Learn the ABCs of Egypt to give your soul wings

100 Hieroglyphs: Think Like an Egyptian - Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide
August 19, 2005

In the 1980s, the American pop group The Bangles urged us to Walk Like an Egyptian . Now Cambridge University Egyptologist Barry Kemp wants us to "think like an Egyptian", a feat that requires more mental than physical agility. In 100 Hieroglyphs: Think Like an Egyptian , Kemp uses 100 hieroglyphs as a springboard for discussion of a range of topics, from what the Egyptians ate to the features of their landscape and the social structures that shaped their lives. This clever premise works well, resulting in two or three-page sections that can be dipped into and read independently or in order.

But to what extent can we slip into the mind of someone who lived in such a distant time and place? Few ancient Egyptians would have known these hieroglyphs. Estimates suggest that only 2 to 5 per cent of the population could read and write, and education was the preserve of a male elite, who were responsible for almost all the surviving papyri and inscriptions. Although more people might have recognised some hieroglyphic symbols, Kemp's selection does not reflect what an average Egyptian would have been able to read or even identify.

Some hieroglyphs are so abstract that it is difficult to know what they represent (such as the so-called Djed-pillar that means "stability"), and the appearance of others recalls a prehistoric world that predated even the pyramids. Still other signs are simply mundane - a loaf of bread or grains of sand - but what they reveal is not. Representations of humans and animals were closely observed, and life events such as childbirth touch on a complex of ideas about human birth and spiritual rebirth. The hieroglyph for "mummy", which was also used to write words for "statue" and "sleep", has more dimensions than Kemp touches on, and sexually explicit hieroglyphs have been left out (such as the semi-erect penis used to write "in the presence of", among other things). But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise enjoyable and informative volume.

It is a common misconception that hieroglyphs are a rebus-like form of picture writing, but the links between what a hieroglyph represents, what it means and what words it was used to write are tenuous at best. Hieroglyphs were an effective writing system for a long-lasting language, no more logical or illogical than our own alphabet. Exactly how this writing system worked is the subject of Janice Kamrin's Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide , the latest "teach yourself" guide to ancient Egyptian writing. The book, which is aimed at committed Egyptophiles, is a series of lessons and exercises that take readers from an elementary knowledge of the Egyptian "alphabet" all the way to narrative inscriptions on temple walls in Egypt. Appendices offer keys to the exercises and lists of the hieroglyphic signs and vocabulary encountered in the book.

The practicality of this "practical guide" is questionable. A heavy hardback about ancient Egyptian is not the first thing most people would pack for a day out at their local museum or a holiday in Egypt. Although great care has been lavished on the layout to give readers space to fill in the exercises, the budding Egyptologist might prefer to scribble answers in a notebook. Care has also been taken to highlight illustrations in different colours, helping the reader distinguish blocks of hieroglyphic texts. This is a good idea in principle because hieroglyphs are often oriented in several ways or squeezed into unlikely places. Unfortunately, the poor quality of the photographs is not helped by the colour additions. It is also frustrating that many illustrations are not fully described or identified, making it difficult for readers to find out more about the scenes and objects represented.

Reading directly from the ancient originals is a satisfying experience, however, and that is the appeal of books such as Kamrin's. It is still perfectly possible to gain an Egyptology degree without ever seeing, much less reading, an ancient object or monument, and readers who persevere through the vocabulary and exercises here can take pride in identifying cartouches, names and titles if they visit Egypt or a local museum collection. They will then have attained a level of literacy far beyond that of almost every ancient Egyptian.

Even the most perfect knowledge of grammar and vocabulary will not tell us what the Egyptians thought or how they lived. The best we can do is glimpse between the meeting points of language, art and archaeology, and that is the ancient Egypt that Kemp tries to show us: an ancient Egypt where fractions never quite added up, but where souls had wings.

Christina Riggs is curator of Egyptology, The Manchester Museum, Manchester University.

100 Hieroglyphs: Think Like an Egyptian

Author - Barry Kemp
Publisher - Granta Books
Pages - 256
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 86207 658 8

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