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Egyptian Hieroglyphs: An Ancient Writing System

The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system is believed to date back to 3300 BC. Egyptians used hieroglyphs for the next 3,500 years and it was suggested by archaeological discoveries that the Egyptian hieroglyphs may be the oldest writing form.

There is currently a debate over whether Sumerian or Egyptian is an older writing system.

Hieroglyphic Writing

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek “hieros” (sacred) plus “glypho” (inscriptions) and Clement of Alexandria was the first person to use it. The ancient¬†Egyptians¬†thought that writing was created by the God, Thoth, and called their hieroglyphic script “mdwt ntr” (God’s words).

Hieroglyphs were written on tablets, temple and papyrus reed, the reeds were flattened, dried, and stuck together to make pages. The majority of the people of Ancient Egypt did not read or write. The scribes and priests were the ones who did all the writing.

Some of the characteristics of the writing system are:

  • Hieroglyphs were written from top to bottom, in long lines from right to left, without spaces or punctuation.
  • The hieroglyphic system had between 700 and 800 basic symbols, called¬†glyphs.
  • Hieroglyphic writing is phonetic.
  • When spelling in hieroglyphs, silent letters are left out and not given symbols.
  • Hieroglyphs only symbolize consonants and avoid vowels.
  • Determinatives are soundless hieroglyphs written at the end of words to give context and clue to the meaning.

Due to its complexities, it took years for scribes to learn the Ancient Egyptian language.

Hieroglyphic Numbers

The Egyptian numerical system was based on units of ten, like the modern system of numbering. But the Egyptians used different images to represent different units of ten instead of positions of numbers to define their value.

The hieroglyphs demonstrated each unit of ten by drawing it as many times as was necessary.


Image Credit: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive


Learning about the ancient Egyptians and their hieroglyphics will provide you with a great insight into Egypt and the legacy of the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics can be transformed and translated today, as can hieratic.

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