The ancient Egyptians called their picture writing ‘divine word’ because they believed that
Thoth, god of wisdom, had given them the knowledge of how to write. Consequently the
signs were full of a magical force which, for example, could bring to life the items shown as
the funerary offerings. Today we call Egyptian picture writing
. This word
derives from a phrase meaning ‘sacred carvings’ used by the ancient Greek visitors to Egypt
to describe the symbols that they saw on tomb and temple walls.
In the repertoire of the Egyptian scribes there were more than 700 hieroglyphic signs. The
hieroglyphs were chosen from a wide variety of observed images, for example, people, birds,
trees, or buildings. Some signs represent the sounds of the ancient Egyptian language, but
indicate consonants only. No vowels were written out. Also, it was not an alphabetic
system, since one sign could represent a combination of two or more consonants like the
hieroglyph which stands for the consonants
. Egyptologists make the
sounds pronounceable by putting an
between the consonants, so
is read as
vast number of other hieroglyphic signs were not pronounced at all but acted as sense
indicators, such as a boat following the sound sign
which was the word for boat.
Invented in about 3250 BC, hieroglyphs were still used in the early centuries AD but
gradually became less and less understood except by temple priests. By the time Egypt
officially became a Christian country in the fourth century AD, hieroglyphs were history.
Of course, the Egyptian language continued to be spoken, but it was now written in an
alphabetic script called Coptic, the knowledge of which helped Champollion to decipher the
hieroglyphs forgotten for almost 2000 years. When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the
seventh century AD, they introduced the Arabic language and writing, which you will find
used by Egyptians today.
The British Museum
Department of Education and Information