This Ph.D. project analyses the interpretations and reuses of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the medieval Arabic context, based on unpublished manuscripts dating from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries CE. The focus is on the genre of so-called alphabet books which sometimes include extensive lists with hieroglyphic characters. Furthermore, hieroglyphs appear in the broader context of occult literature. While the European reception of hieroglyphs has been widely analyzed, this project aims at presenting the respective Arabic perspective.


Depending on each source, the Egyptian script is used in various ways. The earliest extensive work dealing with the Egyptian script in Arabic dates back to the tenth century (Kitāb Shawq al-mustaḥām fī ma’rifat rumūz al-aqlāmThe Book of the Long Desired Fulfilled Knowledge of Occult Alphabets [Shawq]). Next to 83 alphabets, it includes a chapter with a list of signs with logographic explanations, grouped in four categories: celestial, living, botanical, and mineral objects. Other than has been suggested so far the Arabic ‘translations’ of the signs seem to result from various interpreting strategies: (1) A considerable group of explanations represent a still existing, more or less correctly transmitted knowledge of individual signs which is not directly linked to any known Greek or Latin sources. (2) The interpretation of further signs – hieroglyphs as well as other signs –  illustrates conjectures about the function of the old Egyptian script, commonly surpassing a simple image-iconic interpretation (ex.: the sign of a [vase] for the meaning ‘vase’). The relation between a sign and its Arabic rendering might for example be explained as metonymic (ex.: the sign of a [vase] for various liquid substance). (3) The interpretations of a third group of signs is conditioned by the occult context: The origin of all alchemical knowledge was believed to be in Egypt and the mysterious signs on the walls of the ruins supposedly concealed an antediluvian wisdom. The link to alchemy already represented by the order of the signs in the four groups is clarified by the inclusion of a number of alchemical signs into the list.

A different approach to hieroglyphs is used in alphabet books dating to the 13th to 16th century. These texts are transmitted under various titles and include mainly the same collection of alphabets and texts in differing order. The signs in these books are almost exclusively interpreted as phonograms and also the content of the textual passages varies greatly from the aforementioned work: The description of pagan rituals and a temple in the Shawq is here contrasted by a collection of citations from the Qur’an and sayings of the prophet (ḥadīth) as well as treatise about the history and superiority of the Arabic script. The signs of the alphabets are said to be revealed by God to the prophets. Hieroglyphs appear mainly in three alphabets, connected to three prophets who – according to Arabic historical accounts – all ruled over Egypt. The works are connected to the ‘science of letters’: focusing on their transformation into the Arabic script.

The usage of hieroglyphs ranges from simple décor to the interpretation as a form of picture-script, to substitution of Arabic letters and finally to a use as ‘secret script’ to encode an Arabic text. The recently propagated decipherment of the Egyptian writing system by medieval Arabic scholars is nevertheless not in accordance with the evidence.

This Ph.D. thesis is being written within the program of the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies (BerGSAS).