Understanding the Hieroglyphs By Fatima Imran

Understanding the Hieroglyphs


“Egyptian hieroglyphic  was formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Less formal variations of the script called hieratic and demotic, are technically not hieroglyphs” (“Egyptians hieroglyphs”)


Hieroglyphic writing was first started around 5000 years ago.In 400 A.D, Egyptian wrote in hieroglyphs, hieroglyphs are words pictures, and there are more than 2000 hieroglyphic characters.(“Hieroglyphic”). According to an ancient Egyptian belief, the god Thoth had given them knowledge of hieroglyphs so they named it “divine intelligence.”  The Greek visitors on seeing these word pictures on the tomb and temple walls called it as a hieroglyph that means “sacred carving.”  There were more than 700 hieroglyphic signs that were taken by observing images e.g. building, birds, people, flowers, and animals. According to Brunner the prehistoric Hittites, Mayans, and Cretans used   very different hieroglyphs than that of Egypt.Later it was felt that there is a need to convey messages in written form then pictographs came into being.  The Egyptians thus used a system that combined phonograms, that is, sound-signs that spelt out the word in an alphabetic system, and ideograms, sense-signs that were added to the spelled-out word to depict its meaning, and this language had its own syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.

Figure 1 Hieroglyphic Script

 After Diodorous Siculus visited Egypt, it became common belief that the hieroglyphs were installed with hidden meaning.  The influential philosopher Plotinus said that the hieroglyphs were nothing less than Platonic ideas in visual form, “each picture a kind of understanding and wisdom” revealing to the initiated true knowledge as to the essence and substance of things.  Some signs represent sound and indicate consonants.  There was no alphabetic system sometimes one sign could represent a combination of more than two words and there were no vowels in it.  Some signs were not pronounced instead they were used an indicators.  Between 3400, 3200 BCE, Abydos discovered many inscribed stones which is the oldest Egyptian writing.  The last Egyptian written inscription was set up approximately in 5 century.  A Greek based alphabet system Coptic with some demotic signs became the main writing system used in Egypt.  Egyptians also used hieroglyphs for math. (5-22) This language is not understood now because when Arab invaded Egypt they introduced Arabic that is still practiced today.  Saints used Hieroglyphs and they were written in pictorial writing on ancient monuments in order to preserve the nation’s history and religious texts. ( Street 3)

Development of Hieroglyphic

According to Brunner hieroglyphic are the phonetic symbols that were initially carved on the ceramic jars or on ivory tablets that were placed in gravestones for the identification of the dead.  The need to classify pictorial representation of unique event or royal individual led to the emergence of hieroglyphic writing in a monumental setting.  This writing was used to demonstrate the particular event and reflects the history of the nation.  In the begging of  dynasty, Images of non-royal individual were annotated with their name or titles, these were additional steps toward expressing the individuality and exclusiveness.  The first two ivory tablets of two dynasties were the pictorial demonstration of the events, incidents, the places .For example, accompanying a scene of the Pharaohs’ triumph over his opponent is the annotation “the first occasion of the defeat of the Libyans.”  During the first dynasty, only the names of kings were carved on stones.  In the second dynasty, designations and the names of the offspring were appeared and at the end of this dynasty, proper sentences came about for the first time.  The discovery of a black papyrus scroll showed that the longer sentences might have been written in the early part of the first dynasty.(40-59)

Impact Of fine art on writing

According to Brunner the diversity of these hieroglyphs reflected the fine art style of ancient time.  The standard rule of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was set in the three dynasties.  The hieroglyphic signs are closely related to the fine arts and this is because same artisans painted or carved both the pictograms and the scripts.  The variations occurred in the writing style when the hieroglyph contained those patterns that fine arts had eliminated.  In ancient times, Hieroglyphic signs were carved on stone monuments, metals, woods.  Moreover, these signs were appeared in the varied types of metal and wood inlay work.  All the techniques match exactly with fine arts techniques. .(60-86)

Medium for hieroglyphic writing

Hieroglyphic texts appeared mainly on tombs, temples and walls, but they were also found on tombstone, sculpture, coffins and on all types of vessels and tools.  Brunner described  that this writing was mainly used for preserving secular content like historic description, legal manuscript, and scientific documents and myths, legends, faction sacrament, grave inscription of all kinds, and prayers.  These were attractive monumental scripts.  The hieratic script gained popularity and shorten form of pictograms were written with ink and brush on the smooth surface of wood, limestone and papyrus.( 87-99)

Religious impact

Brunner has discussed that the hieroglyphic signs were influenced by the religion that was established by two common usages.  Firstly, certain distorted symbols were carved or avoided on the gravestone; these symbols were human figures and perilous animals such as scorpions and snakes.  Secondly some signs that have religious importance were placed before   other signs even if they were to be read after them, these were hieroglyphs for King , God, or the  palace, For example the two signs  , stands for “servant of God’ in this the symbol of God  is in front of the servant  although the God is to be read last.( 88-90)

Characteristics of hieroglyphic writing

The hieroglyphic writing system consists of signals that represent real objects and these can grouped into three classes. Brunner has described following characteristic of hieroglyphic .

Logogram: In this class, a single word represents its meaning and sound.  Ideogram can be read as the object they symbolize such as /, “wood, stick,” or can have extended meanings, such as the sun disk, ☉, which can be interpreted as “sun’.(116-121)

Phonogram: This class signifies a sound or series of sound in the language.  This group includes simple phonemes that are derived from logograms of the objects they portray and it includes biliterals and trilliteral signs (signs that represent two or three sounds.(121-125)

Determinative: This class contains determinatives that are not phonetic signs instead; they are used to state meaning and help in word distribution.  For example, the phonetic writing p + r + t can signify the infinitive of the verb “to go,” the name of the winter season, or the word for “fruit, seed.”  The meaning of the word is signaled by a terminal determinative that also acts as a word marker: the walking legs ( ), the sun disk (☉), or the pellet sign (°), respectively Generic Determinatives are those that denotes action and movement  like walking,  running, eating.  Egyptians scripts are a combination of all these signs and it can be modified.  Egyptian writing is deprived of vowels thus its pronunciation is poorly reflected in the hieroglyphic writing system.(126-138)

Number of symbols: In the Egyptian writing total number of hieroglyphs are approximately 700, their number increased with the invention of new signs and forms.  This shows that the Egyptian writing system was flexible.(139-143)

Direction of writing: Hieroglyphic inscriptions were written from right to left and this was indicated by the orientation of the signs.  The right to left orientation was followed in writing the hieratic script and the reverse of this orientation was used for a decorative or religious purpose.  However, Egyptian monuments were adorned according to the strict rule of symmetry, tombs and temples are usually decorated with scripts that face in the both ways, to give an illustration of axial balance.  Inscriptions were written either in a vertical column or in horizontal rows considered as an ideal way of decorating the doorways, walls, and lintels.  In two-dimensional scenes containing human or divine figures, the hieroglyphic scripts were written with the images to which they pertained, so images and texts were orientated in the same direction.(145-160)

Tools: The tools used for writing hieroglyphics were chisels, hammers for stone carving and brushes for colouring and painting, leather and papyrus were the writing surfaces .

Figure 2 Carving tools

Brushes were made by cutting the stems diagonally then it was chewed to shape the fibres into a brush like tip after that it was used for writing.  In 3 century, BCE Greek introduced the technique of using a spilt Calamus reed for writing implements. (121-129)

Hieratic Script : Hieratic is cursive (joint writing) script writing system that was used in the origin of the Pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia.  This script writing was closely associated with the hieroglyphic writing because it was developed with the hieroglyphic system and it’s written from  right to left orientation .Hieratic script was easy to write about because it was mainly written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, wood, stone or potter .  In the 2nd century, Saint Clement of Alexandria first time used the term derived from Greek phrase γράμματα ἱερατικά (grammata hieratika; literally “priestly writing) because it was used for writing religious scripts (“Hieratic”), .The Edwin Smith papyrus is the world’s oldest surgical document that is written in hieratic script and it describes the explanation, examination, treatment and prognosis of  forty-eight types of medical problems in fine detail.

Figure 3 Hieratic Script

This script contained methods and techniques for healing wounds with sutures, curing infection with bread mold and honey, stop bleeding with raw material and immobilization of head and spinal cord injuries.  This document revealed that ancient Egyptian were expert in medicine and surgery.  The hieratic was used for writing legal documents, governmental documents, legal texts and letter, mathematical, surgery, literary and texts.  Moreover, hieratic script was written on stone, papyrus, ceramic debris and woods, leather rolls, linen.(Hieratic, 16-31)

Demotic script: Demotic is derived from the Greek work means “popular”, Egyptian called it Demotic script but Clement of Alexandria called it  (epistolographikē) “letter writing” and western scholars Thomas Young called it  ‘Enchorial Egyptian’.

Figure 4 Demotic Script

  During the reign of Amasis, it became the official administrative and legal script.  During this  period, Demotic was used only for administrative, legal, and commercial texts, while hieroglyphs and hieratic were reserved for other texts.( Demotic, 1-8)


The Rosetta stone (EA 24)

Date: Ptolemaic Periods -196 BC

The Rosetta stone is named after the city where it was found .It is a granite slab of 1114.4 centimeters high, 72.3 centimeters wide, and 27.9 centimeters thick.  It weighs estimate 1676 pounds.  In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte was leading his French republican army into Egypt to capture it, accidentally a lieutenant Bouchard discovered a black slab of stone that had been built into the wall.  He informed the archaeologists and it became one of the greatest discoveries of 18 century.  The Rosetta stone had three horizontal lines with the inscriptions carved in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, with three diverse scripts on each band they were hieroglyphics, demotic script, and koine Greek.  The Greek part was already known so it indicated that rest of three inscriptions contained the same message.

Figure 5 Rosetta Stone

The inscriptions on the stones were written by saint Memphis summarizing the benefactions given to Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BC) and were written in the ninth year of his reign in commemoration of his accession to the throne.  In 1822 Thomas Young was the first person to explain that hieroglyphs written on the Rosetta stone were the sounds of royal name Ptolemy.  In 1822 at 16 years old, Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered all the hieroglyphs.  He became expert in six oriental languages as well as in Greek, Coptic, and Latin.  He explained that the hieroglyphs on the stone were phonetic and had a sound that represents spoken alphabetic signs and syllables; he compared the 1,419 hieroglyphics with Greek text that was less than in 500 words.

He also demonstrated that 66 words out of 1419 hieroglyphs were original while the rest were repeated.  He assembled an Egyptian Grammar and dictionary for ancient prehistoric middle kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics.  In 1801 British troops defeated the French in Egypt and the original stone became British property under the Alexandria.  The stone then transferred to the British Museum and it has been on public display since 1802. (Deciphering Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt)

Egyptian hieroglyphic Tables



1. Brunner, et al “hieroglyphic writing”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc , 2013,). (Web)

2. “Deciphering Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt” http://www.bible-history.com/resource/ff_hiero.htm”.(Web)

3.” Demotic” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demotic_(Egyptian) (Web)

4,. Hieratic”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieratic .(Web)

5. Goldwasser Oldy , “How the alphabet was born from hieroglyphs”,( Biblical Archaeology Review ,2010).



The Tragic Losses To Our Shared Human Heritage

Our human heritage is as much in danger today, as it was a thousand years ago. The notion of a shared human heritage is a doctrine of international law. It believes that certain regional areas and cultural elements should be protected from exploitation and destruction. To conserve our ancestry and customs, we have to start thinking of our cultures and precious monuments as part of a united world culture. Through the ages innumerable ancient sites and monuments were destroyed by wars, vandals or natural disasters. Apart from the 7 ancient wonders of the world (of which only the great pyramid is still left), here are ten of the most tragic losses.


The Desecration of Baghdad


It is said that the desecration of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols ended thegolden era of Islam. In this era, Iraq had developed canal systems that supported its agriculture. Baghdad had a refined culture, was a leading centre of education and was host to various mosques, palaces, hospitals and libraries. As the Mongols conquered and leveled the city, they also destroyed the House of Wisdom and the Grand Library—survivors claimed that the waters of the Tigris turned black from the vast amounts of books flung into it. Thousand were murdered, including the caliph. To this day, its former glory has never been restored.


The Parthenon, Athens

Parthenon Night View

The Parthenon was completed in 438 B.C.. It’s scarred and skeletal remains are the most important surviving remnants of Classical Greece. Through the ages, the temple served as a treasury, Christian church, mosque and a munitions dump. It was home to grandiose carvings, sculptures and decorative stonework—most notably the chryselephantine sculpture of Athena created by the famous sculptor Phidias, now lost and only known from descriptions, gems, coins and paintings. It was damaged beyond repair in 1687 when the munitions were ignited during a Venetian assault. During the 18th century, the ruins were desecrated even further when the remains of the sculptures and friezes were severed from the walls.


The downfall of Memphis


Memphis was the Capital of Ancient Egypt for several centuries. It was also the seat of the cult of the god Ptah. During its golden age, Memphis was the primary royal residence and sources speak of immense palaces that were built underneath important royal pyramids. Invaded by the Hyksos in 1650 B.C., the astounding monuments, temples, palaces and statues were destroyed and looted. The city gradually became a quarry for new settlements being built in the area. Even the foundations of Cairo were laid with stones from the destroyed temples. Today, apart from its ruins, almost nothing remains of ancient Memphis.


Solomon’s Temple
Jerusalem, Israel

Bait Suci

The First Temple or Holy Temple was dedicated to the God of Israel and is believed to have been built by King Solomon in 832 B.C. on the Temple Mount. It was the first fixed temple structure of the Jewish people as previously tents or tabernacles were used. It harbored the Ark of the Covenant that contained the two tablets Moses received from the Lord, as well as numerous sacred vessels and sculptures. Certain parts of the temple were even plated and glazed with gold. Though limited proof has been found to verify the temple’s existence, the sensitive religious and political nature of the area makes archaeological excavations impossible. Its destruction is one of the most tragic events in Jewish history.


Imperial Gardens
Beijing, China

Yuanmingyuan Zuoshi

The Imperial Gardens, built in the 18th century, was the residence of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty. (The Forbidden City played host to formal ceremonies.) It was a combination of palaces, halls, pavilions, lakes and gardens that covered 860 acres, roughly 8 times the size of the Vatican City. It had one of the largest and most exquisite art collections in the world that included unique copies of manuscripts and compositions. It was destroyed in 1860 by British and French troops after two British envoys were murdered. Of the surviving relics most remain in private collections despite the Chinese government’s efforts to retrieve them.

Imperial Library of Constantinople
Istanbul, Turkey

210 258 Hagia Sophia

Constantinople was the biggest and most prosperous capital in the Eastern Roman Empire. The Imperial Library was the last of the great libraries. It conserved ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts and also had a Scriptorium to duplicate the ancient texts in a time when uncertainty and chaos brought about their mass destruction in Africa and Europe. In fact, most of the Greek classics known today are copies that came from the Imperial Library. The greater part of the library was destroyed during the 4th Crusade in 1204 with the last vestiges completely lost after the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453. Some manuscripts were said to have survived into the Ottoman era but none has ever been found.


Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute

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Timbuktu lies 620 miles northeast of Bamako. Its cultural treasures made it a hotspot for venturesome tourists and international academics. Home to priceless artifacts, thousands of ancient manuscripts and sacred tombs it is believed by many to be the academic and religious center of Africa. In April 2012 Timbuktu was captured by Islamist militants. In what has been called an “offense against the whole of Africa” the following months saw the destruction of several ancient tombs of Sufi saints because it “contravened Islam”. As Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian forces, the militantsfurther outraged the international community by setting fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, burning thousands of ancient manuscripts.


Aristotle’s Lost Dialogues

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Aristotle is one of the most influential people to have ever walked this earth. He contributed to nearly every area of human understanding and pioneered several new fields of study. His writings and dialogues (of which the majority are believed to be lost) covered a vast area of subjects. The remaining texts mostly consist of working drafts or notes that were used in Aristotle’s school. It is believed that the writings ended up in a cellar a few generations after his death where they were severely damaged. Rediscovered in the 1st century B.C., numerous errors were introduced into the writings when Apellicon of Teos tried to restore them.


Conquering of Tenochtitlan


Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Mexica Empire. Located on an island on Lake Texcoco, it was the largest city in the New World. In comparison to Europe, only Constantinople, Venice and Paris were larger. It was connected to the mainland by causeways obstructed by bridges that could be retracted if the city came under attack. It was home to the palace of Montezuma, the Templo Mayor temple complex, zoos, an aquarium and botanical gardens. The glorious city was destroyed by the Spanish conquistador Cortés in 1519. The city was destroyed and its palace and temple dismantled whereupon the Spanish constructed a cathedral and colonial city on top of it.


Destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas

Taller Buddha Of Bamiyan Before And After Destruction

Created in the 4th century A.D., the Bamyan Buddhas were the largest standing Buddha carvings in existence. Placed at a crucial waypoint next to the fabled Silk trading route, these cultural landmarks were a testimony to the exchanging of Indian, Roman, Hellenistic and Islamic ideas for hundreds of years. They were also important figures in the accession of Mahayana Buddhist tutelage, which accentuated the capacity of each and every person to obtain enlightenment. In March 2001, the Taliban regime declared the statues to be “against Islam” and had them demolished with anti-aircraft munitions and dynamite. The methodical eradication of Afghanistan’s Buddhist inheritance has been criticized internationally.


Source: (http://listverse.com/2013/03/15/10-tragic-losses-to-our-shared-human-heritage/)