The story of the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – the pictorial writing best known from the walls of ancient Egyptian monuments and tombs – was one of the main achievements of the heroic age of 19th-century Egyptology, when not only were the foundations laid for a modern understanding of the ancient civilisation, but new discoveries from it also seemed to be found in ever-greater numbers with every passing year.
Following the French Expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century and the installation of a new and outward-looking regime in Cairo that eagerly invited foreign interest in the country, scores of budding Egyptologists poured into Egypt from across Europe, making what had once been a difficult destination into one exerting a new and powerful magnetism over all those having an interest in the ancient world.
The publication of the famous Description de l’Egypte in Paris in the early decades of the 19th century, eventually occupying dozens of folio volumes covering virtually every aspect of the modern and ancient country, stimulated this interest further. It gave rise to the kind of Egyptomania in many European capitals that perhaps only really returned with the same intensity after the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun a century later.
Cairo’s new government, led by the pro-European Mohamed Ali, made visiting Egypt easier for such new Egyptologists. Some of them turned out to have only a temporary interest in ancient Egypt, among them Giovanni Belzoni, originally a circus strongman, who wound up in Egypt by chance in 1815 and turned himself into an Egyptological entrepreneur. He opened an exhibition of ancient Egyptian finds in London that attracted thousands of visitors and ran for the best part of a year.
However, in addition to the adventurers and other elements from the Egyptological underworld, there were also those who had a more sober interest in the country and hoped to uncover secrets lost for thousands of years thanks to its new openness to investigation and the application of new scientific techniques. Few early Egyptologists better exemplify this second type than French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, the decipherer of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and thus the man who perhaps did more than anyone else to set the new discipline of Egyptology on its feet.
As a new exhibition, entitled L’aventure Champollion, on Champollion’s life and work at the French National Library in Paris makes clear, without the deciphering of hieroglyphics, and with it that of the other two scripts used by the ancient Egyptians to record their language, commonly called the hieratic and demotic, work on separating out fact from fiction in ancient Egyptian history could never have progressed.
At the beginning of the 19th century, little was known with certainty about the history and civilisation of ancient Egypt, and what was known came from mostly ancient Greek or Roman sources. A few decades later, this situation had changed out of all recognition as for the first time in nearly 2,000 years it was possible to read the writing that covered the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and monuments and the many papyrus fragments, sometimes entire scrolls, that were then being discovered.
Suddenly, what had appeared to be an insoluble mystery only a few decades before was opened up to scientific investigation. The ancient Egyptian king lists, now readable thanks to Champollion’s work, allowed a chronology of ancient Egyptian history to be drawn up. Temples and monuments whose function had earlier been largely unknown suddenly began to be understood as newly readable ancient Egyptian texts provided information on religion and with it on the gods and goddesses whose names had previously only been known from Greek equivalents.
If anyone has the right to the title of the founder of modern Egyptology it is surely Champollion, the exhibition says. It emphasises the rags-to-riches elements in his biography, showing how a talented young man from the provinces, at first making his way only with difficulty in the capital, eventually ended up as the first professor of Archaeology at the prestigious Collège de France and curator of the Egyptian collections at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
It underlines his exceptional application and industry, presenting him almost as a typical figure of an age that had seen a Corsican soldier without connections – Napoleon Bonaparte – become the emperor of France and slotting him into the work of the generation of French scholars and scientists, many of them still remembered today, which had produced the enormous Description de l’Egypte.
Perhaps some visitors to the exhibition, balking at the gallocentrism, will remember that at the time there was controversy, not settled today, about whether it was the Englishman Thomas Young or the Frenchman Champollion who first cracked the hieroglyphic code. Young earlier made the kind of moves that Champollion later built upon in his deciphering of the ancient Egyptian script, though he is scarcely mentioned in the exhibition.
But few will want to dwell unduly on this question of national priority. All visitors to the exhibition will come out of it with their interest in ancient Egypt rekindled by the extraordinary story of human ingenuity in the decipherment of hieroglyphics it presents.
Possibly, it will also remind them of earlier encounters with Champollion, whether in the name of Champollion Street in Downtown Cairo, a stone’s throw from the Egyptian Museum in Tahir Square that his work helped to establish, or in the statue of Champollion that today stands in the centre of the main courtyard of the Collège de France in Paris.
DECIPHERING THE CODE
The exhibition begins by taking visitors back to the aftermath of the French expedition to Egypt, the development of Egyptomania in Paris and other European capitals, and the discovery of materials promising a solution to the mystery of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, including the famous Rosetta Stone.
Found by French soldiers near Rosetta in 1799, this is an ancient Egyptian stele inscribed with three versions of a decree issued by king Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196 BCE, one in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, one in the demotic script, and one a Greek translation of the ancient Egyptian text. The stone was confiscated by the British in 1801 and sent to the British Museum in London, where it remains today. It was quickly realised that it could provide clues to the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian scripts, and copies of the inscription were circulated to scholars across Europe, including Champollion in Paris.
From there, the story of the decipherment of the scripts and then of the understanding of the ancient Egyptian language is well known. After the early recognition that the three versions on the stone were all of the same text, two in ancient Egyptian and one a translation into ancient Greek, it became a relatively simple matter to plot correspondences between blocs of letters in the Greek text, whose meaning was known, to blocs in the demotic and hieroglyphic versions of the same text.
The names of kings and queens were particularly fertile starting points since these are surrounded by a rectangular frame in hieroglyphics called a “cartouche,” meaning not only could correspondences be found between such names in the Greek text and cartouches in the hieroglyphics, but also that the phonetic values of the latter could be worked out.
As Stéphane Polis, a professor of ancient Egyptian at the University of Liège in Belgium, writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, “two centuries later the deciphering of hieroglyphics by Champollion remains the paradigm of every other decipherment.”
“While the deciphering of cuneiform writing [from the ancient civilisations of what is now Iraq], of Mayan and Aztec, and of Linear B [an early form of ancient Greek] are famous later successes, Champollion’s work was fundamental in that it brought together the conditions necessary for being able to make sense of an otherwise unreadable script,” including the existence of translations into and out of the language concerned, a reasonably large selection of texts, and a working hypothesis on the grammatical and phonetic features of the language represented in the unknown script.
The exhibition presents Champollion’s work in deciphering hieroglyphics as well as on the grammatical and phonetic characteristics of the underlying language, which he was able to deduce not only from his study of the large number of texts in ancient Egyptian then being discovered and made available to European and other scholars, but also from his knowledge of the Coptic language, a descendant of ancient Egyptian and used mostly for religious purposes and written in an alphabetical script derived from Greek. It shows how Champollion’s efforts did not stop with the decipherment of the hieroglyphic and then the hieratic and demotic scripts but extended to what the exhibition calls an “Egyptological encyclopaedism” as he made himself familiar with virtually every aspect of ancient Egypt.
There were journeys across Europe in search of ancient Egyptian materials, for example, with Champollion spending extended periods in Turin in Italy studying ancient Egyptian texts such as the king lists kept in the city’s museum. There was also a visit to Egypt itself in 1828-29, during which Champollion conferred with Mohamed Ali on the need to safeguard the country’s ancient sites, eventually sending him an extensive list, and travelled the length of the Nile from Alexandria and Rosetta on the Mediterranean coast to Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt.
There was Champollion’s work as first curator of the Egyptological collections at the Louvre, leading to the opening of the museum’s first Egyptian galleries in 1827. This was part of the extension of the institution away from simply being a showcase or repository for European art and towards its more familiar later role as an “encyclopaedic” museum of the world’s civilisations, including, of course, the ancient Egyptian. The important synoptic works that Champollion was also somehow finding time to work on during these years, among them his Grammaire égyptienne, the first overall account of ancient Egyptian, and Dictionnaire égyptien, the first comprehensive dictionary of hieroglyphics, were published after his early death in 1832.
The Paris exhibition takes visitors through these and other aspects of Champollion’s life and work by drawing on the unparalleled collection of Champollion papers on deposit at the French National Library as well as on the Egyptological collections of the Louvre. It sets Champollion against the background of the world he lived in, one in which the secrets of ancient civilisations were finally emerging into the light of day after having been hidden in obscurity for thousands of years and where great efforts were being made not only to uncover and understand these secrets but also to present them to the wider world.
* L’aventure Champollion. Dans le secret des hiéroglyphes, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, until 24 July.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.