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Volume 34, Number 4July/August 1983

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The Meroitic Mystery

From Nubia—the land of Kush—a language lost in history

Written and photographed by Krzysztof Grzymski

The Sudan, with a written history beginning as early as the third millennium B.C., is archeologically one of the richest countries in the world. Its monuments include Islamic mosques, Christian monasteries, Egyptian fortresses and temples - and the towns and pyramids of a culture called Kushitic, oldest of the indigenous Sudanese empires.

The Kushitic culture, also called Nubian, came to prominence near Kerma, south of the Third Cataract, and reached its peak in the 16th century B.C. Then the Egyptians occupied Kush as far south as the Fourth Cataract, and governed it through an official called the "Son of Kush"; one of the pharaoh's ranking officials, he had to supply gold from the Nubian gold mines.

By 1000 B.C., Kush had won its independence, and by 750 B.C., under King Piye (or Piankhi), not only ruled Egypt, but became, in Egyptian history, the 25th - or "Kushitic" - Dynasty.

Spanning more than 1000 years, the Kushitic civilization had two important centers: Napata, an important religious center, and Meroe - which gave its name to the whole country. Modern scholars, indeed, tend to speak about the "Meroitic Kingdom" and "Meroitic culture," rather than using the Egyptian name "Kush," since "Kush" or "Kushitic" may also be applied to earlier Sudanese civilizations.

Thanks to the exhibition organized in 1979 in the Brooklyn Museum, and later presented in Seattle, New Orleans and The Hague (See Aramco World, July-August 1979), the hitherto unknown art of the Meroites is now better known. But the Meroites' contributions to civilization didn't stop there. They also developed a system of writing.

Apart from Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Meroitic writing system was the oldest in Africa. It was also in many ways superior to the Egyptian system. The people of Meroe reduced the multitude of hieroglyphic signs to 23 basic signs - an alphabet. Again, unlike the Egyptian system, this alphabet also included vowel sounds, a great improvement over the hieroglyphic system, as well as including a sign marking the division of words, an uncommon feature in ancient writing.

There are two kinds of Meroitic script: hieroglyphs, apparently adapted from Egypt's system, and the so-called "cursive" or demotic writing, which seems to be a distinctive Meroitic invention, though it may have been influenced by the Egyptian demotic.

The first person to publish Meroitic inscriptions was the French architect Gau, who visited Nubia in 1819, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that serious interest in this mysterious script was aroused; at that time the German scholar Lepsius published a large number of Meroitic inscriptions in a major work called Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopen.

Although Lepsius predicted that decipherment would be easy, he was totally wrong. In 1982 -139 years after his prediction - scholars were still baffled by the Meroitic mystery. Even distinguished scholars have gone astray seeking to decipher Meroitic. Two eminent scholars, one in 1887 and another in 1910, published articles in which they claimed to have deciphered Meroitic language, only to be proven wrong; and one Egyptologist, in an otherwise enlightening article, read the inscriptions in the wrong direction, apparently because Meroitic hieroglyphs, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, must be read in the direction in which the figures face.

In 1909, Francis Llewellyn Griffith, an Egyptologist from Oxford University, recorded one breakthrough while with the University of Pennsylvania Expedition to Nubia. Led by two British archeologists -Leonard Woolley, later immortalized by his excavations in Ur, and David Randall-MacIver, who later gained fame for his work in Italy and Zimbabwe - this expedition found a number of Meroitic funerary-offering tables and stelae. By careful analysis, Griffith was able to identify 23 signs of the Meroitic cursive script.

His next step was to compare them with Meroitic hieroglyphic characters - known mostly from "the inscriptions written on temple walls and columns - and with an unpublished funerary inscription in hieroglyphics that Lepsius had brought to Berlin. This was important because funerary texts usually repeated certain formulae at the beginning and end of each inscription. When Griffith compared what he had with Lepsius's find, he noticed that his cursive texts began invariably with the following cursive signs: (see graphics in original text )

and that the Berlin hieroglyphic inscription also began with two words: (see graphics in original text )

In comparing the two clusters, Griffith immediately realized that both the number of hieroglyphic signs and their order exactly paralleled the cursive text; by analyzing other groups of words, he was able to develop a list of cursive characters and their hieroglyphic equivalents - in sum, a short dictionary. This equivalency of individual signs as well as whole words also proved that he dealt with two different forms of script - but only one language.

Griffith's next step was to try and identify the phonetic value of each sign. He was helped in this task by another inscription discovered by Lepsius at Wad ben Naga, a site near Meroe. This inscription included the names of a king and a queen, written in both Egyptian and in Meroitic hieroglyphs, and Griffith, moving step by step, was able to compile a list of signs and their phonetic values. Noting a number of borrowings from Egyptian, he successfully identified several priestly and administrative titles, such as "envoy" or "ambassador," from the Meroitic "apote" or Egyptian "wpwTj."

Unfortunately, the number of loan words recognizable in Meroitic was quite small, as was the number of Meroitic words surviving in Nubian, a language still spoken in the middle Nile Valley. So, after Griffith died in 1934, this field of study was largely neglected for over 20 years.

In the 50’s, however, the international campaign to safeguard the monuments of Nubia reawakened interest in the Meroitic problem. The thrill of working on a still undeciphered language, in fact, fostered a sudden growth of Meroistics; in 1980, during a Meroitic conference in Berlin, some 80 scholars presented papers dealing with various aspects of Meroitic art, archeology and language. Today - in addition to traditional centers of Meroitic research like France, East Germany, Canada and The Sudan - representatives from the U.S.A., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and European countries are making substantial efforts in the field of Meroitic research.

What is needed, of course, is another Rosetta Stone, the bilingual tablet in three scripts found in Egypt; it enabled scholars to match a known language - Greek - with the undecipherable hieroglyphics, and the demotic script of Egypt. Professor Peter Shinnie, who for many years co-directed a joint Calgary-Khartoum expedition to Meroe, hopes that such an inscription will be found among the ruins of the ancient capital city. Another group of researchers has programmed an IBM computer in Paris to analyze all texts, as far as this can be done with an undeciphered language, and a professor in Berlin recently published a Meroitic grammar.

Until now, however, the solution to the Meroitic Mystery has eluded all the experts. Although the Meroitic scripts can be read, the language they are written in is still unknown, and until a related language is discovered, or an extensive bilingual inscription, progress will be slow. The challenge of the language of Meroe is still open .

Krzysztof Grzymski, an archeologist, was horn in Poland and has degrees from universities in Warsaw and Calgary.

This article appeared on pages 22-23 of the July/August 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1983 images.