Emojis vs. Hieroglyphs: why is ancient Egyptian writing still dismissed as primitive almost 200 years after its decipherment?

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4000 years ago, a learned Egyptian scribe penned this advice: ‘Do not be proud because you are wise! Consult with the ignorant as with the learned! Perfect speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found with the maidservants at the millstones’. While wisdom may be found in unexpected places, unfortunately ignorance may be also. I was disappointed last week when the BBC and the Guardian published articles that inaccurately dismissed hieroglyphs as a more primitive form of writing than emojis.

Professor Vyv Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, was quoted as saying: ‘As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop’. While emojis are a fun and creative method of casual digital communication, they’re definitely not yet on the same level as ancient Egyptian, which was actually a structured, grammatical language capable of communicating complex, abstract ideas.

To compare the two, you can look at some fun emoji news headlines that the BBC put together. They manage to convey some very basic ideas, but only really work if you’re already familiar with the news stories to which they allude. For example, this one which is apparently ‘One in four people don’t know the dodo is extinct, a poll finds.

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Compare an equivalent ancient Egyptian news-vehicle: the commemorative scarabs of King Amenhotep III. These were circulated with short inscriptions to celebrate the pharaoh’s successful hunts, marriage, and building projects. Much more can be conveyed since the script includes numerals, has phonetic symbols to spell out names, and has a grammatical structure through the use of word order, adverbs, adjectives, and pronouns. This scarab gives the names and titles of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye and celebrates the fact that between years 1 and 10 of his reign the king shot a total of 102 lions!

A.1960.572

Glazed steatite scarab incised with the lion-hunt text of Amenhotep III, 18th Dynasty (A.1960.572). Image © National Museums Scotland.

Following Evans’ BBC interview, Jonathan Jones wrote a rather scathing blog post in the Guardian, condemning emoji as a sign of modern cultural degeneracy and ancient Egypt as a form of dark ages: ‘After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age. Such ethnocentric attitudes exhibit a disappointing cultural chauvinism in judging the ‘evolution’ of other societies by Western values. But it’s not entirely surprising. Even the misinterpretation of hieroglyphs dates back to ancient times.

After Egypt had been absorbed into the Roman Empire, the last known hieroglyphic inscription was carved by a priest on August 24, 394 AD on the island of Philae, and the script was subsequently forgotten. The misconception of hieroglyphs as ‘picture writing’ began with the 4th century Greek grammarian Horapollo, who encouraged speculation about their mysterious symbolic significance. It was not until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion that script was finally understood again.

Hieroglyphic symbols don’t simply function as pictograms that stand for what they depict. Some do, but most symbols actually hold phonetic values and represent sounds. Often symbols have multiple functions depending on their context. For example, the  ‘house’ hieroglyph can be used as a pictogram to write the word pr, meaning ‘house’ (left below), but it also holds the phonetic value pr, which can be used to write other words, such as pri, meaning ‘to go forth’ (right below).

pr hieroglyphs

Modern Chinese writing is presumably not dissimilar–the characters are more stylised of course, but most people probably don’t realize that hieroglyphs were actually only used for monumental inscriptions and religious texts. In ancient Egypt, everyday documents, such as accounts, letters, and even literary texts were written using pen and ink in a cursive form of the language known as hieratic.

Limestone ostracon inscribed with poem written in hieratic praising the king on his war-chariot, probably from Thebes, late 19th Dynasty. Image © National Museums Scotland.

Limestone ostracon inscribed with poem written in hieratic praising the king on his war-chariot, probably from Thebes, late 19th Dynasty. Image © National Museums Scotland.

The article goes on to state:

The Egyptians created a magnificent but static culture. They invented a superb artistic style and powerful mythology – then stuck with these for millennia. Hieroglyphs enabled them to write spells but not to develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture: they left that to the Greeks.

These jumped-up Aegean loudmouths, using an abstract non-pictorial alphabet they got from the Phoenicians, obviously and spectacularly outdid the Egyptians in their range of expression. The Greek alphabet was much more productive than all those lovely Egyptian pictures. That is why there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.

There are quite a few incorrect statements to deconstruct here. While the ancient Egyptians deeply valued tradition, their culture, language and writing systems were certainly not static. It might seem that way to the uninformed casual observer, especially since the media and schools often present a monolithic picture of Egypt, but I won’t go into an extensive discussion of the history Egyptian art and architecture here. Suffice to say, that such generalisation could just as easily characterise much of Western architecture as static for its obsession with the Classical traditions of Greece and Rome.

Furthermore, those Greek and Phoenician alphabets that are so superior to ‘Egyptian pictures’? They actually evolved out of hieroglyphs via proto-Sinatic, as did most modern alphabets.

Evolving alphabets chart from the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Evolving alphabets chart from Orly Goldwasser, ‘How the Alphabet Was Born from Egyptian Hieroglyphs’, Biblical Archaeology Review 36.2 (2010).

Jones argues that Egypt did not have a ‘flexible, questioning literary culture’ and ‘there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey’, however numerous literary texts survive from ancient Egypt. While one could argue about literary merit and aesthetics, the fact remains that poetic compositions were created and written down in Egypt at least 1000 years before Homer lived, and almost 2000 years before the earliest surviving manuscript fragments of the Iliad and Odyssey. Ancient Egyptian literary compositions such as the celebrated ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ (c. 1900 BC) are epic in scope, if not length. They employ evocative imagery and metaphors, and present ambiguous explorations of themes such as Egyptian identity, justice, and kingship.

For example, in the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ (the subject of an excellent episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’), the official Sinuhe flees Egypt when he hears of the king’s assassination and spends years in exile. The poem hauntingly describes his escape, when he gets lost in the desert, before his dramatic rescue: ‘Thirst’s attack overtook me, and I was scorched, my throat parched. I said: ‘This is the taste of death’.

'This is the taste of death': Dd.n.i dpt mwt nn

I said: ‘This is the taste of death’: Dd.n.i dpt mwt nn

After many adventures abroad, living amongst foreigners as a champion and leader of his own tribe, Sinuhe grows old and begins to wish to return home. In his emotional appeal for divine aid, he says: ‘Whatever god fated this flight – be gracious and bring me home! Surely You will let me see the place where my heart still stays! What matters more than my being buried in the land where I was born?!’. The new king of Egypt finally writes to Sinuhe, pardoning him and urging him to return, where he is welcomed home and finally dies in the favour of the king.

Ostracon inscribed with an excerpt of the 'Tale of Sinuhe' (BM EA 5629) © Trustees of the British Museum

Ostracon inscribed with an excerpt of the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ (BM EA 5629) © Trustees of the British Museum

Another poem known as the ‘Dialogue of a Man and his Soul’ presents a man who despairs of his life and wishes to commit suicide. He debates the merits of life and death with his ba (soul/personality), who tries to convince him to live. Imbued with existential anguish, dramatic tension, and vivid imagery, the poem is remarkably moving, even thousands of years after its composition. For example, the man exclaims: ‘Who can I talk to today? For brothers are bad, and the friends of today do not love’. He describes the seductive appeal of death’s oblivion: ‘Death is to me today like a sick man’s recovery, like going out after confinement. Death is to me today like the smell of myrrh, like sitting under a sail on a windy day’. In the end, the man’s soul manages to reconcile him to life, promising ‘I shall alight when you are weary; so shall we make harbour together!’.

To sample more ancient Egyptian poetry in translation, I recommend Professor Richard Parkinson’s book ‘The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems’.

In the 21st century, I’d hope we can begin to move beyond the colonialist attitudes and Orientalism that have often dismissed ancient Egypt and other cultures as primitive and inferior to Classical civilisations. However, even when Egypt’s achievements have been admired, some scholars have tried to whitewash its people and culture, for example arguing that Egyptian civilisation could only have been founded by invaders from Mesopotamia (read Europeans). It’s about time that we gave the ancient Egyptians credit for their achievements and learned a bit more about them–in their own words. An ancient Egyptian eulogy to writers says: ‘They did not make for themselves pyramids of bronze … they made heirs for themselves as the writings and teachings they begat … Departing life has made their names forgotten; writings alone make them remembered’. Over 200 years after the decipherment of hieroglyphs, their words are able to speak once again – louder than any emoji.

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Update: Professor Vyv Evans contacted me on Twitter to state: ‘I have never dismissed hieroglyphs as primitive’. He justified his statement to the BBC saying: ‘Emoji has stormed the world: 2 billion users in under 3 years. That is the claim, based on findings of fact’, and argued that the comparison between emoji and hieroglyphs was appropriate ‘due to the visual representational channel of over 6 million years’.

Pharaoh: King of Egypt, my new book

In over three thousand years of history, ancient Egypt was ruled by hundreds of kings; to the untrained eye, they may often seem undistinguishable in their idealised representations, but their stories are more varied and extraordinary than might be imagined. In my new book, written to accompany the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, I explore many of these fascinating stories through the fabulous objects in the British Museum’s collection, from beautiful gilded palace tiles to a papyrus account of royal assassination. The aim of both the exhibition and the book is to juxtapose the ideals of kingship with the more complex realities faced by Egypt’s rulers.

For example, Amun-Ra, king of the gods, was frequently invoked by the Egyptian kings who sought to align themselves with him, but no one could have imagined the many ways in which his name would be used by the pharaohs over the centuries: Hatshepsut, who declared herself the first female king (not queen), told of her own birth as resulting from an assignation between her mother and Amun-Ra in disguise as her father; the kings of Nubia (ancient Sudan) justified their invasion of Egypt as a rescue mission for Amun-Ra, who they alleged was no longer being properly honoured in his own country; Alexander the Great sought out the oracle of Amun-Ra at Siwa Oasis where the god (or his nervous priests) acknowledged the Macedonian conqueror as his son.

The book has been a joy to write, but it actually almost never happened. The plan for the exhibition had always been to focus on creating an open online catalogue so we could offer free access to further object information, which is exactly what we did and you can visit the online catalogue here. It was only just as the exhibition was opening that BM Press broached the possibility of creating of a small affordable illustrated book to accompany the exhibition. The objects themselves are so stunning, from the huge wooden tomb guardian statue of Ramses I to the most delicate gold jewellery of the Middle Kingdom, that the prospect of working further with them was very appealing. In some ways the late start proved quite useful because it offered the opportunity to explore in the book some of the great stories that hadn’t made it into the exhibition.

For example, almost everyone knows of the boy-king Tutankhamun and the incredible discovery of his tomb’s treasures, but fewer will be familiar with the confusion over royal succession after his untimely death. Having died barely out of his teens, Egypt was left without a royal heir to inherit the throne, his only two children having been still born and interred with their father. It’s recorded that Tutankhamun’s widow wrote in her desperation to a foreign ruler, the Hittite king: ‘My husband died. I do not have a son. But, they say, many are your sons. If you would give me one of your sons, he would become my husband’. But the Hittite prince never made it to his coronation. En route to Egypt, the Hittite prince was murdered and Tutankhamun’s vizier Ay took the throne instead. Ay performed the traditional ceremonies usually carried out at the pharaoh’s funeral by his son, thereby smoothing the path to his succession. Over and over through ancient Egyptian history, the ideals of kingship were used to help soften the much harsher realities of ancient life and maintain stability and power.

 

 

While the exhibition consists of 14 sections ranging from royal titulary to temple building, family life to war iconography, my approach for the book was to condense these into a simpler framework of five chapters, each one exploring a key aspect of the king’s duties and mythologized roles, and how different the reality often was from the ideal:

  • ‘The son of Ra’, supposedly descended from the gods, but often crowned through circumstance, conspiracy or invasion
  • ‘The Lord of the Two Lands’, responsible for maintaining order and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt, though their failure sometimes plunged the country into civil war
  • ‘He who builds the mansions of the gods’, serving as high priest, building temples
, or rather taking the shortcut of reusing older monuments
  • ‘A champion without compare’, a warrior-king, supposedly protecting Egypt from her enemies, but being conquered in turn just as often
  • ‘Lord of Eternity’, when the pharaoh was buried and thought to become one with the gods, after which he might subsequently be worshipped, maligned or forgotten

Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with brand new colour photographs and introduced by two quotations, one framing the idealised vision of the pharaoh in a particular role, the other presenting a starkly different view, to give the ancient Egyptians a chance to speak for themselves in their own words.

For the final chapter, ‘Lord of Eternity’, a quotation from the poem The Tale of Sinuhe illustrates the mythological beliefs surrounding the death of the king and the manner in which his subjects were expected to honour him:

The God ascended to his horizon; the Dual King Sehotepibre, mounted to heaven, and was united with the sun, the divine flesh mingling with its creator. The palace was in silence, hearts were in mourning.”

In reality, deceased kings could generally expect to be treated much more harshly, as this account by tomb robbers in the Amhurst Papyrus demonstrates:

We stripped off the gold which we found on the noble mummy of this god. We found the royal wife likewise and we took all that we found on her too. We set fire to their inner coffins.”

I hope that the book Pharaoh: King of Egypt will be an enjoyable introduction to ancient Egyptian kingship and some of the amazing objects in the British Museum’s collection (and it’s only £9.99!). For those in the UK who haven’t yet seen the exhibition, it’s currently on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 14 October, after which it will be in Glasgow from 3 November 2012 – 24 February 2013, and finally Bristol from 15 March – 9 June, 2013.

 

A History of the World in 100 objects: Poetry, mathematics & myth at the British Museum

This Thursday, February 18th, the British Museum is holding a free evening of events in connection with their ongoing series with BBC Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects. It sounds like there will be lots of fun events over the course of the evening (18:30-20:30), especially a performance of the Tale of Sinuhe, bringing the dramatic adventures in the poem to life, as well as a talk about the Ramesses II colossus. I myself will be giving a couple of very brief, basic introductory workshops on hieroglyphs. There is also a lecture by Dr. Richard Parkinson at 18:30 on ‘Same-Sex Desire in Ancient Egypt’ and the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (£5, concessions £3).

The event is listed on the British Museum website, but here is a more detailed schedule of all the activities:
Relax and listen to poetry inspired by Museum objects, recitations of ancient myths, or a talk on mathematics by author Simon Singh. Join a behind-the-scenes tour, view clay tablets in the historical Arched Room, listen to the sounds of Babylon, taste ancient beer, learn to decipher ancient scripts and take the ancient Egyptian civil service test.
All events are free, some are ticketed Tickets are available at the desk in the Great Court, near the entrance to Room 4
PERFORMANCES & STORYTELLING
18.30–18.50 & 19.10–19.30
Babylonian fingers
Ahmed Mukhtar, Baghdad master of the oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute), gives a solo performance inspired by the Lachish Reliefs.
Room 10a
18.30–19.00 & 19.50–20.20
The world above, the world below
Performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton explores the origin of writing and myth making in Mesopotamia. Drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she brings to life a dramatic love story – one of the earliest pieces of literature, written down in cuneiform – which follows a lover’s search for her beloved in the Underworld. Room 56
19.15–19.45
Ozymandias
Patricia Usick, honorary archivist in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, gives a recital of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, followed by a talk about the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4, and its relationship to the poem.
Room 4
19.30–19.45
Centaur and Lapith
In response to the Parthenon sculpture depicting a Centaur and Lapith, an ensemble of graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama presents a performance exploring the idealised body of Greek sculpture, resistance to cultural absorption, and the ekstasis of sacred processions. Includes students from Trinity Laban and the University of Wyoming. Room 18
19.30–19.40 & 19.50–20.00
The Sphinx of Taharqo
Poet, novelist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Carol Rummens reads contemporary verse she has written in response to the Sphinx of Taharqo. Room 65
19.45–20.30
The Tale of Sinuhe
The Tale of Sinuhe from c. 1850 BC is considered the supreme masterpiece of ancient Egyptian poetry. It will be performed by Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, following their acclaimed recital of the poem at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Introduced by the poem’s translator Richard Parkinson, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Room 4
WORKSHOPS & DEMONSTRATIONS
TALKS
18.40–19.00 & 19.10–19.30
Hieroglyph workshop
A short introduction to hieroglyphs and the basics of ancient Egyptian writing with independent lecturer Margaret Maitland. Learn how to read symbols on the monuments of Ramesses the Great, hear how the ancient Egyptian language sounded, and learn how to write your name in hieroglyphs. Room 4
18.45–19.45
Ancient Egyptian civil service test
Test your wits against the ancient Egyptians and see if you can answer some practical questions based on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. With independent lecturer Patrick Mulligan. Room 61
18.40, 19.20 & 20.00
Special behind-the-scenes visit and cuneiform demonstration See ancient cuneiform tablets and a demonstration on cuneiform writing in the historic Arched Room with curator Jonathan Taylor, Middle East.
Meet at the West stairs (north end of Room 4) five minutes before each session. Each session is 25 minutes. Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4
19.00–19.45
The story of ancient beer
Beer has been brewed since the 6th millennium BC and records indicate that beer was first brewed in Mesopotamia. The Beer Academy have picked four beers which take you through different eras of brewing techniques. This tasting and information session will tell you all about the changes through history in how the perfect pint was made.
Great Court
Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4
18.50–19.15
The myth of kingship in ancient Assyria
The throne room relief from the 9th- century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud encapsulates the mythology surrounding the king in ancient Assyria. Independent lecturer Lorna Oakes relates how it also acted as a warning to anyone contemplating usurping the throne. Room 7
19.05–19.40
Mathematical goddesses in Sumerian culture The world’s oldest poetry was made in ancient Sumer in southern Iraq, 4,000 years ago. The mathematics, writing and justice depicted in this pottery portray a vibrant world of gods and goddess, kings and commoners. In this talk, Eleanor Robson, Reader in Ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, explores how ideals of mathematics, writing and justice were transmitted from the divine realm to the human – not by gods, but by goddesses. Room 56
19.45–20.30
Code breaking
Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh speaks on Greek mathematics, the Arithmetica by Diphantus, Fermat’s Last Theorem, ancient codes and code breaking, which he demonstrates with the help of the Enigma Cipher.
Room 17
Programme subject to change. Photography and filming is allowed.

The event is listed on the British Museum website, but here is a more detailed schedule of all the activities:

Relax and listen to poetry inspired by Museum objects, recitations of ancient myths, or a talk on mathematics by author Simon Singh. Join a behind-the-scenes tour, view clay tablets in the historical Arched Room, listen to the sounds of Babylon, taste ancient beer, learn to decipher ancient scripts and take the ancient Egyptian civil service test. All events are free, some are ticketed Tickets are available at the desk in the Great Court, near the entrance to Room 4

PERFORMANCES & STORYTELLING

18.30–18.50 & 19.10–19.30

Babylonian fingers

Ahmed Mukhtar, Baghdad master of the oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute), gives a solo performance inspired by the Lachish Reliefs. Room 10a

18.30–19.00 & 19.50–20.20

The world above, the world below

Performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton explores the origin of writing and myth making in Mesopotamia. Drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she brings to life a dramatic love story – one of the earliest pieces of literature, written down in cuneiform – which follows a lover’s search for her beloved in the Underworld. Room 56

19.15–19.45

Ozymandias

Patricia Usick, honorary archivist in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, gives a recital of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, followed by a talk about the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4, and its relationship to the poem. Room 4

19.30–19.45

Centaur and Lapith

In response to the Parthenon sculpture depicting a Centaur and Lapith, an ensemble of graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama presents a performance exploring the idealised body of Greek sculpture, resistance to cultural absorption, and the ekstasis of sacred processions. Includes students from Trinity Laban and the University of Wyoming. Room 18

19.30–19.40 & 19.50–20.00

The Sphinx of Taharqo

Poet, novelist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Carol Rummens reads contemporary verse she has written in response to the Sphinx of Taharqo. Room 65

19.45–20.30

The Tale of Sinuhe

The Tale of Sinuhe from c. 1850 BC is considered the supreme masterpiece of ancient Egyptian poetry. It will be performed by Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, following their acclaimed recital of the poem at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Introduced by the poem’s translator Richard Parkinson, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Room 4

WORKSHOPS & DEMONSTRATIONS

TALKS

18.40–19.00 & 19.10–19.30

Hieroglyph workshop

A short introduction to hieroglyphs and the basics of ancient Egyptian writing with independent lecturer Margaret Maitland. Learn how to read symbols on the monuments of Ramesses the Great, hear how the ancient Egyptian language sounded, and learn how to write your name in hieroglyphs. Room 4

18.45–19.45

Ancient Egyptian civil service test

Test your wits against the ancient Egyptians and see if you can answer some practical questions based on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. With independent lecturer Patrick Mulligan. Room 61

18.40, 19.20 & 20.00

Special behind-the-scenes visit and cuneiform demonstration See ancient cuneiform tablets and a demonstration on cuneiform writing in the historic Arched Room with curator Jonathan Taylor, Middle East.

Meet at the West stairs (north end of Room 4) five minutes before each session. Each session is 25 minutes. Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4

19.00–19.45

The story of ancient beer

Beer has been brewed since the 6th millennium BC and records indicate that beer was first brewed in Mesopotamia. The Beer Academy have picked four beers which take you through different eras of brewing techniques. This tasting and information session will tell you all about the changes through history in how the perfect pint was made. Great Court

Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4

18.50–19.15

The myth of kingship in ancient Assyria

The throne room relief from the 9th- century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud encapsulates the mythology surrounding the king in ancient Assyria. Independent lecturer Lorna Oakes relates how it also acted as a warning to anyone contemplating usurping the throne. Room 7

19.05–19.40

Mathematical goddesses in Sumerian culture The world’s oldest poetry was made in ancient Sumer in southern Iraq, 4,000 years ago. The mathematics, writing and justice depicted in this pottery portray a vibrant world of gods and goddess, kings and commoners. In this talk, Eleanor Robson, Reader in Ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, explores how ideals of mathematics, writing and justice were transmitted from the divine realm to the human – not by gods, but by goddesses. Room 56

19.45–20.30

Code breaking

Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh speaks on Greek mathematics, the Arithmetica by Diphantus, Fermat’s Last Theorem, ancient codes and code breaking, which he demonstrates with the help of the Enigma Cipher. Room 17

Programme subject to change. Photography and filming is allowed.

Seeing Ancient Egypt with new eyes

Although I’ve travelled to Egypt a few times now myself, it always interests me to hear people’s first impressions of the country, especially when they are less familiar with the ancient society. Lynn Barber has written a delightful article in the Guardian on ‘how she fell for Egypt’, and it gives a wonderfully fresh insight on how the country and its landscapes, people, monuments, and artwork can captivate and capture the imagination so instantly and entirely.

It’s wonderful to hear about someone else falling for the first time for something you love too and it makes me recall my first trip to Egypt. To me Egypt was a civilization that I already knew very intimately, but to finally be there, I was just as astonished as Barber, or even more so.

I still vividly remember my first visit to the museum in Cairo. When I was a child, I delighted in the Egyptian gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, but was awestruck when I finally encountered the more extensive collections of the British Museum and the Louvre- what treasure troves of wonder! But everything I had yet seen paled in comparison when I first visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. While the museum conditions are not ideal and the labelling is rather sparse, the collection of artifacts is incredible and not to be missed. Despite the rather shabby setting, I gasped in awe not just at each new room I entered, of which there was an astounding, seemingly endless number brimming with antiquities, but at each object that met my eye; many of them were familiar to me as significant pieces appearing in countless books, and the rest were new and thrilling, each one a tiny time capsule revealing some insight into the ancient Egyptians. From the imposing colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Mut, who preside over the great statue court at the heart of the museum, to the thousands of tiny, delightful pieces stuffed into the rooms that tourists seem to ignore entirely in their dash for King Tut’s mask–they all made me fall in love with Egypt all over again.

Hippo and cow

A delightful unintentionally funny display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

My first sight of the great hypostyle hall at the temple of Karnak was one of the few experiences in my life that’s been literally jaw-dropping, as in actually being unable to keep my upper and lower jaws attached. Karnak is the grand temple of Egypt, the one that every king had to add to until it became positively labyrinthine, and apparently the largest ancient religious site in the world. The hypostyle hall is its crowning glory: 134 massive limestone stone columns in the form of papyrus plants, some standing up to 80 feet high, form a veritable stone forest. I am sadly unable to find the words to describe the strange humbling yet inspiring feeling I felt standing dwarfed in the midst of that massive monument. I can only say, if you’ve never been, you need to go.

On one point in Barber’s article I’d have to disagree though- she describes her visit to the Valley of the Kings and says that while the main ticket allows entrance to three tombs, ‘if you want to see more tombs, you can buy another ticket or go to the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Nobles, but three is probably enough’. I can understand that seeing a myriad of tombs might be overwhelming for those new to Egypt and three tombs in the Valley of the Kings specifically might indeed be enough, but missing out the Nobles and the tombs of Deir el Medina is a mistake that many tourists seem to make- both were deserted when I visited. The tombs of the kings and the tombs of the nobles, and also of the workers who made the kings’ tombs, are very different in style indeed. The royal design is understandably quite formal and focussed on religious motifs, and personally I think that the average person would probably enjoy the tombs of the Nobles and Deir el Medina much more with their lively decoration and relate more to the scenes of daily life.

Ramose
A relief in the tomb of Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles, photo by Becky Ragby

The art in those tombs is truly superb and not to be missed. Actually, it’s hardly surprising that the artists who decorated the tombs of the kings did a rather wonderful job on their own tombs too! It was wonderful to read Lynn Barber describe Egyptian art in such glowing terms: ‘I expected to find ancient Egyptian art interesting: what I didn’t expect was that I’d find it as thrilling as, say, Florence or St Petersburg’. Sadly, Egyptian art has always historically been viewed as inferior to classical art, but I’m glad it’s not just the Egyptologists who’d disagree with this.

I’m not convinced either by her claim that ‘most of the tour guides in Egypt are fully trained Egyptologists’ since sadly I’ve heard numerous guides spouting ridiculous nonsense to rapt audiences of tourists. I’ve met a number of the Egyptian summer trainees at the British Museum and they’re actually curators and antiquities inspectors not tour guides.

Egypt can have a profound effect on its visitors, however Lynn Barber’s final comments in her article were incredibly amusing to me as an Egyptologist-in-training who decided on her career at the age of 6. Unfortunately Barber’s words of wisdom come perhaps slightly too late for me: ‘Incidentally if you have children of an impressionable age, do not take them to Egypt because it will inevitably make them want to become archaeologists when they grow up and then they will spend their adult lives sorting shards in some dim county museum… Egyptology is an incredibly alluring subject, but a disastrous career, I suspect’.

Food for thought

I really love when a certain word has dual related meanings that reveal the way people understand certain concepts and make associations between them. I mean not just homonyms that sound the same, but ones that actually have a deeper connection between their different meanings. They’re called polysemes. An example in English would be ‘mole’, meaning both an underground animal, and a person who goes undercover. Another amusing example can be found here.

My favourite Egyptian example of polysemy is the word Å¡di. It is written like this:
Sdi

with a sign representing a water skin- the phonetic symbol for the sound ‘shed’, with an alphabetic ‘d’ sign- a hand, and then a breast sign serving as a determinative for the overall meaning. As the breast symbol suggests, the word means ‘to suckle’ or breastfeed a young child. It’s alternate meaning, which obviously derives from the original, is ‘to educate. Instead of meaning to nourish a young body with milk, it means to nourish a young mind with knowledge. It’s a beautiful parallel and gives us an insight into the importance literate Egyptians gave to educating their children.
Here are a couple of examples of the word being used in both contexts:

These ones are captions from the temple decorations at Karnak from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, which show the Pharaoh being addressed by the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, who were the symbolic mothers of the divine king of the Two Lands.

The first one records the speech of the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet, to the Pharaoh:

Nekhbet speech

Which is transliterated as:
ink mwt.k bnr mrwt
šd.n tw m nḫn.k

And translates as:
‘I am your beloved mother,
Who nursed you in your youth.’

This is the speech of the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt, Wadjet, to the Pharaoh:

Buto speech

Transliterated as: šd.n tw m irṯt.i
Which means: ‘I suckled you with my milk’.

The next one is from the inscription on the false door of Ptahshepses’ mastaba at Abusir, vizier to Niuserre, a king of the Fifth Dynasty:
Ptahshepses

Which describes Ptahshepses as one: ‘whom he educated among the king’s children in the palace of the king, in the Residence, in the king’s harem, who was more honoured before the king than any child, Ptahshepses.’

While our versions of these words don’t have the same nuances, English does make a similar connection between nourishment and knowledge, in such expressions as ‘to chew things over’, ‘to ruminate’ and of course, ‘food for thought’, and such verbal associations colour the way we think. šdi is yet another wonderful word that sheds a little light on how the Egyptians thought.

Head North, or rather ḫd North

Felucca

To the Egyptians, ‘travel’ was synonymous with ‘water travel’, and the Nile acted as the country’s superhighway. Since Egypt was entirely strung out along the fertile riverbanks of the life-giving Nile that served as the country’s backbone, the majority of travel and transportation was north-south oriented and much time and energy was saved by using boats. Therefore the words used to indicate north or southward movement were written with boat symbols.

The word ḫnti, a verb meaning “to sail upstream, travel southward” (definition from Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian 1962, 195), was written like this:hnti

beginning with the phonetic sound ‘ḫnt’—a symbol of three (or four) jars in a rack, the wavy water symbol that stands for the letter ‘n’, a loaf of bread for the letter ‘t’, and a determinative symbol to give a visual clue to the word’s meaning, in this case a hieroglyph of a boat with a raised sail.

The word ḫdi, a verb meaning “to travel downstream, northwards” (according to Faulkner 1962, 199), was written like this:

hdi

with the symbol for the letter round ‘ḫ’, a circle filled with horizontal lines, the letter ‘d’ which was written with a hand, and a determinative depicting a boat with oars.

You may have noticed that while both these words designate travel using boat determinatives they differ slightly, one being shown with oars and the other with sails. This is because the Egyptians reflected the realities of travel in how they wrote—the word for southern travel is written with a sail because the prevailing wind in Egypt comes from the north and people travelling south would always make use of the helpful wind, harnessing its energy with sails, while the word for northern travel is written with oars, since anyone going north by boat would have had to travel against the wind, but following the flow of the river downstream towards the Mediterranean, using the water current and oars to propel the boat. Beautifully logical, isn’t it?

The visual dimension of Egyptian words means that they can often give us much more information about the culture beyond a literal reading and it’s worth reading between the lines.

Solar boat
A full-sized boat built from cedar wood that was buried beside the Great Pyramid of Khufu, rebuilt and now on display at Giza.

Egyptian word of the week

I’ve decided that it might be interesting to share some of my favourite Egyptian words each week, so that even if you don’t read hieroglyphs, you can enjoy some of the flavour and character of the language that is often lost in translation.

The basis of certain words and the special ways in which they were used can give us key insights into Egyptian culture and the way the people thought. For example, the Egyptians were very keen on puns or play-on-words, which often formed a key symbolic part of religious and political ideology. Also, although hieroglyphs weren’t just simplistic representative pictures, their pictorial form was still significant and often exploited in art and texts. And sometimes it’s not just our understanding of Egyptian culture that can be enlightened by examining Egyptian words—sometimes it’s our own culture as well. Some Egyptian words have made it into modern languages, including English.

I remember learning one of my favourite examples of an Egyptian loan word into English back during my undergraduate degree in Toronto when we read an inscription about Queen Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the exotic land of Punt (which some argue is modern Eritrea). The word is hbny and you might be able to guess what the English loan word is!

hbny is written like this:hbny

with the phonetic ‘h’ symbol—a walled courtyard, the symbol for ‘b’—a leg, a plow sign that is the phonetic symbol for ‘hb’, the squiggly line depicting water that is the phonetic ‘n’ sign, two dashes representing the sound ‘y’, and a branch symbol acting as a determinative to the word to specify it’s wood-related meaning. hbny is the word for the dark tropical hardwood that we call ‘ebony’. We’ve just simply dropped the ‘h’ sound from the Egyptian word.

The word was borrowed by the Greeks and entered into English. So whenever you say ‘ebony’, bear in mind that you’re speaking ancient Egyptian!

Some examples of the word’s use in Egyptian texts can be found in lists of luxury products from foreign countries, such as in the autobiographical inscription in the rock-cut tomb of the official Harkhuf, describing the products he acquired during his travels:

Harkhuf

Here is my translation of the above text transcribed in Sethe 1932, 126: ‘I returned with 300 donkeys, which were laden with incense, ebony, hekenu-oil, sat, moringa oil, panther skins, ivory tusks, throwsticks, and all good products’.

hbny is also used in the Punt expedition text that I mentioned above. A relief from the temple depicting Punt is pictured below:

Punt

In the temple of Hatshepsut (the Egyptian queen who ruled as king) at Deir El Bahri, over an image of ships being loaded with the products of Punt, is the inscription:
‘The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God’s Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory…Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning’ (translation from Breasted 1906-7 vol.2, 263-5).

hbny and ivory’. So it turns out that that old Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder lyric is actually over three thousand years old!

Why the aliens did NOT build the pyramids

PyramidIt has always pained me a great deal that so many people all over the world are genuinely fascinated by ancient Egypt and yet they are so woefully misinformed by sensationalist media, so-called documentaries based in pseudoscience, and the fantasy world of Hollywood. No other ancient civilization is so universally recognized and yet so thoroughly misunderstood. Sadly, Egyptologists are often so frustrated by this that they want nothing to do with the situation; it’s not just a matter of educating people, it’s completely reeducating them, trying to reverse the damage caused by ‘The Mummy’ and even the Discovery Channel.

When I tell people that I’m studying Egyptology, people always assume that this means pyramids and mummies, the only things they know about Egypt. In fact these areas are so popular that they are overrun by untrained theorists and most Egyptologists shun them rather than tackling all of the misinformation. Sometimes I can hardly blame them; even as a lowly student, I was once approached at a conference by a man who wanted to show me the home experiments that he’d carried out, pulling miniature pyramid blocks in his backyard! The sad thing though is that many people prefer madcap theories to the truth, especially when genuine research is presented in dry academic speak rather than the exciting Indiana Jones-style of tv.

Once I was actually asked in all seriousness for my professional opinion on whether alien build the pyramids. The man said: ‘There’s so much discussion of the alien theory that there must be something to it, right?’. Well, my short answer would be, ‘No. There isn’t anything to it at all.’ My longer answer will follow, with a thorough dissection of the central arguments of the alien theory and why they are wrong. I think the main reason the theory is so popular is that people like to believe in things, things that are much bigger than themselves, whether it’s god or aliens. But often people also want proof and they seek to find it in the pyramids and other ancient monuments. It’s no wonder that the pyramids are incredible enough that they inspire people to believe the unbelievable. I myself don’t think there’s anything wrong with postulating that there might be other life out there in the universe, but I also don’t believe in robbing humanity of pride in its achievements.

I think it’s rather more inspiring to think that human beings, our own ancestors, created such spectacular monumental achievements. However, some people see the concept of civilization as progressive, that humans only continue to improve upon the past, so they think that just because we are uncertain about how the pyramids were built and we ourselves would struggle to replicate their achievement, it is impossible that humans of the past could have done it.

They say that since the pyramids of Giza were built about 4500 years ago, people back then couldn’t have been skilled enough to do it. However, we’re ignoring that numerous remarkable developments were happening all those millennia ago. There are many things that were discovered in the distant past that still serve us today. The Egyptians made many brilliant innovations (something I will have to write more about in another post): simple things that we still use today, which have barely changed over the millennia since they first conceived, from the earliest forms of paper and ink, to the 24 hour day.

People say that since we wouldn’t be able to build pyramids today, that the Egyptians couldn’t have done it, but it’s not just building of the pyramids that couldn’t be replicated today. It’s hard to imagine ever being able to pull together the resources, power, money, skilled craftsmen, and architects needed to build one of the great gothic cathedrals in this day and age. It just couldn’t happen. This isn’t something to be ashamed of though, we simply use different technologies and have different priorities these days. While we couldn’t build another Notre Dame Cathedral or Great Pyramid, modern structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Gherkin wouldn’t have been possible back then either. Pyramids were possible simply because the entire economy, resources, and population of the Egyptian civilization was under the control of a single omnipotent ruler, who could mobilize them all into a monumental building project.

To argue that just because we don’t know every detail about how the pyramids were built would be a logical fallacy (an argument from ignorance) and does not prove that aliens must have built them. We have so much evidence that strongly indicates that the Egyptians themselves were responsible for building the pyramids. We have archaeological evidence of their construction: remains of the quarries, roads, tools, records of the workers and the towns in which they lived. We know why they built them and we can even observe their lengthy and imperfect evolution before they reached their architectural peak with the Great Pyramid.

To properly address the issues out there, I will cite from a number of websites that support the theory that aliens built the pyramids and some of the comments that individuals have posted there, and explain why they are incorrect. I randomly chose a number of sites from the top Google search hits for aliens and pyramids. I don’t want to single anyone out or anything, so I won’t use any names attached to the comments. The various websites from which they derive are listed at the end of this post.

I am no great pyramid expert myself, so I must acknowledge an enormous debt to the work of Mark Lehner and Dieter Arnold, from whom most of my information derives, along with other Egyptological sources, all of which are also listed at the end. I’d recommend Lehner’s ‘The Complete Pyramids’ as the best general book on the subject if you want to learn more. It is very readable with lots of illustrations and diagrams.

Why were the pyramids built?

Referring to the alien theory, someone states: ‘It’s the most sensible theory. Why would ancient Egyptians build such monstrosities just to bury their kings?’ Alien theorists say that it’s a mystery why the Egyptians or other ancient people would build such immense monuments. Therefore, it must have been aliens. But why on earth would the aliens want to build these monuments? And on earth? That makes even less sense. We definitely know the purpose behind the building of the pyramids.

They were used as tombs for the ancient Egyptian kings, but they represented much more than just a grave. They were iconic symbols of the supreme power of the ruler; what better way of showing your subjects who’s boss, than conscripting them to build you a monolith that dominates the entire landscape? Above all, they were monuments to divine Egyptian kingship, the place where the king would be transformed into a god. One of the most important Egyptian myths tells how an ancient king named Osiris was murdered by his evil usurping brother, who in turn was eventually defeated by the rightful heir to the throne, Osiris’ son Horus. In death, Egyptian kings were thought to take on the role of Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, while their son assumed the role of Horus and the kingship. And although deceased, the former king would join the eternal cycle of life to be reborn everyday with the sun god. The pyramid was thought to facilitate this. This also legitimized the rule of the successor to the throne, since the pyramid was a symbol of his father’s new divinity.

There are a number of reasons why these tombs were built in a pyramidal form. First of all, they developed out of an older form of monumental royal tombs called mastabas, which were flat-roofed rectangular buildings, that an enterprising architect named Imhotep then decided to adapt by stacking one on top of the other into a step pyramid form. Also, the pyramid was intended as a place of rebirth. An Egyptian creation myth tells of the birth of the world as a primeval mound rising out of the waters of chaos. The pyramid is a stylized mound.

In a country where the sun is always shining, the sun god Re was the supreme deity, and the king aspired to join him in being reborn every dawn. The pyramid form echoed the rays of the sun and its staircase like form allowed it to serve as an instrument of ascension. Each of the pyramids was capped with a pyramidal stone block, or pyramidion, and the carvings on the one from Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Dashur confirm its celestial role for the king; it is inscribed with a pair of eyes looking up at the sundisk and hieroglyphs that read ‘Amenemhat beholds the perfection of Re’.

The ancient names for the pyramids themselves reveal a great deal about their purpose as royal monuments and symbolic locations for the king’s divine transformation and journey to heaven. The Great Pyramid is called ‘Khufu’s horizon’, and the other two Giza pyramids are called ‘Great is Khafre’ and ‘Menkaure is Divine’. Other pyramid names include ‘Djedefre is a Sehed-Star’ and Sahure’s ‘Rising of the Ba-Spirit’. Just because the Egyptians were interested in the celestial aspect of the afterlife though, doesn’t mean they had to be inspired by aliens. People throughout history have been fascinated by the stars, and I don’t think anyone’s calling Galileo an alien.

The pyramids themselves were clearly part of Egyptian religious tradition, forming the focal point for the worship of the deceased king. Some of the rituals involved cleaning, dressing, and offering food and drink to statues of the king, who was undoubtedly human rather than green or tentacled. We actually have records of the day-to-day activities centred around the pyramids. The Abusir papyri preserve detailed records of the daily activities at the pyramids and of the people who worked there, including schedules of priest and guard duties; inventories of pyramid temple equipment; financial accounts; lists of goods supplied and stored; and records of architectural inspections.

The Egyptians had strong cultural, religious, and political reasons for building the pyramids and there is no reason to question their purpose.
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A Guide to Ancient Egyptian London

London has always had a fascination with ancient Egypt dating back to the ‘Egyptomania’ of Victorian times and today the city is recognized as one of the foremost centres of Egyptological research. The collection of the British Museum is world renowned, as is its most famous exhibit, the Rosetta Stone. But there are many other less well-known but equally fascinating Egyptian treasures hidden throughout the city, from the great sarchophagus of King Seti I amongst the overflowing collection of curiosities at the Soane Museum, to Howard Carter’s grave, and Victorian houses adorned with sphinxes and obelisks.

Google recently added a new feature that allows you to make your own customized maps, so I decided to compile a list of all the Egyptological places in London, many that I love and others that I hope to visit soon myself.

To explore London’s ancient Egyptian side, please go to the full screen version of the map here.

And here’s a link to the Google Earth KML file.