Biblical Archaeology Review: How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs.
It was here at Serabit, I believe, that the alphabet was invented—by Canaanites!
The invention of the alphabet ushered in what was probably the most profound media revolution in history. Earlier writing systems, like Egyptian hieroglyphic and Mesopotamian cuneiform with its curious wedge-shaped characters, each required a knowledge of hundreds of signs. To write or even to read a hieroglyphic or cuneiform text required familiarity with these signs and the complex rules that governed their use.
By contrast, an alphabetic writing system uses fewer than 30 signs, and people need only a few relatively simple reading rules that associate these signs with sounds.
This great invention had far-reaching social and cultural implications. With the alphabet, writing broke out of the “golden cage” of the professional scribal world. Writing was no longer their monopoly. When many more members of society could learn to read (and write), access to information and knowledge was no longer as limited as it had been. Alphabetic writing eventually gave many more people control over their lives and enabled larger segments of the population to take a more active role in the cultural and administrative affairs of their respective societies.
But how was it done?
Although, as I believe, the alphabet was invented by Canaanites, we still owe a significant debt to the Egyptians, for it was Egyptian hieroglyphs that provided the trigger and the means that made the invention of the alphabet possible.
To understand how this came about, we must first examine some very odd Serabit inscriptions—just a few dozen that markedly differ from the hundreds of hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site. The credit for first noticing one of these unusual inscriptions in Serabit goes to Hilda Petrie, wife of the famous Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who was leading an archaeological expedition to Serabit in 1905. It was she who called attention to some fallen stones on the ground by one of the mines, bearing several awkward signs that seemed not to be real hieroglyphs.
Then more of these inscriptions began turning up on rocks by the turquoise mines, and even inside the mines. A few came from the desert roads leading to the temple. From the temple precinct itself, however, only two small statues and a sphinx bore inscriptions in this strange new script.
Petrie studied these crude inscriptions and observed that they appeared to be a kind of imitation of hieroglyphic signs. Yet the repertoire of signs was very small. Petrie ingeniously identified these awkward signs as an alphabetic script, different from the Egyptian hieroglyphic system with its hundreds of signs. Yet Petrie was unable to read these strange inscriptions.
In 1916, some ten years later, Sir Alan Gardiner, the famous English Egyptologist, noticed a group of four signs that was frequently repeated in these unusual inscriptions. Gardiner correctly identified the repetitive group of signs as a series of four letters in an alphabetic script that represented a word in a Canaanite language: b-‘-l-t, vocalized as Baalat, “the Mistress.” Gardiner suggested that Baalat was the Canaanite appellation for Hathor, the goddess of the turquoise mines. Were these inscriptions carved by Canaanite workmen?
An important key to the decipherment was a unique bilingual inscription. It is inscribed on a small sphinx from the temple and features a short inscription in what appears to be parallel texts in Egyptian and in the new script.