At the age of twelve, while studying the Old Testament in the original, Champollion wrote an essay arguing that a republic was the only reasonable form of state. Having grown up amid intellectual influences that paved the way for the century of enlightenment and released the forces of the French Revolution, he suffered under the renascent depotism that crept in with decree and edict and ultimately showed its face openly after Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor. Unlike his brother, Champollion did not succumb to Napoleon’s charm.
Yet it was the Egyptologist Champollion who, impelled by a tremendous need for freedom, stormed the Bourbon citadel of Grenoble, banner in hand. He tore the lilied flag from the citadel tower, and in its place raised the tricolor, which for a decade and a half was to fly before Bonapartist armies as they swept over Europe.
Champollion was again in Grenoble. His appointment to a professorship of history at the university dates from July 10, 1809. At the age of nineteen, then, we find him lecturing to young men, among whom were many who had shared school bench and classroom with him at the lycée only two years earlier. It is quite understandable that he should have made enemies. Almost at once he fell afoul of a net of intrigue woven by older professors whom he had too easily surpassed and unwittingly humiliated.
And what curious ideas the young history professor championed! He proclaimed a jealous regard for the truth to be the highest ideal of historical research, meaning by that the absolute truth, not any Bonapartist or Bourbon version. To attain this ideal he demanded intellectual freedom, and this at a time when inquiry was limited by all kinds of political prohibitions and dispensations. Historians, he felt, should pay no heed to the powers that be. He demanded the continuance of the liberties that had been shouted from the housetops during the initial ferment of the Revolution, but that already were being consistently betrayed.
Champollion’s politicking necessarily brought him into conflict with the timeservers of his day. He never deviated from his convictions, though often he was discouraged enough. At such times he would cite to his brother a thought that might have been taken from Voltaire’s Candide, but which he, the Orientalist, found expressed more to his liking in one of the secred books of the East, “Make your fields arable! In the Zend-Avesta it says: better make six acres of poor land arable than win twenty-four battles. That is also my opinion,” Ever more hopelessly entangled in academic scheming, sick in spirit, deprived of a fourth of his stipend by professorial machination, he wrote: “My lot is decided. I must be poor as Diogenes. I must try to buy myself a barrel to live in, and sacking to wear on my back. Then perhaps I can hope to subsist on the well-known generosity of the Athenians.”
He wrote satires on Napoleon. Still, when Napoleon finally fell from power, and when, on April 19, 1814, the Allies marched into Grenoble, Champollion wondered bitterly whether a government of laws would now actually replace Bonapartist tyranny and saw little hope of any such consummation.
His intense concern for freedom of government and science, however, in nowise diminished his passion for Egyptology. His labors continued to be incredibly fruitful, though he scattered his attention among a variety of remote and sometimes unimportant subjects. He worked up a Coptic dictionary for his own use, and at the same time wrote plays for production in the salons of Grenoble, among these one on the Iphigenia theme. In a French tradition which began with Peter Abelard in the twelfth century he wrote political songs, which were taken up by the people in the streets as fast as he could turn them out. He also continued on his main work, which was to pry deeper and deeper into the mystery of Egypt. No matter what the cry in the streets, “Vive l’Empereur!” or “Vive le Roi!” his mind never relinquished this central preoccupation. He wrote countless essays, he laid plans for books, gave generously to all who came to him seeking help in their own compositions, worried his head about the needs of mediocre students. So much activity frayed his nerves and undermined his health. In December 1816 he wrote: “Every day my Coptic dictionary is getting thicker. The author, meanwhile, is getting thinner.” He groaned when he found that he had reached page 1069 without finishing the project.
Then came the Hundred Days, when Europe again stiffened under Napoleon’s grip. Overnight the persecuted became the persecutors, the rulers subjects, the erstwhile King a refugee. Champollion himself was so excited he could do no work. “Napoleon is coming back!” The phrase was on everyone’s lips. The reaction of the newspapers of Paris was shamelessly operatic. Their headlines, milestones of falseness, reflected the chameleon mood. “The Monster has Escaped” evolved progressively into: “The Werewolf has Landed at Cannes”; “The Tyrant Is in Lyon”; “The Usurper Is Sixty Hours away from the Capital”; “Bonaparte Approaches at Top Speed”; “Tomorrow Napoleon will Be within Our Walls”; and finally “His Majesty Is in Fontainebleau.”
On March 7 Napoleon entered Grenoble at the head of his army. With his snuffbox he rapped on the city gates, torchlight playing on his face. Highly conscious of his melodramatic role in this historic scene, for one spine-tingling minute Napoleon stood alonefacing the cannon on the walls. Up above, the cannoneers were running about in confusion. Then “Long Live Napoleon!” the cry rang out, and “the adventurer marched in, and marched out an emperor,” For Grenoble, the heart of the Dauphiné, was the most important base of operations to be won over along the itinerary of Napoleon’s trumphal return.
Figeac, Champollion’s brother, in the past had always openly expressed his sympathy for Napoleonism. Now his enthusiasm knew no bounds. When Napoleon inquired after a competent private secretary, the mayor brought in Figeac, having slyly misspelled his name “Champoléon.” “What a good omen!” the Emperor exclaimed. “The man has half my own name!” Champollion himself was present when the Emperor interviewed the older brother. Napoleon asked the young professor about his work and was told about the Coptic grammar and dictionary. Though Champollion, for his part, remained cool, the Emperor was fascinated by the boyish savant. He conversed with him at length. He promised him, with imperial gesture, to have his Coptic works published in Paris. Still not satisfied, the following day he visited Champollion in the university library, and there reopened the subject of the youthful professor’s linguistic studies.
Two conquerors of Egypt stood face to face. One had included the land of the Nile in his plan for global conquest and had hoped to restore the country’s economy by the construction of a great irrigation system. The other had never actually set foot on Egyptian soil, but with the eyes of the spirit had viewed the ancient ruins a thousand times, and eventually would make them live again by sheer power of intellect. Napoleon’s imperial imagination was so keenly stimulated by his meeting with Champollion that on the spot he announced his decision to give Coptic the status of the official Egyptian language.
But Napoleon’s days were numbered. His collapse was as catastrophically abrupt as his passing restoration. Elba had been a place of exile; St. Helena was to be a grave.
Again the Bourbons returned to Paris. They lacked strength, and their vengefulness was correspondingly mild. Still, it was inevitable that hundreds of death sentences should be decreed. “Punishments rained down like manna on the Jews,” it was said at the time. Figeac was among those selected for reprisal, for he had completely exposed himself by following Napoleon to Paris. In the summary political proceedings started against Figeac, no distinction was made between him and Champollion, an error that those who rancorously envied the young professor at Grenoble took pains not to correct. To make matters worse, Champollion, during the last hours of the Hundred Days period, had been unwise enough to help found the Delphinatic League, the program of which was to promote liberty in all directions. This program naturally had now become highly suspect. Champollion made this serious tactical mistake when he was struggling, without hope, to raise a thousand francs to buy an Egyptian papyrus.
When the Royalists marched on Grenoble, Champollion presented himself at the city walls to help the defenders, quite failing to recognize where the greater freedom lay. But what happened? The moment that General Latour began to bombard the city, thus endangering Champollion’s precious manuscripts, the young man rushed from the walls, forgetting politics and war, and up to the third floor of the library. There he stayed through the bombardment, hauling water and sand to put out fires, all alone in the big building, risking his life to save his papyri.
It was after he had been banned from the university for traitorous activities that Champollion finally set about actually deciphering the hieroglyphs. The ban lasted for a year and a half, and was followed by additional tireless labors, at Paris and Grenoble. Then a fresh indictment on charges of treason loomed. In July 1821 he fled from the city in which he had risen from student to professorial rank. One year later he published his famous Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l’alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques—that is, theLetter to M. Dacier in regard to the Alphabet of the Phonetic Hieroglyphs. This monograph outlined the rudiments of a successful decoding method, and evoked a great deal of comment in circles interested in solving the mystery of Egyptian pyramid and temple.
Several ancient writers had mentioned the hieroglyphs, and during medieval times a number of fanciful interpretations of them had appeared. Herodotus, Strabo, and Diodorus, all of whom had traveled through Egypt, refer to the hieroglyphs as an unintelligible form of picture writing. Horapollon, in the fourth century B.C., left a detailed description of the Egyptian script (Allusions to Egyptian writing in Clement of Alexandria and Porphyry do not make sense.) Horapollon’s comments were usually taken as a point of departure by later writers, for lack of any better source on which to base an opinion. And Horapollon thought of the hieroglyphs as picture writing. On this account the dominant tendency throughout later centuries was to look for a purely symbolic meaning in the pictures. This tradition permitted the non-scientific to give full rein to their imagination and drove the scholarly to despair.
Not until Champollion had deciphered the hieroglyphs was it realized just how far from the truth Horapollon had been. Egyptian writing actually had developed far beyond the original symbolism, in which three wavy lines stood for water, the outline of a ground plan for a house, a banner for a god, and so on. This literally ideographic interpretation, when applied to later inscriptions, resulted in serious misapprehensions, some of which were absurd.
Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit, who is credited with inventing the magic lantern, between 1650 and 1654 published in Rome four volumes containing “translations” of the hieroglyphs, not one of which even remotely fitted the text. For instance, the group of signs standing for autokrator, title of the Roman emperor, in Kircher’s reading appeared thus: “The creator of all vegetation and fruitfulness is Osiris; whose generative force holy Mophta draws into his kingdom from heaven.” In spite of this colossal mistake, Kircher had at least anticipated Champollion and others in recognizing the value of studying Coptic, the latest form of the Egyptian language—a value that a dozen other scholars denied.
A hundred years later de Guignes, speaking before the members of the Paris Academy of Inscriptions, proclaimed a theory, based on comparative hieroglyphology, that the Chinese were Egyptian colonists. Yet almost every mistake of this sort contained some germ of truth. De Guignes, for instance, correctly read the name of the Egyptian King “Menes,” which an antagonist changed to the reading “Manouph.” Voltaire, most spiteful critic of the time, thereupon turned his invective on etymologists, “who have a low opinion of vowels and place little value on consonants.” English students of the same period, reversing the thesis mentioned above, declared that the Egyptians came from China!
One might think that the discovery of the Rosetta Stone would have brought unbridled conjecture to a halt, but just the opposite proved to be the case. The solution of the problem now seemed so obvious that even lay folk began to play the game. An anonymous contributor from Dresden read the whole Greek text into its fragmentary hieroglyphic equivalent on the Rosetta Stone. An Arab by the name of Ahmed ibn Abubekr “unveiled” a text that the otherwise serious Orientalist Hammer-Purgstall went to the trouble of translating. An anonymous Parisian said he recognized the Hundredth Psalm in a temple inscription found at Dendera. In Geneva appeared the translation of inscriptions found on the so-called “Pamphylitic obelisks,” which supposedly comprised “a report of the victory of the good over the wicked four thousand years before Christ.”
Fantasy outdid itself. Imagination combined with extraordinary arrogance and stupidity in Count Palin, who claimed that he had recognized the sense of the Rosetta Stone at a glance. Leaning on Horapollon, on Pythagorean doctrines, and on the cabala, in one night’s work the Count achieved complete results. Eight days later he offered his interpretation to the public, saying that speed of attack had “preserved him from the systematic errors that must arise from excessive contemplation.”
Detail from the Narmer Palette, of the end of the fourth millennium B.C. The Horus falcon symbolizes the king, holding a conquered land (represented by the oval with the head of a bearded man) on a leash—that is, in subjection. The conqueror stands on six lotus blossoms. The lotus blossom being the sign for a thousand, these represent six thousand prisoners. The harpoon below probably indicates the name of the country. The square filled with wavy lines may mean the country is located on the seacoast. Both symbols probably refer to Syria.
Champollion sat unmoved among these fireworks, patiently ordering, comparing, testing, slowly climbing the long hill. Meanwhile he was told in a pedantic brochure from the hand of Abbé Tandeau de St. Nicolas that the hieroglyphs were not a system of writing at all, but a kind of decorative device. Undeterred, Champollion, as early as 1815, said in a letter on the subject of Horapollon: “This work is called Hieroglyphica, but it does not contain an interpretation of what we know as hieroglyphs, but rather of the sacred sculptural symbols—that is, the emblems of the Egyptians—which are quite different from the real hieroglyphs. My idea runs counter to general opinion, but the evidence I adduce for it is found on Egyptian monuments. The sacred sculptures distinctly show the emblematic scenes mentioned in Horapollon, such as the snake biting the swan, the eagle in characteristic posture, the heavenly rain, the headless man, the dove with the laurel leaf, etc., but there is nothing emblematic in the real hieroglyphs.”
During these years, then, the hieroglyphs became a catchall for notions about a mystical Epicureanism. All manner of cabalistic, astrological, and gnostic doctrines were attributed to them, as well as agricultural, mercantile, and administrative allusions to practical life. Biblical quotations were discovered in them, even an antediluvian literature, not to mention excerpts from the Chaldean, Hebrew, and Chinese. “It was as if the Egyptians,” Champollion remarks, “had nothing to express in their own language.”
All these interpretative sallies were more or less based on Horapollon. There was only one way to decipherment, and this path led away from Horapollon. This was the direction that Champollion took.
The great intellectual discoveries are seldom fixed exactly in time. They are the result of innumerable findings of a protracted process of training the mind to deal with a single problem. They represent the intersection of the conscious and the unconscious, of purposeful observation and the errant dream. Only rarely is solution achieved at one sudden stroke.
Great discoveries, too, lose much of their glamour when dissected in the light of their historical background. In retrospect, to those who already understand the principle involved, the errors are likely to seem a little ridiculous, the false conceptions the result of downright blindness, the problems simple. Today it is difficult to imagine how daring it was for Champollion to offer a dissent from the tradition of Horapollon. It must be remembered that both the specialists and the informed public held fast to Horapollon for twoweighty reasons. First, he was revered as an ancient authority, in much the same spirit as medieval thinkers had revered Aristotle, and as later theologians esteemed the early church fathers. Second, though they may have been privately skeptical, they simply could not visualize any other way of looking at the hieroglyphs except as symbols, conventionalized pictures. The very evidence of the eyes, unfortunately, strongly supported this thesis. Also, Horapollon had lived one and a half millennia closer in time to the period of the last hieroglyphs, and this seeming advantage tipped the scale in favor of his conception, a conception that confirmed what everybody could plainly see—pictures, pictures, and more pictures.
We are unable to say exactly when this occurred, but the moment that Champollion hit on the idea that the hieroglyphic pictures were “letters” (or, more precisely, “phonetic symbols”—his own earliest formulation says: “without being strictly alphabetical, yet phonetic”) the decisive turn away from Horapollon had been made, and the right track to eventual decipherment found. It is possible to speak of inspiration after so many years of toil? Was it a case of one happy minute of perfect insight? The fact is that when Champollion was first toying with the idea of a phonetic interpretation, he decided against the notion. He even identified the sign of the horned viper with the letter f and still mistakenly resisted the idea of a completely phonetic system. Other investigators, among them the Scandinavians Zoëga and Akerblad, the Frenchman de Sacy, and, above all, the Englishman Thomas Young, all recognized the demotic inscription on the Rosetta Stone as “alphabetic writing” and, so doing, arrived at a partial solution of the problem. Yet beyond this point they were unable to progress. They either gave up or retracted. De Sacy announced his full capitulation. The hieroglyphic writings, he said, still remained as “untouched as the Holy Ark of the Covenant.”
Even Thomas Young, who achieved outstanding results in deciphering the demotic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, for the reason that he read it phonetically, modified his own theory in 1818. In decoding the hieroglyphic for Ptolemy he arbitrarily divided up the characters into letters, monosyllables, and disyllables.
Here the difference between two methods and two results comes clearly to light. On the one hand there was Young, the naturalist. Though undoubtedly a man of genius, he was unschooled in philology. His approach was schematic. He compared, he interpolated ingeniously. Though actually he deciphered only a few of the hieroglyphs, the extraordinary power of his intuition is proved by the fact that Champollion confirmed the correctness of Young’s rendering of 76 out of a list of 221 groups of characters, despite his ignorance of their phonetic value. Champollion, however, had mastered more than a dozen ancient languages. Through the Coptic he had approached much closer than Young ever could to the spirit of the old Egyptian language. Whereas Young correctly guessed the meaning of a few single words or letters, Champollion recognized the underlying linguistic system. He went far beyond an interpretation of fragments; he made the Egyptian script readable and teachable. Once he had grasped basic principles, he saw that decipherment must begin with the names of the kings. This idea had been lying dormant in his mind for a long time.
But why with the names of Egyptian kings? The inscription on the Rosetta Stone, as already related, consists of an announcement in three different forms of writing that the priesthood has granted special divine honors to King Ptolemy Epiphanes. The Greek text, which could be read straight off, made this much clearly evident. And in the hieroglyphic section of the text was a group of signs enclosed in an oval ring, which ring came to be known as a cartouche.
It seemed reasonable to suppose that these cartouches, since they were the only signs in the text showing evidence of special emphasis, might contain the Egyptian word for the king’s name. For the king’s name was the only element in the text seemingly meriting distinction. One might think, too, that anyone of ordinary intelligence should be able to pick out the letters of the name Ptolemy (as written in ancient style) and so correlate the eight hieroglyphic signs with eight letters.
All great ideas are simple in afterthought. Champollion’s accomplishment was to break away from the tradition of Horapollon that for fourteen centuries had fogged the whole subject of Egyptian writing, and as such was no mean triumph. By sheer luck, moreover, Champollion’s theory was brilliantly confirmed by study of the inscription on the Obelisk of Philæ, which was taken to England in 1821 by the archæologist Banks. This obelisk bore a message also written in hieroglyphics and Greek, and was in effect a second Rosetta Stone. And here again the name Ptolemy was framed in a cartouche, as was also another unfamiliar group of hieroglyphs that through comparison with the Greek were shown to be the Egyptian word for Cleopatra.
Champollion wrote down the groups of signs one above the other in this fashion:
The two “cartouches” from the obelisk of Philæ which put Champollion on the road leading to the ultimate decipherment of the hieroglyphics.
It was obvious that the second, fourth, and fifth signs in the hieroglyphic group for Cleopatra coincided with the fourth, third, and first signs of the equivalent group for Ptolemy. With that the key to the hieroglyphs had been found—the key, too, to all the locked doors of Egyptian antiquity.
Showing how the already highly developed hieroglyphics evolved into a hieratic and then into a demotic script.
Today we know how endlessly complicated the hieroglyphic system of writing really is. Today the student learns as a matter of course all sorts of detail that Champollion, basing his attack on his original insight, was able to master only by a supreme effort. The language in his day, despite his contribution to its understanding, still offered great difficulties, for, of course, it was shot through with variations generated during the passage of three thousand years. Today we know a great deal about these variations, which divide “classical” from “new” Egyptian, and “new” from “late.” Before Champollion no one had seen this development. A discovery that helped the scholar decipher one inscription failed to solve the next. Today to the uninformed the decorative initial letter of a medieval script almost certainly indicates a letter and nothing more. Yet medieval writing lies within our own cultural sphere and is not even a thousand years removed from us in time. But the pioneer in hieroglyphology had to grapple with a developing script evolved by a completely alien culture three thousand years away in time.
Today it is easy enough to distinguish phonetic characters from ideographs and determinatives, a division that is the first step in hieroglyphic evaluation. Today we are no longer irritated when one inscription reads from right to left, the next from left to right, the third from top to bottom. Rosellini in Italy, Leemans in the Netherlands, de Rougé in France, Lepsius and Brugsch in Germany, all contributed discovery after discovery. Ten thousand papyri were brought to Europe; eventually the cryptologists were reading the flood of new inscriptions from tomb, monument, and temple with ease. Champollion’s Egyptian Grammar (Paris, 1836–41) appeared posthumously. Then came the first dictionary of Old Egyptian, later the Notes and the Monuments. Building on these results and on still later investigations, the Egyptologists were able in time not only to decipher but to write in Old Egyptian. The names of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort Albert were inscribed in hieroglyphs in the Egyptian Court of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The dedication of the courtyard of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin was written in Old Egyptian characters. Lepsius affixed on one of the Pyramids of Gizeh a tablet on which the name of the expedition’s sponsor, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was memorialized in ancient script.
The bookworm type of scholar is not always granted the boon of proving his theories firsthand. Often he never even has an opportunity to see the places that for decades he may have roamed in spirit.
As it happened, Champollion was not fortunate enough to add excavational successes to his great theoretical conquests. But at least he was able to see Egypt with his own eyes and had the satisfaction of proving in the field theories worked out in the seclusion of his study. Even as a youth Champollion had studied the chronology and topography of ancient Egypt. Through the years, while he succeeded in fixing a statue or inscription in space and time as best he could with such slight foothold, hypothesis after hypothesis had welled up from his train of thought. Once actually on the Egyptian scene, Champollion was in much the same position as a zoologist would be who, having reconstructed a dinosaur out of bones and fossils, suddenly found himself in the Cretaceous period face to face with the living beast.
Champollion’s expedition, which lasted from July 1828 to December 1829, was a march of triumph. By this time everyone in Egypt but French officialdom had forgotten that Champollion had once been charged with high treason. The natives came in droves to look at the man who could “read the writing on the old stones.” Champollion’s warm reception by the Egyptians inspired the expedition to sing the “Marseillaise” and the “Freedom Song” from La Muette de Portici in honor of the Governor of Girgeh, Mohammed Bey. The excited Frenchmen also got some work done. Champollion went from one discovery to the next, and found his ideas confirmed on every hand. At a glance he was able to classify the architecture of different epochs found in the ruins of Memphis. At Mit Rahina he discovered two temples and a cemetery. At Sakkara—a site that several years later was to prove a great source of finds for Mariette—he discovered the royal name Onnos and forthwith correctly dated it as belonging to the earliest Egyptian times.
Then he had the sweet satisfaction of proving a claim that six years before had made him the laughingstock of the whole Egyptian commission. The expedition’s boats were tied up at Dendera. In the foreground, ashore, was one of the great Egyptian temples built by a succession of kings and conquerors. The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom had shared in the construction of the Temple of Dendera, and so had Thotmes III and the great Ramses, mightiest rulers of the New Kingdom, and also Ramses’s successor. The Ptolemies also had had a hand in its building, and later the Romans, Augustus and Nerva, and finally Domitian and Trajan, these last two remembered for putting up the gate and the surrounding walls.
The hieroglyphic alphabet of twenty-four consonants. It was never used by itself, but always supplemented by signs signifying two or three consonants and by determinatives.
Napoleon’s troops, after a terrible march, arrived at Dendera on May 25, 1799, and there were overwhelmed by the spectacle of the ruins. Here, a few months before this, General Desaix and his division had interrupted their pursuit of the Mamelukes to stare, fascinated, at the might and splendor of a dead kingdom. Here, at last, stood Champollion, knowing beforehand almost every detail of the prospect through descriptive accounts, drawings, and copied inscriptions. Now it was night, a bright, gleaming Egyptian night under a full moon. The fifteen members of the Champollion expedition begged their leader for permission to go ashore. Finding he could not restrain them, he led the way, and they stormed the temple. “An Egyptian would have taken us for Bedouins,” he writes, “a European for a gang of well-armed Carthusians.”
L’hÆte, who took part in this incident, fairly stammers with excitement when he tells about it. “We ran helter-skelter through a stand of palm trees—a fairy scene in the moonlight! Then we came into tall grass, thorns, and bushes. Turn back? No, we did not want to do that. Go ahead? But we had no idea just which way to take. We raised a loud cry, but the only answer was the distant barking of a dog. Then we saw a dilapidated fellah, asleep behind a tree. Armed with a stick, with nothing but a few black rags covering his body, he looked like a demon.” (Champollion called him “an ambulant mummy.”) “He was frightened to death when he got to his feet, sure he was about to meet his end.… Still a good two-hour march. And finally the temple itself appeared, bathed in soft light, a picture that made us drunk with admiration.… On the way we had sung songs to ease our impatience, but here, in front of the propylon, flooded with a heavenly light—what a sensation! Perfect peace and mysterious magic reigned under the portico with its gigantic columns—and outside the moonlight was blinding! Strange and wonderful contrast!
“Then we built a fire of dry grass in the interior [of the temple]. Fresh delight, a new outburst of enthusiasm, like a sudden delirium. It was like a fever, a madness. Everyone was overcome by ecstasy.… This enchanted picture, replete with magic, was real—under the portico of Dendera.”
How did Champollion report this experience? The others called him “master,” and the moderate tone of his description accords with this superior status. Yet behind the sober words one can feel a pulse of excitement. “I will not try to describe,” he writes, “the impression that the temple, and in particular its portico, made on us. The separate dimensions of the structure can be measured, but it is quite impossible to give an idea of the whole. To the highest imaginable degree the temple combines grace with majesty. We stayed there two hours, filled with ecstasy. Guided by our poor wretch of a fellah, we wandered through the halls and tried to read the inscriptions on the outside in the glittering moonlight.”
This was the first large, well-preserved Egyptian temple Champollion had ever seen. The notes he took during this night, and at times thereafter, show how intensely this man had felt his way into ancient Egypt. In fancy, dream, and thought he had so thoroughly prepared himself for the actual scene that nothing in it came as a surprise to him. Everything he now witnessed confirmed what he had already sensed. His unexpected insights amazed his learned but less responsive companions. Most of the members of Champollion’s expedition saw temple, gate, column, and inscription as so many dead stone shapes, lifeless mementos of the past. But for the leader they were part and parcel of a living scene.
All of Champollion’s troop had shorn their heads and wore huge turbans, gold-embroidered jackets, and yellow boots. “We wore these well and with grave demeanor,” says L’hÆte. This half-joking attitude toward their outlandish costumes was not shared by Champollion, who for years had been known in Grenoble and Paris as “the Egyptian.” He wore native clothes as if he had been born in the land of the Nile. All his friends testify to this.
Champollion industriously interpreted and deciphered on this trip to Egypt. He had sudden inspirations, his mind teemed with ideas. He proclaimed a triumph over the commission: This was not the Temple of Isis, as they maintained, but the Temple of Hathor, goddess of love. And was the temple “extremely ancient,” as the commission said? Actually the structure had received its final form under the Ptolemies, and even after this period finishing touches had been added by the Romans. The overpowering impression made by the moonlit temple did not prevent Champollion from recognizing that though the building was “an architectural masterpiece,” it was overlaid “with sculpture in the worst style.” “Let us hope the commission will not be offended,” he wrote, “but the bas-reliefs at Dendera are abominable, and could not be anything else, considering that they sprang from a decadent epoch. During this period sculpture was already corrupted, whereas architecture, an arithmetical art and so less susceptible to change, remained worthy of the Egyptian gods and the admiration of the ages.”
Champollion died three years later, to the great loss of the new science of Egyptology. Immediately after his death his ideas were lampopned by English and German scholars. Blindly they repudiated his deciphering technique as a product of the imagination, this notwithstanding its publicly acknowledged results. Champollion was brilliantly supported, however, by Richard Lepsius, a German, who in 1866 found the bilingual Decree of Canopus. An exhaustive study of this inscription in demotic and hieroglyphic Egyptian and in Greek generally substantiated Champollion’s theories. Sir Peter le Page Renouf, in an address given before the Royal Society of London in 1896, finally paid Champollion the homage due him—sixty-four years after his death.
Champollion had solved the riddle of Egyptian writing. The long process of excavation could now begin.
A modern reading of Egyptian hieroglyphs.