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The Language and Writing of Ancient Egypt

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Today most people who live in Egypt speak Arabic, but five thousand years ago, when the first pyramids were being built, the Ancient Egyptians spoke a language which we call Ancient Egyptian.

In 332 BCE Alexander The Great invaded and conquered Egypt. He was a Greek, and for the next two hundred years Egypt was a part of the Empire of the Greeks. Alexander loved Egypt and founded a new city in Egypt which is still called by his name: Alexandria. He allowed the Egyptians to go on worshiping their own gods and speaking their own language. Over the next two hundred years lots of Greeks visited Egypt to wonder at the Pyramids and all the other huge and strange buildings. Some of them even wrote books about Egypt. In these books they gave everything Greek names and today many of the words we associate with Ancient Egypt, pyramid, sphinx, obelisk, hieroglyph, papyrus, Memphis, Thebes, even Egypt itself, are actually Greek words not Ancient Egyptian words.

After the Greeks came the Romans, then the Byzantines, and finally, in 642 CE, came the Arabs. They closed all the temples of the old Ancient Egyptian religion and forced everybody to become Moslems and speak Arabic.


When most people think of Ancient Egyptian writing they think of hieroglyphs. The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek word for sacred carving. Each of the little pictures in Ancient Egyptian writing is a hieroglyph, not a hieroglyphic. Hieroglyph is a noun, hieroglyphic is an adjective: we can talk about hieroglyphic writing but we should not talk about hieroglyphics, even though lots of people, even lots of books, do.

There were more than three thousand different hieroglyphs, and each hieroglyph had its own special meaning. But most of these three thousand hieroglyphs were not often needed, only about seven hundred were used in most everyday writing.

This Page does not tell you what all these hieroglyphs mean - there are lots of other web sites about that.

Up and Down

Hieroglyphs could be read from top to bottom, left to right or right to left. If the Ancient Egyptians were putting hieroglyphs on a wall round a doorway they might lay out the hieroglyphs above the doorway to be read from top to bottom, those on the left of the doorway to be read from right to left, away from the door, and similarly from left to right on the right of the door. You can always tell which way the hieroglyphs are to be read because the animals always face the beginning of the sentence.

Pictures of hieroglyphs in books may be drawn facing right or left. If you are writing your name or a simple message by copying hieroglyphs from a book do remember that if you are writing from left to right the hieroglyphs should all be drawn to face left, even if it means you have to reverse the pictures in the book.

Sacred Carvings

Hieroglyph means Sacred Carving, and hieroglyphs were originally meant to be carved into or out of stone, not written down.

The main building material in Ancient Egypt (other than mud brick of course) was limestone. This is quite easy to cut and carve to make buildings and statues and other things out of. Obelisks were made of a very much harder stone, called granite, and they also made statues and other things out of granite and other very hard types of stone.

The Ancient Egyptians did not have electrical power tools or diamond-tipped drills, only wooden mallets and very simple copper chisels, so when they were carving hieroglyphs onto a very hard stone such as granite for an obelisk there was really one way they could do it: they just cut them into the surface.

But limestone is much softer than granite, so when they were working with limestone they could also use two other ways.

If they were carving the hieroglyphs on a large flat surface such as a wall they could use a technique called raised relief.This consists of cutting away most of the surface leaving just the hieroglyphs standing out - rather like making a blue letter L on a yellow background not by taking a sheet of yellow paper and painting a blue L in the middle but by taking a sheet of blue paper and painting it all yellow except where you want the L to be.

Blue L
Now try to imagine writing a whole story the same way, starting with a sheet of black paper and a tin of white paint and you have some idea of the task the Ancient Egyptians were faced with!

This produced the most beautiful hieroglyphs, but the Ancient Egyptians very seldom used it out of doors if the Sun would shine on them. This was because the Egyptian Sun is much brighter than the Sun in England and the raised hieroglyphs would cast very strong shadows which would make them difficult to read.

If they were carving the hieroglyphs on a curved surface such as a pillar or statue they could not use raised relief as this would change the shape of the surface. Instead they used a technique called bas relief. Here they carved away the surface only around the hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs were still raised but not beyond the original surface of the stone.

Before they carved the hieroglyphs first a junior scribe would draw them on the surface, in black ink. Then a senior scribe would correct them, in red ink. Finally the stone-cutter (mason) would carve them. Sometimes a wall in a tomb was left unfinished, so today we can see all three stages, the original black writing at the end of the wall, the corrected writing in the middle, and the finished hieroglyphs at the beginning.

The finished carved hieroglyphs, and also carved pictures, were sometimes painted, but today very few hieroglyphs have any paint left on them - after all, most of them are at least three thousand years old!

Egyptian writing

Although hieroglyphs were originally intended to be carved they could also be written (drawn) on almost any surface with a brush. A man who earned his living by writing (drawing) hieroglyphs was called a scribe: scribes in Ancient Egypt were very important people. (The men who carved the hieroglyphs were called masons and were much less important: they merely carved what the scribes had written.)

Egypt is a very hot dry country, and if you started writing a letter with a bottle of liquid ink, by the time you had finished the letter the ink in the bottle would have completely dried up. So they used inks in the form of a dry powder and a separate water-pot, mixing the inks just before use. To do this they used a scribal palette. This usually had two pots, one for black ink and one for red, a slot for your brushes, and a smooth area for mixing the ink and putting it onto the brush. There were several scribal palettes in Tutankhamen's tomb, and they had been used so we know he could read and write. An artist would use a similar technique, except that an artist's palette would usually have six pots in it - few Ancient Egyptian paintings needed more than six colours.

Hieroglyphs on statues and obelisks and on the walls and pillars of temples would normally be carved using one of the methods described above. But if they wanted to put some writings or paintings on the walls of any other type of building they would usually write or paint them on - usually a wall would be decorated with a mixture of writing and painting. They would start by plastering and whitewashing the wall to provide a good surface for the artist or scribe to apply the colours. Unfortunately plaster is affected by vibration and changes in temperature and humidity, and also many other things, and so after three thousand years many walls decorated in this way are now not in very good condition because the plaster is breaking up.


Walls and statues are not the ideal material for writing letters or making a list of the contents of a box. For writing these sorts of things the Ancient Egyptians usually used sheets of papyrus. Papyrus is a Greek word - our word paper comes from papyrus. This page is written on papyrus (oh all right, not really, only a papyrus background).

Papyrus was made from the papyrus plants which used to grow along the banks of the River Nile. Today very little papyrus grows in Egypt. Papyrus plants are a type of reed, growing about two metres tall.

To make a sheet of papyrus for writing on the reeds were cut into shorter lengths and then slit lengthwise. The strips were then laid out on a large flat stone, in alternate layers, and then hammered with a special wooden mallet. The sap in the reeds was forced out and this glued the strips together. Finally the sheet was trimmed.

Making papyrus

You can just see the outlines of the layers of reeds on the sheet of papyrus this page is written on. The largest individual sheet of papyrus that could be made this way was limited by how far the man hammering the cut reeds together could reach. If you wanted a bigger sheet you joined several smaller sheets together in the same way.


A sheet of papyrus cannot be folded without cracking it, but several sheets joined together can be rolled up to make a scroll. There is no limit to how many sheets of papyrus can be joined together to form a single scroll: the longest scroll so far found is more than sixty metres long.

Egypt is a very hot dry country, almost ideal conditions for preserving papyri, and we have literally millions of papyri more than three thousand years old.

Today you can buy papyrus in the markets in Cairo and other places in Egypt - but this is more likely to be made of banana leaves!

Hieratic and demotic

Hieroglyphs were meant to be carved, and it is very difficult to get all the very subtle differences into a drawing made with brushes and inks. Compare for example even simple drawings of the hieroglyphs for a duck and a goose, and then remember that a duck was used as the hieroglyph for a son(!) - this is why we see it so often in inscriptions - so the difference was very important. So for everyday writing on papyrus the Ancient Egyptians used a very much simpler set of signs, called hieratic. Hieratic can be written very much more quickly, although it does not look so nice. Later on another form of writing, called demotic, was used. Demotic could be written even faster than hieratic. Egyptologists need to be able to read hieratic and demotic (and no, I cannot), but most people who go to Egypt on holiday or are learning about it visit or see pictures of temples and tombs rather than shopping lists and mud brick quotas, so are more familiar with and interested in hieroglyphs.

© Barry Gray October 2003