My family and I are at the British Museum as part of our recent vacation to London. The Egyptian Rosetta Stone takes center stage on the ground floor.
Visitors surround the black rock tablet: 4 feet tall, 2 feet wide. The upper slab is inscribed in ancient hieroglyphs, the middle, less ancient, the bottom, Greek. Once the Rosetta was “discovered” in 1799, the enigmatic language was finally solved.
That opened the door wide open to interpret the secrets of the Pharaohs. Some 3800 years ago, to communicate, to record events, the Egyptian elite relied on 800 (!) signs and pictures.
Try ordering something on Amazon with this many signs.
The Egyptian scribes were the privileged few; they were holy, almost godly. They doodled and drew symbols while the illiterate masses built the pyramids under the desert sun.
No afternoon tea back then.
This monopoly of the language would have continued unabated if it were not for a few Canaanite miners from the Sinai Desert. In the Bible, Canaan is described as the promised Land of Israel, a pledge God had made to Abraham. In actuality, Canaan was part of lower Levant – stretching from southern Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, to Lebanon, Israel, Sinai Peninsula.
The Canaanites had a love-hate relationship with the Egyptians to the south. The Canaanites were good tradesmen. They were good with numbers. And they worked in Sinai’s turquoise mines. The turquoise stone was the most precious in the Ancient World and was prized by the Pharaohs.
So, the Canaanites, holed up in the mines for months, with nothing to watch on NetFlix, and unable to order pizza, decided to interpret the hieroglyphs etched in the rock slabs.
They were not an educated bunch, according to Orly Goldwasser, a professor of Egyptology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. But what they wanted most was to communicate with their bosses in Egypt without having to carve and chisel hundreds of pictures and symbols, many of which they had no clue about.
So, they started to abstract the pictures into sounds. The word for “house” was no longer a series of obscure images, but a simple picture of a square – the 4 walls.
The word for “ox,” a pack animal, was produced with only one picture and then its sound, in Hebrew, ALP, became the letter Aleph in the alphabet.
The letter “r” was represented by a sign shaped like the human head, ras being the Semitic word for “head.”
The Hebrews, the ancient people of Canaan, along with the Phoenicians to the north, further developed and simplified the language. 800 symbols had become fewer than 30.
Talk about getting rid of excess fat.
But this revolutionary invention lay dormant for hundreds of years. The Egyptian snobbish elite weren’t ready to ride into the sunset just yet.
Until the Greeks stepped in. Then the Romans came. Then the rest of the late-comers. People communicated. Trade flourished. Ideas blossomed.
And the rest is history.
I leave the Rosetta Stone exhibit and head to the museum’s inviting restaurant. The entire coffee and pastry menu fits on half a page, not an entire wall.
All thanks to a bunch of dusty Canaanite men in the turquoise mines.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com