Jean Francois Champollion walked briskly into the Royal Academy of Inscriptions at ten o'clock on the morning of September 17, 1822. The crisp air of Paris this autumn day intensified his excitement.
A conclave of venerable scholars had gathered in the great chamber to hear about the momentous discovery that the youthful genius from La Dauphiné had made. Jean François appeared even younger than his 32 years in the presence of this elderly assembly.
Monsieur Dacier, secretary of the academy, introduced Champollion with a few words. Then he left him alone at the lectern. Jean François took the top paper from the sheaf he had carried with him. He began to read:
"This is the ninth year. The month is Xandikos, the fourth day. Under the majesty of Horus-Ra, the Pharaoh hath ascended upon the throne of his father, lord of the crown of Upper Egypt and of the crown of Lower Egypt, mighty one of strength . . ."
The old gentlemen listened with fascination. They knew what Champollion had accomplished. He had at last deciphered the hieroglyphics of Egypt. He was reading a translation of the writings on the famous Rosetta Stone, found near the old Arab fort at Rashid on the Rosetta branch of the Nile delta. Here was the key to open the secrets of Egypt's lost past.
Champollion went on. He read about the good works of Ptolemy V Epiphanes. This Pharaoh had presented gifts to his troops, reduced taxes, granted amnesty to prisoners of war and abolished the gangs for the navy. It was all written on the stone. Champollion was putting the breath of life back into ancient Egypt.
A scholar whispered to one of his colleagues: "This is the voice of the Pharaohs speaking again."
So it was. For 15 centuries, the voice of the Pharaohs and their people had been mute. Mute as the Sphinx but infinitely more enigmatic. For 15 centuries, the writings of the ancient Egyptians had taunted linguists and cryptographers. The "sacred carvings" adorning temples and tombs and crowding papyrus rolls had presented an unfathomable riddle in the ages after the demise of the old dynasties. The meanings behind the neatly hewn hawks and hands and unidentifiable symbols had remained one of the mysteries of the centuries.
How the writing of the Nilotic people was deciphered stands as an exciting footnote to history. It is linked with the names of personages no less renowned than Cleopatra and Napoleon. Its main character, however, was Jean François Champollion who had struggled for twenty years to crack the code of the Pharaohs.
The story really begins 5,000 years ago. The oldest samples of Egyptian hieroglyphics date from about 3500 B.C. The first method of writing was straight picture drawing. For example, a Theban merchant sold half a dozen chickens to a traveler from Memphis. He drew six chickens on a papyrus as a record for the tax collector. This rudimentary way of keeping track of business served well for basic needs. But, what about more intricate expression? How would a warrior tell posterity about the conflict with the Ethiopians? How could anyone put down abstract concepts like joy or sorrow?
An alphabet that enables a person to write any thought that comes to mind took centuries to evolve. A move away from the limitations of a purely picture language came when some writer used pictures for whole words. Tousled hair, for instance, would signify grief. A palette and a reed stood for writing; while those two pictures plus one of a man spelled out scribe.
Admittedly better than the first crude writing, this method was cumbersome. It took a good memory to retain the herds of symbols and their combinations. At the zenith of its complexity, the Egyptian script counted more than 600 separate pictures.
The big stride toward establishing a script that represents sound rather than idea probably started in this fashion: The Egyptian word for "go out" sounded like the word for "house". Why not then sketch a picture of a house to express "go out", a scribe reasoned. So he etched a box with a little door in its side to denote that verb. A modern English equivalent would be drawing an eye to depict the pronoun "I."
Chuckles were surely heard up and down the Nile when this new approach to writing got off to a start. Scribes must have vied with each other to devise clever ways to simplify the unwieldy script. Little by little, an alphabet, close to our definition of one, was developed. The Egyptian word for mouth was ro. Some unremembered scribe must have said one day, "Why not use a picture of a mouth to symbolize the sound of 'r'?" The word for owl started with an "m." Thus the scribe utilized a picture of that nocturnal bird to represent the letter "m". He applied this method to all of the consonants so that each one had a hieroglyph of its own. A crane stood for "b", a throne for "k", a hand meant "h" and so on. Combinations of different pictures served as complicated diphthongs. The Egyptian scribes never wrote vowels.
An alphabet based on sound permitted the Egyptians to capture the most intangible or abstract ideas in their writing. In time, they introduced a hieratic (priestly) script employed exclusively for sacred carvings on houses of worship and royal sarcophagi. Another script, called demotic, became the everyday handwriting for business and other secular purposes.
Egypt had now given to the world what many consider to be her most precious legacy.
Egypt fell. The banks of the Nile swarmed with Assyrians, then Persians, then Macedonians and then the legions of Rome. The hieroglyphics gave way to alien scripts. Slowly, the once-popular pictures of hawks, hands and thrones slipped beyond the recognition of even the oldest scribes. And who cared? Old Egypt was dead—dead as the Pharaoh Tutankhamen sealed in his golden coffins.
The years turned into decades, the decades into centuries. The winds that swept out of the Sahara across the pyramids buried the Pharaohs and their strange way of writing deeper and deeper in eternal oblivion. From time to time scholars and travelers peered at the monuments and stones of old Egypt, but what they saw remained unintelligible. The secret of the hieroglyphs, it seemed, would defy all challengers forever.
But armies other than those of ancient peoples were to overrun Egypt after the passage of centuries. One was a French army. France in the early 1800's was in the grip of revolution and terror, climaxed in the iron rule of Napoleon. From Calais to Cairo, soldiers of Imperial France manned their posts.
Napoleon's short-lived occupation of Egypt kindled intense interest in the lost days of the Pharaohs. Shiploads of papyrus rolls and copies of hieroglyphic markings from obelisks found their way into European centers of learning.
In the tranquil oasis of a French university, Jean François Champollion pondered the exotic script of the Egyptians. He had already mastered the better known languages like Greek and Latin. He possessed a thorough knowledge of Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew and at least a dozen more Oriental languages, living and dead. He knew Coptic so well that he kept his diary in that language, the successor tongue to the one the last Pharaohs spoke. The destiny of this Frenchman was clear. He would crack the code of the Pharaohs.
The romantic name of Cleopatra was one of the first two words that Champollion decoded. On an obelisk decorated with the picture carvings, he detected two sets of symbols enclosed in a cartouche (an elongated circle). This same monument also had carved at its base the Greek words for "Cleopatra" and "Ptolemy," surname of the queen-enchantress. The wizard deduced that the word cutters must always have encircled, royal and divine names in their script. Therefore, he could work on deciphering the letters in the words "Cleopatra" and "Ptolemy." From the symbols in the cartouche, he finally extracted eleven letters. This was an excellent start—but not enough. Imagine trying to read English with a knowledge of less than half of its letters.
Then, in the midst of his laborious work, came a stroke of good fortune. A French soldier on duty as officer of engineers at Rashid, Egypt unearthed a broken black basalt slab, three feet seven inches long, two feet six inches wide and ten inches thick. In its original form, with no parts broken off, the stone must have stood five or six feet high and was probably mounted on a pedestal. Time and sand had done their work, however, and the stone, which came to be known as the Rosetta Stone, was certainly not very impressive at first glance. But close examination revealed that inscribed on it was a long passage in three scripts—14 lines of hieroglyphics, 32 lines of demotic and 54 lines of Greek characters.
Yes, Greek! Jean Francois knew Greek as well as he knew his native French. This was the long-awaited chance to unravel the script and explore Egypt's written past.
Champollion translated the Greek tract into Coptic. He began matching sounds, looking for repeated symbols as he had done with the obelisk. Slowly, a pattern emerged. The hieroglyphics were indeed an alphabetic system of writing. (At least, basically.) Now the real labor started!
Twenty years passed before Champollion broke the secret of hieroglyphics. It took him two whole decades to unscramble the symbols with complete accuracy. Why did a linguistic genius need so much time? First, Egyptian script had no punctuation. It was one flow of uninterrupted symbols, some reading right to left, some reading up and down. The script employed no vowels. This meant that the symbols "m" and "n" standing together could be interpreted as "man", "moon", "mean", "mine", or a score of other words. Then too, Egyptian was a flowery language. The scribes and stone cutters never abandoned fully their practice of adding unnecessary and antique symbols that stood for whole words. A single picture, as an example, placed next to a Pharaoh's name might mean the "great" or the "merciful" or something else. It was a challenge that would have defeated a lesser mind than Champollion's.
But, it was worth it all. That morning was the highlight of his life. He spent 25 minutes reading the contents of the Rosetta Stone, reciting the closing passage slowly:
"This decree shall be engraved upon a tablet of hard stone in the writing of the words of the gods and in the writing of books and in the writing of the Greeks . . . and it shall stand by the side of the Ptolemy . . . the beloved of Ptah, the god who appeareth, the lord of benefits."
Champollion's voice trailed off into silence. The chamber of distinguished scholars remained quiet. Another task lay ahead: all the words of ancient Egypt were now waiting to be translated. In a way, Champollion's triumph on that September morning 140 years ago was a personal triumph and one that was not to be fully recognized until many years later. Like other pathfinders who have put forth startling discoveries or theories, Champollion had to suffer his share of disbelievers and skeptics. But to him the meaning of his accomplishment was clear—as clear as the meaning of once-strange hieroglyphics.