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The sounds of ancient Egypt

Violinist believes music is key to understanding how pharaohs spoke

ancient May 11, 1997
Web posted at: 3:58 p.m. EDT (1958 GMT)

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Archaeologists have been able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics since 1822, when French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion and British physicist Thomas Young deciphered the text of the famed Rosetta Stone.

Found by French military engineers in 1799 in the Egyptian seaside town Rosetta, the slab of basalt contained the same text written in three languages: Greek, hieroglyphics -- the "official" Egyptian language -- and the everyday written language, demotic.

Young and Champollion unlocked Egyptian mysteries lost for centuries, but most archaeologists believe the sounds of ancient Egypt are as lost today as they were to the men who cracked the hieroglyphics code.

Classical violinist Mohamed Misri, however, disagrees. He says that by comparing ancient Egyptian song lyrics with Coptic songs of today, he has been able to approximate how the language of the pharaohs must have sounded.

Coptic is the language of Egypt's centuries-old Christian community. But many Egyptologists are not convinced by Misri's musical adaptations, because Coptic contains ancient Greek in addition to ancient Egyptian words and phrasing.

"We don't really know the sounds of all the words, and we'll never know," said Zahi Hawass, director of antiquities of the Giza Plateau, home of the Great Pyramid.

Kent Weeks, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, agrees.

"If an ancient Egyptian were to walk in the door today ... I don't think we'd understand a single word," he said.

The controversy may never be resolved. But the words can still be read -- like a warning on one tomb that could be the Egyptian version of "violators will be prosecuted."

"If you break into my tomb," the text reads, "you'll be eaten by a crocodile, a lion and a hippopotamus."

Cairo Bureau Chief Gayle Young contributed to this report.


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