Hieroglyphs are fascinating. Developed millennia ago, they seem to have intrigued every new generation of learners. Who, over the course of these centuries, was able to unlock the meanings of the hieroglyphs?
For students: We hope this guide sharpens your reading skills and deepens your understanding.
For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from AramcoWorld, by teachers at any level.
Common Core Standards met in this lesson: RI9-10.2, RI9-10.5, RI9-10.8, L9-10.4 (see details below).

—The Editors
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—Julie Weiss


"Arab Translators of Egypt's Hieroglyphs: Skills for Reading Complicated Material"

Hieroglyphs are fascinating. Developed millennia ago, they seem to intrigue every new generation of learners. They also attract the attention of scholars, having done so for many centuries. "Arab Translators of Egypt's Hieroglyphs" asks who, over the course of these centuries, was able to unlock the meanings of the hieroglyphs? How much did they understand? And when did they understand it? Writer Tom Verde set out to answer these questions, and by reading his article, you should be able to answer them yourself.

But getting there from here (not having read the article) to there (being able to answer who knew what when) presents its own challenges. "Arab Translators of Egypt's Hieroglyphs" looks at the work of many people who lived and studied in different centuries, and understood varying aspects of the hieroglyphs. Covering such a long period of time, and so many different perspectives—not to mention the complexity of the hieroglyphs themselves—can make for challenging reading. These activities are here to help you learn from Verde's article. By the time you finish them, you will be able to:
  • Determine the central idea of the article and of each of its segments.
  • Identify and evaluate evidence provided to support a claim.
  • Determine the meaning of words based on roots and context clues.
  • Explain how hieroglyphs convey meaning and what made it so difficult to translate them.
Part I: The Introduction (Note: Each part of the article that the Classroom Guide indentifies begins with a large capital letter. There are five parts to the article.)

Just by reading the first five paragraphs of "Arab Translators of Egypt's Hieroglyphs," it is easy to see that the article covers a lot of ground. Part I (the first five pargraphs) begins with Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822, then reaches back to Ibn Wahshiyya al-Nabati in the 900s, and then jumps to Okasha El-Daly today. Why? To answer, write the three names on a sheet of paper, leaving space after each. Then read the five paragraphes comprising Part I. After each of the three names, write a sentence stating what was signficiant about each man. None of them lived during the time the Egyptian hieroglyphs were created. Why, then, are they part of the introduction of the article? To answer that question, find and highlight the place in these paragraphs where Verde states the thesis—the central idea of the article you are reading—and the questions he raises that he intends to answer. 

Part II: The History of the Hieroglyphs

Part I introduces the key questions on which the article focuses. What it does not do is tell anything about the history of hieroglyphs. That's what Part II does. To get oriented, write down the time span during which hieroglyphs were in their "glory." We know when there were made, but knowing what they meant is a different story. Diodorus Siculus and Plotnius, writing 400 years apart both figures out something essential about how hierglyphs work; they function as ideograms. If you don't know what an ideogram is, try looking at the word according to its most elemental parts: What does ideo sound like? What might it refer to? What does gram refer to? Think about those words that end in gram: telegram, sonogram, mammogram. Based on what you know about these words, what do you think gram refers to? What, then, is an ideogram? To find out if you are right, find the place in Part II where the author defines the term and gives and example of an ideogram.

So hieroglyphs are ideograms, but there's more to it than that. According to Tom Verde, they also function as logograms, phonograms and determinatives. Use information from the article to write a definition of each of these terms. Then, write a sentence explaining what you know so far about how hieroglyphs convey meaning.

Part III and IV: The Arab Translators

Part II moves ahead again, this time to the early years of Muslim expansion—the late 600s, 700s and early 800s CE. Who was Dhul-Nun al-Misri? Write his name and a sentence that explains who he was and why he is included in this article. What texts did he refer to? What evidence presented in the article suggests that he might very well have learned to understand the hieroglyphs? Do you find the evidence persuasive? Why or why not?

Part IV brings us back to Ibn Wahshiyya. Do you remember him from Part I? If not, go back—either to that section of the article or to the notes you made on that section—and refresh your memory. Part IV gives more detailed information about Ibn Wahshiyya's contribution to deciphering the hieroglyphs. Add a sentence or two summarizing his contribution to what you wrote about him earlier. What evidence does current-day scholar Okasha El-Daly provide to support the asstion that Ibn Wahshiyya made this contribution?

All well and good, but not everyone agrees with El-Daly's evaluation of Ibn-Wahshiyya's importance. Who disagrees and why? How does El-Daly respond? Where do you stand on the question? Why?

Part V: Conclusions

Part V brings the article to a close. Just how important was Ibn Wahshiyya in cracking the code of the hieroglyphs. To answer the question, look for waht evidence Tom Verde provides about those who followed Wahshiyya. Explain the limitations of their efforts. In the end, how does El-Daly sum up the value of his own work about Ibn Wahshiyya's contributions? Now what about your own summation? Write a one-paragraph summary of this article. Start with a sentence that states the article's thesis. Then write three or four sentences that lay out the argument that author Tom Verde makes. Finally, write a concluding sentence that summarizes your evaluation of the information you have read.



Common Core Standards met in this lesson:

 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

RI9-10.5 Analyze in detail how an author's ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).

RI9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

L9-10.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9–10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.