Who Invented the Alphabet?
New scholarship points to a paradox of historic scope: Our writing system was devised by people who couldn’t read
Centuries before Moses wandered in the “great and terrible wilderness” of the Sinai Peninsula, this triangle of desert wedged between Africa and Asia attracted speculators, drawn by rich mineral deposits hidden in the rocks. And it was on one of these expeditions, around 4,000 years ago, that some mysterious person or group took a bold step that, in retrospect, was truly revolutionary. Scratched on the wall of a mine is the very first attempt at something we use every day: the alphabet.
The evidence, which continues to be examined and reinterpreted 116 years after its discovery, is on a windswept plateau in Egypt called Serabit el-Khadim, a remote spot even by Sinai standards. Yet it wasn’t too difficult for even ancient Egyptians to reach, as the presence of a temple right at the top shows. When I visited in 2019, I looked out over the desolate, beautiful landscape from the summit and realized I was seeing the same view the inventors of the alphabet had seen every day. The temple is built into the living rock, dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of turquoise (among many other things); stelae chiseled with hieroglyphs line the paths to the shrine, where archaeological evidence indicates there was once an extensive temple complex. A mile or so southwest of the temple is the source of all ancient interest in this area: embedded in the rock are nodules of turquoise, a stone that symbolized rebirth, a vital motif in Egyptian culture and the color that decorated the walls of their lavish tombs. Turquoise is why Egyptian elites sent expeditions from the mainland here, a project that began around 2,800 B.C. and lasted for over a thousand years. Expeditions made offerings to Hathor in hopes of a rich haul to take home.
In 1905, a couple of Egyptologists, Sir William and Hilda Flinders Petrie, who were married, first excavated the temple, documenting thousands of votive offerings there. The pair also discovered curious signs on the side of a mine, and began to notice them elsewhere, on walls and small statues. Some signs were clearly related to hieroglyphs, yet they were simpler than the beautiful pictorial Egyptian script on the temple walls. The Petries recognized the signs as an alphabet, though decoding the letters would take another decade, and tracing the source of the invention far longer.
The Flinders Petries brought many of the prizes they had unearthed back to London, including a small, red sandstone sphinx with the same handful of letters on its side as those seen in the mines. After ten years of studying the inscriptions, in 1916 the Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner published his transcription of the letters and their translation: An inscription on the little sphinx, written in a Semitic dialect, read “Beloved of Ba’alat,” referring to the Canaanite goddess, consort of Ba’al, the powerful Canaanite god.
“For me, it’s worth all the gold in Egypt,” the Israeli Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser said of this little sphinx when we viewed it at the British Museum in late 2018. She had come to London to be interviewed for a BBC documentary about the history of writing. In the high-ceilinged Egypt and Sudan study room lined with bookcases, separated from the crowds in the public galleries by locked doors and iron staircases, a curator brought the sphinx out of its basket and placed it on a table, where Goldwasser and I marveled at it. “Every word we read and write started with him and his friends.” She explained how miners on Sinai would have gone about transforming a hieroglyph into a letter: “Call the picture by name, pick up only the first sound and discard the picture from your mind.” Thus, the hieroglyph for an ox, aleph, helped give a shape to the letter “a,” while the alphabet’s inventors derived “b” from the hieroglyph for “house,” bêt. These first two signs came to form the name of the system itself: alphabet. Some letters were borrowed from hieroglyphs, others drawn from life, until all the sounds of the language they spoke could be represented in written form.
The temple complex detailed evidence of the people who worked on these Egyptian turquoise excavations in the Sinai. The stelae that line the paths record each expedition, including the names and jobs of every person working on the site. The bureaucratic nature of Egyptian society yields, today, a clear picture of the immigrant labor that flocked to Egypt seeking work four millennia ago. As Goldwasser puts it, Egypt was “the America of the old world.” We can read about this arrangement in Genesis, when Jacob, “who dwelt in the land of Canaan”—that is, along the Levant coast, east of Egypt—traveled to Egypt to seek his fortune. Along with shepherds like Jacob, other Canaanites ended up mining for the Egyptian elites in Serabit, some 210 miles southeast by land from Memphis, the seat of pharaonic power.
Religious ritual played a central role in inspiring foreign workers to learn to write. After a day’s work was done, Canaanite workers would have observed their Egyptian counterparts’ rituals in the beautiful temple complex to Hathor, and they would have marveled at the thousands of hieroglyphs used to dedicate gifts to the goddess. In Goldwasser’s account, they were not daunted by being unable to read the hieroglyphs around them; instead, they began writing things their own way, inventing a simpler, more versatile system to offer their own religious invocations.
The alphabet remained on the cultural periphery of the Mediterranean until six centuries or more after its invention, seen only in words scratched on objects found across the Middle East, such as daggers and pottery, not in any bureaucracy or literature. But then, around 1200 B.C., came huge political upheavals, known as the late Bronze Age collapse. The major empires of the near east—the Mycenaean Empire in Greece, the Hittite Empire in Turkey and the ancient Egyptian Empire—all disintegrated amid internal civil strife, invasions and droughts. With the emergence of smaller city-states, local leaders began to use local languages to govern. In the land of Canaan, these were Semitic dialects, written down using alphabets derived from the Sinai mines.
These Canaanite city-states flourished, and a bustling sea trade spread their alphabet along with their wares. Variations of the alphabet—now known as Phoenician, from the Greek word for the Canaanite region—have been found from Turkey to Spain, and survive until today in the form of the letters used and passed on by the Greeks and the Romans.
In the century since the discovery of those first scratched letters in the Sinai mines, the reigning academic consensus has been that highly educated people must have created the alphabet. But Goldwasser’s research is upending that notion. She suggests that it was actually a group of illiterate Canaanite miners who made the breakthrough, unversed in hieroglyphs and unable to speak Egyptian but inspired by the pictorial writing they saw around them. In this view, one of civilization’s most profound and most revolutionary intellectual creations came not from an educated elite but from illiterate laborers, who usually get written out of history.
Pierre Tallet, former president of the French Society of Egyptology, supports Goldwasser’s theory: “Of course [the theory] makes sense, as it is clear that whoever wrote these inscriptions in the Sinai did not know hieroglyphs,” he told me. “And the words they are writing are in a Semitic language, so they must have been Canaanites, who we know were there from the Egyptians’ own written record here in the temple.”
There are doubters, though. Christopher Rollston, a Hebrew scholar at George Washington University, argues that the mysterious writers likely knew hieroglyphs. “It would be improbable that illiterate miners were capable of, or responsible for, the invention of the alphabet,” he says. But this objection seems less persuasive than Goldwasser’s account—if Egyptian scribes invented the alphabet, why did it promptly disappear from their literature for roughly 600 years?
Besides, as Goldwasser points out, the close connection between pictograms and text would seem to be evident all around us, even in our hyper-literate age, in the form of emojis. She uses emojis liberally in her emails and text messages, and has argued that they fulfill a social need the ancient Egyptians would have understood. “Emojis actually brought modern society something important: We feel the loss of images, we long for them, and with emojis we have brought a little bit of the ancient Egyptian games into our lives.”