The earliest known hieroglypic inscription has been dated to 3400 BC. The first appearanch of hieroglyphs is around the same time that Sumerican cuneiform was developed. Hieroglyphs may actually predate cuneiform, making it the oldest known writing system, but there is no firm evidence either way.
The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek word hiero-, meaning "sacred", and glyph, meaning "inscription".
It consisted of three kinds of characters: an alphabet supplemented by characters representing more than one letter, ideographs, and determinatives, which indicate the semantic category of a spelled-out word without indicating its precise meaning. Champollion had this to say about the system:
- It is a complex system, a writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word. Lettre to M. Dacier, September 27, 1822
After Alexander's conquest of Egypt, the dominance of Greeks (and then of the Romans after Julius Caesar's arrangement with Cleopatra) in Egyptian politics led, most likely, to a decrease in the prestige of hieroglyphs within Egypt. It appears that the complexity of late hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Use of hieroglyphs, especially fluent use, appears to have been a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from the foreign conquerors (and their local lackeys), as a kind of test of commitment, etc. This aspect may account for misleading quality of many surviving comments from Greek, Roman, and early Christian writers about hieroglyphs. By that time, hieroglyphs had become a secretive mystical knowledge, not the writing of everyday use. All were writing late in their period during which hieroglyphs were used.
The reading and writing of hieroglyphs was abandoned after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391CE by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. The last known inscription is from a temple far to the South not too long after 391. The most significant work on decyphering any of the hieroglyphs was done by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion beginning the very early 1800s. The discovery of the Rosetta stone by some of Napoleon's troops during the Egyptian invasion provided the critical information which allowed Champollion to make a nearly complete break into hieroglyphs by the 1830s. It was a major triumph for the young discipline of Egyptology.
Ptolemy written in Egyptian hieroglyphs
The letters in the above cartouche are:
|E E S|
though EE is considered a single letter and transliterated I or Y.