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Chapter 1

A Brief introduction to Ancient Egyptian History

Before starting the introduction to the hieroglyphic system, it may be useful to first give a brief introduction to the history of Ancient Egypt. This will make clear the importance of the writing system in Ancient Egyptian culture.

Ancient Egypt was a civilisation located around the lower parts of the Nile in Northern Africa. This area was made up of two parts: the Nile valley called Upper-Egypt in the South and the Nile delta known as Lower Egypt in the North. Thanks to the yearly inundation of the Nile river, which left behind a layer of dark fertile mud, agriculture was booming with multiple harvests each year. It is this dark mud that gave Egypt its local name Kemet, meaning “the black land”. The English name Egypt is derived from the Latin word “Aegyptus”, itself derived from the Ancient Greek word “Αἴγυπτος” (Aígyptos), a corruption of the ancient name of Memphis “ḥwt-kȝ-ptḥ” (pronounced Hut-Ka-Ptah), meaning “the temple of the Ka of the god Ptah”.

Egypt’s unique geographic position gave it relative protection against foreign invaders: on both sides the Nile valley was flanked by desert and to the South were so-called cataracts, areas where the river becomes very shallow with boulders poking out of the river bed. This makes them nearly impossible to pass with large boats.

Pharaonic history of Egypt can divided in the following eras:

Around 3000BC, the different local power centres were unified into a single kingdom by king Aha (or maybe by his predecessor Narmer). From this moment onwards, more than 150 pharaohs divided over 31 individual dynasties would rule over this prosperous nation.

The Old Kingdom is the first bloom period of the Ancient Egyptian culture and lasted from the 3th to the 6th dynasty. For the general public, it is best known as the “pyramid age”: the 3th dynasty king Djoser was the first pharaoh to construct a pyramid at Saqqara. Later during the 4th dynasty, kings like Snefru, Khufu (also known under his Hellenized name Cheops), Khafra (Chefren) and Menkaura (Mykerynos), would construct gigantic pyramids at Dashur and Giza. The famous Sfinx of Giza was also build during this era. It is during the Old Kingdom that the first full Hieroglyphic texts appear.

Figure 1: The pyramids at Giza, build during the 4th Dynasty.

After the 6th dynasty, the power of the central government had collapsed and Egypt fell apart in several different power centres, each with their own dynasty (numbers 7-11). This period is known as the First Intermediate Period of Egypt. At the end of this era, the north of Egypt was being ruled by Dynasty 10 with its capital in Herakleopolis, while the south was controlled by the 11th dynasty from Thebes. Eventually, the Theban king Mentuhotep II would conquer the north and reunify Egypt und one pharaoh. This was the end of the First Intermediate Period.

The following period is called the Middle Kingdom and was again a pinnacle of Ancient Egyptian culture. During the following 13th dynasty however, the government started to lose control when a local 14th dynasty took control of the Delta region. Around 1650BC, the rulers of an Asiatic settlement in the Delta took over power in the North as the 15th dynasty. They were known as the Hyksos by the native 16th and 17th dynasty that ruled over the South. This Second Intermediate Period came to an end when king Kamose of the 17th dynasty was able to conquer the North and reunify Egypt once again.

The following period is known as the New Kingdom and was another prosperous era. At the end of the 18th dynasty, king Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaton and tried to establish monotheism in Ancient Egypt. It was during this time, known as the Amarna Period that famous king Tutankhamun lived, well known for his well preserved Royal tomb. The conversion to monotheism was no success and caused internal disruption. The last king of the 18th dynasty, Horemheb, was able to reconcile the nation, that experienced a prosperous time during the 19th and 20th dynasties, also known as the Ramesside Period, after the many kings named Ramses.

Figure 2: The tempel of Abu Simbel, build by king Ramses II in the New Kingdom.

After the 20th dynasty, Egypt became torn between various native and foreign dynasties in a 400 year period known as the Third intermediate Period. In 650BC, Egypt was again reunified by a native dynasty (nr 26) that ruled from the capital of Sais in the north, which gave its name to the Saite Period. In 525BC, the Persians conquered Egypt ending the last native rule in Ancient Egyptian history. The Persian kings would also rule as pharaohs in Egypt.

In 332BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and conquered Egypt. When he died shortly after, one of his generals named Ptolemy rose to power, starting and era known as the Ptolemaic Period. For the next three centuries, ethnic Macedonians would rule over Egypt as pharaohs. This came to and end in 30BC, when Octavian (the future Roman Emperor August) Defeated cleopatra the VII. After this, Egypt became a province in the Roman Empire.

Figure 3: The Odeon at Kom el Dikka, Alexandria. Build during the Ptolemaic Period.

History of Hieroglyphs

The Ancient Egyptian Language

The Ancient Egyptian Language belonged to a family called the Afro-Asiatic languages, which in the past were referred to as “Hamito-Semitical Languages”. This means that Egyptian is a distant cousin of languages spoken in North-Africa and the Middle East, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian or Aramaic. Although it shares a number of features with other Afro-Asiatic languages, Egyptian formed is on distinct branch within this family, that sadly went extinct as a spoken language in the 11th century AD. With its first writing appearing before 3000 BC, it existed for over 4000 years, giving it the record for longest continuously spoken language in the world. Throughout this long period, the Ancient Egyptian language evolved into six different phases:

The First Phase- 2600 BC

The Old Egyptian

The oldest phase is called Old Egyptian and was first used around approximately 2600 BC when the first full texts appeared. Before that, Egyptian writing mainly consisted of inscriptions of names and labels. I was for at least 500 years until around 2100 BC, a period referred to as the Old Kingdom. It was during these times that large pyramids were build a Giza.

The Second Phase- 2100 BC

The Middle Egyptian

The succeeding phase was Middle Egyptian also referred to as Classical Egyptian), which appeared around 2100 BC during the Middle Kingdom. It was closely related to the previous Old Egyptian and even though it died out as a spoken language after about 500 years, it remained in use as a written language for much longer during the New Kingdom and beyond. The hieroglyphs that are taught on this website are the standard corpus of signs that was in use during this phase.

Figure 4: Hieroglyphic text in Middle Egyptian

The Third Phase- 1600 BC

Late Egyptian

Late Egyptian began to replace Middle Egyptian as the spoken language after 1600 BC, and differed significantly from the two previous phases, mainly in grammar. Yet the written language used by scribes remained Middle Egyptian. It was only during the Amarna Period at the end of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, during which pharaoh Akhenaten tried to execute a number of important changes such as a change to monotheism, that Late Egyptian can first be observed as a fully written language. For the first time, sources such as administration, letters and poetry can be found in written in it. However, large numbers of historical and religious texts keep using Middle Egyptian for this. It remained in use as a spoken language until around 600 BC.

The Fourth Phase- 650 BC

The Demotic Phase

The next phase of Ancient Egyptian was Demotic which evolved from Late Egyptian. It first appeared around 650 BC and died out in the 5th century AD. It was written in typical script derived from a script called Hieratic, which itself was an extremely cursive form of hieroglyphs, used as a fast script for writing on papyri and ostraca during the Middle and New Kingdom. The Demotic script has however been simplified to a point were the original hieroglyphs are not legible at all anymore. This evolution will discussed in more detail below.

Figure 5: A papyrus with Demotic writing.

The Fifth Phase- 332 BC

The Ptolemaic Phase

The Ptolemaic phase of Ancient Egyptian is an interesting one, as it was not a phase of the spoken language. It was used during Greco-Roman rule of Egypt, starting with the conquering of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. During this time, Ancient Egyptian culture was being marginalised, but in religious contexts the Egyptian language remained in use. At this time, the reading of hieroglyphs became less straight forward and the number of individual signs exploded to over 3000.

The Sixth Phase- 100 AD

The Coptic Phase

The sixth and final phase of the Ancient Egyptian language was Coptic, closely related to Demotic. It first appeared at the end of the 1st century AD and remained in use as a spoken language until the 11th century. In 641 AD, the Muslim conquest of Egypt began, after which Arabic slowly became the dominant language in the country. Although the last texts written by native Coptic speakers date from the 11th century AD, the languages remains in use a liturgical language in the Coptic Church, similar to the use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church. An important quality of Coptic is that it is not written in any form of hieroglyphic signs, but in the Coptic alphabet (which is an adaptation of the Greek Alphabet with seven additional signs for sounds not present in Greek). This means that unlike the previous phases of the Ancient Egyptian language who (like many other Afro-Asiatic languages) do not write vowels, Coptic writes both vowels and consonants. It is therefore possible to know the full pronunciation of words, unlike the other stages of the Egyptian language.

Figure 6: Coptic text.