Hieroglyphs are pictures used to write the language of the ancient Egyptians. Instead of an alphabet, the Egyptians used hieroglyphs, or signs, to represent sounds. There were over 700 in all which could be used in various combinations to give particular meanings, or else to represent groups of two or three consonants. Sometimes a picture was added to the end of the word to explain the word.
Hieroglyphs were carved into stone, painted on walls of tombs and written with pen and ink on papyrus. Another form of hieroglyphs, called hieratic, existed from the earliest times. This is a cursive from of Egyptian writing, as handwriting is to printed letters. A shorthand version of the language called demotic was used during the Late Period of the Egyptian history.
Hieroglyphs were seen as the ‘words of the god’ and the writing of a man’s name ensured that he would live on. By writing the correct spells on the walls of tombs and sections of papyrus, a safe passage to the Afterlife was ensured. Erasing a person’s name had the opposite effect. A royal name was usually enclosed in a cartouche – an oval shape with a horizontal line at one end.
The earliest depictions of a writing system date from the Early Dynastic Period and come from Upper Egypt (south) and the north of Nubia. The fact that writing originated in this region and not in the Delta (north), with its direct contact with Western Asia, is a sure sign that the Egyptians did not adopt the idea of writing from the Sumerians (Mesopotamia) as previously thought. They did make use of certain Mesopotamian ideas, but incorporated them into their own system and changed it to suit their own specific needs.
The Byzantine period was also the time of the first Egyptian Christians, the Copts. At this time a new writing system developed, called Coptic, using Greek letters combined with six signs taken from demotic. Therefore, the ancient Egyptian language was written, not in hieroglyphs anymore, but with the Greek alphabet. Today ancient Egyptian is a dead language, except where it survives in a form within the Coptic Church.
Fragments of stone inscribed with Hieroglyphic text. The Hieroglyphs translates to "King of Upper and Lower Egypt…. Life". (c) Iziko Photo Archives.