Remembering Champollion

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 May 2023

David Tresilian visits a major exhibition on decipherer of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics Jean-François Champollion at the Louvre Lens Museum in northern France



The Louvre Lens Museum is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than with an exhibition on Jean-François Champollion, the man who first deciphered ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics?

Though Champollion, originally from Figeac in the south of France, had few connections with Lens, a town near the French border with Belgium, the Louvre Lens has been able to call on the resources of mother institution the Louvre Museum in Paris in organising its anniversary exhibition.

It also marks two hundred years since Champollion published his solution to the riddle of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, thereby allowing subsequent generations of archaeologists to substitute fact for fiction when writing about ancient Egypt and also founding the modern discipline of Egyptology.

Unlike the other events that have taken place in France to mark the anniversary, among them a major exhibition at the French National Library in Paris that focused on the hieroglyphics themselves (reviewed in the Weekly in April last year), the Louvre Lens exhibition focuses on Champollion the man as well as his achievements.

Visitors thus come away with a powerful sense of the drive and determination that lay behind Champollion’s career as he battled the often-indifferent French scholarly community of his time while still managing to produce major contributions on the Egyptian Coptic language, a development out of ancient Egyptian, as well as work on the ancient Egyptian language itself and its various writing systems.

Born in 1790 and dying at a comparatively young age in 1832, Champollion managed to cram the work of several ordinary lifetimes into a career lasting little more than a couple of decades. His comparatively modest origins and provincial background counted against him in the competitive milieu of the French capital, and he lived through a period of tumultuous and what for many must have seemed like bewildering social change.

There was the rise and fall of French general Napoleon Bonaparte, who during the period of political experimentation that followed the 1789 French Revolution managed to have himself declared first consul of the French Republic in 1799 and in 1804 French emperor. Then there was the collapse of the Napoleonic regime and also of France’s republican heritage in 1815 with the restoration of the monarchy.

Champollion retained sympathies with Napoleon even after the collapse of his regime and even more so with the republican heritage of the French Revolution, neither of which helped him under the restored monarchical regime when he could have done with patrons. Fortunately, his talent and application stood him in good stead, and his chosen field of hieroglyphics connected well with France’s early 19th-century fascination with all things ancient Egyptian.

Napoleon’s decision to take some 150 scholars with him when he invaded Egypt and the Levant in 1798 as part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stymie British interests in the Eastern Mediterranean meant that even though the expedition’s military and strategic aims did not pay off, with first Napoleon and then his army slinking back to Europe, the same could not be said of its intellectual aims, which were much longer-lasting.

Not only did the French expedition lead to the discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone near the city of the same name, in fact a fragment of a 2nd-century BCE Ptolemaic stelae bearing an inscription in ancient Egyptian and Greek, but it also produced the Description de l’Egypte, a massive account of the ancient and modern country from almost every angle that took decades to complete and involved the work of hundreds of scholars.

Anyone working on ancient Egyptian topics in the years after the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt was almost automatically assured of an audience, so fascinated were the French and European publics by ancient Egyptian civilisation. Much older than the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome to which modern Europe traced its heritage, and a source of fascination to the ancient Greek and Roman authors because of its magnificent architectural, artistic, and intellectual achievements, ancient Egypt was still fundamentally mysterious in the early decades of the 19th century.

No one had been able to read ancient Egyptian writing since the late 4th century CE when the last hieroglyphic writings were made at Philae in Upper Egypt, and even before then ancient Egypt’s cultural and religious heritage, still present under first Greek and then Roman rule from the 4th century BCE onwards, had fallen away as the country became Christian under its late Roman and Byzantine rulers.

What little that was known about ancient Egypt was contained in the writings of often-uncomprehending ancient Greek or Roman authors, who unfortunately never thought to set down what they no doubt could have learned about the country’s language and writing system. Impatient with this situation, and rightly sensing that the inscription on the Rosetta Stone held the key to understanding the ancient Egyptian language, Champollion set to work on deciphering ancient hieroglyphics, eventually publishing his solution in 1822.

This was immediately recognised as a watershed in the study of ancient Egypt, at last giving access to the meaning of the inscriptions that covered tomb and temple walls and that for centuries had been frustratingly opaque to all attempts at interpretation. Just as importantly, it allowed the ancient Egyptians to express themselves in their own words for the first time in some 1,500 years.

While other ancient writing systems have been deciphered since the early 19th century, giving access to their underlying languages, few of these successes have had the resonance of Champollion’s deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Cuneiform, used for writing various languages in ancient Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq, was deciphered later in the 19th century, allowing scholars access to ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite, among other languages, and Linear B, an early version of Greek, was deciphered in the 1950s.

However, Champollion’s achievement is still recognised as trail-blazing because of its early date and its effect in opening up a previously almost completely closed ancient civilisation to investigation.


Life and career: The Louvre Lens exhibition opens with Champollion’s schooldays in southeast France, where he showed his fascination with ancient Egypt.

He was taken under the wing of influential local figure Joseph Fourier, one of the scholars who had accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition and the author of parts of the Description de l’Egypte. Partly as a result of Fourier’s help, Champollion soon found himself in Paris studying Arabic and Coptic at the city’s famous School of Oriental Languages and working in the French National Library.

Much of this part of the exhibition is taken up with the materials that would have been available to Egyptophiles of Champollion’s generation. Even though the mystery of hieroglyphics would not be solved until 1822 as a result of Champollion’s efforts, there was still intense interest in ancient Egypt among multiple audiences.

There was French orientalist Etienne Quatremère’s work on Coptic, a copy of which is in the exhibition, and Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy’s work on Arabic, including textbooks designed to teach the language in Paris. But modern and especially ancient Egypt were still largely seen through the lens of classical Greek and Latin authors who depicted it as a mysterious, but also especially impressive, civilisation that had provided a stimulus for their own achievements.

The second room of the exhibition bears witness to the ancient Roman vogue for ancient Egyptian sphinxes and obelisks, with Roman emperors, and, centuries later, Roman Catholic popes, shipping obelisks to Rome to decorate the city. Roman sculptors tried their hand at statues of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and other deities, producing images of her looking like a Roman matron.

Ancient Egyptian artefacts began flooding into European collections in the early 19th century, often with scant regard for provenance. The Mohamed Ali regime in Egypt at the time, eager to call upon European and especially French cooperation in modernising the country, employed the gift of ancient Egyptian artefacts as a tool of cultural diplomacy, with the result that they were uprooted from Egyptian soil to be sent on the long sea voyage to Europe.

The most famous of such diplomatic gifts was the right-hand obelisk from in front of the Luxor Temple in Upper Egypt that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a gift to king Charles X of France in 1830. But there were also other artefacts that reached Europe under less happy circumstances, such as the Zodiac Ceiling acquired by French king Louis XVIII in 1821 that was forcibly hacked out of the Dendera Temple.

Champollion worked on a major collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts that formed the core of a museum of ancient Egypt in the Italian city of Turin. Objects from this collection have been lent to the exhibition, including some that Champollion would have worked upon during his time in Italy. He was later appointed head of the new ancient Egyptian section of the Louvre Museum in Paris and was responsible for making many important acquisitions before it opened in 1827.

It seemed for a time, the exhibition says, that Champollion’s research into ancient Egyptian objects might bring him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, since it was thought that such new discoveries, and even more importantly Champollion’s dating of them, might threaten the established chronology of ancient history given in the Bible.

While the ancient Greek and Roman authors supplied much of the information available at the time about ancient Egypt, for many Europeans the country was associated most of all with biblical episodes such as Moses crossing the Red Sea during the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt, the story of Joseph, sold into slavery and becoming vizier to the Egyptian pharaoh, and of course later the flight of the Holy Family itself at the beginning of the Christian era when Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus fled the persecution of king Herod for the safety of Egypt.

Fortunately, nothing in the new discoveries threatened the established dating, with Roman Catholic Pope Leo XII even becoming one of Champollion’s most influential supporters.

Champollion himself only visited Egypt once, saving his trip until 1828 when he travelled extensively in the country reaching the second cataract of the Nile at Wadi Halfa. He was, as the exhibition notes, the first person in over 1,500 years to visit the ancient tombs and temples who was also able to read the inscriptions on their walls. His record of this visit, Monuments de l’Égypte et de la Nubie, was published posthumously from 1833 to 1845, along with his ancient Egyptian dictionary and grammar.

In recounting the life of Champollion, the Louvre Lens exhibition takes visitors on a thrilling intellectual journey not only back to ancient Egypt but also to early 19th-century France and the rediscovery of ancient Egyptian civilisation as a result of the deciphering of hieroglyphics. It includes some well-known objects, such as the famous Old Kingdom sculpture of the Seated Scribe discovered by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette at Saqqara in 1850 and now in the Louvre, and many that are far less so, such as several granitic Roman copies of ancient Egyptian statues and an unlikely painting by French artist Charles Philippe Larivière of Mohamed Ali’s heir Ibrahim Pasha posed in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

It ends with a copy of the famous statue of Champollion by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor responsible for the Statue of Liberty in New York City, that has stood in the main courtyard of the Collège de France in Paris since 1878.


Champollion, la voie des hieroglyphes, Louvre Lens, France, until 23 January 2023.

A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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