Just then, they turned a corner into an open-air corridor that surrounded three sides of the main temple. Thousands of hieroglyphics covered the walls.
“So tell us how hieroglyphics work,” Adam begged with a winning smile.
“What industrious little scholars you are!” Laila exclaimed. “Your teachers must be so proud of you. I bet you’re both at the top of your class back home. Most people find hieroglyphics a bit boring, even though they reveal so much about ancient Egyptian culture.”
“Not us! We’re very interested,” Justin said, while Adam nodded enthusiastically.
Hieroglyphics, Laila explained, was not a primitive form of writing. It was as complex and fully developed as any modern language.
“But the secrets of the Egyptian culture, of my forefathers, were nearly lost to the world,” she said solemnly.
The boys stared at her in horror. “How?” they chorused.
“In AD 391, the Christian Emperor Theodosius the First closed all pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire, which included Egypt. The Egyptians had become used to speaking only Greek and Latin, the languages of their conquerors. With the closing of the temples, their last connection to their own language ended. They soon forgot how to read and write in Egyptian. The language was only rediscovered hundreds of years later, when a brilliant young Frenchman called Jean-Francois Champollion translated the Rosetta Stone in 1822. I’m sure you’ve done that in history?”
The boys nodded.
“Now that people can again read hieroglyphics, historians and archaeologists know more about ancient Egypt than any other culture.”
Adam looked doubtful. “Is it easy to read? I mean, is it like our alphabet?”
“Well,” Laila replied, “there are a lot more signs and sounds than in your alphabet. You see, over the centuries Egypt was invaded by foreign powers such as the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. With each new set of rulers came new signs. From about seven hundred symbols, the alphabet grew to over six thousand. But you can use a basic working alphabet of twenty-six letters if you want to translate something for fun—your names, for instance.”
The cousins realized their task would be much harder than they had imagined. Their faces fell.
Laila laughed. “I know exactly what you’re both thinking.”
The boys looked guilty. Did she know anything?
“You’re thinking this is going to be way too difficult for kids your age.”
They laughed nervously in relief. Their plan was still safe.
“No, not at all,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s actually very simple once you get the feel of it.”
“If someone wrote something thousands of years ago, would you be able to read it today?” Adam asked, with a quick sideways glance at Justin.
“Yes, of course. Hieroglyphics are easy enough to read. You just identify the picture with the letter and put it together. But remember that hieroglyphics can be read from either direction.”
Laila bent down and pointed to a line carved on the wall next to them. “The direction of the face shows you how to read it. The figures always face the beginning of the line.”
Laila patted both their heads. “I have to get back to the group. Take your time and copy some interesting sections. Then I’ll show you how to translate them.”
She walked off, calling to the rest of the group. Adam and Justin grinned at each other.
“That was lucky,” Justin said. “All we have to do is draw a whole lot of hieroglyphics. Then every now and again we slip in some of the stuff on that scrap of paper.”
“But not the hieroglyphics under the scarab!” Adam exclaimed. “We’ll get a book from a tourist shop and do those ourselves. It might be a name, especially if it’s from the Scarab King’s tomb. We don’t want her to get suspicious.”
The boys spent a happy hour finding the most elaborate sets of hieroglyphics they could and copying them into their journals. Every few lines or so, they would slip in several hieroglyphics from Adam’s piece of paper. When they felt they had enough to disguise the important ones, they rushed off to find Laila. Most of the tour group was sitting under shady trees near the riverbank, fanning themselves listlessly. They shook their heads in disbelief when the boys dashed up.
“Where do you children get the energy?” Mrs. Brice-Gibbons bleated in a feeble voice. She waved her sunhat from side to side. Her plump, round face was red from the heat; her usually crisp curls lay wet and matted on her forehead. “I’m hot and tired just watching you two running about.”
Justin looked at her with a stern expression. “Mrs. Brice-Gibbons, this may be the only chance I ever get to see Egypt and learn about its ancient civilization. There isn’t a moment to waste.”
Mrs. Brice-Gibbons sank back against the cool stone bench, astonished at his reply. She wasn’t quite sure if Justin was being cheeky or serious.
“Dear me!” she exclaimed faintly. “No, no, Justin, you’re quite right. Yes ... well said. Education. That’s the thing.”
She turned to the rest of the group, who were hiding their smiles, and puffed herself up to have the last word. “That’s what I always say. Education is the answer.”
“That’s a nice change,” Rita muttered to Elsie. “Yesterday she said dropping them in the Nile was the answer. She asked me if there were still crocodiles in the river.”
“Hush,” Elsie scolded, peering into her guidebook with a grin.
The boys found Laila advising Tatiana on the best angle to photograph the temple entrance. She studied their drawings and wrote in the meanings above each set of hieroglyphics. Every now and then, she stopped, frowned, and shook her head. The cousins looked at each other in panic.
“There are some really strange signs here,” she remarked. “Things I’ve never seen before at this particular site. Truly antique signs, I would say. You see, Philae dates from about 400 BC to AD 600, which is late Egyptian to early Classical Greek. Some of the signs you’ve drawn are just about prehistoric in comparison. What I mean is, historically they don’t belong here.”
Justin and Adam looked wide-eyed with innocence, but their hearts were pounding with fright. Would they be found out, Adam wondered? After all, Laila was an expert in hieroglyphics and had been to Philae many times before.
“Maybe they were talking about something really old and had to use an old sign?” Adam suggested in a hopeful tone.
“No, that’s not what I mean,” Laila said. “Anyway, I hope you found it useful and interesting.” Her brow puckered in concentration as she examined their drawings again.
The boys nodded vigorously. “Yes,” they chorused. “Very interesting.”
“If you want to try writing your own names, then there’s a good bookshop on the boat that sells an excellent beginner’s guide for only a few Egyptian pounds. I’m really puzzled about some of those signs.” She glanced at her watch. “Is that the time? We should get back to the boat.”
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