Ancient 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).

The earliest inscriptions go back as far as the First Dynasty, around 3000 B.C., while some authorities favor a date many hundreds of years earlier.

The 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.

According 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 (quoted verbatim below in the footnotes section).

*1-OLD EGYPTIAN:  The language of Dynasties I-VIII, about 3180 to 2240 B.C.

*2- MIDDLE EGYPTIAN: The vernacular of Dynasties IX-XI, about 2240 - I990 B.C.

*3- LATE EGYPTIAN: The vernacular of Dynasties XVIII-XXIV, about 1573 to 715 B.C.

*4- DEMOTIC:  The vernacular written in the script known as Demotic, from Dynasties XXV to late Roman times (7I5 B.C. to A.D. 470)

*5- COPTIC: The old Egyptian language in its latest developments, as written in the Greek alphabet supplemented by seven special characters, from about the third century A.D.

The word 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 be told.

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.

By the 2nd 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 161 A.D.) 

Historical accounts related that Antoninus came in person to Egypt and Syria to put down a revolt of Arab Nabatean tribes along the Red Sea region.  Taking advantage of his presence in Egypt, he ordered the renovation of the port of Alexandria, and the extensive restoration of Qasr `ayn al-Zayyan in the Khargah oasis where he added a pylon gate built in a pharaonic style.

This 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 scripts. 

An ominous old prophecy (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) circulated among the broken spirits of native Egyptians: 

"A 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."

As Ancient 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.

In the 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 oldest dynasties.

Therefore, there would have been at least three levels: those trained in hieroglyphs, those trained in cursive writing, and those without training.

It was 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)

(c) epistolographic or demotic (used for everyday purposes). 

To this 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: "mdw-ntr" (god's words). 

However, 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"

As such, "mdw" 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).

As Christianity 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. 

In the second century, candidates for the priesthood still had to show a knowledge of demotic and hieratic. 

In the 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 truth. 

So what did our Ancient Egyptian ancestors call "their" writing, mistakenly identified by the West under the misnomer "Hieroglyphs"?

They simply called it Khti! (cf. Arabic al-Khatti) 

Because 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 or Haqar in Ancient Egyptian (cf. Arabic Hagar).

Hitherto, until the writing of this essay, the connection between the term Khti *(6) for the earliest system of writing in ancient Egypt (c. 3400 B.C.) and the Arabic term "khtt" has never been established or even alluded to. 

From Jean François Champollion to all of the famous Egyptologists who wrote dictionaries of Ancient Egyptian, among them: Sir Alan Gardiner, Raymond 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 occurs. 

In view 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)

Next, 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

*1-Old Egyptian: the language of Dynasties I-VIII, about 3180 to 2240 B.C. This may be taken to include the language of the Pyramid Texts  which, however, displays certain peculiarities of its own and is written in a special orthography. Otherwise the surviving documents of this stage are mainly official or otherwise formal funerary formulae and tomb-inscriptions, including some biographical texts. Old Egyptian passes with but little modification into.

*2-Middle Egyptian, possibly the vernacular of Dynasties IX-XI, about 2240 - I990 B.C., later contaminated with new popular elements. In the later form it survived for some monumental and literary purposes right down to Graeco-Roman times, while the earlier form was retained as the religious language.

*3-Late Egyptian: The vernacular of Dynasties XVIII-XXIV, about 1573 to 715 B.C., exhibited chiefly in business documents and letters, but also in stories and other literary compositions, and to some extent also in the official monuments from Dyn. XIX onwards. There are but few texts, however, wherein the vernacular shows itself unmixed with the classical idiom of Middle Egyptian. Various foreign words make their appearance. 

*4-Demotic:  This term is loosely applied to the language used in the books and documents written in the script known as Demotic, from Dyn. XXV to late Roman times (7I5 B.C. to A.D. 470). Here again the old classical idiom is blended with later, vernacular elements, often inextricably.

*5-Coptic: The old Egyptian language in its latest developments, as written in the Coptic script, from about the third century A. D. onwards; so called because it was spoken by the Copts, the Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians, in whose churches it is read, though not understood, even at the present day. After the Arab conquest (A. D. 640) Coptic was gradually superseded by Arabic, and became extinct as a spoken tongue in the sixteenth century. Coptic was written in the Greek alphabet supplemented by seven special characters derived ultimately from the Hieroglyphs. Up to the coming of the Arabs in 640 A.D., several dialects of Coptic were distinguished, of which the following were the most important:

1. Akhmimie (Akhmiymiy) : The old dialect of Upper Egypt, which early gave place to Sa`idic.  2. Sa`idie ( from Arabic:  Sa`iydiy or Upper Egypt)  : The dialect of Thebes, later used for literary purposes throughout the whole of Upper Egypt.  3. Bohairie : (from Arabic:  Bahariy or the Delta) doubtless originally the dialect of the Western Delta.




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