Hieroglyphs and Secrecy

Secret codes have been at the centre of events throughout history. Wars lost, governments deposed, and the Monarchs executed; all because someone had cracked codes. But code-breaking is also about  knowledge and enlightenment. In the 19th century, scholars attempted to decipher the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Although not written as a secret code, knowledge of what they meant had been lost and unravelling these messages from the ancient world would be one of the toughest challenges that the code breakers have ever faced. 

For over a thousand years, the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were a complete mystery. In 1798, the discovery of a stone with this ancient script inscribed started an extraordinary intellectual race. Jean-François Champollion in France and Thomas Young in Britain both believed that the Rosetta Stone, as they called it, held the key to deciphering hieroglyphs. But the Rosetta Stone did not yield its secrets easily. For two decades it frustratingly mesmerised two of the most brilliant men of that era.

How did they ever decipher the meaning of this long forgotten language? That’s the story I’m going to narrate.

 Early Christianity forbade the use of hieroglyphs, believing them to be pagan and sinful. As centuries passed by, we lost all of the little understanding we had of it. Some scholars argued that hieroglyphs were a phonetic script, just like our alphabet, while others believed it was nothing more than primitive pictures. In the tomb of Ramesses lie umpteen hieroglyphs which were pretty much gibberish to people in the fifth century AD. Later, it was found that those hieroglyphs narrated the story of Ramesses, featuring enemies and captures and rebirth. amongst much else. Hieroglyphs looked mysterious, as they still do, but what they really do is give a glimpse of the ones who came before us.

…the letter M is represented by an Owl, the Chick represented the letter W. The reason that there are so many hieroglyphs is that some represent combinations of letters – the syllables. 

When Napoleon arrived in Egypt in 1798, his army and engineers discovered the then mysterious, now famous Rosetta Stone, inscribed with obscure scripts. This was a breakthrough in the world of hieroglyphs. When Napoleon fell, the British confiscated the stone and it stood proud in the British Museum. Deciphering hieroglyphics was not easy- it had never been. The Rosetta Stone has the same note written in three unique scripts—Hieroglyph on the top, Demotic in the middle, and ancient Greek at the bottom. Scholars tried to decipher the hieroglyphs by matching it with Greek, which failed because-

  1. the scholars had no idea of which Greek words corresponding to which symbols
  2. most of the languages have only 30 alphabets while there are 700 symbols in hieroglyphs. Usually, the letters represent alphabets and symbols represent sounds. 
  3. Hieroglyph isn’t a pictographic script where symbols represent ideas, not sounds. Hieroglyphs have many symbols of birds. If it was a pictographic script, the text should have been about the birds, flying, or air. But the decrypted Greek script was all about taxes, proving the Hieroglyphic script wasn’t pictographic.

Emmanuel Young’s contribution to the decoding of Hieroglyphs was a breakthrough. For the problem of the Rosetta Stone, Young used an old code breaker trick. He looked for a crib- some small piece of the hieroglyphic text that you already know the meaning of and which you can then use to decipher other hieroglyphs. Young noticed that some hieroglyphs were surrounded by a loop— a Cartouche—which contains an important detail, like a king’s name. Young read a tiny set of hieroglyphs including a Cartouche, ‘Ptolemy’, with the help of a Greek text. He found that he wasn’t confident about the accuracy of his work. The next step should have been to cross-check his discovery with another Cartouche, but he suddenly abandoned his research on the pretext that ‘Ptolemy’ was a mere exception, and it was spelt phonetically because it was a foreign name. He felt that for traditional Egyptian names and all other Egyptian words, the hieroglyphs behaved as pictograms, where a symbol represented a word. Young’s work was sent to Paris for evaluation and among the scholars who received the paper was the brilliant linguist, Jean-François Champollion, who was fascinated by these strange symbols and decided that  he will decode them one day. 

Champollion initially believed that hieroglyphs were not an alphabetic script. When Young’s work on the Ptolemy Cartouche came to his notice, Champollion took a step back and changed his mind. Without mentioning the influence of Young, he adopted the alphabetic approach, and he tried to extend it to other Cartouches obtained from Egypt. Champollion decoded a Cartouche of the famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. He cross-checked it with the Cartouche of Ptolemy. This level of consistency showed that Cleopatra, like Ptolemy,was written phonetically. But Cleopatra was also a foreign name. Critics still argued that the rest was pictographic.

They eventually settled the debate with the help of an inscription found at the temple at Abu Simbel. The temple has four giant representations of a Pharaoh, who towers over the landscape facing the rising sun at dawn. The Pharaoh was important, but nobody had any idea who he was. The secret lay in his Cartouche. Undeciphered, a copy of this Cartouche ended up on Champollion’s desk. He had been studying Coptic – the language of the Coptic Christian Church. He theorized that Coptic being the oldest surviving spoken language in Egypt would have some resemblance to the language of ancient Egypt. Other scholars thought of this, but none had the linguistic skill or knowledge of Egyptian culture to show how it could work in practice. But Champollion, with the help of Coptic, his knowledge of language and Egyptian culture and some assumptions, decoded the Cartouche of Pharaoh-‘Ramesses’, a traditional ancient Egyptian name, neither modern nor foreign like Ptolemy or Cleopatra. If the Egyptians used hieroglyphics to spell out phonetically ancient Egyptian names, so why shouldn’t they use hieroglyphs to spell out all Egyptian words?

He had cracked the code. Hieroglyphs behaved like the letters of an alphabet. For example, an Owl represented the letter M, the Chick represented the letter W. There are so many hieroglyphs because some represent combinations of letters–the syllables. The hieroglyph of a plough represents the combination of letters M and R–‘MUR’ and the hieroglyph a game board represents the sounds M and N–‘MUN’. Also, the hieroglyph that looks like a sandal strap can have two meanings–Sandals or Life. These kinds of hieroglyphs are a little complicated. All of this took time to deduce, but it was Champollion’s linguistic skill and insight that unlocked the most difficult of all codes – the forgotten script, a key that had been hidden for centuries. He was excited that he rushed into his brother’s room and shouted “I’ve got it” and promptly collapsed. In July 1828, Champollion made his first and only trip to Egypt. At last, he could read the hieroglyphs first hand. On returning to France, he wrote up his notes about the trip, and died of a heart attack right after, at the age of 41. It was as though his work was done. He did live up to his vow though- he cracked the code!

-K K Akshaya

S.Y.B.Sc Eco (19-22)


Hieroglyphs: Documentary on Hieroglyphs and Secrecy, Cobal Finset

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