The ancient Egyptians used a style of pictographic writing called "Heiroglyphs". These Heiroglyphs were not like the Western alphabet--they were not letters, but were based on sounds. Symbols for ideas and determinitives were also commonly used, and helped to elaborate on and make sense of what was being written about.
Egyptian hieroglyphics is the sencond oldest form of writing (after Sumerian Cuneiform), and date from around 3100 B.C.E., the time of the very first Pharaohs. Most ancient Egyptians were illiterate, with only scribes and members of the extreme upper classes being able to read. Writing in Egypt most likely started to keep the affairs of the king in order.
Hieroglyphs was not the only style of writing in use in Egypt. Hieroglyphs was used for formal occasions, such as writings on tombs and other religious texts. Hieratic is a cursive and short-hand version of Hieroglyphs first used around the Fifth Dynasty. It was commonly used on papyrus scrolls for "less permanent" documents, as well as for training young scribes for writing with Hieroglyphs. Demotic was the style used for everyday writings, such as business transactions and commercial writings, and was most commonly written on papyrus scrolls. Coptic was used in Egypt for almost everything (although Hieroglyphis were still used for very special things and occasions) during and after the Ptolemac Dynasty, and it was essentially the Greek alphabet with a few additional letters added for sounds that did not exist in Greek. During the Christian Era Coptic fully replaced all other Egyptian writing systems, and was itself replaced by Arabic during the Islamic invasions of the 7th century CE.
For almost 1500 years the meaning of the heiroglyphs was lost to us. During the early part of the first millenium the Christian Church attempted to erase all evidence of the "Pagan religion" that the Egyptians practised. The old temples were turned into churches or destroyed, and it was forbidden to speak the language. As such, we do not fully know how to pronounce the language today, although we can make educated guesses. The last hieroglyphic writings were made in 394 C.E. In 1799, a French soldier discovered a stone sticking out of the desert that contained three different styles of writing on it: Heiroglyphics, demotic, and Greek. Greek was still a studied language, so by comparing the heiroglyphics to the Greek a translation of the heiroglyphics was possible within a few years.
For information on papyrus, click HERE
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