The Riddle of the Sinai Sphinx

How turquoise miners at the margin of great civilizations invented the alphabet

The Riddle of the Sinai Sphinx
Hieroglyphs in the mastaba tomb of Seshem Nefer Theti at the Giza Pyramid complex/ Oliver Weiken via Getty Images/ New Lines

The ancient Egyptian name for the Red Sea was “Terraces of Turquoise,” and from my hotel near Ras Sedr in the Sinai peninsula I can understand why. Even the enormous cargo boats queuing for the Suez Canal cannot spoil the beauty of the bands of blue water stretching to the Egyptian mainland. It’s just 18 miles to Africa, yet there has always been a larger cultural gulf between the continent and this part of the Sinai, a gulf that was to result in an invention that transformed the way we communicate and, as such, the course of human history.

The northern side of this triangular peninsula, running along the Mediterranean, connecting the landmasses of Africa and Asia, has been a superhighway between continents since the very first exodus of hominids from Africa. Below the land bridge, now bisected by the Suez Canal, is desert, home only to Bedouins and those running Red Sea resorts. But for such an empty-seeming landscape, its history is rich: Moses led the children of Israel through this wilderness for 40 years; early Christians fled here to escape persecution, founding St. Catherine’s, one of the world’s oldest monasteries; earlier, adventurers from both East and West came here to seek their fortune in precious minerals.

Prophets, exiles, and speculators — the Sinai has long hosted outcasts.

Prophets, exiles, and speculators — the Sinai has long hosted outcasts. “Things not allowed by the Pharaoh were allowed in Sinai,” Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser tells me. For example, only a king was “beloved of the god” and could pass the love onto his people. “But in the Sinai people call themselves directly beloved of the gods … you see, the king is not there, it is a no-man’s land.”

We are walking to an ancient Egyptian temple first excavated over a century ago, an expedition led by the famous husband-and-wife team, William and Hilda Flinders Petrie. Since then, the site has hosted many more archaeologists, most recently French Egyptologist Pierre Tallet, my indispensable guide. After many years of excavating, Pierre has built up the necessary connections which smooth our way. We are greeted effusively by Bedouin leaders (“They watch a lot of Egyptian soaps,” Pierre whispers), and pile into the Jeeps that are necessary to get across the dunes to the mountains rising out of the golden sands. Sheikh Rabia, with a wide smile exhibiting a mouthful of gold teeth, revels in his role as dune driver. Hitching up his long white jalabiya, flicking one end of his white headscarf over his shoulder, he settles into it with pride, and the three of us are off on our rollercoaster ride. It’s an exhilarating start to the day, before the hike up the mountain guided by his equally colorful brother Salim.

The hike becomes more arduous as the sun rises, but the stunning landscape is enough to distract us. Layers of limestone and sandstone are delicately colored by different mineral content in different strata – pastel greens, yellows, mauves, blues and reds are seen in the scree and in beautiful formations along the cliff faces. The mountains all around us are weathered into immense formations, folded and sculpted in their layers, and as we go, Pierre points out the marks of ancient Egyptians all over the rocks. “The axe shape here, this is Pharaonic, and this is a bull from maybe 4,000 years ago.”

We eventually emerge on the top of the plateau at the gates of the temple, and as we stand, grateful for the wind this high up, I spot a piece of color on the sand: a tiny, turquoise-colored bead. “I think that is not Middle Kingdom,” Pierre tells me, on inspection, “But probably New Kingdom, but of course I can’t be sure.” I’m speechless, just looking between Pierre and the bead. I am holding in my hand something maybe 3,000 years old. It’s really tiny, less than a tenth of an inch across, and I have no idea how it came to be on the sand nor how it caught my eye, but I feel that the deity of the temple is welcoming me in. This is Hathor, goddess of joy, love, fertility, and music – truly the “goddess of Heaven,” as she’s also known.

The experienced archaeologist appreciates my wonder but is not overly impressed. “There were thousands of these offered to Hathor, for over one thousand years. Just scrape the sand and you will find more.” I do this throughout the day, treasure-hunting and planning to retrain as an archaeologist. I find plenty of fragments of different turquoise artifacts, but none is so perfect again. Later in the day our Bedouin guide offers me one of his own: slightly larger, slightly brighter, but chipped, and it turns out they collect them to sell to tourists. But due to antiquities smuggling laws, I cannot take it with me.

“It’s not turquoise, the stone, you understand, but faience,” Pierre adds, referring to the glazed ceramic. “For the Egyptians, it was not the stone that was important, but the color.” Turquoise is the color of the sky at dawn and as such came to be associated with rebirth; it was used for tombs so the dead could wake for the afterlife. And this is the reason for the temple and gifts to Hathor: A short walk across the ridge from the temple is a turquoise mine. From roughly 2000-1000 BCE, expeditions came here to plunder these riches and, as part of the ritual of appealing to the goddess of turquoise to grant them success, they left an extraordinary wealth of detailed information about these expeditions inscribed on immense stelae, stone slabs lining the paths to the shrine of Hathor.

Turquoise bead, Sinai, Egypt/ Lydia Wilson/ New Lines

Pierre talks me through them as we walk. On one stele there is a donkey, distinctive with its long ears, and a man riding this donkey. “You will never see any Egyptian riding a donkey in Egyptian art,” Pierre tells me. The man on a donkey is the brother of the Prince of Retjenu, a land to the East, and his name is Khebdeb. Khebdeb also appears on several monuments around the site, always on a donkey, each time listed as the head of a group of 20 workers, coming with the expedition of Egyptian workers every year for 20 years. This meeting of Egyptian and Asiatic culture was to have far-reaching consequences for future civilizations.

It’s not the only place where we see foreigners entering Egyptian records. Over the Red Sea from the Sinai, on the mainland of Egypt, mountainous deserts rise up steeply from the lush Nile Valley, forming burial places for the dead that overlook the valley of the living. One such place, Beni Hassan, houses spectacularly decorated tombs, huge rooms with floor-to-ceiling paintings on every part of the 5-meter-high walls, portraying scenes of everyday life to be resurrected in the afterlife along with the mummified bodies. There are people doing their exercises, hunting, playing music – even in bed with their spouses – all in glorious technicolor thanks to the preservation of the desert climate, with accompanying text interwoven with the images. And in one tomb, there is a line of people very unlike prototypical Egyptians – different beards, striped robes rather than the white loincloths of Egyptians, different skin tone and faces – and some, like Khebdeb, are sitting on donkeys.

“Here, Egyptians are actually describing Canaanites that go down to Egypt,” Orly Goldwasser had explained to me, “that reminds us very much of the biblical story of Jacob.” Accompanying text tells us that these 37 “Asiatics” (anyone from east of Egypt), are bringing the valuable kohl to protect eyes against the sun, a substance which provides such recognizable imagery in Egyptian art. They are portrayed with their families, bringing musical instruments and gifts of animals. This seems a friendly portrayal, but the Egyptians had more subtle ways of signaling their cultural norms through their writing.

The hieroglyphic system works in the same way as all other ancient systems of writing: Chinese, Mesopotamian and Mesoamerican. It seems that there are common problems all cultures faced when developing writing, which came to be solved in identical ways. First come pictures, but there are many things that cannot be expressed through pictures alone (as anyone trying to write a full message in emojis might discover). Occasionally you can say exactly what you want, but there are abstract ideas, many essential verbs (to be, for example), prepositions and adjectives that don’t lend themselves to pictorial representation. In each site of ancient writing came the same breakthrough.

“We like to call it the giant leap for mankind,” says Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures in the British Museum, “which is something rather simple, it could have occurred to a child, but nevertheless it is of great lasting significance.” This giant leap is the so-called Rebus principle: the jump from using a picture as a picture (a so-called logogram) to using it to portray a sound (or phonogram). For example, a picture of a duck can mean a duck, or it can mean the letter or sound it begins with.

“There’s a word ‘shega’ in Sumerian, which means ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘nice,’” Irving tells me. “The word for barley in Sumerian is pronounced like ‘sheh.’ Now, ‘ga’ means milk. So barley milk, ‘she-ga’, could be read as ‘beautiful’. And it’s nothing to do with barley or milk.” But then ambiguity arises: If a householder is doing an inventory, and happens to list barley and milk side by side, a reader might think they were describing their house as beautiful. All writing systems added further symbols, called classifiers or determinants, symbols which remain unspoken, to clarify whether you’re talking about food or beauty. And the classifiers give hints of cultural norms.

“It tells you a lot about the human mind,” said Orly: “it tells you about all the categorization of the world: What is animal, what is human, what is important? We have a classifier for bad, for evil. So you see the values, what is considered evil.” Disturbingly for Egyptians, the classifier for evil – a sparrow, eating the seeds in the fields – is attached to children (perhaps they were not always a blessing). “It opens a fantastic path into the mind of an ancient society that we could never reach otherwise,” said Orly.

The decisions in choosing a prototype for a category also gives clues as to status. The classifier for “man” is, unsurprisingly, a young, good-looking Egyptian male, standing up, dressed in white, with a neat beard. In contrast to this fine specimen of Egyptian manhood, the classifier for foreigner is someone to be feared and fought. The generic classifier is a stick, attached to all foreigners or foreign things.

There also are specific classifiers for specific types of foreigner. A Canaanite is signified by the hair and beard seen in the Beni Hassan murals. “He is bound on his knees, and he is a captive,” Orly notes, “so you see the preconceived idea of the Canaanites is of dangerous elements that we should fight against, we should be careful of, they are not our friends.” Despite the friendliness of the pictures themselves showing the Canaanites coming with their families bearing gifts, the writing accompanying this text shows a deeper prejudice of the culture: It’s better that these foreign elements are on their knees, hands bound behind them. Perhaps, even working alongside Egyptians, they were kept separate, a status that blocked their access to the Egyptian rituals and contributed to their great invention in the Sinai.

Hieroglyphs, Sinai, Egypt/ Lydia Wilson/ New Lines

After picking our way through the thicket of stelae at Hathor’s temple, Pierre and I pay our respects at her shrine, cut from living rock. When the Petries and their team first arrived at the site in 1905, this temple was carpeted with votive offerings, or rather fragments of them, for much had been smashed over the centuries by human and natural forces. There were glazed vases, bowls and cups, musical instruments, jewelry (made from many thousands of the small beads I had found on my arrival), and some small statues. One of these, a beautiful red sandstone sphinx, is now housed in the British Museum, its features slightly smudged by the thousands of years it has witnessed and the thousands of miles it has traveled, but the expression on its face still as visible and enigmatic as its more famous cousin, the sphinx at Giza. This one has also held a secret for millennia: On one side there are hieroglyphs, on the other, crude, simpler symbols. It took Egyptologist Alan Gardiner 10 years to crack the code after the Petries brought it from the Sinai, but finally, in 1916, he published the translation: “Beloved of Ba’alat” – a Semitic goddess, consort of the god Ba’al, who gave his name to Ba’albek. But this script did not function in the same way as the hieroglyphs on the Sphinx’s other flank. This was a true alphabet, having lost all its pictorial elements – the first we have ever discovered.

Hilda Petrie had first noticed these strange signs in a cave on this plateau, the mines that drew so many to this desolate spot in ancient times. Emerging into the sun from the precariously propped-up shrine in the rock, Pierre and I set out for these long-abandoned mines. We walk along the top of the plateau, and Pierre sketches out the landscape we’re looking at. “That is Jebel Tih,” he shows me, the site of the burning bush where Moses received the Ten Commandments just out of sight behind the mountain in the Book of Exodus. It makes sense, somehow. The wide valley separating us from the mountain is alien in its greenish rocks, like frozen sea formations: the “great and terrible wilderness” as reported in the Bible.

And so we arrive at the mines, the reason for the Canaanites’ presence and ours alike, and clamber down to peer at one particular wall. “Here we have one of the first As in history, and here we have one of the first Bs,” Pierre says, pointing out the symbols: literally alpha-bet – the very earliest known example we have. And here I am, 4,000 years later, tracing it with my finger, connecting to the men chipping out turquoise from rock all those millennia ago. It is rough, crude, even, especially in comparison to the beautiful and neat hieroglyphs in the temple a mile away; the symbols are far simpler and less even in size and spacing. But I quickly begin to notice some more familiar signs.

“Isn’t this a hieroglyph?” I ask Pierre, pointing to the zigzag that signifies water, or the letter N, or the determinant for anything connected with liquid. “Yes,” says Pierre, “In the Semitic language it was something like mayam,” and with time, bits and pieces got knocked off the ends of this long symbol, leaving us with our letter M, a direct descendent of the hieroglyph for water, or N.

This shift in sound value from N to M gave the first clue in piecing together the authors of this graffiti: they spoke a Semitic dialect. We know there was a language barrier between the Egyptians and these people from the East thanks to a stela listing “interpreters for the princes.” What Orly’s research has shown is that these miners were also illiterate in hieroglyphs: This new system seen on the walls of caves and the side of a tiny sphinx clearly drew visually on the hieroglyphs the miners saw around them, but without any understanding of how they functioned.

Orly gives many reasons to justify her claim of illiteracy. Egyptian writing can go in many directions, but there are rules within this: the symbols with faces, such as animals and humans, always face the beginning of the sentence. For a beginner, this is often counter-intuitive; there is a sense that these figures have their back to the direction of travel. “Students in my beginner classes almost always try the ‘Canaanite direction’ as the first option for tackling a row of hieroglyphs,” Orly has written, showing that the beginner, whether in a classroom in Tel Aviv in 2020 or in a cave in Sinai four millennia ago, makes the same assumptions. But for someone literate in hieroglyphs, such as Orly, you see the characters clearly marching backwards along a sentence, in every single instance of this script. Then there is the conflation of hieroglyphs an amateur cannot distinguish, and the change in sound values already noted. Orly concludes: “Not a single rule of the Egyptian writing system is complied with.”

But far from being a setback, their ignorance of an established and sophisticated system actually enabled this radical breakthrough: a far simpler system, using phonograms only, was born. But why here, and at this moment in history? Here matters get more speculative, though for Orly it is obvious, colored by her own less-than-ideal experiences of the Sinai. “The rare combination of desert isolation, strong religious urge, and the excessive ‘writing to the gods’ in pictures all around may have created a unique timing and the right conditions for a great mind to break a new path.” That is, the meeting of two cultures in such isolation led directly to rich innovation. (William Petrie, by contrast, was more favorably disposed toward the wilderness. “I would sooner go with my Sinai friends than travel in most countries of Europe,” he wrote.)

Perhaps more was lost in the adoption of the alphabet than we realize.

As we take our leave I, too, feel this tug of the seemingly empty vastness that has witnessed so much history, and is filled with invocations to goddesses in two scripts, one more beautiful, one more enduring. Yet in a neat coda of the history of human communication, the use of the alphabet in creating digital methods has been the cause of the reintroduction of pictorial elements: emojis. Punctuating our messages yet remaining unspoken, we are returning to the ancient systems of using classifiers to add meaning and nuance. Perhaps more was lost in the adoption of the alphabet than we realize.

The afterlife of this invention is as phenomenal as the breakthrough itself. Although it took a good few centuries to catch on, this early alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Virtually every alphabet in the world (the 20th century inventions from the Far East are an exception) trace their origin to this mine’s wall in the Sinai. From Cyrillic to Latin to Arabic, the letter forms are descended from these crude symbols scratched on the wall, themselves drawing on the hieroglyphs around them. Whenever we write, we make shapes that link us back to the writing of the pharaohs.

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