Understanding Egyptian Cartouches

Egyptian hieroglyphs, a writing system that thrived for millennia, employed several distinct forms to convey different meanings or to highlight particular words or phrases. One such unique form is the cartouche.

What is a Cartouche?

In Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions, a cartouche, known as a shenu in ancient Egyptian, is an elongated oval with a straight line extension on one end. This symbol was used to enclose the names of important figures, mainly the pharaohs or royal dynasties. The oval design signified that everything contained within the oval was sacred.

Significance of the Cartouches in the Image

The image provided showcases two cartouches. The first cartouche contains the hieroglyphs for “Ptolemy,” and the second one bears the hieroglyphs for “Cleopatra.” These two names are iconic in the annals of Egyptian history, representing the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for several centuries.

The decipherment of hieroglyphs, which had been lost to history for a significant period, owes much to such cartouches. It was through these named inscriptions that the eminent French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, began the intricate process of deciphering hieroglyphs. The presence of known names, such as Ptolemy and Cleopatra, provided a reference point to unlock the meanings of various hieroglyphic symbols.

Origin of the Term “Cartouche”

The term “cartouche” itself has a fascinating history. Napoleon’s soldiers, during their Egyptian campaign, noted the similarity between these oval inscriptions and the paper cartridge used in their rifles to hold gunpowder. They named the symbol “cartouche,” which translates to “cartridge” in French, and the name stuck.

Based on status: Arshaluis Zurabyan

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