Ostracon bearing Meroitic inscription
Writing is the representation of thought and human language by signs. It is a means of durable and privileged communication between people. Nubia seems to have been a melting pot and a meeting point for writing from Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. During their long history, Nubians used and developed very different writings. It was at first, the expansion of the Egyptian writing system from as early as the third millennium BC: hieroglyphs and their simplified version, the hieratic cursive writing system. Then it was the adaptation of this system to local languages and uses in the course of the first millennium (creation of hieroglyphics and Meroitic cursives); the persistence of “pagan” writings until at least the 5th century BC (Demotic Egyptian and Meroitic cursives); the Greek alphabet adapted to the Egyptian language (Coptic) and to the Nubian language; the use of Greek by the Christian kingdoms, then from the 14th century, the implantation of Arabic. We have also found in Nubia documents testifying to the use of international languages and writings of Antiquity: Aramaic, used in the whole of the Persian Empire, and Latin in the Roman Empire.
This ostracon found at Amara West bears a Meroitic cursive inscription.
Two types of writing were in force in the Kingdom of Meroë, both derived from Egyptian prototypes but adapted to local needs: a hieroglyphic script, of which signs were borrowed from the Egyptian hieroglyphic repertoire, and a cursive writing with characters adapted from the Demotic. These two graphic systems are of alphabetical type: each script has 24 signs, 15 consonantal signs, 4 vowel signs, 4 syllabic signs, and a word divider. Meroitic texts were usually written from right to left. While the Napatans even wrote their royal inscriptions in the Egyptian language by using the traditional hieroglyphic system, the sovereigns of Meroë, from the 2nd century BC, promoted their own writing system as well as their own language. The first Meroitic inscriptions were revealed by the French explorer, Frédéric Cailliaud, the discoverer of the Meroë site in 1821. It was not until 1910 when British Francis Fl. Griffith established the phonetic values of the signs of both Meroitic writings. Today, they can be read easily, but still only partially understood as the language in which they were drafted in still needs analysis of linguists, except some words and repetitive formulas. Recent studies have, however, permitted to link Meroitic to Nilo-Saharan languages and more precisely the East Sudanic group. The comparative method with languages from the same family, but still spoken in East Africa, has already allowed rapid and substantial progress.
The Meroitic hieroglyphic script had only restricted use, limited essentially to the monumental inscriptions on certain temples. On the contrary, the cursive script was developed for multiple purposes- royal memorial inscriptions, royal and private funerary epitaphs, administrative and economical texts -as well as on diverse media supports- stone (stelae and offering tables, temple walls), ostraca and papyrus.
The last Meroitic (cursive) inscription is dated back to the 5th century AD (inscription of Silko in Kalabsha). Around the same time, the use of Demotic script (last appearance was identified at Philae) disappeared in Egypt, and replaced by the Coptic script used to note Egyptian language using Greek letters to which they added some letters derived from the Demotic, designed to record the specific sounds of Egyptians. In Nubia, the same Greek alphabet was adapted from the 6th century to transcribe the local language, Old Nubian, for liturgical purposes, which was deciphered in the early 20th century. Next to the Old-Nubian, Greek itself was largely employed as much for religious texts as for official inscriptions or funerary epitaphs. From the 14th century, Arabic language and writing became gradually dominant, but Nubian dialects have persisted in daily acts until today.