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.
The Rosetta Stone with text written in three scripts. (© Hans Hillewaert CC BY-SA 4.0)
European antiquarians and archaeologists determined that the stone contained a single decree written in three different scripts and two languages, Greek and Egyptian. One of the scripts was Greek and the other two scripts were the hieroglyphic script and a cursive form derived from the original hieroglyphic script called Demotic.
Scholars discovered that the number of symbols for words were about the same in the Demotic script and the Greek script. This led them to the conclusion that the Demotic symbols represented sounds like the Greek letters.
They were a step in the right direction, but most European scholars including Jean-Francois Champollion, were, at first, convinced that the original hieroglyphs were still ideographic even though the Demotic symbols were phonetic.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle
This is where the Philae Obelisk becomes significant. The obelisk was discovered in 1815 in Upper Egypt in the ancient town of Philae by the British explorer and Egyptologist William John Banks. The obelisk contained inscriptions in both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although they were not the same inscriptions translated into two different languages as was the case with the Rosetta Stone, Banks thought he recognized the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy within them in both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Taking an interest in the obelisk, Banks, with the help of an Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni, transported the obelisk to Kingston Lacy, his home estate. The Philae Obelisk was transported there in 1821 and erected in front of his house in 1829.
Egyptian Philae obelisk and House of Egyptologist William John Banks, Kingston Lacy, UK (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Today, Egyptologists know that the inscription is a recording of a dialogue between the Egyptian priests and the Hellenistic pharaoh requesting an exemption from certain tax laws because they were financially onerous on the temple system. What is significant about the inscription though is that the names of the rulers at the time, Ptolemy and Cleopatra, are in the inscription written in hieroglyphs.
Champollion eventually examined the Philae Obelisk. When he did, he saw a correlation between the hieroglyphic symbols used on the obelisk and the hieroglyphs used on the Rosetta Stone. He realized that the symbols used to represent the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy on the obelisk were very similar to symbols used on the Rosetta Stone and concluded that the symbols represented the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy on both the Rosetta Stone and the Philae Obelisk. This discovery was made simultaneously by the British polymath Thomas Young. Most Egyptologists had already come to believe that hieroglyphic characters inside of cartouches were phonetic, but this was further confirmation that the hieroglyphic symbols were phonetic just like the Demotic symbols.
Opening the Door to Understanding Ancient Egypt
Since the successful deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the field of Egyptology has opened up and the once mysterious, shadowy Egyptians are now as well-known as the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, or China. In this way, the Philae Obelisk along with the Rosetta Stone acted as the key to understanding not just the writing system of ancient Egypt, but Pharaonic Egypt itself.
This has been carried on as a metaphor into other fields. The first European mission to a comet was called the Rosetta mission and the lander, which landed on its surface in November 2014, was named Philae. The goal of this mission was to unlock the secrets of how comets and the Solar System formed the same way that the Philae Obelisk and Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of the ancient Egyptians.
In a more direct analogy, the astronomer Carl Sagan, in his book and mini-series Cosmos: a personal voyage, suggested that another “Rosetta Stone” will be needed when we make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization to give us the key to communicating with them. Egyptologists did not just need the Rosetta Stone. They also needed the Philae Obelisk as another piece in the puzzle to discover how to properly interpret hieroglyphs. We may need more than just a “Rosetta Stone.” We may also need a “Philae Obelisk” for such a task.
Top image: Kingston Lacy and Egyptian Obelisk, discovered on an island in the Nile by William Bankes in 1815 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Caleb Strom
“The Rosetta Stone” by E.A. Budge (1893). Sacred Texts.com. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/trs/trs05.htm
“Obelisk and Cleopatra – Kingston Lacy’s Philae Obelisk” (2014). Dorset Life. Available at: http://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2014/12/obelisk-cleopatra-kingston-lacys-philae-obelisk/
Champollion, Jean-François, et al. "Jean-François Champollion." Sudden Genius?: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs (2010): 123.
Sagan, Carl, Steven Soter, and Ann Druyan. Cosmos: A personal voyage. KCET and Carl Sagan Productions, 1989.