Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: M. Betrò - D. Salvoldi (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Old Egyptian (2600 [3150]-2100 B.C.)

It is the oldest phase of Egyptian language history. First inscriptions belong to the end of the Fourth millennium B.C. and they are only names and short labels. A grammar of this language can be constructed only based on documents starting from 2600 B.C., when texts started to be longer. The literature of this period consists in royal and private inscriptions, and starting from the 5th Dynasty, the famous Pyramids Texts.


Middle Egyptian (2100-1600 [4th cent. A.D.])

The classic phase of Egyptian language lasted for about 500 years, even if Middle Egyptian would be the classical language for hieroglyphic inscriptions until the 4th Century A.D. The rich literature of this period (Instructions, Autobiographies, Lamentations and narrative works) was introduced in schools and copied by generations of scribes; the Coffin Texts also belong to this period.


Late Egyptian (1600-7th cent. B.C.)

From 1600 B.C. Late Egyptian started to substitute Middle Egyptian as a spoken language. The full dignity of Late Egyptian as a literature language appeared only in the Amarna period (1350 B.C.). Even if it descends from Old and Middle Egyptian, this language has rather a different grammar. The most famous text of Late Egyptian Literature is the Aten Hymn written by king Akhenaten himself.


Egitto: area di diffusione della lingua e della scrittura

Although the languages used for international trade and diplomacy were Akkadian in the Late Bronze Age (Amarna letters), Aramaic in the Assyrian Period and Greek in the Hellenistic Period, the Egyptian language enjoyed a certain expansion as well. It spread out especially after the occupation of Syria-Palestine in the 18th Dynasty.Objects decorated with hieroglyphs have been found in many places in the Near East, especially in the coastal cities of Phoenicia, and from there to Western Mediterranean Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Assyria as war loot. These items don’t imply that the Egyptian language was known in these areas, except for a few diplomats and traders. Probably some local princes and dignitaries knew some Egyptian according to their desire to “Egyptianize” their fashion, customs and language. According to Nicolas Grimal, the rulers of Byblos could already write Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom. The presence of hieroglyphic inscriptions in Nubian temples are due to Egyptian pharaohs of the 18th and 19th Dynasties, but also to later local kings that wanted to imitate styles, models and characteristics of the Pharaonic kingship. It is clear how Egyptian culture, also expressed in its language, was a dominating model for the areas influenced by that civilisation. In Egyptian literature we can find some hints about knowledge of the Nile Valley language outside its borders:

-       “It was Amu-neneshi who welcomed me – he was Prince of the Upper Retjenu (= North Syria) -    and he told me: «You will feel comfortable with me and you will hear the language of Egypt»” (The adventures of Sinuhe, Middle Kingdom);

-       “The language of the people of Egypt is taught to the Nubians, and to the Syrians and alike to all kind of foreigners”, (Instructions of Ani, 18th Dynasty);

-       “The wind pushed me to the land of Alasya (= Cyprus). […] I greeted her [i.e. the Queen of Cyprus] and I said to the people who were beside her: «Is there anyone who knows the language of Egypt?». One of them said: «I do»”.

It is important to remember that Egyptian exportations, beyond of the ‘gust of life’ rhetoric, did not include only material goods (cloth, papyrus, precious metal works), but also people: priests, physicians, magicians. These three figures were not separated according to the Egyptian culture, and a physician used the magic formulas that he had learnt from the temple school.Except for the ‘colonial’ presence of Egypt in the Near East and Nubia and its administration, the Egyptian writing system was not used in functional contexts (hieroglyphic/hieratic/demotic writers of non-Egyptian origin) but in ritual-magic contexts, which involved the prestige of locals rulers or a simple “exotic” curiosity. In all the Mediterranean world we can therefore find scarabs, amulets and small statues with hieroglyphic inscriptions. These gifts or trade exchanges weren’t important only for the material value of the item (metal, precious stones or faience), but also for the spiritual value, huge, that they had. They could heal, protect, make rich or render fascinating their owners. According to the fame of Egyptian magicians, which would grow and become mythic after centuries and after the Roman conquest, these objects were precious and imitated. In Rome, starting from the Late Republic, Egyptian fashion began to prevail: hairdressing, jewels, dresses, mysterious cults entered the Italian Peninsula and produced a long-lasting culture of imitation and inspiration which will reach its peak with Emperor Hadrian: Egyptianized statues, obelisks with fancy inscriptions, and fake imitated hieroglyphics. The loot of antiquities had a great part in exporting Egyptian culture and writing systems, transferring to Rome, Italy and, in the Late Antiquity, to Constantinople, a massive number of sculptures, objects and obelisks.



Further information

  1. Bibliography
  2. Online resources