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During the quest of an ancient road located in the west part of the Nile in the Sahara, Egyptologists have discovered inscriptions that may have been examples of the earliest alphabet in the world. While they were studying ancient travel roads in the south-west part of Egypt during the 1994-95 field season of the Theban Desert Road Suvey, Dr. Darnell and his wife, Deborah, made this discovery at Wadi el-Hol. Their discovery was a key element in determining the period and the place of the origin of the alphabet.
Carved on soft stone’s cliffs, those inscriptions were written between 1900 and 1800 B.C. “The only words the researchers think to have understood are, reading from right to left, a chief’s title, at the beginning, and a reference to god at the end.”
These inscriptions are located at Wadi el-Hol where soldiers and merchants traveled between Thebes and Abydos along the so-called Farshut Road. This location was important due to its strategic implications regarding religious, trade and military activity.
This leads us to think that the inscriptions are somewhat related to those activities as “many of these inscriptions relate to soldiers and military activities”. Consequently, the oldest alphabet was created, within a militarized/economic setting, to serve the main purposes of ancient civilization for its sustainable development.
There are many uncertainties about the period in which those inscriptions were carved. Scholars used to describe it as “isolated phenomenon, an unparalleled southern exportation of Canaanite literacy”. Before this discovery, scholars attributed “the Serabi inscriptions to the early 18th Dynasty or, in Albright’s own low chronology between 1550 and 1450 B.
C.” Those old evidences of the oldest alphabet known as “Serabit el-Kadem to which we refer as Proto-Sinaitic”3, aging from approximately 1550 and 1450 B.C., were discovered in the Sinai and in the Syrian-Palestinian area when occupied by the ancient Canaanites. Those examples, known as the Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanites inscriptions, were the main basis on which scholars argued that Semitics developed the first an alphabet by simplifying Egyptians hieroglyphs in their own way. However, we know now from the Wadi el-Hol discovery that it occurred earlier, “according to the preponderance of evidence, during the late Middle Kingdom”3. The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions seem to be the oldest alphabetic inscriptions.
Although it is a tricky matter to date those inscriptions, “a number of features, when considered together, point strongly and consistently (if not indisputably) to a general Middle Kingdom milieu for our inscriptions”. According to the hieroglyphs discovered in the same location, Egyptologists have determined that the inscriptions were carved during the Middle Kingdom, in the two first centuries of the second millennium B.C. Indeed, as “the two Wadi el-Hol early inscriptions evidence a mixture of pictographic forms that appear to be derived both from hieroglyphic and hieratic prototypes”4, the positions of some hieroglyphs symbols, such as the verticality of the sign of water (usually horizontal), allowed them to conclude that the inscriptions would have only been created at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, around 1800 B.C., because it was only during this period that we encountered shapes realized with such characteristics as “so many signs appear to reflect features and peculiarities best known from the paleographic, orthographic, and lapidary hieratic traditions of the early Middle Kingdom”4.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that another inscription in hieroglyph, close to the Wadi elHol site, shows Bebi who is designated as “the general of the Aamu”, that is to say the “Asiatics”. The word “Aamu” signifies for Egyptians a Semitic speaker coming from Western Asia. But, historians know that Semitics coming from the Sinai and from the Syrian-Palestinian area worked as soldiers and workers during the Middle Kingdom as “the Egyptian military, known to have employed Asiatics (as the Bebi inscription so wonderfully attests) and to have included scribes, would provide one likely context in which Western Asiatic Semitic language speakers could have learned and eventually adapted the Egyptian writing system”. The writing of the oldest alphabet seems to have been developed by Semitic people in the Egyptian context. Scribes, in mercenary troops, developed the simplified writing following the lines of a semi-cursive writing usually used, in the Middle Kingdom, in the graffiti. Working with Semitic speakers, scribes simplified pictures into an alphabet format.
Semitics were first overall illiterate but, because of living in an Egyptian literate society, they became literate. The increase of Egyptian literacy during the Middle Kingdom consequently increased the foreigners’ literacy as “This point to a broadening of literacy in which even foreigners may have found a way to participate”. So, Semitics adopted a strategic crud writing system within the Egyptian system. Indeed, it was strategically made to be easy in order to enable people to learn it in several hours rather then a whole life. It was a useful invention for military purposes and for economic and religious incentives. Implicitly, The Semitics involved in the invention of the alphabet might have been part of an ancient population of foreign workers in Egypt.
Finally, Semitics brought the idea of an alphabet with them in Egypt and the inscriptions of Wadi elHol seem to be the oldest alphabet in the world that may have serve as a basis for the development of other languages in the same area.
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