While people may view inscriptions in Greek or Latin as pretty, they still recognize their merit as text. Indeed, writings from ancient Greece and Rome are revered and considered classics of Western literature. Egyptian hieroglyphics, however, are often seen as mere decoration. Sometimes, the characters are literally used as wallpaper.
One reason is that schoolchildren and classicists alike have read Greek and Latin widely for centuries. But hieroglyphics and the stories they tell have remained accessible only to a handful of trained scholars. That’s one reason Penguin Classics has published Writings from Ancient Egypt in Great Britain (it will be available in the US in January), the first literary English translation of some of the texts that cover thousands of square feet of monuments and tomb walls.
Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, a fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University, tells Dalya Alberge at The Guardian that the ancient Egyptian writing is just as compelling and layered as those written by the Romans. “What will surprise people are the insights behind the well-known facade of ancient Egypt, behind the image that everyone has of the pharaohs, Tutankhamun’s mask and the pyramids,” Wilkinson says.
The selections include stories like “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” the text from the Tempest Stela and letters written around 1930 BC by a farmer named Heqanakht.
By the second century A.D., hieroglyphic script had been mainly replaced by Coptic, a Greek-based alphabet, according to Owen Jarus at LiveScience. But hieroglyphics were on the wain since Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., and Greek became the empire’s bureaucratic script. Humanity soon lost the ability to read hieroglyphics. That is until 1799 when French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone, which contained lines of the same text in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphics. It was the first solid clue to understanding the writing, but it still took French scholar Jean-François Champollion to unravel the language in the 1820s. To do so, he had to understand that hieroglyphics is a complex collection of symbols that represent a mixture of objects, ideas and sounds.
Before this new volume, the Egyptian Book of the Dead has been the most widely available text from ancient Egypt. While that collection is interesting and includes spells that give instructions to the dead on how to make it to the afterlife, it’s not easy reading. Unlike Greek myths or Roman epics, it does not offer non-academic readers much insight into daily Egyptian life or thought.
Wilkinson hopes his new volume will make the Egyptians accessible to modern readers for the first time. While many of the texts included have been translated previously, Wilkinson points out that the original translations took place over a hundred years ago, which make them stilted and difficult to read for today’s audience. He hopes that these new translations can convey the complexity, subtlety and poetry found in hieroglyphics.