Learning This Ancient Art/Language Is Now Easier than Ever

The Ancient Egyptians were a fascinating bunch.

Damla Ozdemir
5 min readJun 14, 2021

I recently watched Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, a Netflix documentary film about the team of Egyptian archaeologists that discovered a tomb dating back to the 25th century BCE. That number is not easy to comprehend. By comparison, blind poet Homer’s Iliad, considered the oldest existing piece of European literature, is thought to have been written in the 8th century BCE. There are 1700 years of history between these two creations of humanity. To put it further into perspective, we could go back 1700 years from our own 21st century, which would take us to the life of St. Augustine of Hippo — not a contemporary figure by any means! That is how old the Saqqara Tomb is.

Watching the documentary got me excited about the possibilities of this ancient writing system, with its combined logographic (symbols as whole words) and phonographic (symbols as sounds) elements.

One cool fact is that the Egyptians were quite fussy about their aesthetics — something that I can get behind — which was reflected in their hieroglyphs. The value that they placed on beauty definitely made the language harder to decipher for the poor Egyptologists, but it also beautified the tombs for the afterlife. They would reformat the order of the symbols that made up phrases or sentences so that they would simply look better. Every space was filled, and awkward shapes were avoided by the twisting of the more practical elements.

Hmmm… “The cat fell from a tree” does not look quite right. “The cat from fell a tree” looks much better!

This unique mixture of meaning and aesthetics was believed to have been created by the Egyptian god Thoth, and was aptly named “mdju netjer”, or “the words of the gods”. A more awe-inducing origin story than that of our our measly Latin alphabet, to be sure.

As I dove deeper into the resources that are available for exploring this art/language, I came across some fantastic resources that are made available by the magic of the internet. Just fifteen years ago, this kind of expertise would have been hard to find, but social media is now the Egyptologist’s playground.

Here are some of the best corners of the Web for this kind of stuff.

@howtoreadhieroglyphs — or More Accurately, the Wonderful Colleen Darnell

Dr. Darnell is one of the most colorful personalities that I have come across on the internet — and that is really saying something. You might have seen one of her two big videos on YouTube. I had come across “This Egyptologist Wears Vintage Every Day” and “Watching “The Mummy” With An Actual Egyptologist” many, many times on my recommended videos, but it took my getting fascinated by hieroglyphs to really appreciate her knowledge on everything. Combined with her like-minded — and also Egyptologist — husband, they are a true power couple.

On her Instagram, @howtoreadhieroglyphs, she goes in-depth into the details of archaeological remains from Ancient Egypt. My favorite thing about her approach is that she uses real-world examples — scattered with fictional depictions — to bring history to life. No textbooks or boring dictionaries here! Although, I am sure that she used a good number of those while getting her PhD.

Hieroglyphs Step by Step

This website is a great resource once you’ve acquired a taste for dissecting hieroglyphs, and want to dive deeper into the nitty gritty of the grammar. It turns out that, despite the mysticism and mystery of the symbols on a tomb wall, the foundations of the language are generally what you would expect. I guess ancient peoples also needed their personal pronouns, active participles, and possessive adjectives.

If you want to be thorough with your learning, this is a wonderful website that takes you step by step, like any good foreign language program.

Lectures on Ancient Egypt

Here are 15 videos that take you through an audio-visual tour of the land of the Pharaohs. This can serve as the perfect break after the mental strain of trying to learn hieroglyphs, step by step. From the Metropolitan to the Oriental Institute, from the University of Chicago to the Penn Museum, there are voices of expertise from all across the world, at your fingertips.

The subjects are so intriguing to me. I did not know that I needed to know about Death and Taxes in Ancient Egypt, yet here we are. How are they related? Only by listening to the wonderful lecture of Brian Muhs will I ever know.

Sacred Texts of Ancient Egypt

To top it all off, I would suggest taking a look at the rich literary history of this culture from a lens that you can better understand…English translations. This website compiles the sacred texts of a great many world traditions under one digital roof, all for free. It is an undeniable gem. As far as we are concerned, there are some exquisite texts depicting ancient magic, and one collection, the Pyramid Texts, which is considered to be the oldest Ancient Egyptian religious work.

For me, getting to know the culture and values of a language is a crucial part of the whole process of learning. So get ready to be slightly unsettled by some liturgies of funerary offerings.

⭐️ Follow for more content on the things I consume and think about! Especially if you would like to see some more historical rabbit holes⭐️

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Damla Ozdemir

Duke University ’23 w/ a degree in Linguistics 🏫 Worldschooling/Unschooling ✏️ 9 countries, 3 continents, 2 boarding schools, 10 languages 🏫