How can you learn to read hieroglyphics


An animated font

The hieroglyphs are a script of incredible beauty. Hardly any ancient script triggers such an enigmatic magic in the viewer. These magical signs seem to speak to us even if we cannot decipher and read them. The basics of this writing are skilfully simplified representations of reality.

The hieroglyphs are an animated script. In addition to a seated man, a closed mouth or an angled arm, numerous animals populate the hieroglyphic texts. A proud goose strides to the right, a small chick stretches its beak into the air, a hare rests stretched out or an owl looks directly at the viewer with its dark eyes. These living signs arouse curiosity to read and understand them.

Sacred hollows

For the Egyptians themselves, the hieroglyphs were the "medu-netscher", the words of God. Our current expression "hieroglyphs" comes from the Greek and means "sacred hollows". What is behind these scriptures?

Hieroglyphs were mainly used in the context of rituals and are therefore a decorative script. In contrast, if something should be recorded quickly, the scribes in ancient Egypt did not use the hieroglyphs. They wrote in hieratic, a kind of cursive hieroglyphic script.

In a direct comparison of the two scripts, one can still recognize the hieroglyphs in the hieratic script. But the hieroglyphic symbols are simplified to lines and groups of lines.

Objects and images can no longer be recognized in the hieratic script. Hieratic documents are also handwritten and therefore even more difficult to decipher than hieroglyphic texts.

Lettering art

As a relief, painted or carved into stone - hieroglyphs are true masterpieces. In hardly any other language is the transition between writing and art so fluid. Hieroglyphs are perfectly shaped symbols.

Signs that stylize the object with just a few lines. The Egyptians already managed in their writing what many artists later tried to develop over the years: to capture the characteristic of a being in just a few strokes. The animal representations reproduce the characteristic nature of the animal with simple accuracy.

Magic characters

In ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics had sacred and magical meanings. According to the ancient Egyptians, one could wipe out a person's life just by wiping out a person's name. For example, the names of Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh, were later removed from almost all temples.

And the extermination of Hatshepsut almost worked too. If archaeologists hadn't found her name in the top corners of some of the columns, we might not know today that Hatshepsut once ruled the land on the Nile as pharaoh.

Inventor of writing?

Whether the Egyptians invented writing in themselves or borrowed it from a neighboring culture cannot be answered with certainty to this day. However, the hieroglyphs were further developed on the Nile. Because the images that make up the hieroglyphs come from his cultural environment.

Egyptian culture was only able to develop through the invention of writing. Without written records, no state system of this size could have emerged on the Nile. The names and places of the extensive national territory had to be noted and administered by a central authority. Without the possibility of communicating with one another in writing, the Egyptian Empire would not have been governable.

The scribes

Very few Egyptians were able to use the hieroglyphic script at that time. Perhaps just one to five percent of the entire population were literate. The writing profession is praised in Egyptian writings: "Become a writer, then your limbs will remain smooth and your hands will remain tender."

Schreiber belonged to the top of Egyptian society. The office was usually transferred from father to son. The writing students then faced a tough training. They had to learn 700 characters and manage the step from the first clumsy drawings to the stylistically mature hieroglyphs.

You can still find ancient Egyptian notes on which you can understand these attempts at writing and drawing.

Spelling mistakes in graves and on frescoes

In fact, there are always spelling mistakes in the neat, hieroglyphic wall scripts. Very few craftsmen who drove the hieroglyphs into the stone could read and write themselves. They had to rely on what the scribes gave them.

The scribes were not always satisfied with their first draft, but made improvements. This sometimes resulted in different contour lines on top of each other. In the case of unclear contours, the craftsman could not pay attention to the context of the sentence due to a lack of writing skills, but had to rely entirely on the preliminary drawings. Mistakes crept into the hieroglyphic texts.


The hieroglyphic writing knows no vowels, because these are not written down. The texts consist of a series of consonants. The exact pronunciation of the ancient Egyptian language can therefore no longer be determined today. However, there is some evidence of how the Egyptians may have spoken in the times of the Pharaohs.

For one, there are other ancient languages ​​in which vowels were recorded. They can provide clues to ancient Egyptian pronunciation. Similar to how one can deduce the pronunciation of the English "walkman" from the French "le walkman", one can also reconstruct the ancient Egyptian pronunciation from ancient written finds. Names of Egyptian rulers were recorded in other ancient scripts as so-called vocalized transcriptions, similar to the French "le walkman".

Another reference to the pronunciation is the Coptic. Coptic is the latest of all ancient Egyptian language forms. The priests of the Coptic Church hold their masses in this late form of the ancient Egyptian language to this day. Coptic also played a decisive role in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.

Fall and decryption of the characters

Knowledge of the ancient Egyptian script was lost for almost 1000 years. With the fall of the Pharaonic Empire, the knowledge of hieroglyphic writing had also disappeared.

When scholars and artists in Napoleon's military association traveled to Egypt for the first time in 1798 to document the past high culture, they were able to trace and describe what they saw there - but they could not decipher or understand the ancient Egyptian culture. The hieroglyphs seemed to speak to the scholars, but they did not reveal the content of the text.

The "Déscription de l'Egypte" - the description of Egypt - emerged from the travel reports of the scholars and artists of that time. With this publication an Egyptomania broke out in Europe and multitudes of tourists set out to get to know the ancient high culture.

The Frenchman Jean-François Champollion was also infected by Egyptomania - and was later the first to decipher the hieroglyphs.