Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Daniele Salvoldi

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information



(2nd millennium B.C.-4th century A.D.)


The language of the Kushite empire from the 2nd millennium BC to the 4th century AD is commonly called Meroitic from the name of one of the royal cities, Meroe, located between the Fourth and Fifth cataracts of the Nile. It was not until the 3rd century B.C. that the language was written in cursive characters and, shortly thereafter, in hieroglyphic characters; both writing systems are partially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphic and Demotic.


Although the writing systems were deciphered in the early 20th century thanks to the efforts of Francis Llewellyn Griffith, most of the texts in this language remains largely unintelligible.


Linguistic debate

Although Griffith rightly believed that Meroitic had no filial connection with the languages of contemporary Nubia, in later years the debate focused (and to some extent still continues) on its linguistic classification: the Austrian philologist Ernst Zyhlarz (1890-1964) believed it to be an Afro-Asiatic language, like ancient Egyptian, while the German Fritz Hintze (1915-1993) argued it was a language in itself, like Etruscan and Basque. It was not until the new millennium that considerable progress was made by the French philologist Claude Rilly, who demonstrated, through a series of comparative studies in Eritrea and Sudan, that Meroitic was a Nilo-Saharan language, belonging to the Northern Sudanic Group, part of the Eastern Sudanic language family along with Nubian and Nara. Other scholars, however, including none less than Edouard Lipinski, hold onto the idea that Meroitic was an Afro-Asiatic language.


The language

Meroitic was an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Sumerian, and Hungarian, in which invariable suffixes were added in chains to a word; in the case of Meroitic there are several assimilation phenomena, making it difficult to distinguish the various suffixes. The subject of a sentence is always placed at the beginning, followed by an article or an adjective; the verb closes. There are no prepositions, but postpositions, with very rare prefixes.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Meroitic Cursive and Hieroglyphs

Further information

  1. Bibliography
  2. Online resources