Revealer of secrets

This is my review of Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners: The Revolutionary New Approach to Reading the Monuments by Bill Manley.

A visit to Egyptian temples where at least some hieroglyphics have survived the vandalism of fanatics from other religions is likely to kindle an interest in this subject. In a book that is attractively presented as you would expect from Thames and Hudson, but not too expensive since it is illustrated in black-and-white, Bill Manley succeeds in explaining the principles of hieroglyphics from scratch.

I have no idea how an expert would rate it, but I found it easy to grasp that many picture symbols in fact represent sounds: an owl is "m" and a ripple of water "n". You need to digest each principle before moving on to the next step, since Manley quickly introduces complications: 2 sound and then 3 sound signs, moving on the the "difficult to grasp" concept of "sound complements" which I found hard to understand as I was trying to go too fast. Then, there are the ideograms, or elements of "picture writing" such as the representation of the god Anubis as a dog lying on a shrine. Other symbols with a special sign added denote whole words, such as "mouth".

It is fascinating to realise that, whilst spoken Egyptian obviously had vowels, these were rarely written in the hieroglyphics, which in sense form "word skeletons" of consonants – like text speak! Also, hieroglyphics can be read in either direction, according to the direction in which the symbols are facing. Although knowledge of how to read this ancient script was lost for centuries, its similarities to Egyptian Coptic eventually provided the key to translating it.

If you do not wish to work systematically through the book, a good deal of enjoyment can be gained from browsing with a focus on lists of words and annotated diagrams which interpret inscriptions on famous monuments. What makes this book both distinctive and successful as an absorbing introduction is that the chapters are designed round a number of stelae – carvings – selected from monuments erected between 3000 and 1100 BC. Avoiding the risk of becoming a dry grammar, Manley takes care to include an explanation of Egyptian culture along with the language instruction.

An experienced teacher, the author is clever in his approach, since skimming through the book whets your appetite to make the effort to get to grips with the detail and so obtain the satisfaction of getting more out of viewing monuments in the future.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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