Ibn Wahshiyya, the Nabataean who could have translated Egyptian hieroglyphs before Champollion.

Hieroglyphs on the walls of an Egyptian temple / photo Discover Marco – Shutterstock

Today we are going to discover an almost unknown individual, a good representative from other times, who may have been the first to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs almost nine centuries earlier than is believed. We are referring to the Arab scholar Ibn Wahshiyya.

In mid-September 1822, Jean-François Champollion managed to finish off the work that had haunted him for fifteen years: deciphering the mysterious hieroglyphic writing of Pharaonic Egypt. Champollion was a French professor at the University of Grenoble, where he taught Ancient History with his brother Jacques-Joseph, who taught Greek Literature. Both lived with narrowness and did not hide a fervent Bonapartism, expressed in a stentorian way, and when Napoleon returned from his exile in Elba to retake power both supported him with enthusiasm.

Jean-François Champollion (Leon Cogniet)/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

But that adventure of the emperor was ephemeral and after his defeat in Waterloo and later exile to Santa Elena it was time for reprisals. The two Champollion, who had won many enmities, were expelled from the university and imprisoned in their hometown. The pardon did not come until 1821, when Jean-François, with the help of his brother and his own knowledge of Coptic, had already begun to make considerable progress with Egyptian texts, both hieroglyphs and those in hieratic and demotic writing: he had been able to identify three hundred signs, although he still had a long way to go.

Between 1798 and 1799 Napoleon had led an expedition to Egypt (actually lasted two more years but already in charge of General Kleber, as he returned to Paris to assume the direction of the coup of 18 Brumaire and end the Directory, self proclaiming consul) which, in its scientific part, involved the collection of an enormous amount of archaeological material unleashing the scientific start of Egyptology. Among the pieces brought to France was the Rosetta Stone, a basalt stele with inscriptions in hieroglyphs, Demotics and Greek.

Bonaparte before the Sphinx (Jean-León Gerôme)/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The Rosetta Stone was fundamental because those three scriptures were polyglot versions of the same text. Since Jacques-Joseph’s specialty was precisely ancient Greek, it was of great value to his brother, who finally announced its transcription and translation with a famous letter addressed to the Academy of Inscriptions in Paris. Despite initial reticence, in 1824 Champollion published Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens (Summary of the Hieroglyphic System of the Ancient Egyptians), succeeding definitively. He was first appointed inspector of Egyptian antiquities and then curator of the Egyptian department at the Louvre Museum; he even led an archaeological expedition to Egypt.

Before, he had to overcome the inevitable criticisms and objections made to him. Among them were those who said he was taking advantage of the work of some predecessors, unjust accusation because it is something that can be said of practically any discovery. In any case, it is probable that in making this reproach his detractors were thinking, among others, of Ibn Wahshiyya, a Muslim sage who would have left Science, as one of his great contributions, a basic deciphering of hieroglyphic writing… eight centuries earlier.

The Rosetta Stone/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

In reality it was not exactly Arab but Nabataean, a community in the south-east of the Syrian-Palestinian strip that will be familiar to many mainly because it has its capital in the famous Petra. But by the time he lived, the Nabataeans had already left behind hundreds of years of splendour, after being conquered by the Roman and Persian empires, so that in the Middle Ages they constituted only a series of Islamic tribal groupings. It was in this context that Ibn Wahshiyya lived and stood out. He was born in Qusayn (present-day Iraq) and is also known as Abū Bakr’Aḥmad bin’Alī.

He was a scholar, a student of many scientific fields such as physics, mathematics, agriculture, meteorology, magic and alchemy, the latter two considered sciences at the time and in which he had as a collaborator a renowned alchemist as Abu Talib al-Zalyat. Combining them with agricultural studies, he published a book entitled Filahât al-Nabâtiyyah (Nabataean Agriculture), which opened up a gap in the world of science (understood as including esotericism) in a medieval period in which Muslim authors were particularly concerned with improving agricultural yields, giving rise to numerous innovations in crop rotation, irrigation techniques and product dissemination, which were reflected in a good handful of essays.

Arab caravans camping in Petra

Ibn Wahshiyya was also an accomplished polyglot who translated books from other cultures. In fact, to write Filahât al-Nabâtiyyah he had used ancient Chaldean and Babylonian sources, demonstrating his handling not only of those languages but also the degree of knowledge of those civilizations themselves, since the text includes abundant religious, mythological and anthropological references (including references to a pre-Adamic race, that of the Sabians); he even allows himself to praise the Mesopotamians against their Arab conquerors.

Filahât al-Nabâtiyyah is the most important of his literary production, in which there are also books as curious as a treatise on poisons, again combining magic and astrology with toxicology. This bibliography had a certain influence on his contemporaries, who used it as a reference; so did, for example, Al-Dimashqui, a natural geographer from Damascus who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries. In 987 AD, a compiler of publications by Muslim scholars called Ibn al-Nadim published a bibliographic record of all Islamic authors, their biographies and works; entitled Kitab al-Fihrist (The Catalogue), it contains a long list of those signed by Ibn Wahshiyya.

Hypothetical portrait of Ibn-al Nadim/Image: Alchetron

Now, all this would not be the case were it not for the fact that another of the themes that attracted Ibn Wahshiyyah was History. And within it he felt a special fascination for Ancient Egypt; we have already seen that he did not share the reservations that the rest of the Muslim world had towards ancient civilizations because of their paganism. There was the added circumstance that Ibn Wahshiyyah was also interested in cipher codes, both numerical and alphabetical, which he used to encrypt magical and chemical formulas, devising several of his own.

It was therefore almost inevitable that he saw in hieroglyphic writing a challenge to overcome and he set about it. As Champollion would later do, Ibn Wahshiyyah used a comparative method but resorted to Coptic instead of ancient Greek. Coptic had a relationship with the Pharaonic Egyptians in the later stage (from the end of the 2nd century B.C.) similar to that between Latin and Romanesque languages; in fact, its alphabet was a mixture of Greek and Demotic characters. Today it only remains in the liturgy of the Coptic Church but in the 10th century A.D. it was still used, as from the 3rd to the 6th century it lived a period of splendour and was not forbidden by Muslim rulers until the 11th century.

Coptic papyrus/Image: Daderot in Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Wahshiyyah’s effort materialized in 985 in a manuscript entitled Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham, in which he analyzes various ancient alphabets. Among them was the hieroglyphic, from which the author had managed to decipher several characters in advance of Champollion. Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham survived its turbulent period and was a tool later used by other linguists pursuing the same goal.

It was the case of Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit of the 17th century, one of the great sages of the Baroque who, in addition to philosopher, theologian, mathematician, naturalist and inventor, was an expert in languages such as Greek and Hebrew, as well as a student of Chinese. He was also fluent in Coptic; inspired by Ibn Wahshiyyah, he applied it to his attempt to decipher hieroglyphs, although he was not capable (by the way, he got the same results with the famous Codex Voynich).

Athanasius Kircher/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

In 1806, the book was translated into English and published by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian orientalist, historian and diplomat who added annotations on the civilization of the pharaohs. Let us remember that by then the British had evicted the French from Egypt (taking away the Rosetta Stone, today in the British Museum) and Egyptology had also become popular on the islands; in fact, the decorative motifs of Empire style, fashionable in half of Europe until the late twenties of the nineteenth century, reproduced icons of the civilization of the Pharaohs.

Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham was not unknown to some French historians and linguists; it is known that one of Champollion’s masters, the orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, professor of Arabic and Persian, as well as an expert in Sassanid inscriptions, had a copy. Did the famous French Egyptologist have access to this copy? If so, did he rely on the work of Ibn Wahshiyya? There are scholars who support the idea, just as others doubt that the Nabataean could decipher hieroglyphs from Coptic alone. As we often have to say, another mystery for history.


Sources: Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained (Ibn Wahshiyya, edición en inglés de Joseph Hammer)/Ibn Wahshiyya, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn ?Sali Ibn Al-Mukhtar (Sami K. Hamarneh en Encyclopedia.com)/Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings (Okasha el-Daly)/Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Juan Cole)/Wikipedia