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Scholar: Muslims had insights into hieroglyphs

Egyptian disputes belief that invaders ignored ancient culture

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CAIRO, Egypt (Reuters) -- An Egyptian scholar based in London, England, has been delighting Arab audiences with his inquiries into the recondite world of medieval Muslims who wrote about ancient Egypt and had some insights into hieroglyphic writing.

Among Western scholars, who have led the field of Egyptology since Napoleon's 1798 campaign and Jean-Francois Champollion's groundbreaking work on hieroglyphics in the 1820s, the conventional wisdom has been that Arabs and Muslims dismissed ancient Egypt as an irrelevant pagan civilization.

The French set up Egypt's first organized archaeological administration, and Egyptians hardly figure among the pantheon of honored scholars who patched together our vast knowledge of ancient Egypt from tombs, temples, pyramids and inscriptions.

But Okasha El Daly, who lectures at University College London and holds an outreach post at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, says that a thousand years earlier, when Arab civilization was close to its height, Muslim scholars not only took an interest in ancient Egypt but also could interpret at least a few characters in the hieroglyphic script.

From libraries in Paris, France, and Istanbul, Turkey, he has dug up manuscripts that contain tables showing the phonetic value of hieroglyphs. Three Arab scholars between them correctly identified about 10 of the several dozen hieroglyphs that they thought made up a phonetic alphabet, he told Reuters.

But more importantly, at a time when medieval Europeans thought that hieroglyphs were just magical symbols, the Arab scholars grasped two of the basic principles -- that some signs represented sounds while others were determinatives, signs that conveyed the concept of the word pictorially.

That breakthrough was the work of Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Wahshiyah, a ninth and 10th century polymath who lived in what is now Iraq and wrote about everything from chemistry to the environment to agriculture and pre-Islamic cultures.

Manuscript translated in 1806

Ibn Wahshiyah's work on ancient writing systems, entitled the "Devotee's Yearning to Understand the Symbols of Pens," was translated into English and published in London in 1806, before Champollion began his work on the Rosetta Stone, the parallel text that enabled him to break the hieroglyphic code.

"The important thing is they realized that these hieroglyphs were not pictures, which was the prevailing view among classical writers," El Daly said in an interview.

"Ibn Wahshiya was the first scholar ever to talk about determinatives, describing them in a paragraph which any modern scholar would be proud of," he added.

Another of the scholars was the Muslim mystic Dhu al-Nun al-Misri, who grew up in the Upper Egyptian town of Akhmim in the early ninth century when most of the local inhabitants still spoke Coptic, the direct descendant of ancient Egyptian.

Champollion would not have been able to decipher hieroglyphics without his own knowledge of Coptic, which died out in daily life in Egypt in medieval times but survives in liturgy.

"The manuscript I have shows [al-Misri] getting the Coptic all correct. The demotic is some of it correct and the hieroglyphic is some of it correct too," El Daly said.

Demotic was a late shorthand form of hieroglyphs, used by scribes who did not have time to write letters in full.

Although hieroglyphics are thought to have died out after the Roman invasion of 30 BCE, demotic lingered longer. In Philae in the far south of Egypt, a piece of demotic graffiti has been dated to about 450 CE.

Lingering knowledge

El Daly says the Muslim scholars give no indication of where they obtained their knowledge but he does not rule out the possibility that some residual knowledge of the old writing systems survived in remote parts of Upper Egypt.

"What is wrong in Egyptology is that we assume that knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language completely died with the arrival of Islam," he added.

"I give two specific examples to show that the knowledge... was still alive when Muslims came to Egypt. The Muslims assumed that Egypt was a land of science and magic and wisdom, and as such they wanted to learn hieroglyphics to have access to such vast knowledge," he added.

El Daly agreed with the widespread view that in early modern times most Arabs and Muslims took little interest in ancient cultures but noted that scholars continued to copy the early Muslim manuscripts on ancient Egypt well into the 18th century.

He attributed the gap in knowledge to a compartmentalization of scholarship between Egyptologists and Arabists.

"It is a pity I am the first one to have done it because I have done it when I am fairly crippled and almost blind, but somebody has to start," he said. "I have only dealt with a few hundred manuscripts, but there are thousands out there."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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