The Philae Obelisk, Hieroglyphs and Understanding a Vanished Culture
Before the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs, ancient Egypt was shadowy and mysterious with towering monuments, magical names, and an unknown antiquity, though most Western scholars believed that Egyptian civilization was at least older than ancient Greek civilization. What restored the ability to speak across time to the ancient Egyptians was the discovery of two important artifacts: the Rosetta Stone and the Philae Obelisk. The Philae Obelisk was integral in helping Jean-Francois Champollion, the father of Egyptology, accurately decipher the hieroglyphic writing system by providing evidence that the hieroglyphic characters represented sounds of words like the Greek and Latin alphabets.
Early European Impressions of Hieroglyphs
For centuries, Europeans believed that the Egyptian hieroglyphs were ideographic, that is, they represented concepts and ideas rather than sounds of words. This was believed by many ancient Greek and Roman writers who wrote on Egypt, none of whom bothered to learn the hieroglyphic script.
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Luxor Temple, Egypt. Cartouches for Ramesses II ( Public Domain )
As ancient Greek replaced native Egyptian as the language of the intelligentsia, all forms of native Egyptian writing were also replaced by the Greek alphabet. By the time Greek and Roman scholars began to take interest in hieroglyphs, their actual meaning had been long forgotten. Since the only sources they had on hieroglyphs were from Greco-Roman writers who had an inaccurate understanding of them, hieroglyphs remained largely a mystery for nearly 2000 years.
Ancient Egypt has an interesting place in Greco-Roman tradition. It was revered for its wisdom and antiquity, but, at the same time, considered inferior to Greek and later Roman civilization. The ancient Greeks nonetheless believed that Egypt was a magical land and that the hieroglyphs were a mystical form of writing, bestowing divine messages. The word hieroglyph, in fact, comes from two Greek words meaning “sacred carving.”
The First Code Crackers
The 5th century AD, Greco-Egyptian priest Horapollo was one of the earliest westerners to attempt to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Greek and Roman writers before him had just dismissed hieroglyphs as untranslatable. Horapollo wrote a treatise, Hieroglyphica, in which he claimed that hieroglyphs represented ideas and concepts including esoteric or hidden knowledge. He explained the meaning of some 200 symbols.
Most of Horapollo’s explanations turned out to be inaccurate, although Egyptologists believe that at least some of his explanations reflect real aspects of the hieroglyphic writing system. His ideas on the meaning of hieroglyphs ended up shaping the European understanding of hieroglyphs until the 19th century.
A monument erected by emperor Theodosius I in 4th century Constantinople (now Istanbul). The base is late-4th century, but the hard granite obelisk was brought by Theodosius from Egypt. It was originally erected by Tutmoses III (1479–1425 BC) in the precincts of the Temple of Karnak. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In the Islamic world, on the other hand, there was some recognition that hieroglyphs were phonetic and not just ideographic. Some Islamic scholars even tried to correlate certain hieroglyphs with letters in the Arabic abjad. The Islamic scholars were moving in the right direction, but their guesses were erroneous since they had no way of accurately deciphering the phonetic meaning of individual hieroglyphs. They had no interpretive guide.
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A Renaissance of Decryption
During the Renaissance, there was a revival in Greek and Roman learning in Europe. Renaissance scholars believed that classical civilization represented the pinnacle of human development and that the only way to return to that pinnacle was to adopt Greco-Roman philosophy and lifeways through studying classical Greek and Latin texts. Since Horapollo’s work was a part of the Greco-Roman cannon, they naturally adopted his view that hieroglyphs were ideographic.
Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest, polymath and 17th century expert on ancient Egypt, was asked by the Pope to translate an obelisk inscription which had been brought to Rome from Egypt. Probably using Horapollo’s work as a guide, he concluded that the hieroglyphic inscription on the obelisk encoded instructions for conducting magical rites related to the god Osiris. Egyptologists today have since determined that the same inscription is actually just the name of a pharaoh, “Wahibre of the 26th Dynasty.”
Finding Momentous Cipher Keys
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a breakthrough was finally made through the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the Philae Obelisk. The Rosetta Stone was once located in a temple. It has an inscription that describes an edict made by the Hellenistic pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BC. When it was discovered, the stone was part of the walls of a French fort in the town of Rashid, also called Rosetta.