September 17 – Write On!

Today’s factismal: The Egyptians forgot how to read their own writing for nearly 1400 years.

Watch any movie set in Egypt and the one thing that you are guaranteed to see is a bunch of hieroglyphs. Those strange symbols, composed of little pictures mixed with odd strokes, were some of the earliest writing and are as characteristic of Egypt as a McDonald’s is of the USA even though the Egyptians didn’t call them hieroglyphs (they called them medu-netjer  {“Gods’ words”}). For more than 3,700 years, every important public act and religious ritual was written in heiroglyphs. But what is amazing is that for the next 14 centuries, nobody could read them at all!

The hieroglyphs on this stone explain the sacrifice that will take place (My camera)

The hieroglyphs on this stone explain the offering that will take place
(My camera)

Why did the Egyptians forget how to read their own language? We can thank the Romans for that. After the Romans took over Egypt in 30 BCE, they slowly substituted their writing for the Egyptians’. Because Roman letters were easier to learn and make, they soon replaced hieroglyphs for all purposes but religious ones (though the Egyptians did try to simplify their alphabet into what we call demotic and they called sesh na sha’t {“document writing”}). And when Rome converted to Christianity in 325 CE, the Romans started to suppress all pagan religions in the various provinces, including Egypt. Finally, in 391 CE, the Romans forced all non-Christian temples to close which ended the use of hieroglyphs. Within a generation, the meaning of the writings was forgotten.

The hieroglyphs on this funeral stone describe all of the goodies the deceased will enjoy in the afterlife (My camera)

The hieroglyphs on this funeral stone describe all of the goodies the deceased will enjoy in the afterlife
(My camera)

And it would have stayed forgotten if Napoleon hadn’t invaded Africa. When he attempted to take Egypt, he had his archeologists systematically loot, er, research all of the local tombs as they looked for treasure to pay for the adventure. And when they did so, they came up with one of the greatest treasures ever – the Rosetta stone. This plain black stone has a passage in Greek, demotic (a lay version of hieroglyphs), and hieroglyph. When they realized that it was the same passage, the archeologists were able to use the Greek (which they knew) to translate the hieroglyphs (which nobody knew). As a result, the meaning of the hieroglyphs was brought back after 1400 years of darkness.

The pharaohs pray (My camera)

Two of Ahkenaten’s daughters pray to Aten
(My camera)

Of course, this isn’t the only mystery in Egyptology. We have discovered thousands of fragments of papyrus, covered in Greek and other writing. But we’ll never be able to read it unless someone helps to put the pieces back together. If you’d like to give it a try, then head over to the Ancient Lives:
http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/Ancient_Lives/

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