UCL News


Hieroglyphics cracked 1,000 years earlier than thought

3 October 2004

Western scholars were not the first to decipher the ancient language of the pharaohs, according to a new book that will be published later this year by a UCL researcher.

Dr Okasha El Daly of UCL's Institute of Archaeology will reveal that Arabic scholars not only took a keen interest in ancient Egypt but also correctly interpreted hieroglyphics in the ninth century AD - almost 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

It has long been thought that Jean-Francois Champollion was the first person to crack hieroglyphics in 1822 using newly discovered Egyptian antiquities such as the Rosetta stone. But fresh analysis of manuscripts tucked away in long forgotten collections scattered across the globe prove that Arabic scholars got there first.

Dr Okasha El Daly, of UCL's Institute of Archaeology, explains:

"For two and a half centuries the study of Egyptology has been dominated by a Euro-centric view, which has virtually ignored over a thousand years of Arabic scholarship and enquiry encouraged by Islam.

"Prior to Napoleonic times little was known in the West about the ancient civilisation of Egypt except what had been recorded in the Bible. It was assumed that the world of the pharaohs had long since been forgotten by Egyptians, who were thought to have been incorporated into the expanding Islamic world by the seventh century.

"But this overhasty conclusion ignores the vast contribution of medieval Arabic scholars and others between the seventh and 16th centuries. In reality a huge corpus of medieval writing by both scholars and ordinary people exists that dates from long before the earliest European Renaissance. Analysis reveals that not only did Moslems have a deep interest in the study of Ancient Egypt, they could also correctly decipher hieroglyphic script."

Following the Roman invasion of Egypt in 30 BC the use of hieroglyphics began to die out with the last known writing in the fifth century AD.

While Western medieval commentators believed that hieroglyphics were symbols each representing a single concept Dr El Daly has shown that Arab scholars grasped the fundamental principle that hieroglyphics could represent sounds as well as ideas.

Using his unique expertise in both Egyptology and medieval Arabic writers, Dr El Daly began a seven year investigation of Arabic writing on ancient Egypt.

"The manuscripts were scattered worldwide in private as well as public collections and were mostly not catalogued. Even when they were, they were often wrongly classified so I had to go through each one individually - it is not like researching in modern books with an index which you can check for relevant information," says Dr El Daly.

"A specialist in only Arabic or Islamic studies reading these manuscripts would fail to grasp their significance to Egyptology. Conversely Egyptologists think that Arabs and Moslems had nothing useful to say about ancient Egypt, so there wasn't any need to look at manuscripts that were mainly the domain of scholars within the disciplines of Arabic/Oriental studies."

The breakthrough in Dr El Daly's research came from analysis of the work of Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah, a ninth century alchemist. Ibn Wahshiyah's work on ancient writing systems showed that he was able to correctly decipher many hieroglyphic signs. Being an alchemist not a linguist, his primary interest was to identify the phonetic value and meaning of hieroglyphic signs with the aim of accessing the ancient Egyptian scientific knowledge inscribed in hieroglyphs.

"By comparing Ibn Wahshiyah's conclusions with those in current books on Egyptian Language, I was able to assess his accuracy in understanding hieroglyphic signs," says Dr El Daly.

"In particular I looked at the Egyptian Grammar of Sir Alan Gardiner which has a sign list at the end, it revealed that Ibn Wahshiyah understood perfectly well the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs."

Dr El Daly added: "Western culture misinterprets Islam because we think teaching before the Quran is shunned, which isn't the case. They valued history and assumed that Egypt was a land of science and wisdom and as such they wanted to learn their language to have access to such vast knowledge.

"Critically they did not, unlike the West, write history to fit with the religious ideas of the time, which makes their accounts more reliable. They were also keen on the universality of human history based on the unity of the origin of human beings and the diversity of their appearance and languages. Furthermore, there are likely to be many hidden manuscripts dotted round the world that could make a significant contribution to our understanding of the ancient world.

Dr Okasha El Daly is based in UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, one of the world's largest collections of artefacts covering thousands of years of ancient Egyptian prehistory and history. On Wednesday 6 October UCL launches the biggest university fundraising campaign, Advancing London's Global University - the Campaign for UCL, which will seek to raise £300 million over the coming decade, including £25 million to build a purpose built museum, the Panopticon, that will house UCL's collections of Egyptology, art and rare books in an environment that preserves them for all to see.

The Panopticon, which means 'all-visible' in Greek, will be unlike any other museum in the UK because the entire collection will be on display and publicly accessible. Other highlights will include works by Durer, Rembrandt, Turner and Constable; an unrivalled collection of John Flaxman's drawings and sculpture; the first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost and the George Orwell archives.

Notes to editors

'The missing millennium: ancient Egypt in Arabic medieval writing' will be published in December by UCL press.

For further information, please contact:

Judith H Moore
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University College London
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Email: Judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk