Egypt always had at least two scripts in operation, one formal (Hieroglyphic
script), and one for more day-to-day purposes (cursive scripts, first
Hieratic, later Demotic).
earliest inscriptions go back as far as the First Dynasty, around
B.C., while some authorities favor a date many hundreds of years earlier.
same script lived on far into the Christian era; the latest Hieroglyphs
known are found at Philae and dated to A.D. 394. Thus, the
use of the earliest form of Egyptian writing, though confined to a narrow
circle of calligraphers, artists and engravers, covered a period of three
or even four thousand years.
to Sir Alan Gardiner, the foremost authority on Egyptian grammar,
there were different stages of the language: Bearing in mind the fact that
the written language reflects the spoken language of the different periods
only to a limited extent, and that monumental records on stone are always
more conservative than business documents and letters on potsherds and
papyrus. He roughly distinguished five different linguistic stages
verbatim below in the footnotes section).
The language of Dynasties I-VIII, about
3180 to 2240 B.C.
MIDDLE EGYPTIAN: The
vernacular of Dynasties IX-XI, about 2240 - I990 B.C.
LATE EGYPTIAN: The
vernacular of Dynasties XVIII-XXIV, about 1573 to 715 B.C.
DEMOTIC: The vernacular written in the script known as Demotic,
from Dynasties XXV to late
Roman times (7I5 B.C. to A.D. 470)
old Egyptian language in its latest developments, as written in the Greek
alphabet supplemented by seven special characters, from about
third century A.D.
hieroglyph, which the ancient Greeks called hieroglyphika, comes
from the Greek hieros (sacred) plus glypho (inscriptions)
and was first used by Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius
Clemens, in the second century A.D. Unfortunately, the circumstances
surrounding these faulty identifications which were filtered through Greek
terminologies relate a sad chapter of Egypt's history which deserves to
Clement of Alexandria
was renown for the thoroughness of his native Greek education. However,
the tendency displayed by his constant quotation of the Greek poets and
philosophers impeded his knowledge and grasp of many aspects of Egyptian
culture. Other circumstances peculiar to the 2nd century A.D. also
contributed to his misnomers.
century A.D. Hieroglyphic and Demotic were in their last
throes and were used only in connection with the temples and priesthoods
of an ancient religion increasingly under siege. The last major Roman temple
constructed in the traditional pharaonic style dated from the reign of
the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (138 to
accounts related that Antoninus came in person to Egypt and
to put down a revolt of Arab Nabatean tribes along the Red Sea
Taking advantage of his presence in Egypt, he ordered the renovation
of the port of Alexandria, and the extensive restoration of
`ayn al-Zayyan in the Khargah oasis
where he added a pylon gate
built in a pharaonic style.
gesture would be the last concession made by a foreign ruler toward native
Egyptian Pharaonic traditions. The decades that followed sadly saw
the systematic demise of ancient Egyptian religion, its language and native
old prophecy (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) circulated among
the broken spirits of native Egyptians:
time will come when it will seem that the Egyptians in the piety of their
hearts, have honored their gods in vain, with a devoted cult.... The gods
on leaving the earth, will return to heaven; they will abandon Egypt....
That holy earth, land of sanctuaries and temples, will be completely covered
with coffins and corpses. O Egypt, Egypt nothing will remain of your religion
but fables, and later, your children will not even believe them! ... the
people abandoned, will all die, and then with neither gods nor men, Egypt
will be nothing but a desert. It is to you that I speak, holy river, it
is to you I announce the things to come: torrents of blood will swell your
waters to their banks ... and there will be more dead than living ; as
for those who survive, it is only by their language that they will be recognized
as Egyptian: in their manners they will seem to be men of another race."
Egyptian traditions retreated, Hellenistic traditions peaked in Alexandria
where Greek was the language of administration as well as the lingua franca
of the elite colony of Greek ancestry. The rest of the native population
spoke a popular Egyptian vernacular, a precursor of the would be Coptic
in subsequent centuries.
course of so many centuries, grammar and vocabulary were bound to change
very considerably, and in point of fact the Egyptian spoken under the Roman
occupation bore little resemblance to that which was current under the
there would have been at least three levels: those trained in hieroglyphs,
those trained in cursive writing, and those without training.
under these disturbing circumstances that Clement's description
of Ancient Egyptian script came into being. His views were heavily influenced
by his Hellenistic heritage. In an attempt to describe Egyptian writings,
he subdivided the script into three categories:
(a) Hieroglyphic (used
mainly for religious texts),
(b) Hieratic (used
mainly by priests)
or demotic (used for everyday purposes).
day, Clement's terminologies, considered gospel truth, stuck and
have never been questioned. From his erroneous perception, fables about
the so called "sacred glyphs" were spun, each embellished to sustain
this misnomer. Under this spell, some Egyptologists, convinced themselves
that Egyptians called their hieroglyphic script:
any correct translation of this term would point out that "mdw"in
Ancient Egyptian refers only to
"words" and therefore to language,
not to "writing".
could express religious texts, as well as secular literature or language.
The term happens to be a cognate to the Arabic
"madah" pl. "mawad"
(for the correct definitions see below).
spread throughout Egypt, the knowledge of the old native scripts and lore,
long since the jealously warded secret of a dwindling priestly caste of
the Old Religon, fell into oblivion.
second century, candidates for the priesthood still had to show a knowledge
of demotic and hieratic.
third century, demotic was no longer used for documents, though there are
demotic inscriptions at Philae dating as late as 452 A.D.,
i. e. some sixty years after the final disappearance of the so-called Hieroglyphs.
After this, there remains only the tradition of the classical writers and
the early Fathers, whose confused and mutually contradictory statements,
if they point anywhere, point in a direction diametrically opposed to the
did our Ancient Egyptian ancestors call "their" writing, mistakenly
identified by the West under the misnomer "Hieroglyphs"?
simply called it Khti! (cf. Arabic al-Khatti)
of its pictorial form, these painstakingly drawn symbols were wonderful
for decorating the walls of temples, but A.E. "khti" was
also difficult to write and therefore was used primarily for monumental
inscriptions. The prime material used in "Khti" was stone
in Ancient Egyptian (cf. Arabic Hagar).
until the writing of this essay, the connection between the term Khti
for the earliest system of writing in ancient Egypt (c.
and the Arabic term "khtt"
has never been established or even alluded to.
François Champollion to all of the famous Egyptologists who
wrote dictionaries of Ancient Egyptian, among them: Sir Alan Gardiner,
O. Faulkner, Wallis Budge and Co., NONE of them ever
mentioned this crucial connection. This despite of the customary habit
of comparing A.E. to Semitic words (Arabic, Hebrew etc.) whenever this
of the subsequent flourishing art of Calligraphy (known by the same name,Khatt)
the most venerated form of Islamic Art, one wonders the reason
behind this grave omission. This, despite the pivotal role played by Egypt
in the development of the art of Khatt (both monumental
and cursive types) under Islam to an unsurpassed high level
of sophistication (a position only held in the history of the world
civilizations along with the Chinese Calligraphy).
The discovery of this unexpected
connection is bound to revolutionize not only our perception of the Ancient
Egyptian art of writing, but equally in bettering our knowledge of the
history of Islamic calligraphy and its mysterious beginnings as well.
(This story continues)
once the threshold of this important discovery has been crossed,
suddenly a myriad of other related mysteries begins to unravel, divulging
more secrets about the art of Khatt which have survived without
a break to this very day.
© Ishinan 2005-6