UCL Press release
3 October 2004
Hieroglyphics cracked 1,000 years earlier than thought
Western scholars were not the first to decipher the ancient language of the
pharaohs, according to a new book that will be published later this year by
a UCL researcher.
Dr Okasha El Daly of UCL's Institute of Archaeology will reveal that Arabic
scholars not only took a keen interest in ancient Egypt but also correctly
interpreted hieroglyphics in the ninth century AD - almost 1,000 years
earlier than previously thought.
It has long been thought that Jean-Francois Champollion was the first person
to crack hieroglyphics in 1822 using newly discovered Egyptian antiquities
such as the Rosetta stone. But fresh analysis of manuscripts tucked away in
long forgotten collections scattered across the globe prove that Arabic
scholars got there first.
Dr Okasha El Daly, of UCL's Institute of Archaeology, explains:
"For two and a half centuries the study of Egyptology has been dominated by
a Euro-centric view, which has virtually ignored over a thousand years of
Arabic scholarship and enquiry encouraged by Islam.
"Prior to Napoleonic times little was known in the West about the ancient
civilisation of Egypt except what had been recorded in the Bible. It was
assumed that the world of the pharaohs had long since been forgotten by
Egyptians, who were thought to have been incorporated into the expanding
Islamic world by the seventh century.
"But this overhasty conclusion ignores the vast contribution of medieval
Arabic scholars and others between the seventh and 16th centuries. In
reality a huge corpus of medieval writing by both scholars and ordinary
people exists that dates from long before the earliest European Renaissance.
Analysis reveals that not only did Moslems have a deep interest in the study
of Ancient Egypt, they could also correctly decipher hieroglyphic script."
Following the Roman invasion of Egypt in 30 BC the use of hieroglyphics
began to die out with the last known writing in the fifth century AD.
While Western medieval commentators believed that hieroglyphics were symbols
each representing a single concept Dr El Daly has shown that Arab scholars
grasped the fundamental principle that hieroglyphics could represent sounds
as well as ideas.
Using his unique expertise in both Egyptology and medieval Arabic writers,
Dr El Daly began a seven year investigation of Arabic writing on ancient
"The manuscripts were scattered worldwide in private as well as public
collections and were mostly not catalogued. Even when they were, they were
often wrongly classified so I had to go through each one individually - it
is not like researching in modern books with an index which you can check
for relevant information," says Dr El Daly.
"A specialist in only Arabic or Islamic studies reading these manuscripts
would fail to grasp their significance to Egyptology. Conversely
Egyptologists think that Arabs and Moslems had nothing useful to say about
ancient Egypt, so there wasn't any need to look at manuscripts that were
mainly the domain of scholars within the disciplines of Arabic/Oriental
The breakthrough in Dr El Daly's research came from analysis of the work of
Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah, a ninth century alchemist. Ibn Wahshiyah's
work on ancient writing systems showed that he was able to correctly
decipher many hieroglyphic signs. Being an alchemist not a linguist, his
primary interest was to identify the phonetic value and meaning of
hieroglyphic signs with the aim of accessing the ancient Egyptian scientific
knowledge inscribed in hieroglyphs.
"By comparing Ibn Wahshiyah's conclusions with those in current books on
Egyptian Language, I was able to assess his accuracy in understanding
hieroglyphic signs," says Dr El Daly.
"In particular I looked at the Egyptian Grammar of Sir Alan Gardiner which
has a sign list at the end, it revealed that Ibn Wahshiyah understood
perfectly well the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs."
Dr El Daly added: "Western culture misinterprets Islam because we think
teaching before the Quran is shunned, which isn't the case. They valued
history and assumed that Egypt was a land of science and wisdom and as such
they wanted to learn their language to have access to such vast knowledge.
"Critically they did not, unlike the West, write history to fit with the
religious ideas of the time, which makes their accounts more reliable. They
were also keen on the universality of human history based on the unity of
the origin of human beings and the diversity of their appearance and
languages. Furthermore, there are likely to be many hidden manuscripts
dotted round the world that could make a significant contribution to our
understanding of the ancient world.
Dr Okasha El Daly is based in UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology,
one of the world's largest collections of artefacts covering thousands of
years of ancient Egyptian prehistory and history. On Wednesday 6 October UCL
launches the biggest university fundraising campaign, Advancing London's
Global University - the Campaign for UCL, which will seek to raise £300
million over the coming decade, including £25 million to build a purpose
built museum, the Panopticon, that will house UCL's collections of
Egyptology, art and rare books in an environment that preserves them for all
The Panopticon, which means 'all-visible' in Greek, will be unlike any other
museum in the UK because the entire collection will be on display and
publicly accessible. Other highlights will include works by Durer,
Rembrandt, Turner and Constable; an unrivalled collection of John Flaxman's
drawings and sculpture; the first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost and the
George Orwell archives.
(end of press release)
The short report in the Observer failed to mention that Ibn Wahishiyah is
one of several medieval Arabic scholars that I used for my research which
covered much wider issues. My main concern when I started almost a decade
ago, was to establish whether Moslems/Arabs ever too serious interest in the
study of Ancient Egypt and if so, what interested them most. The result was
beyond my expectations with several profound findings only one of them was
the issue of the correct decipherment of hieroglyphs. The most important
finding is simply the fact that they were so interested in anything ancient
Egyptian that they left behind countless number of studies still in
manuscript form waiting serious attention . I only scratched the surface.
One minor finding was that they reached a correct understanding of the
nature and function of hieroglyphic, that is not to say they understood
a whole text in hieroglyphs but they correctly identified the phonetic
value of several letters having understood in the first place that these
were not just pretty pictures. Moreover, in the case of Ibn Wahishiyah,
he understood that some hieroglyphic signs served as what he called
"determinatives" which is exactly what we call them in our modern
Egyptology studies. Please also get a copy of the following book
and read my chapter:
El Daly, O. (2003) Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. In P. Ucko and
T. Champion (eds) The Wisdom of Egypt: changing visions through ages. UCL
Press. pp. 40-63.
You should be able to get a copy from the library or order one from your
My main book based on my PhD these, will be published by the same press,
(University College London) UCL Press as Egyptology: The Missing
Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings.
Hopefully it will be ready by early December 2004.
However here is a brief answer to some of your questions:
Ibn Wahishiya was an Iraqi alchemist who lived at the end of the
9th century and early 10th century, he wrote several books claiming
that he only translated them from ancient sources (dating to before Islam)
and among his books are ones on agriculture, poisons, magic..etc. But
one of his most remarkable is this book on Decipherment of Ancient
Scripts including ancient Egyptians. This book was translated by
Hammer into English and published in London 1806, 14 years
before Champollion announced his famous theory of deciphering hieroglyphs.
Ibn Wahishiya may have never seen Rosetta stone, but there are dozen
monuments in Egypt which had several languages/scripts inscribed on them, in
fact now in Cairo Museum there is an identical but complete one like Rosetta
stone. Even in Tehran Museum there is a famous statue of King Darius the
Great (5th century BC) which has hieroglyphic text as well as 3 more
languages. So objects likes these would have easily been available to Arab
That he knew the correct phonetic (sound) value of many Egyptian hieroglyphs
is clear from his book but he went further understanding the function of
what we call in language studies "determinatives".
All these and the plates from unpublished Arabic manuscripts will be in my
forthcoming book mentioned above.
One of the plates already published in the above cited chapter of mine,
represents a medieval Arab attempt (by an Iraqi alchemist called
Abu Al-Qasim Al-Iraqi 14th century) to copy an ancient Egyptian
stela and it is clear that the copyist did very well considering that his
main interest is gaining alchemical knowledge since he was an
alchemist. But anybody who can read Egyptian hieroglyphs can easily
read most of this stela which has the name of King Amenemhat II, of the
12th Dynasty who reigned between 1922-1878 BCE.
Okasha El Daly
Dr. Okasha El Daly
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology