Who deciphered the Egyptian Hieroglyphic symbols?

History Contributor
Hieroglyphic symbols
Hieroglyphic carvings and paintings on the interior walls of an ancient egyptian temple in Dendera. © Mikhail Kokhanchikov | Dreamstime.com

Cracking the Egyptian Hieroglyphics code 

Where would ancient history be today if hieroglyphic symbols of Egypt hadn’t been deciphered? The most common answer would be that much of ancient history would have remained where it was at the end of the 18th century. This is because the common wisdom is that Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphic in the 1820s. And herein lies a grave mistake. The idea about who really deciphered these symbols needs to be corrected. In 2004 renowned Egyptologist Okasha El Day proved beyond doubt that Abu Bakr ibn Wahshiyya read the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols for the first time. And Abu Bakr was a scholar of the 10th century. He died in 930 or 935 CE. Therefore, he had ‘cracked the code’ a good millennium before the French scholar.

Life and times of  Abu Bakr Ibn Wahshiyya 

Abu Bakr Aḥmad ibn Ali Ibn Waḥshiyya made his name as a great agriculturalist, toxicologist, and alchemist. Along with these disciplines, he also had a keen interest in ancient scripts. And this interest led him to decipher many of the hieroglyphic symbols. inscribed on Egypt’s ancient monuments. According to Encyclopedia.com, he was born in Janbala in Iraq in 860 CE. And died in Baghdad in 935. He was a descendant of the Nabateans, an ancient tribe living in Iraq.

He researched astrology in Baghdad, at a time when the city was the centre for scientific learning. It may appear to be very surprising today, but like many alchemists of his times, Abu Bakr was also interested in magic, sorcery, and supernatural activities. Little more is known about this great scholar’s personal life.

Works of Abu Bakr and his reading of Hieroglyphic symbols 

Abu Bakr’s most important tome is titled Kitab al-Filaha al-Nabatiyya (Nabatean Agriculture). This apart, he wrote several books on other subjects also. And noted bibliographer of the late 10th century Ibn al-Nadim lists around 20 books in Abu Bakr’s authorship. These include a book titled The Book of Poison, which combines contemporary thoughts, knowledge, ideas, and information about pharmacology, magic, and astrology.

However, his most lasting contribution to the progress of historical knowledge was the cracking of the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols. For centuries this fact was buried in oblivion. Finally, a professor of UCL’s Institute of Archeology and renowned Egyptologist Okasha El Daly dug it up in 2004. He conducted extensive research on the study of writings of ancient Egypt and pointed out that Abu Bakr had been able to solve the mystery of many hieroglyphic symbols. Prof. Daly published his own findings in a book titled Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings.

Prof. Daly showed that Abu Bakr’s book Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham contained a list of hieroglyphic symbols and their meanings. Prof. Daly stunned the world by showing that a large number of the meanings of these symbols, which Abu Bakr listed and stated, were correct. It is now known that Abu Bakr was able to decipher as many as 93 cryptic symbols of different alphabets. These included alphabets of ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Semitic and Hellenistic languages.

Therefore, it is time to formally acknowledge that Abu Bakr ibn Washiyya deciphered, at least partially, the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)