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BAR 36:02, Mar/Apr 2010
How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs
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To the Asiatics, as they were called, the lush Nile Delta, with its open marshlands rich with fish and fowl, was a veritable Garden of Eden. From earliest times, Canaanites and other Asiatics would come and settle here. Indeed, this is the background of the Biblical story of the famine in Canaan that led to Jacob’s descent into Egypt (Genesis 46:1–7).
By the beginning of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (a few years after 2000 B.C.E.), the pressure of immigrants on the eastern Delta was so strong that the Egyptian authorities built a series of forts at strategic points to “repel the Asiatics,” as the story of Sinuhe tells us.1
More than a century later, however, Egyptian policy toward the Asiatics changed. Instead of trying to prevent them from coming in, the Egyptians cultivated close relations with strong Canaanite city-states on the Mediterranean coast and allowed select Asiatic populations to settle in the eastern Delta. The last of the great pharaohs of the XIIth Dynasty, Amenemhet III (c. 1853–1808 B.C.E.) and Amenemhet IV (c. 1808–1799 B.C.E.), even established a new town for them.
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The XIIth Dynasty was followed by the much weaker XIIIth Dynasty. Thousands of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon and Canaan then flooded into the eastern Delta, creating the large Canaanite settlement that would become Avaris (modern Tell el-Daba), the capital of the famous Hyksos. The Hyksos were Canaanites who seized power from the Egyptian pharaohs and ruled all Egypt for more than a hundred years (c. 1638–1530 B.C.E.).
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But before this, at the end of the XIIth Dynasty during the reigns of Amenemhet III and Amenemhet IV, Egypt was at the height of its power. A lively trade was conducted with Nubia to the south. Imports from the Levant entered Egypt by land and sea. Gold and precious stones were quarried in the eastern desert. And a large-scale enterprise was regularly conducted to search for turquoise in the high mountains of southern Sinai, at a site today called Serabit el-Khadem.
On this mountain deep in the Sinai desert, prey to merciless winds and scorching heat, are the remains of an ancient Egyptian temple to the goddess Hathor, “The Mistress of Turquoise.” Founded by Sesostris I, the second king of the XIIth Dynasty (c. 1953–1908 B.C.E.), the temple continued in existence, with some interruptions, until the end of the New Kingdom—for about 800 years.
Building on the work of Sesostris I, pharaohs Amenemhet III and Amenemhet IV exploited Serabit’s rich turquoise mines. The precious blue stone was a much-sought-after luxury item in royal circles. No fewer than 28 expeditions to the Serabit turquoise mines are recorded during the reign of Amenemhet III alone.
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To ensure the blessing of the gods, the earlier temple was dramatically enlarged by Amenemhet III and Amenemhet IV. Shrines and numerous commemorative stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions were erected on the path leading to the temple, especially honoring Hathor, the goddess of turquoise.
Where did all the people who engraved these inscriptions come from? Most were probably from the Delta. The turquoise expeditions to Serabit brought together high officials, scribes, priests, architects, physicians, magicians, scorpion charmers, interpreters, caravan leaders, donkey drivers, miners, builders, soldiers and sailors.
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And many members of the expeditions left inscriptions in the temple precinct. Some contain only a name or a drawing. All sought the blessing of the gods for success in their dangerous enterprise—as well as for a safe journey home. These records also tell us of the hundreds of miners and stone workers active during the mining seasons, as well as those who were engaged in the building projects at the temple.
Were these miners and workmen Egyptian? Canaanite? Both?
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Egyptian society at this time was relatively tolerant, so foreigners were quickly accepted and integrated into Egyptian society, as long as they were not political enemies of the state. Some high officials who left inscriptions at the Serabit temple present themselves as Egyptians, yet they also mention that they are Asiatic in origin or have an Asiatic mother. Despite this ancestry, they consider themselves Egyptian. Only Asiatics who came from outside Egypt are identified as such. Canaanites from Egypt who arrived with the Egyptian expeditions from the Delta were not labeled Canaanites in the inscriptions; they are simply regarded as Egyptians.

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