Egyptian hieroglyphic writing uses symbols or pictures, although the earliest writings show some phonetic symbols. The word hieroglyph means 'sacred carving.' The Greeks translated this term from an Egyptian phrase 'the god's words' which was used to speak about the older inscriptions as opposed to what the Egyptians used at that time. The origins of the Egyptian hieroglyphics are not known for sure, but the system began around 3,000 B. C. Possibly it was borrowed from the Sumerians in Mesopotamia because they had contact with each other. The idea was borrowed, but the two systems developed in a different way.
Only names and a few titles can be can be read in the oldest inscriptions. The early inscriptions seem not to represent exact sounds like the later ones. From about 2500 B. C. until the 200's or 300's A. D., the language remained the same. At that time, with the rise of Christianity, the ancient Egyptian religion declined along with its hieroglyphics. Egyptian Christians began to use a form of the Greek language which they modified. The last known hieroglyphic inscription is from 394 A. D.
Hieroglyphic writing is based on four principles. A symbol could represent the actual picture it is talking about. Second, it could represent a word suggested by the picture. For example, a sun could mean the day or the sun god. Third, the pictures could stand for two words that had their consonants in the same order. Lastly, a symbol could stand for a consonant or group of consonants.
The Greeks and Romans probably did not know what the hieroglyphs meant. They believed the symbols to stand for an idea or some vague term. In the mid 1600's, a German scholar thought that hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols but could identify only one letter.
In 1779, a breakthrough occurred. The Rosetta Stone was discovered. On it, the same inscription was written in three ways: hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. At the time the text was inscribed, there were three different scripts being used in Egypt. Hieroglyphic was used for important or religious documents. Demotic was the common script of the Egyptians. Greek was the language of the Egyptian rulers. The stone itself made a declaration that the text was the same in all three languages. On the stone was a list of all the great things the king had done for the people. The stone is 3'9' x 2'4' x 11'.
A. I. Silvestre de Sacy from France and J. D. Akerblad from Sweden could identify some proper names in the demotic text. Akerblad could also give phonetic values to some of the symbols. Thomas Young, an Englishman, identified five of the symbols. Jean-Francoise Champollion could decipher the entire text of the Rosetta Stone. He knew many languages. By comparing many different letters in the Greek and Coptic language, he could figure out the phonetic values of all the symbols on the stone. He figured out that the text was originally written in Greek and then translated into hieroglyphic.
The Rosetta Stone was carved in 196 A. D. French soldiers found it in small town 35 miles north of Alexandria in the delta region of Egypt named Rosetta while they were digging to rebuild a fort. The Greek on the stone stated that priests made the inscription in honor of Ptolemy V, king of Egypt in the 100's B. C. The British defeated the French in 1801 and took the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone has been in the British Museum since 1802. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone has allowed historians and archaeologists to learn about the history of Egypt, the lives of the pharaohs and the people of Egypt. They can now translate the many letters written on papyrus which had been hidden from their knowledge for thousands of years.
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