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’.

‘When belongings are snatched by the deprived…’

Here in the UK these days, most people are preoccupied by the widespread unrest in our cities. Now I don’t write about politics, but I do research and write about social differences in ancient Egypt. I find it interesting to note that the debates we’re having today about criminality, deprivation, & social responsibility can also be found in ancient Egyptian poetry dating back to almost 4000 years ago. Despite the vast inequality in ancient Egyptian society between pharaohs and peasants, despite corporal punishment being commonplace and literacy rare, an Egyptian poet was still able to eloquently question the condemnation of criminal acts by the poor over those of the rich. The poem entitled ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ (the inspiration behind the name of my blog) tells the story of a peasant whose only possessions are stolen by a wealthy official and his subsequent articulate pleas for justice, which move even the pharaoh.

This is the passage that came to mind recently:

A lord of bread should be merciful, whereas might belongs to the deprived,

theft suits one without belongings, when the belongings are snatched by the deprived;

but the bad [are those who] act without want—should it not be blamed? It is self seeking.

Criminal responsibility is a controversial topic. Although one can’t really properly contrast a fictional robbery committed by a government official in ancient Egypt with the rioting of thousands of teenagers in deprived areas, it is fascinating to see that the social issues we struggle with today are the same as those of ancient Egypt. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years, but human nature has not greatly changed in the past few millennia. Plus ça change…

You can read the rest of ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ in Richard Parkinson’s book of translations of ancient Egyptian poetry, ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’. I’ll be giving a talk on the lives of the rich and poor in ancient Egypt in the Nebamun gallery at the British Museum this Friday, August 10th.

Echoes from the past, fears for the future

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

the Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All

from the poem The Prophecy of Neferti,
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. The people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, but the fire and chaos in Cairo is threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tweets are reporting Al Jazeera showing scenes of looting within the museum. The sad news has come of Dr. Zahi Hawass confirming damage and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.

To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations. Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient, but I am consoled by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then perhaps it will take quite a lot more before this particular old man goes anywhere…
I shall show you the land in catastrophe,
what should not happen, happening:
arms of war will be taken up,
and the land will live by uproar….
To the heart, spoken words seem like fire;
what comes from the mouth cannot be endured.
Shrunk is the land–many its controllers.
It is bare–its taxes are great.
Little is the grain–large is the measure,
and it is poured out in rising amounts.
The Sungod separates Himself from mankind.
He will rise when it is time,
but no one knows when midday occurs, no one can distinguish His shadow
~from the poem ‘The Prophecy of Neferti’, written over 3500 years ago
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. While the people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, the fire and chaos in Cairo has been threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tragic reports have come in from Dr. Zahi Hawass himself of some damage by looters and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people of Egypt and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.
To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.
Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure

Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations.
Cattle count model of Meketre

Cattle count model of Meketre

Weaving model of Meketre

Weaving model of Meketre

Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient. I am watching with baited breath for further news of the fate of the objects kept in the museum, a repository of the country’s history and a monument to human achievement. My hopes are buoyed only by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then hopefully this particular henna’d old man is not going anywhere…

The Tale of Sinuhe at the British Museum

If you live in or near London, I highly recommend heading over to the British Museum tomorrow evening (Thursday, November 18th) for a repeat performance of the Tale of Sinuhe at 6:30pm in the atmospheric Egyptian sculpture gallery. It involves a reading of the classic poem by terrific actors Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, with an introduction by Dr. Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper at the museum and expert in Middle Kingdom poetry. Having previously studied the poem both at Toronto and Oxford, I know it fairly well, but I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact of hearing it performed. It’s performed in front of a backdrop of a trio of statues of King Senwosret III, their stern, unforgiving stare a potent reminder of pharaoh’s awe-inspiring power, the failure of which drives the poem’s protagonist to flee Egypt.

It’s thrilling to hear the fear, utter despair, joy, and humour in these ancient words brought to life by through the warmth of  the actors’ voices and Dr. Parkinson’s brilliant translation. Many lines in the poem stand out in a way you’d never notice otherwise, bringing additional layers of nuanced meaning. It is a poem filled with great humanity and lyricism, and a beautiful story of exile and redemption. Never have I felt so near to the people and places that I study everyday. This is ancient Egypt brought to vivid life.

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.

The Love Poetry of Ancient Egypt

Whether you love it or hate it, today is St. Valentine’s day, and while the Egyptians didn’t really have an equivalent, the closest they had to such a holiday would perhaps be the festivals of Hathor, who, as the goddess or love, beauty, music, fertility, and even drunkenness, would make a much more likely patron of lovers than a canonized Roman martyr.

Although the Egyptians didn’t go in for roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, they did have lots of love poetry. Many people don’t realize what a rich body of literature the ancient Egyptians had, from fun stories about the adventures of magicians, to epic poems about epic journeys, and even what one might call the Egyptian version of the fairytale Rapunzel. The love poems date back to the 13th-12th centuries BC but the sentiments that they express seem just as fresh today, verses filled with lust, longing, tenderness, and heartbreak.

UCL’s Digital Egypt website has a nice page about love songs, including translations and even recordings of selections being read aloud. One thing that should be pointed out to readers less familiar with Egyptian literature, is that the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ were used by Egyptian lovers to indicate intimacy and affection. This is one of the reasons that early Egyptologists believed that marriage between siblings was common, which is untrue. There were royal sibling marriages to keep power within family, but not amongst ordinary people.

Here is an example of one of the beautiful poems, sung by a woman secretly longing for the man she is in love with:

‘My brother overwhelms my heart with his words,
he has made sickness seize hold of me…
see how my heart is torn by the memory of him,
love of him has stolen me.
Look what a senseless man he is
– but I am just like him.
He does not realise how I wish to embrace him,
or he would write to my mother.
Brother, yes! I am destined to be yours,
by the Gold Goddess of women.
Come to me, let your beauty be seen,
let father and mother be glad.
Call all my people together in one place,
let them shout out for you, brother.’

Also, here are links to some of the recordings of the poems being read aloud. My favourite readings are the one in which a man describes his beloved’s beauty (Part One & Part Two) and then another when he has been separated from her for seven days and is stricken ill with missing her (Part One & Part Two).

If you’re interested in reading more, there are translations of Egyptian love poetry in a collection of Egyptian literature edited by William Kelly Simpsons entitled ‘The Literature of Ancient Egypt’. One book is devoted entirely to love poetry. John Foster’s translations in ‘Love Songs of the New Kingdom’ are perhaps slightly less literal (or accurate, depending on one’s point of view) but quite enjoyable to read, and displayed with the text in hieroglyphs alongside.

In poetry, and especially love poetry, the Egyptians and all their desires and fears come alive again. As one of my supervisors, Dr. Richard Parkinson of the British Museum has said: ‘The poems provide an archaeology of the emotions, a sense of what it was like to be Egyptian, which is otherwise inaccessible’.