Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Course No. 3541
Professor Bob Brier, Ph.D.
Long Island University
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Course No. 3541
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers How to read and write words and sentences in hieroglyphic script.
  • numbers How to count in ancient Egyptian, and how to write fractions.
  • numbers How to use hieroglyphs to describe events in the past tense.
  • numbers To decipher the meaning of hieroglyphs found on relics from the tomb of King Tut.
  • numbers The story of how archaeologists and scholars first deciphered hieroglyphs.

Course Overview

Ancient Egyptian civilization is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating chapters in human history. While remnants of the culture like temples, obelisks, and sarcophagi continue to mystify us, you can unlock their true meaning if you know how to read hieroglyphs.

To the untrained eye, this ancient writing system looks like artful decoration, a random scattering of stylized ducks, suns, eyes, hands, chairs, and feathers. But to Egyptologists like Dr. Bob Brier of LIU Post—a noted public educator known as “Mr. Mummy” and a popular Great Courses professor—hieroglyphs are the gateway to understanding ancient Egypt, from its religious beliefs to its cosmological ideas to the legacies of its great pharaohs.

In short, they’re the closest we can get to truly resurrecting the lives of ancient Egyptians.

Although hieroglyphs are a dead language, there are many reasons why learning to read and write hieroglyphs can be rewarding. An understanding of hieroglyphs can take you beyond the surface-level appreciation of viewing artifacts and historic sites, bringing you closer to the real people of an ancient civilization. Plus, the transformation of spelling and grammar into a dynamic pictorial code presents a challenging intellectual puzzle for lifelong learners of all ages. In learning hieroglyphs, you will actually decipher symbols and text, which makes learning this new language enjoyable and exciting!

In Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Professor Brier offers you the key to unlocking the mysteries of this amazing ancient language. Making this seemingly complex code accessible to anyone with a willingness to learn, his 24 lectures cover the basics of reading and writing hieroglyphs, including vocabulary words, number systems, and sentence structure. They also put your newfound knowledge to work, as you translate hieroglyphs found on some of ancient Egypt’s most intriguing sites and artifacts, from the Rosetta Stone to the temples at Abu Simbel to the tomb of Tutankhamen. Professor Brier opens up startling new worlds of discovery that will bring you closer than ever to a civilization that’s captivated us for millennia—and that will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Learn How to Read and Write Hieroglyphs

When learning to read and write Egyptian hieroglyphs, where does one start? Like any language, it’s critical to begin at the most fundamental level: the alphabet.

Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs is a primer on the ins and outs of the ancient Egyptian language. By approaching the topic in a straightforward manner, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly translating these curious symbols becomes second nature.

After learning the three ways hieroglyphs were used in ancient Egypt (to represent a sound, to clarify a word’s meaning, to represent a concept all by itself), you’ll go step-by-step through the ancient Egyptian alphabet. Professor Brier teaches you not only how to draw each hieroglyph, but how to pronounce them and organize them into entire sentences.

But make no mistake: This isn’t just about writing your name in hieroglyphs. You’ll learn much more.

  • Build an Egyptian vocabulary. Every lecture comes with a wealth of new vocabulary words for you to pronounce, write, and use. You’ll also discover the meaning behind these hieroglyphs. For example, the hieroglyph for the season “summer” (consisting of drawings of a pool, water, and the sun) which might indicate an absence of water.
  • Write Egyptian sentences: Professor Brier teaches you how to organize hieroglyphs into sentences that express original thoughts. You’ll learn how to draw and arrange pronouns and possessives; how to write in the past tense; how to turn a sentence into a negative statement; how to read the names of the pharaohs; and more.
  • Count Egyptian numbers: Numbers were essential to ancient Egypt’s agricultural economy. As you’ll discover, different symbols were used to denote different quantities. A stroke was “1,” a hoop was “10,” a coiled rope was “100,” a lotus flower was “1,000,” and the god Heh stood for “1 million.”

Above all, Professor Brier wants to give you not just an appreciation of hieroglyphs, but a working knowledge of them. That’s where practice comes in. Each lecture in this course begins or ends with a series of short, fun translation exercises (also included in the course guidebook) to help familiarize you with the concepts you explore in that particular lesson.

Unearth the Story of Hieroglyphs

As you progress from the alphabet to complex sentences, you’ll also uncover some fascinating historical insights into hieroglyphs.

  • Why did the language disappear, and how it was rediscovered by explorers like Jean-François Champollion?
  • What was life like for the Egyptian scribes who recorded everything from battlefield casualties to prayers for the dead?
  • Why were some of the first attempts to translate hieroglyphics unsuccessful?
  • How did ancient Egyptians use their calendar, and how do modern Egyptologists use it to determine precise dates for events?

Translate the Writings on Archaeological Finds

Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs is also an opportunity to interpret actual inscriptions found on Egyptian temples and objects. As Professor Brier builds your confidence in reading hieroglyphs, you’ll steadily move toward translating everything from the names of gods and pharaohs to special prayers and magic spells.

Like a great tour guide, Professor Brier brings you up close and personal with some of the most fascinating archaeological finds from hundreds of years of exploration.

  • King Tut’s tomb: Professor Brier devotes several lectures to perhaps the most important discovery in all of Egyptology. You’ll translate hieroglyphs from some of the many relics found in the pharaoh’s tomb, including a mirror used during Tutankhamen’s life, and the inside lid of his sarcophagus, inscribed with words spoken by the god Anubis.
  • Queen Meret’s pectoral: This brooch-like piece of jewelry isn’t mere decoration. It’s also powerful political propaganda. The queen’s pectoral proclaims the greatness of Amenemhet III as the lord of Upper and Lower Egypt and all foreign lands, and asserts his protection by Nekhbet when venturing off into battle.
  • Sneferu stela: The pharaoh most directly responsible for Egypt’s grand pyramid-building projects was Sneferu. As you pore over inscriptions on a stela named after him, you’ll witness the development of four of the five titles used to describe a king: the “Horus” name, the “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” name, the “Two Ladies” name, and the “Golden Horus” name.

Learn from an Acclaimed Egyptologist

Beloved by Great Courses customers for his dynamism and depth of knowledge, Professor Brier is the best hieroglyphics instructor you could have. Blending language and history, his lectures are a testament to his popularity with the public and his respect among Egyptologists. He brings the same skills to Decoding the Secret of Egyptian Hieroglyphs that he has to his National Geographic television special, Mr. Mummy, his TLC series, The Great Egyptians, and his popular books, including The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story and Egyptomania.

At the start of the course, Professor Brier recounts the ancient Egyptian saying, “To say the name of the dead is to make him live again.” Whether he’s unpacking the importance of the scarab beetle hieroglyph, explaining the reason why most of us mispronounce the names of Egyptian pharaohs, or detailing the secret messages inscribed on King Tut’s funerary mask, Professor Brier not only makes ancient Egyptians live again—he does something even more memorable: He allows them to speak in their own words.

And now you can, too.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Egypt Needed Hieroglyphs
    Before learning how to read and write hieroglyphs, you have to understand why ancient Egypt had to invent some form of writing. Central to this introductory lecture is a study of the Narmer Palette, whose writing would set standards and conventions that would be followed for 3,000 years. x
  • 2
    The Ancient Egyptian Alphabet
    It's time to learn the hieroglyphic alphabet. Professor Brier shows you how to write each hieroglyph and how to position them, including a stylized hand (D"), a horned viper ("F"), and two hieroglyphs for which English doesn't have a letter. Then, transcribe your name from English to ancient Egyptian." x
  • 3
    How a Language Becomes Lost
    How is it possible for a language used by the world's greatest civilization to become lost? The answer, you'll learn, involves charting the rise and fall of ancient Egypt's spectacular kingdoms, as well as investigating the ways Christianity replaced hieroglyphs with Greek letters. x
  • 4
    Napoleon in Egypt
    Explore how hieroglyphs, and the ability to read them, was rediscovered during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Along the way, you'll consider the birth of Egyptology and the role of ushabtis, statues of servants buried with prominent Egyptians so they could avoid having to work in the next world. x
  • 5
    Early Attempts to Decipher the Rosetta Stone
    With the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by the French, the process of deciphering hieroglyphs could begin. But early attempts were thrown off by what Professor Brier calls the Big Mistake". Here, examine the reasons why so many scholars made the error of treating hieroglyphs like picture writing. " x
  • 6
    William Bankes and the Keys to Decipherment
    Learn how several key discoveries showed how to decipher hieroglyphs the right way, and also shaped our understanding of ancient Egypt. First: a bilingual obelisk that extended the Egyptian alphabet. Second: the Hall of Ancients", which contained the longest list of pharaohs ever discovered." x
  • 7
    Jean-Francois Champollion Cracks the Code
    Meet Jean-Francois Champollion, the first man in 2,000 years to read hieroglyphs and correct the Big Mistake". After studying Champollion's vital contribution to the field, you'll spend time learning how to read and write biliterals: hieroglyphs that represent two sounds, one after the other." x
  • 8
    Suffix Pronouns and the Hieroglyphs of Ptah
    In the first half of this lecture, learn how to work with suffix pronouns (which, unlike in English, are the same for possessive and nominative). Then, discover what hieroglyphs reveal about the role of the creator god Ptah in Egyptian religion-and his close connection with writing and words. x
  • 9
    The Immortal Scribe
    First, continue working on suffix pronouns with several English-to-hieroglyph sentence translations. Then, unpack the hidden meaning of the scarab beetle hieroglyph (kheper). Finally, learn about the scribes responsible for writing everything from cattle inventories to Books of the Dead, then learn about the medium on which they wrote, papyrus. x
  • 10
    Hieroglyphs and the Bible
    After giving you a few more pointers on suffix pronouns (including an unusual feature of the Middle Egyptian language), Professor Brier invites you to do a little applied hieroglyphs. How does a little knowledge of hieroglyphs help us answer some biblical questions about iconic events from the book of Exodus? x
  • 11
    Dependent Pronouns and the Passive Voice
    Dependent pronouns, as you'll learn, don't have to be added onto any other word; they stand alone and are usually the object of the verb. From there, you'll consider the first expedition to copy hieroglyphs (epigraphy), and learn about a current program designed to save inscriptions on fragile temple walls. x
  • 12
    Past Tense and Adjectives
    Start working with the past tense in your hieroglyphic sentences (the secret involves tacking a water sign onto a verb). Then, expand your Egyptian vocabulary to include new biliterals, as well as adjectives like evil" and "excellent." Also, learn how to use adjectives as modifiers, predicates, and nouns." x
  • 13
    New Ideograms Related to the Gods
    From suns and pillars to flagpoles and scepters, uncover what the hieroglyphs of gods reveal about ancient Egyptian thought and belief. For example, flagpoles were the ideogram for god" (pronounced netcher) and ram-headed scepters (pronounced was) were representations of power inspired by the god Amun." x
  • 14
    Names of the Pharaohs
    Learn how the kings of Egypt wrote their names. Using the Sneferu stela as a guide, examine the development of a pharaoh's five royal titles: the Horus" name, the "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" name, the "Two Ladies" name, the "Golden Horus" name, and the "Son of Re" name." x
  • 15
    Ancient Egyptian Numbers
    Learn the Egyptian way of writing whole numbers and fractions, which were used to keep track of everything from taxes to dates when the Nile would rise. Also, visit the mortuary temple of Ramses III, where a pile of hands reveals how many enemy soldiers were killed in battle. x
  • 16
    The Egyptian Calendar
    Explore why the calendar was crucial to Egypt's success as a nation, and learn how the civilization divided a year into months and seasons based on the activity of the Nile River. Then, find out how Egyptologists use ancient Egyptian calendars to pinpoint dates. x
  • 17
    Names of the Gods
    By understanding hieroglyphic names of gods and goddesses, you can read the stories told on temple walls. Among the pantheon of deities you'll learn to recognize are Isis and Osiris, Atum (the first terrestrial god), and the earth and sky gods Geb and Nut. x
  • 18
    Negation in Ancient Egyptian Sentences
    How do you say no" in ancient Egyptian? The answer, it turns out, involves knowing how to use (and draw) your arms. After practicing your skills at negation, you'll follow Professor Brier on a study tour of amulets (for both the dead and living) as "three-dimensional" hieroglyphs." x
  • 19
    Reading Hieroglyphic Jewelry
    With your newfound knowledge of hieroglyphs, decipher what several pieces of exquisite ancient jewelry say-and why they're more than just pretty, decorative baubles. The jewels you examine include a pectoral worn by Queen Meret (used as political propaganda) and one worn by Princess Sat-Hathor (used for protection). x
  • 20
    Palimpsests: When Scribes Make Mistakes
    What happens when a scribe makes a mistake-especially when the hieroglyph is carved in stone? How do modern archaeologists know how to recognize errors? Using inscriptions on the Pyramid of Unas and at Abydos Temple, explore the topic of palimpsests, the writing of one text over another. x
  • 21
    An Ancient Egyptian Prayer for the Dead
    Enter the temples and tombs of the ancient Egyptians and explore some of the fascinating hieroglyphic prayers inscribed on their walls. Central to this lecture is a standard prayer for the dead that started in the Old Kingdom: the Hotep-di-nesu, which asked the king to grant an offering to Osiris. x
  • 22
    Translating the Tomb of Perneb
    Join Professor Brier for an in-depth tour of the Tomb of Perneb's hieroglyphs-specifically those in its chapel, or mastaba. What lies behind the false door" common to chapels like this? Why were ka-priests so important to the afterlife of the wealthy? " x
  • 23
    Translating Tutankhamen's Tomb
    In the first of two lectures on the most famous find in all archaeology, learn the story of the excavation of King Tut's tomb. Then, translate some of the inscriptions on the gilded shrines in the Egyptian ruler's burial chamber (among them: messages by carpenters for use in construction). x
  • 24
    King Tut's Magic Mirror and Sarcophagus
    Decode and understand the inscriptions on two astonishing artifacts: a magic mirror used during Tutankhamen's lifetime and the lid of the pharaoh's sarcophagus. Then, conclude the course with suggestions on how to continue studying hieroglyphs, including scholarly resources and translation tips. x

Lecture Titles

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Video DVD
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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 280-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 280-page printed course guidebook
  • How to Draw Hieroglyphs
  • English to Hieroglyph and Hieroglyph to English Dictionary
  • Vocabulary

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Your professor

Bob Brier

About Your Professor

Bob Brier, Ph.D.
Long Island University
Dr. Bob Brier is an Egyptologist and Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. He earned his bachelor's degree from Hunter College and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Brier has twice been selected as a Fulbright Scholar and has received Long Island University's David Newton Award for Teaching Excellence in recognition of his achievements as a...
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Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 90.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Twenty years ago, in December 2000, my wife and I spent nearly a month in Egypt, traveling from Alexandria to Abu Simbel, gawking at temples and tombs along the way, totally clueless about the hieroglyphics we saw. Not long after, I bought a book, "How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphics: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself" by Mark Collier and Bill Manley (British Museum Press, 1988), but only got through the first chapter when boredom set in. I am here to tell you that there is not a boring moment in these 24 lectures. Professor Brier’s delivery, organization and enthusiasm make this course a delight to watch. I especially liked the lectures that addressed the grammar of suffix pronouns, tense, voice and negation. The course guidebook is great. My wife complained that I was cheating by reading the guidebook lesson before watching the lecture, but that helped me to follow Brier’s very smooth explanations during the translation exercises. As a side benefit, I sometimes consulted my Collier & Manley book for comparison on a few points of grammar and sentence structure. That helped the language concepts sink in. The big mystery for me is that the ancient Egyptians built structures of such size and symmetry with a numbering system that is almost as cumbersome as that adopted by the Romans. There must have been floor plans and elevation drawings, but how were dimensions calculated? My wife and I have taken about a dozen of The Great Courses while housebound, hiding from the COVID-19 threat. This course on Egyptian hieroglyphs is among the best of the lot. HWF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2020-11-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from OK BUT..... Bob starts off simple, but the big problem he is telling us at the start to get a grammar book that is over £100. No chance of me getting that. I suppose that is a warning sign really. Then tells us to get JSesh, which is free right. Yep, it is free, but it does not work, so it is useless. I put A in and got the vulture sign. Great you say, then I put in B, D, C, and got errors. So it is useless. Thie first lecture is a rehash of introduction to Egypt, which is ok, but if you bought that one, it is a bit repetitive with this course. Now we get to the alphabet, which is fine but it lost me when he kept mixing things up. He says to write your own vocabulary, great I thought, but he does not do it well for an English speaker: he wants you to put in words for Egyptian, which is counterproductive and confusing. It's just a teacher getting ahead of himself and never fully explaining what he means. Then he goes to explain grammar right at the start of the course. My head exploded by this esp. when he uses two versions of the rule of the T, which means a sentence end with it, except it does not always do that. So why would he confuse people right a the start? He also does not explain why the E is used between the words. it's just taken for granted. I hate English jargon, adjectives, nouns, words. Soon as he started to use them - my brain switched off. When he shows you how to draw the king hieroglyph, it all starts to go further downhill from there. His hand is in the way so you can't see what he is doing, as the camera is right above his hand. Also, the coursebook gives you examples right at the start of the book. For example, he says a word means this when you have no clue what he is on about. For example, the first letter as given as Y, but in the previous lessons, he says a double reed is a Y, not a singular one. Some may say he is just transliterating - so what - he is trying to teach us not confuse people and its stuff like this confused me greatly. Why add this complication at the start. So is the course a recommendation, a big no. it is if you're into English grammar, so you be at home with this. It is not a beginner's course and he is pushing really really expensive books. Shame really I thought it be good,.
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great way to learn I am enjoying this course, it is easy to follow and I can go at my own speed.
Date published: 2020-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EGYPTIAN HIEROGLYPHS Only into Lecture/lesson 5. Prof. Briar is a great teacher. I can easily follow this so far. I enjoyed his course on the History of Ancient Egypt VERY MUCH. I have a fascination with Hieroglyphs. Have tried learn them on my own before and so some of the material is not new to me. Bob's course is well organized and that makes learning easier especially with backgeround for why some things are the way they are is explained.
Date published: 2020-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course I enjoyed this course very much, and learned a lot in a short time. Professor Bob Brier's presentation was excellent.
Date published: 2020-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Egyptian Hieroglyphs... A Road to Understanding!!! I bought the original course with Dr. Bob Brier. I am only too happy to add this to my collection.
Date published: 2020-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from dynamic lecturer The subject matter is challenging, but well the worth the time you put into it. If you don't keep up with learning the new concepts and vocabulary, the course will quickly get past you and be of no use. One might think that the subject itself is pretty boring, but the lectures also include a lot of information about the history of ancient Egypt and its art. After all, writing doesn't occur in a vacuum. The lecturer is very interesting and engaging. I was quite challenged at the very end of the lectures when we were to translate texts from tombs and temples. I intend to go back through the grammar and vocabulary and give those texts another try. I was thrilled with this course!
Date published: 2020-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you have the smallest interest - you WILL learn In Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs, you will learn the proper recognition of the symbols, their meaning, variants and proper ordering in order to read them in context on a basic level. From there you are given sources that are available from other sources to continue your studies. I have a need of this course to assist my research - and it has not disappointed - I have not completed the course as yet, in full but it has done so much to advance my work already. This will continue to be an on the job situation for me and ongoing. I am fortunate to have on hand some of Dr. Brier's reference materials list in my personal library.. And Dr. Brier's methodology is wonderful - his love for the subject comes through as you in each lesson - he invites you to love it as much as he does. I consider this one of the best ancient language courses I have ever taken, excepting Biblical Hebrew(!)... Five Stars, two thumbs up.
Date published: 2020-04-01
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