The word hieroglyph literally means "sacred carvings". The Egyptians first used hieroglyphs exclusively for inscriptions carved or painted on temple walls. This form of pictorial writing was also used on tombs, sheets of papyrus, wooden boards covered with a stucco wash, potsherds and fragments of limestone.
Hieroglyphics are an original form of writing out of which all other forms have evolved. Two of the newer forms were called hieratic and demotic. Hieratic was a simplified form of hieroglyphics used for administrative and business purposes, as well as for literary, scientific and religious texts. Demotic, a Greek word meaning "popular script", was in general use for the daily requirements of the society. In the third century A.D., hieroglyphic writing began to be replaced by Coptic, a form of Greek writing. The last hieroglyphic text was written at the Temple of Philae in A.D. 450. The spoken Egyptian language was superseded by Arabic in the Middle Ages.
Hieroglyphs and their cursive equivalents
It was not until the nineteenth century that Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered. Several people had been trying to crack the code when the brilliant young Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion discovered the secret to this ancient writing. A decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, on March 27, 196 B.C. was inscribed on the Rosetta Stone in three scripts: hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. After Thomas Young deciphered the demotic text, Champollion used the information to break the code of the hieroglyphic text in 1822. In 1828, he published the famous "Précis" that marked the first real breakthrough in reading hieroglyphs.
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Hieroglyphs are written in columns or in horizontal lines. They are generally read from right to left and from top to bottom. Sometimes, the script is read from left to right. The reader can determine the orientation by looking at the animal and human figures -- they face towards the beginning of the text. For example: if a figure faces right, the text should be read from right to left.
Words and names written in hieroglyphs were believed to have magical powers. For this reason, funeral texts and the names of the deceased were written on coffins and tomb walls. This meant that the gods would hear the prayers and the individuals would be protected from harm. A name written in hieroglyphs embodied a person's identity. If it was obliterated, the person's identity was lost, along with his or her means to continue living in the afterworld. The names of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun and Queen Hatshepsut, for example, were removed from temple walls by their successors.