Oriental Institute

Not as simple as ABC. Before the invention of the alphabet, the two dominant writing systems in the Near East were Egyptian hieroglyphics (shown here) and Mesopotamian cuneiform script (see next photo). Both originated in picture writing: small drawings that intitially represented the objects depicted—for example, the head of an ox for cattle. Over time, however, the pictures became more stylized and, in the case of cuneiform, eventually came to have almost no resemblance to the objects they had once depicted.

The function of hieroglyphs and cuneiform signs also evolved over time. Cuneiform signs represented syllables and words, but (except for Ugaritic) not what we would consider letters. Hieroglyphs, for their part, were of four kinds. Some represented objects or words; a second type represented syllables involving several consonants; a third type represented only one consonant—what we would colloquially call a letter. A fourth type, called determinatives (a type shared with cuneiform), had no phonetic value, but classified an accompanying word (for example, whether a following name was the name of a city or a people). Although the Egyptians had what we could call letters, it never occurred to conservative Egyptian scribes to use their single-consonant signs as an alphabet.

The example of hieroglyphic writing shown here occupies the bottom portion of a wooden stele (standing monument) dating to the tenth-eighth centuries B.C.E. The stele is divided in half vertically; at top, far left and far right, a priest named Harsiese, looking in two directions, makes offerings to the gods Rehorakhty and Atum, respectively. Interestingly, the text below the scene is written in different directions, with each half following the orientation of Harsiese’s gaze in the scene above. The texts contain brief genealogies of Harsiese and praises for the gods.