BAR 36:02, Mar/Apr 2010
How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs
To the Asiatics, as they were called, the lush Nile Delta, with its open marshlands rich with fish and fowl, was a veritable Garden of Eden. From earliest times, Canaanites and other Asiatics would come and settle here. Indeed, this is the background of the Biblical story of the famine in Canaan that led to Jacob’s descent into Egypt (Genesis 46:1–7).
By the beginning of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (a few years after 2000 B.C.E.), the pressure of immigrants on the eastern Delta was so strong that the Egyptian authorities built a series of forts at strategic points to “repel the Asiatics,” as the story of Sinuhe tells us.1
More than a century later, however, Egyptian policy toward the Asiatics changed. Instead of trying to prevent them from coming in, the Egyptians cultivated close relations with strong Canaanite city-states on the Mediterranean coast and allowed select Asiatic populations to settle in the eastern Delta. The last of the great pharaohs of the XIIth Dynasty, Amenemhet III (c. 1853–1808 B.C.E.) and Amenemhet IV (c. 1808–1799 B.C.E.), even established a new town for them.
The XIIth Dynasty was followed by the much weaker XIIIth Dynasty. Thousands of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon and Canaan then flooded into the eastern Delta, creating the large Canaanite settlement that would become Avaris (modern Tell el-Daba), the capital of the famous Hyksos. The Hyksos were Canaanites who seized power from the Egyptian pharaohs and ruled all Egypt for more than a hundred years (c. 1638–1530 B.C.E.).
But before this, at the end of the XIIth Dynasty during the reigns of Amenemhet III and Amenemhet IV, Egypt was at the height of its power. A lively trade was conducted with Nubia to the south. Imports from the Levant entered Egypt by land and sea. Gold and precious stones were quarried in the eastern desert. And a large-scale enterprise was regularly conducted to search for turquoise in the high mountains of southern Sinai, at a site today called Serabit el-Khadem.
On this mountain deep in the Sinai desert, prey to merciless winds and scorching heat, are the remains of an ancient Egyptian temple to the goddess Hathor, “The Mistress of Turquoise.” Founded by Sesostris I, the second king of the XIIth Dynasty (c. 1953–1908 B.C.E.), the temple continued in existence, with some interruptions, until the end of the New Kingdom—for about 800 years.
Building on the work of Sesostris I, pharaohs Amenemhet III and Amenemhet IV exploited Serabit’s rich turquoise mines. The precious blue stone was a much-sought-after luxury item in royal circles. No fewer than 28 expeditions to the Serabit turquoise mines are recorded during the reign of Amenemhet III alone.
To ensure the blessing of the gods, the earlier temple was dramatically enlarged by Amenemhet III and Amenemhet IV. Shrines and numerous commemorative stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions were erected on the path leading to the temple, especially honoring Hathor, the goddess of turquoise.
Where did all the people who engraved these inscriptions come from? Most were probably from the Delta. The turquoise expeditions to Serabit brought together high officials, scribes, priests, architects, physicians, magicians, scorpion charmers, interpreters, caravan leaders, donkey drivers, miners, builders, soldiers and sailors.
And many members of the expeditions left inscriptions in the temple precinct. Some contain only a name or a drawing. All sought the blessing of the gods for success in their dangerous enterprise—as well as for a safe journey home. These records also tell us of the hundreds of miners and stone workers active during the mining seasons, as well as those who were engaged in the building projects at the temple.
Were these miners and workmen Egyptian? Canaanite? Both?
Egyptian society at this time was relatively tolerant, so foreigners were quickly accepted and integrated into Egyptian society, as long as they were not political enemies of the state. Some high officials who left inscriptions at the Serabit temple present themselves as Egyptians, yet they also mention that they are Asiatic in origin or have an Asiatic mother. Despite this ancestry, they consider themselves Egyptian. Only Asiatics who came from outside Egypt are identified as such. Canaanites from Egypt who arrived with the Egyptian expeditions from the Delta were not labeled Canaanites in the inscriptions; they are simply regarded as Egyptians.
The expedition lists at Serabit also contain the names of many “interpreters.” The presence of these dragomans is strong evidence that some language barrier must have existed. The hundreds of recorded donkeys that served as pack animals were probably driven by Asiatic caravan experts, who would be able to direct turquoise shipments back to Egypt. And no doubt Asiatic soldiers in Egyptian service escorted these caravans. The bottom line: There were surely many more Canaanites at Serabit than are listed as such in the hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site.
One final note: Nowhere in the many inscriptions at the site is there a mention of slaves. Canaanites, yes; slaves, no.
It was here at Serabit, I believe, that the alphabet was invented—by Canaanites!
The invention of the alphabet ushered in what was probably the most profound media revolution in history. Earlier writing systems, like Egyptian hieroglyphic and Mesopotamian cuneiform with its curious wedge-shaped characters, each required a knowledge of hundreds of signs. To write or even to read a hieroglyphic or cuneiform text required familiarity with these signs and the complex rules that governed their use.
By contrast, an alphabetic writing system uses fewer than 30 signs, and people need only a few relatively simple reading rules that associate these signs with sounds.
This great invention had far-reaching social and cultural implications. With the alphabet, writing broke out of the “golden cage” of the professional scribal world. Writing was no longer their monopoly. When many more members of society could learn to read (and write), access to information and knowledge was no longer as limited as it had been. Alphabetic writing eventually gave many more people control over their lives and enabled larger segments of the population to take a more active role in the cultural and administrative affairs of their respective societies.
But how was it done?
Although, as I believe, the alphabet was invented by Canaanites, we still owe a significant debt to the Egyptians, for it was Egyptian hieroglyphs that provided the trigger and the means that made the invention of the alphabet possible.
To understand how this came about, we must first examine some very odd Serabit inscriptions—just a few dozen that markedly differ from the hundreds of hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site. The credit for first noticing one of these unusual inscriptions in Serabit goes to Hilda Petrie, wife of the famous Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who was leading an archaeological expedition to Serabit in 1905. It was she who called attention to some fallen stones on the ground by one of the mines, bearing several awkward signs that seemed not to be real hieroglyphs.
Then more of these inscriptions began turning up on rocks by the turquoise mines, and even inside the mines. A few came from the desert roads leading to the temple. From the temple precinct itself, however, only two small statues and a sphinx bore inscriptions in this strange new script.
Petrie studied these crude inscriptions and observed that they appeared to be a kind of imitation of hieroglyphic signs. Yet the repertoire of signs was very small. Petrie ingeniously identified these awkward signs as an alphabetic script, different from the Egyptian hieroglyphic system with its hundreds of signs. Yet Petrie was unable to read these strange inscriptions.
In 1916, some ten years later, Sir Alan Gardiner, the famous English Egyptologist, noticed a group of four signs that was frequently repeated in these unusual inscriptions. Gardiner correctly identified the repetitive group of signs as a series of four letters in an alphabetic script that represented a word in a Canaanite language: b-‘-l-t, vocalized as Baalat, “the Mistress.” Gardiner suggested that Baalat was the Canaanite appellation for Hathor, the goddess of the turquoise mines. Were these inscriptions carved by Canaanite workmen?
An important key to the decipherment was a unique bilingual inscription. It is inscribed on a small sphinx from the temple and features a short inscription in what appears to be parallel texts in Egyptian and in the new script.
The Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription on the sphinx reads:
“The beloved of Hathor, the mistress of turquoise.”
The text in the strange script, now identified as a Canaanite text, reads:
m-’-h-(b) B-‘-l-[t], “The beloved of Baalat.”
Each of the critical letters in the word Baalat is a picture—a house, an eye, an ox goad and a cross.
Gardiner correctly saw that each pictograph has a single acrophonic value: The picture stands not for the depicted word but only for its initial sound. Thus the pictograph bêt, “house,” drawn as the four walls of a dwelling represents only the initial consonant b. Baalat is written as shown in the drawing, in the blue highlighted areas (although the final tav is not legible in line A).
This ingenious principle is at the root of all of our alphabetic systems. Each sign in this script stands for one consonant in the language. (Vowels were not represented. The representation of vowels came later, and in different ways in different alphabetic systems.)
The alphabet was invented in this way by Canaanites at Serabit in the Middle Bronze Age, in the middle of the 19th century B.C.E., probably during the reign of Amenemhet III of the XIIth Dynasty.
We are reasonably confident about the place of the invention because almost all of the examples of the new script—which we may now identify by the name scholars call it, Proto-Sinaitic—come from this one site.2
We are also confident about the time of the invention because there are some very specific connections between the Middle Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphs in Sinai and the new script.3 There is one hieroglyph that appears to have a special use, with very few exceptions, only in Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions in the Sinai during the Middle Kingdom. We might call this the “Sinai Hieroglyph.” The sign looks like a striding man with bent, upraised arms. In the Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions in Sinai, this sign is a logogram; that is, it stands for an entire word, not just part of a word. It probably means something like “foreman.” This hieroglyph appears dozens of times in Egyptian Middle Kingdom inscriptions at Serabit. (Its phonetic reading in Egyptian in this specific use in Sinai, however, is unknown.) This hieroglyph is rare even in later New Kingdom Egyptian inscriptions at Serabit. And it hardly ever appears anywhere else in Egypt.4
A letter in the new Proto-Sinaitic alphabet looks very much like this Middle Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyph. The Proto-Sinaitic sign almost certainly stems directly from the Egyptian hieroglyph.
The Canaanites at Serabit probably connected this pictogram, which they saw everywhere at the site, with a loud call or order emitted by an official when he raised his hands to assemble the people, a typical shout such as Hoy! (also known in Biblical Hebrew),5 which may be the origin of the letter h in the Proto-Sinaitic script.
If I am correct that the first alphabetic script was invented at Serabit el-Khadem in the reign of Amenemhet III (mid-19th century B.C.E.), I believe I can plausibly explain the process by which it was invented—not by sophisticated scribes, but by comparatively unlettered Asiatic workers.
The inventors at Serabit clearly used models of hieroglyphs taken from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom inscriptions around them. The Proto-Sinaitic pictograms were adapted from the hieroglyphic pictograms and appear mostly in the area of the turquoise mines and the roads leading to the mines.
It may seem strange, but I believe the inventors of the alphabet were illiterate—that is, they could not read Egyptian with its hundreds of hieroglyphic signs. Why do I think so? The letters in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions are very crude. They are not the same size. They are not written in a single direction: Some are written left to right, others right to left and some from top to bottom. This suggests that the writers had mastered neither Egyptian hieroglyphic nor any other complex, rule-governed script.
For these illiterate Canaanites the pictorial meanings of the new letters were paramount. The iconic meaning of the hieroglyphs (what they actually pictured) served as an important mnemonic tool for the Canaanite adopters. The iconic meaning of the hieroglyphs was so important that even today, when the Hebrew letters have lost all iconic connection to the old pictorial models (we can’t recognize what the letters are supposed to picture), most letters are still named after the old pictures!
The modern Hebrew letter aleph is the ’alp, the word for “ox”; the letter bêt is the bayt or “house”; the letter ‘ayin, “eye,” is the name of the old pictorial letter in Proto-Canaanite script (see drawings near the end of the article). But looking at a modern Hebrew aleph, bêt or ‘ayin, we can no longer see the ox, house or eye (nor are these original pictograms evident in the Latin letters A or B).
Mostly by taking Egyptian hieroglyphs as pictorial models, the Canaanite inventors of the alphabet used the small selection of pictograms they chose in a completely new way, with no reference to (and no knowledge of) the correct reading of the signs in Egyptian!
Confirming their ignorance of the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Canaanite inventors of the alphabet would sometimes conflate two different hieroglyphic pictograms. For example, Egyptian hieroglyphic distinguishes two different kinds of snakes. One sign pictures a cobra generally; the other depicts a horned viper. These different pictograms are signs for different sounds in Egyptian, the first for the sound “DG” and for the second, “F.” These two snakes are never confused in Egyptian writing. The Canaanite inventors of the alphabet, however, failed to note the distinction and simply conflated the two snakes into a single Proto-Sinaitic sign that they used for the letter “N,” from their word for “snake,” probably naḥash.
For a few letters, the Canaanites took as models not hieroglyphs, but important objects from their own world.6 For example, a drawing of the palm of the hand represents “K,” kaf in Canaanite; there is no pictogram of a palm of the hand in Egyptian hieroglyphic. Similarly with the Proto-Sinaitic sign depicting a composite bow; there is no comparable sign in Egyptian. In Proto-Sinaitic it stands for “SH”; the word for a composite bow in Canaanite was ŝa-na-nu-ma or the like.7 These examples represent independent creativity on the part of the Canaanite inventors of the alphabet and tend to confirm that they took the Egyptian hieroglyphic signs idiosyncratically and without regard to their function or value in Egyptian.
We might be even more specific about who the inventors of the alphabet were: We may even know their names. They apparently emerged from among the circle of one Khebeded. He is mentioned in several Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site and is referred to as the “Brother of the Ruler of Retenu.” Retenu was the area between Gaza and the Baqaa in Lebanon. “Ruler of Retenu” was the title carried by rulers in this area of the Levant. When Asiatic rulers migrated to the eastern Delta, it seems that they kept the title “Ruler of Retenu.” It is clear that this “Khebeded, brother of the Ruler of Retenu” is a Canaanite. In one stela at Serabit (Stela 112), Khebeded pictures himself proudly riding on a donkey with an attendant both fore and aft. No Egyptian would picture himself riding on a donkey. On another stela at the site, Khebeded is pictured with the typical Canaanite “mushroom” hair dress. From the references in these stelae, it appears that Khebeded was involved with Egyptian expeditions to Serabit for more than a decade. He is clearly the highest-ranking Canaanite who left a hieroglyphic inscription in the Serabit temple. He was probably a leader of the Canaanite workforce.
The quality of the hieroglyphs in an inscription that Khebeded added on a stela (he only added his inscription to an existing stela with much better hieroglyphs) in the temple is very poor. His inscription on Stela 92 would have been an embarrassment for an educated Egyptian scribe (see images later in the article).8 Hieroglyphic signs of different sizes are crammed next to each other, and vacant spaces appear at the end of the line. But the hieroglyphic pictograms in Stela 92 bear a remarkable resemblance to the signs in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. Perhaps most striking is the pictogram for “house,” in the Egyptian hieroglyphic text of Stela 92. The resemblance to the house in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions representing bêt is unmistakable and is very different from the original Egyptian hieroglyph.
The only Egyptian inscriptions where the square house is consistently used come from this area of Sinai and from the Middle Kingdom. And it appears unequivocally several times in Stela 92, which is probably a hieroglyphic Egyptian text made by Canaanites who were familiar with the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. They confused the picture of their own “house”-letter with the correct Egyptian hieroglyph!
The Proto-Sinaitic alphabet may well have been invented in the circle of the Canaanite Khebeded and his followers, many of whose names appear in his stela.
John Darnell, who discovered a two-line inscription in the Wadi el-Hôl (near Thebes) similar to the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit (see sidebar “The Wadi el-Hôl Inscription: Earlier than Serabit?“), has suggested that the alphabet must have been invented in Egypt in a location with “a plurality of cultural contexts.”9 But isn’t “a plurality of contexts” an exact description of Serabit in the Middle Kingdom?
It was indeed a world unto itself. The workers in the mines spent long days and nights in the isolated desert, secluded in their camps. The difficult, dangerous work and the long expeditions no doubt cost lives. The Canaanites watched the Egyptians praying, worshiping and writing to the gods. When a name was written, it remained with the god forever. When a blessing was sought, it remained with the god long after the moment of prayer.
The isolation, fear, pressure and the sudden appreciation of “eternalizing the name” would naturally lead the Canaanites to try to write their own calls to their own gods (Baalat and El) in their own language.10
Was it the cognitively seductive nature of the hieroglyphic script, with its hundreds of little pictures, that made some Canaanite workers at Serabit feel that they could “almost read” and that gave them the feeling of “Yes, we can”?
As already noted, the vast majority of the inscriptions in this alphabet come from the Serabit area—more than 30 of them. Only one has come from elsewhere in Egypt (the two-line Wadi el-Hôl inscription). Some few, very short inscriptions (most only a couple of letters) have been found in Canaan dating to the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age (c. 1750–1200 B.C.E).
The alphabet was not an instant success—at least based on the existing examples. One thing is certain: It did not travel fast. Only rarely did a Canaanite caravaneer or soldier bring the alphabet elsewhere. For a half millennium after its invention, this alphabet was rarely used—at least as far as it is reflected in the archaeological record.
As the Semitist Seth Sanders has observed: “In this earliest phase, the alphabet is a quick and dirty tool of foreign workers, scrawled in desolate places: the mines, the gush of terror. There is no high culture there ... The alphabet’s first documented use boils down to the most basic and touching form of communication—‘I was here.’”11
The Middle Kingdom in Egypt was followed by what is known as the Hyksos period (the XVth–XVIIth dynasties: 17th–16th centuries B.C.E.). In the Hyksos period, Canaanites ruled Egypt. (This period is sometimes cited as a model for Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, as described in Genesis 37–47.) As noted earlier, the Hyksos capital at Tell el-Daba has been intensively excavated for almost 40 years by Viennese archaeologist Manfred Bietak and his team. Not a single Proto-Sinaitic inscription has been found there. The Canaanite rulers of Avaris would never adopt such an undeveloped, “primitive,” low-class script for their own records. When they presented themselves in inscriptions (which are scarce in Avaris), it was naturally in prestigious Egyptian hieroglyphs.
As the alphabetic script wandered with Canaanite caravans, it piously retained its pictorial forms for hundreds of years. People learned the letters from one another orally. For this kind of use, the pictorial nature of the signs was very important. It was easy to learn the alphabet simply by memorizing the pictures. The first sound of the picture was the letter. To remember the alphabet, all one had to do was memorize the pictures. The rest followed from that: The “name” of the letter leads one to a picture, which helps to recreate the form of the letter: In the margin at right you can see the ox-shaped head of the letter aleph, the box-shaped house (bêt) for “B,” the hand-like kaf for “K,” wavy lines representing mayim (“water”) or “M,” the snake-like naḥash for “N,” the eye for ‘ayin and the head (rosh) for “R.”
During this early period (until the 13th–12th centuries) the script continued to be used in a very restricted way, mainly to record personal and divine names. No administration, institution or scribal school was involved. No official power-holders would have an interest in sustaining or developing this subversive fringe invention of the nomads. That is probably why individual re-creations of the signs differ so widely, even though they always preserved their fundamental iconicity.
During the 12th century B.C.E., the dominant civilizations that had cultivated the complex hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts in Egypt and Mesopotamia fell out of power. New peoples—Israelites, Phoenicians, Moabites and Arameans—appeared in Canaan and the Levant. For these new people, emerging on the periphery of the old great cultures, it was only natural to write in the fringe-born system of writing that traveled in their own milieu. It suited their languages, their social needs and their newly established identities.
Sometime during this period of change, the new script must have become institutionalized, maybe even promulgated in schools. As a result, the script quickly underwent a process of linearization and abstraction.12 More experienced writers could relinquish the pictorial link between the letter and its name. At this stage, the “script of the caravans” lost one of its greater assets: its mnemonic power. From this moment on (12th–11th centuries B.C.E.), the user of the script would have to learn a list of arbitrary signs. It would be difficult if not impossible to find the pictures of a bull, a head or a snake in the script.
During the ninth century B.C.E., the alphabet became the official script of the entire Near East. With its adoption—first for Greek, and later for Latin—the alphabetic script, invented in the milieu of Canaanite miners in the remote Sinai desert, became the script of Western civilization.
The alphabet was invented only once. All alphabetic scripts derive from this original one, which we may call the Serabit alphabetic script.
The invention of the alphabet altered, in the long run, the lives of millions of people for millennia. It was not invented by learned scribes in schools, however. It was the child of a few great minds—perhaps one—who lived among the Canaanites working in the turquoise mines of Sinai. Egyptian hieroglyphs, however, made this invention possible. Through the invention of the alphabet, the long-lost ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs secretively live within our own script to this day.
I would like to thank Professors Joseph Naveh and Benjamin Sass, both of whom contributed greatly to my understanding of various aspects of ancient epigraphy treated in this article. Thanks also to Dan Elharrar of the Hebrew University for his invaluable technical assistance in preparing images for this article.