to be accurate. (Such as his account of the mummification process for example.) Later Mediaeval Writers were to use and quote Herodotus’s Histories as their main source in their own works.
Herodotus was also copied and emulated by other classical authors; such as Diodorus Siculus. He did live in Egypt for around 10 years, but much of what he writes is based on the work of Herodotus. It is a useful additional source, but one must remember his reliance on Herodotus.

Egypt at this time was part of the Roman Empire, from 30BC onwards, Herodotus is early than this, and Diodorus Siculus is just prior to the Roman Period. But during this period Egypt becomes a place were tourists went, it was a relatively safe place to travel.

One of the people that travelled to Egypt at this time was the geographer, Strabo, who went to Egypt on a fact-finding holiday around 25BC. He wrote a book called Geographia, which was a compilation of facts about the Roman World. Book 17 of this compilation, is mainly taken up with Egypt. It provides a very good account of Egypt at the time; he described the ‘Avenue of Sphinx’s’ of the Serapeum at Saqqara. Some 2000 years later the French archaeologist, Mariette at Saqqara, uncovered the head of one of these sphinxes. Remembering Strabo’s account, he was fairly certain that this was the Avenue of Sphinxes that he described.

Another Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, he was one of the first Roman authors to describe the Sphinx at Giza. Until the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, many thousand’s of years later, many Mediaeval and Renaissance writers and travellers, relied on the works of these classical authors as their prime material.


Mediaeval Travellers to Egypt

When Egypt became a Christian country, the old ‘pagan’ rites were prohibited and eventually discontinued. This was not an overnight event, but a gradual process over many years. The gods in the temples were defaced; the inscriptions that accompanied them were cut out, and parts of temples were turned into Churches. By the time of the Arab Invasion, in the 7th century AD, which involved a relatively small number of people; they did not wipe out the traces of ancient Egypt, as it had already been disappearing over hundreds of years. The coming of Islam and the Arabs into Egypt was the final stage of a process that had been ongoing for many centuries.

We find that many of the ordinary people of Egypt, had no idea of their ancient glories, the meanings and functions of the temples and buildings was unknown, and the ability to read the hieroglyphs was lost.

Prior to the Arab Invasion, Egypt was ruled by first the Greeks and then the Romans, whose main language was Greek and Latin. These were to become the language of the ruling elite and the bureaucracy. The hieroglyphs remained a sacred script, used in temples and tombs, which were still used during the Graeco-Roman Period. But gradually knowledge of how the hieroglyphs worked as a language system slowly disappeared.

In the centuries after the Arab Invasion, the atmosphere was not conducive to travellers. So only a few intrepid travellers went to Egypt, in total contrast to the time of the classical writers. These travellers were often more interested in Christian religious sites, such as the cave the holy family stayed in Cairo. Monuments, such as the pyramids and temples, were interpreted in line with Christian views. The only understanding of the Near East was through the Bible; in light of this the mediaeval travellers put forward some very bizarre explanations for the pyramids:

· Joseph’s Granaries
· Astronomical Observatories

One particular writer of this period, who was not Christian, was Abd el Latif. He was a doctor from Baghdad and taught medicine in Cairo during the 13th Century AD. He visited the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, and even travelled to Memphis. Which even at that time was a very great city, he recounts that is took half a day’s march in any direction to reach the end of the visible ruins. (There is very little to see in the modern day at Memphis.) By 1865, there were only a few mounds of earth, to mark the spot where this once great city had been.

His account is important, because it is not written from a Christian perspective, and so was able to look at the monuments objectively without tying them up with Biblical associations. He is also writing at a time when very few travellers from Europe because of the Crusades. If this work had been translated from the Arabic early on, later Europeans would probably have had a much better idea about what some of these monuments were. His account was only translated in the early 19th century, so by then there had been centuries of speculations and accounts.

When the Crusades finished, it sparked a great deal of interest in the Near East, with pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Egypt. Travel books for Egypt and the Holy Land were published during the 14th century, the best known of these was: The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville Knight. Which was recommended reading for five centuries, it was finally discovered that Sir John had never visited Egypt or existed at all; and was a compilation of accounts going back to the classical writers.

Renaissance Europe

In 1517 Egypt became part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and once again, becomes a safe place to travel, with pilgrims, merchants and diplomats visiting the country. During the Renaissance there is a renewed interest in Europe, in all things ancient and their civilisations, with many expeditions to acquire antiquities. Not just the nobles but also the great Royal families of Europe acquiring antiquities and collections.

The Royal families in search of coins, manuscripts and other antiquities sent out groups of scholars. By the 17th century, one of the roles of the embassies and consulates in Egypt was the acquisition of antiquities for national and private collections. It is on the basis of this that the great museum collections, such as the Louvre and Turin and after 1756 the British Museums were founded.

At this time there is a mass of material, coming from Egypt, going into the National collections around Europe. Renaissance scholars became very interested in Egypt, and they began to add to existing knowledge. Some of them relied on the classical writers, but the first important book produced were the author tries to balance history with mythology was by John Greaves.

John Greaves was a professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and his book was published in 1646. (A copy is held at the John Rylands University Library in Deansgate, Manchester.) He critically assesses the classical writers and judges whether the information was likely to be true.

Some of the travellers to Egypt had clear objectives, King Kristian VI of Denmark, sent an expedition to reach the second cataract of the Nile, under the direction of a marine architect and artist called Fredrick Louis Norden. The book produced at the end of this expedition, was published in 1755, and was read widely, not just by scholars but ordinary people as well. It included drawings and plans of the monuments of Egypt and gave the educated and wealthy a keen interest in the study of Egyptology.

Another scholarly traveller, from France, a Jesuit Father Sicard, was sent to Egypt by Philip of Orleans to make an investigation of the monuments of Egypt. He travelled round Egypt between 1707 and 1726, looking at different sites and gathering information. His work represented more facts than any other before him, sadly however his manuscript has never been found. His notes and letters, in which he talks about what he has found and the manuscript map, now in the National Library in Paris, are all that remain.

One further interesting account from this time concerns James Bruce, a Scottish traveller who went to Egypt in 1768. He found a tomb at Thebes, which at the time they did not know who it belonged to, which is still referred to as ‘Bruce’s Tomb’. This tomb turned out to be the tomb of Ramesses III.

This then represents the stage in Egyptology and the decipherment of the hieroglyphs as it stood at the beginning of the 18th century. All the major monuments above or partially above ground had been revealed and identified. There were two things waiting to be discovered to take the study of Egyptology further; firstly the decipherment of the hieroglyphs and secondly to organise archaeology in Egypt on a scientific footing.

Decipherment of the Hieroglyphs

Napoleon Bonaparte

The story of the decipherment of the hieroglyphs and the foundation for modern Egyptological study has a very auspicious beginning. It begins with Napoleon Bonaparte and his conquest for an Empire in 1798. It is perhaps an unlikely start, but represents the true turning point in the study of Egyptology. From the rather vague interest in Egypt up until that point, to the developments that arose from that point onwards.

The military expedition was a disaster and was unsuccessful, with the French being defeated by the English. But were its success lays was providing the catalyst for the development of Egyptology and, though indirectly, lay behind the discoveries that led to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs.

The military expedition was accompanied by a special French commission, of 167 scientists, artists and technicians to gather information and to amass data about the culture and technology of the Nile Valley. It was thought that this information would facilitate the French colonisation of Egypt.

The chief artist, a man called Vivane Denon, published a book, which is considered a classic in the study of Egyptology. The book was called The Voyage in Lower and Upper Egypt, published in 1801; it immediately became a best seller. Bought not only by academics but people who collected books. It made aware, for the first time, to the general public the civilisation of ancient Egypt.

The expedition travelled to all parts of Egypt, maps were made, natural history was recorded, and the natural mineral and resources, irrigation systems, its people and the antiquities were studied. They also collected antiquities and natural history samples and in three years they amassed a huge amount of knowledge.

An institute was set in Cairo, were a truly inter-disciplinary collection of scholars worked on the material collected. Academic papers were prepared and read at seminars. A whole lot of scientific equipment was sent out to the institute for measuring and studying, along with huge quantities of books.

The Rosetta Stone

Another development, which was more indirect, the French forces were fortifying the town of Rosetta, which is on the coast delta. It was during this fortification, in 1799, that a French solider found a large stone carrying several inscriptions. He showed it to his superior officer, who recognised that this was a very important discovery. The stone was sent to the Commissions Institute in Cairo, where the true significance of the stone was made.

When the French were defeated by the British the Articles of Capitulation; which means, that the French were required to give up all sorts of things as a prize of war. At first the British wanted everything the French Commission had collected, but the Commission refused, even threatening to burn the collections rather than hand them over. Eventually it was agreed, by General Hutchinson, that the French would keep all the natural history samples and antiquities collected with one exception – the Rosetta Stone. Ultimately, this stone came back to Britain as a gift of King George and is now housed in the British Museum.

Another twist to the story of the hieroglyphs was that eventually it would be a Frenchman who would decipher the hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone. The Frenchman, of course, was Champollion (the Younger, who had a brother called Champollion the Older) who eventually went on to crack the code of the hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone is inscribed in three scripts, one of those scripts, Greek, was known, and was able to be translated. This would lead to clues and the decipherment of the other two scripts: demotic and hieroglyphs. The Greek inscription is horizontal at the bottom of the stone, demotic (which is a cursive form of hieroglyphs and was used for administrative uses) in the middle and the hieroglyphs at the top of the stone. The Demotic scripts were developed very early in ancient Egyptian history; the first form called Hieratic dates from the Old Kingdom period, whilst the second Demotic is used from the 8th century BC.

Shortly after discovery of the stone in 1801, scholars passed around copies of the inscriptions from the Rosetta Stone. Many theories were suggested and put forward as to what these inscriptions were. All the credit for the decipherment of hieroglyphics goes to Champollion, but there is considerably debate and how much is his work was derived from the work of another scholar the Englishman, Thomas Young.

He made several important discoveries that almost certainly helped Champollion. Thomas Young stated, correctly, for the first time that the Demotic script from the Rosetta Stone was a cursive form of hieroglyphs. The second thing he stated, that was very revealing, was that within the oval frames in the hieroglyphs (called cartouches) were the names of kings and queens. Probably the biggest breakthrough provided by Young was to suggest that the hieroglyphs were not just symbolic or merely sets of magical symbols. He stated that they were not just pictures but that they represented the language and that they had a grammar. (Until then scholars had always assumed that they were just magical symbols.)

Originally Champollion had thought along the lines of the hieroglyphs being symbolic, but at some point he changed his mind. How much he owed to his change of mind to Thomas Young’s work is still hotly debated. Once he adopted the idea of the hieroglyphs as a language system, he made remarkable progress. What Champollion recognised what that it was not a simple alphabetic system, there were far two many symbols to be purely alphabetic. Champollion rightly concluded that they were made up of sound sounds, but then in addition there were sense signs and the two were used together in combination.

Thomas Young (1773-1824)

Thomas Young is better known for his work in medical research than Egyptology and is famous for is work in optics. He was a scientist, both a physician and a physicist, and a great deal of knowledge of different languages. In middle age he became interested in hieroglyphs, he obtained copies of the Rosetta Stone and brought his formidable skills to studying the texts.

One of his breakthroughs, was the correct identification of the Demotic script has a cursive form of hieroglyphs. Other scholars had previously thought that Demotic was just an alphabetic script. Young was able to use the Greek inscription and the conclusion that the cartouches had royal names inside them, to be able to read the name Ptolemy and one of the Queens Berenice. From these two names he was able to compile a list of 13 signs. From these signs, 6 were proved to be correct, 3 partly right and 4 wrong.

Another claim that Young made was that there was a close relationship between hieroglyphs and the last stage of the Egyptian language called Coptic. Coptic is the Egyptian language written in Greek letters with the addition of seven other letters to represent sounds not found in Greek. The difference between Coptic and Hieroglyphs is that Coptic includes the vowels whereas the hieroglyphs are written only with the consonants (similar to Arabic and Hebrew). Coptic gives us a clue to how ancient hieroglyphs sound, but one must remember that it was the latest stage in the development of the Egyptian language.

What Young did was to open up the possibility of using the Coptic language to help in the reading of the earlier texts. These major contributions were never fully acknowledged and sadly through ill health and financial difficulties had to give up his interest in the study of hieroglyphs. So Champollion took up the mantle of the work.

Champollion (1790-1832)

He was the son of an impoverished bookseller, in one account, at his birth, the midwife is supposed to have said that Champollion looked so ancient Egyptian. Whether the story is true or not, Champollion did have a remarkable intellect and from an early age was very bright. He taught himself to read by the age of 5, and by 17, in preparation for the decipherment of the hieroglyphs that he had set himself as his life’s work, he had leant 9 oriental languages.

The reason for his life’s work is not really known, but one possibility, is that when he was 11 years old, he was taken by his brother, Champollion the Elder to see a man called Fournier. He was a mathematician who had been part of the French Commission that went to Egypt, who talked to the young Champollion about his travels in Egypt.

The elder brother was a great enthusiast for ancient Egypt, who not only helped his brother with his early education but eventually would spend most of his life publishing his younger brothers works.

When he was only 16 Champollion submitted a paper to the Academy at Grenoble, in France, which stated that Coptic was the same as the ancient language of Egypt, although it had different characters. In 1831 he was given the first chair in Egyptian History and Archaeology in Paris and the first anywhere in the world.

But blocking his attempts to decipher the hieroglyphs was following along the tracks that the writing was not alphabetic and that they represented things rather than sounds. In 1821 he wrote a paper claiming that the hieroglyphs were symbolic. However, following Young’s approach, he adopted the thinking that some of the symbols were alphabetic and some were picture signs. Once he took this approach, he found that he could compile an Egyptian alphabet.

The major break for Champollion came in September 1822, when he acquired a copied inscription from the temple at Abu Simbel. Using the phonetic principles that Young had established he applied it to a name written in a cartouche and was able to read the Egyptian name of Ramesses II. He realised that the Egyptians had used this system to write not just foreign names (like Ptolemy and Berenice) but also to write the names of their own kings. He knew then for the first time, that this was a phonetic system and he brought out his conclusions in a famous publication entitled ‘Letter to Monsieur Dashier’. (Published in 1822.)

Champollion followed this publication with his Précis, in which he describes his system of hieroglyphs. At the time he did not receive universal acceptance and took many years before other scholars accepted it, in some cases scholars never did. The most extreme example of a scholar who was against him was Seyffarth, who was a German archaeologist, who later went to America, who was totally opposed to Champollion’s decipherment. Seyffarth stated that Coptic was derived from Hebrew and the Egyptian alphabet had 613 signs, implying they were all alphabetic. As Champollion’s ideas gained acceptance, Seyffarth eventually gave up on his theory.

However it was the approval of the great German scholar, Richard Lepsius, who eventually wrote a letter in 1837 saying that he thought that Champollion had come up the right idea and from then on it was pretty much accepted.

Champollion needed more texts and in 1824 went to the Egyptian collection in Turin; he also went to other collections in Italy and finally led an expedition out to Egypt to record the monuments. He published this his findings in a book called ‘Descriptions of Egypt’. He died in 1832 a fairly young man, but he left behind lots of unpublished works, which would be eventually published by his elder brother.


©2003-2008 Ryewolf

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