Ancient History & Civilisation


1. The Discovery of Egypt

Champollion and the Rosetta Stone

The recovery of Egypt is one of the most brilliant chapters in archeology. The Middle Ages knew of Egypt as a Roman colony and a Christian settlement; the Renaissance presumed that civilization had begun with Greece; even the Enlightenment, though it concerned itself intelligently with China and India, knew nothing of Egypt beyond the Pyramids. Egyptology was a by-product of Napoleonic imperialism. When the great Corsican led a French expedition to Egypt in 1798 he took with him a number of draughtsmen and engineers to explore and map the terrain, and made place also for certain scholars absurdly interested in Egypt for the sake of a better understanding of history. It was this corps of men who first revealed the temples of Luxor and Karnak to the modern world; and the elaborate Description de L’Égypte (1809-13) which they prepared for the French Academy was the first milestone in the scientific study of this forgotten civilization.10

For many years, however, they were unable to read the inscriptions surviving on the monuments. Typical of the scientific temperament was the patient devotion with which Champollion, one of these savants, applied himself to the decipherment of the hieroglyphics. He found at last an obelisk covered with such “sacred carvings” in Egyptian, but bearing at the base a Greek inscription which indicated that the writing concerned Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Guessing that two hieroglyphics often repeated, with a royal cartouche attached, were the names of these rulers, he made out tentatively (1822) eleven Egyptian letters; this was the first proof that Egypt had had an alphabet. Then he applied this alphabet to a great black stone slab that Napoleon’s troops had stumbled upon near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. This “Rosetta Stone”* contained an inscription in three languages: first in hieroglyphics, second in “demotic”—the popular script of the Egyptians—and third in Greek. With his knowledge of Greek, and the eleven letters made out from the obelisk, Champollion, after more than twenty years of labor, deciphered the whole inscription, discovered the entire Egyptian alphabet, and opened the way to the recovery of a lost world. It was one of the peaks in the history of history.11

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