Hieroglyphs are a writing system used by the Ancient Egyptians, that contained a combination of logographic, alphabetic elements, and ideographic elements. Hieroglyphs are the oldest signs of the Egyptian writing system. They were used from 3200 BC till 200 AD in Egypt and Nubia for the old, middle and new Eyptian language.
The ancient Egyptians called their script "mdju netjer", or "words of the gods."
Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that functioned like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, or ideograms, which narrowed down the meaning of a logographic or phonetic word. The hieroglyphic script contained 24 uniliterals which today we associate with 26 glyphs. Hieroglyphic could be written in the following ways:
• horizontal, left-to-right
• horizontal, right-to-left
• vertical, facing left-to-right
• vertical, facing right-left
Written, cursive hieroglyphic is generally written in columns, top-to-bottom or horizontally, right-to-left. In the latter stages of hieroglyphic cursive the only surviving examples are written horizontally, right-to-left; vertical hieroglyphic should be read from top-to-bottom.
In the beginning hieroglyphic signs were used to keep records of the king's possessions. Scribes could easily make these records by drawing a picture of a cow or a boat followed by a number. But as the language became more complex more pictures were needed. Eventually the language consisted of more then 750 individual signs. As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts.
The Rosetta Stone contains parallel texts in hieroglyphic and demotic writing.
Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. By the fourth century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in AD 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from a temple far to the south not long after 391.
But after the Greeks conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great, people began to use the Greek alphabet to write the Egyptian language Then hieroglyphs were only used for religious things (ta hiera in Greek), things that were too holy for the ordinary Greek alphabet, which is why they are called "sacred-drawings."
Hieroglyphs survive today in two forms: Directly, through half a dozen Demotic glyphs added to the Greek alphabet when writing Coptic; and indirectly, as the inspiration for the original alphabet that was ancestral to nearly every other alphabet ever used, including the Roman alphabet.
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