Celebrating 200 years of Egyptology

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 1 Sep 2022

Egypt is celebrating the bicentenary of the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the creation of Egyptology with a batch of new events and a social media campaign

Qaytbey Fort
Qaytbey Fort


To mark one of the most important moments in our understanding of ancient history, the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the creation of Egyptology 200 years ago, a series of events is being organised to explore the ancient Egyptian civilisation and show how the decoding of hieroglyphs was key to our knowledge of it.

The celebration starts on 1 September and lasts until the 27th and will feature major events at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to mark the day when pioneering French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion succeeded in deciphering ancient Egyptian writing at the beginning of the 19th century and to celebrate World Tourism Day.

Two temporary exhibitions are to be held at the museum. The first is an antiquities exhibition displaying objects relating to the history of the creation of Egyptology and the scholars who contributed to it and those who worked on the construction of the museum.

The second is a photographic exhibition showing a collection of 19th-century photographs of archaeological sites in Egypt and the work of archaeological missions in Egypt. It also includes documents recording the transfer of objects in the museum from the former Boulaq and Giza museums to their permanent display in Tahrir Square.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities will also launch a social media campaign on different sites to explain hieroglyphs that have a special nature or meanings, as well as to display artefacts that are key to understanding ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Among these is the Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian granodiorite stela inscribed with a royal decree written three times, once in Demotic (the cursive script used for daily purposes), once in hieroglyphics (used for official writing), and once in ancient Greek (the writing of the administration at the time).

The decree was issued in Memphis in 196 BCE during the Ptolemaic period on behalf of king Ptolemy V who reigned from 204 to 181 in order to establish the divine cult of the new ruler. It features 14 lines of hieroglyphic script, 32 lines in Demotic, and 53 lines of ancient Greek.

The stone was discovered in July 1799 in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta by soldiers belonging to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. In 1801, the French surrendered to Britain, and the stone fell into the hands of British officials and was sent to London. In 1802, it was presented to the British Museum, where it is still the most visited exhibit.

French scholar Jean-François Champollion realised that the hieroglyphs, hitherto undeciphered, recorded the sounds of the ancient Egyptian language, laying the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture. He took a crucial step in understanding the ancient Egyptian writing when he identified the hieroglyphs that were used to write the names of non-Egyptian rulers.

He announced his discovery on 27 September 1822, a day which later became World Tourism Day. Champollion also realised that alphabetic signs were used for Egyptian names in the hieroglyphic script, and together with his knowledge of the Coptic language, which derives from ancient Egyptian, he was able to read hieroglyphic inscriptions.

According to “The Rosetta Stone: Unlocking the Ancient Egyptian Language”, published on the website of the American Research Centre in Egypt, before Champollion several scholars had embarked on attempts to decode the ancient Egyptian script, including Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, a French orientalist, and his Swedish student Johan David Åkerblad, who managed to identify the phonetic values of many of the so-called “alphabetic” signs to read personal names and to determine the translations of a smattering of other words.

“These developments set the stage for the now infamous rivalry between [Englishman] Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion in the race to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Both men were brilliant” in what they achieved, the article says.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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