Cracking the Rosetta Code: How a Black Stone Slab Opened a World to an Ancient Egyptian Civilization
LONDON: From a military point of view, the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, an attempt to disrupt British trade and influence in North Africa and India, was a complete failure. For the world’s understanding of 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history, however, this would prove to be an accidental triumph.
An army of 50,000 men under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Alexandria on July 2, 1798, and over the next three years there were a series of victories, and sometimes defeats, for French troops in Egypt and Syria. .
But after the British navy sank Napoleon’s fleet in Aboukir Bay in the Battle of the Nile on July 25, 1799, the dwindling and disease-ridden French army, harassed by Ottoman and British forces, swarmed finds herself trapped in a hostile and alien land. Without exit and without possibility of reinforcement, the end was inevitable.
Napoleon knew this and on the night of August 22, 1799, he abandoned his troops and returned to Paris and his ultimate destiny – in 1804 he would be crowned Emperor of France.
The remnants of his army in Egypt hung on, even after the assassination of Napoleon’s successor as commander, until it finally surrendered to the British at Alexandria on September 2, 1801.
As part of the expedition, Napoleon had ordered the massive looting of antiquities to be brought back to France. But, after the French surrender, most of them fell into British hands. Among the loot returned to the British Museum was a block of polished stone engraved with scriptures in three different languages - ancient Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Discovered in July 1799 by a French army engineer who had reinforced the defenses of a captured 15th-century Ottoman fort near Rosetta on the west bank of the Nile, the object became known as the Rosetta Stone.
This would prove to be the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Although many European scholars were fluent in Ancient Greek, it would take them more than two decades before they could crack the Rosetta Code. When they did, it was a landmark moment in Egyptology, which the British Museum celebrates this month with a major new exhibition that brings together a collection of more than 240 objects, including the Rosetta Stone.
The exhibition “Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt” coincides with the 200th anniversary of the final breakthrough of French philologist and orientalist Jean-François Champollion in 1822.
“Deciphering the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone has revealed 3,000 years of Egyptian history,” Ilona Regulski, curator of Egyptian written culture at the British Museum, told Arab News.
“Until then, no one knew how far back the ancient Egyptian civilization went, or how long it lasted. But after his breakthrough, Champollion was able to translate the names of the kings and establish a royal chronology that went back much further in the world. time than anyone had imagined before.
“Very quickly, we also understood that it was a complex civilization which had relations with its neighbours, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, and little by little we understood society better.
“From Greek historians, who reported some practices they saw, we knew that the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead. But we didn’t really understand how these people lived and lived their world.
Cracking the Rosetta code was a complex undertaking that tested the minds of European scholars. Although the stone had three translations of the same decree, they were not word for word alike.
“Champollion and others started by looking at the Greek text and identifying words that appeared often, for example, the word for temple, or the title basileus (a term for monarch),” Regulski said. “They looked at the demotic text to see if there was a cluster of signs that appeared in more or less the same place.”
It was a reasonable start, but a process frustrated by the fact, not initially appreciated, that neither Ancient Egyptian nor Demotic were alphabet-based scripts, and any word could be spelled from different ways in the same document.
Eventually, a list of signs, a sort of ancient Egyptian dictionary, was created, “but that was not enough to understand the entire text, or to use it to read other inscribed objects,” Regulski said.
It was Champollion who finally understood that hieroglyphs were a hybrid system.
“There are alphabetic signs, but also single signs that stand for two or three letters, or even whole words,” Regulski said. “And some are silent signs, what we call ‘determinatives’ in Egyptology. You don’t read them in any way, but they indicate the meaning of the preceding word, telling you if it is a verb or a noun.
Basically, hieroglyphs “seem to be a very simple, symbol-based language, but it’s much more complicated than that, and much more complex than an alphabetic script, and it took a long time to figure out.”
The script on the Rosetta Stone turned out to be a decree written in 196 BC by priests of Memphis, acknowledging the authority of the Ptolemaic pharaoh Ptolemy V. It is believed to have originally been written on papyrus, with copies distributed throughout the kingdom so that the text could be engraved on stone slabs, or “stelae”, for display in temples throughout Egypt.
Over the following decades, nine more partial copies of the decree would be discovered at sites across Egypt. But the Rosetta Stone is the most complete, and without it, for example, “the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb,” excavated by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, “would have been very different,” Regulski said.
“It would have been difficult for Carter to identify the king, which is quite crucial, and his place in the context of the 18th Dynasty timeline. We would just have a nice grave with nice things.
By ancient Egyptian standards, the Rosetta Stone is not that old. “For us as Egyptologists,” Regulski said, “the stone, from around 200 BC, comes very late in the history of hieroglyphics, a writing system that was first used around 3250 BC”
And in 200 BC, hieroglyphics were already on the way out.
“The first really significant change in Egypt was the use of Greek as an administrative language,” Regulski said.
“When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. AD, people were already speaking Greek; the language was already circulating from the 8th century, because of trade and because there were many Greek mercenaries who fought in the Egyptian army and settled in the country.
“But from Alexander the Great, and especially in the Ptolemaic era, Greek became the language of administration and slowly drove out Egyptian.”
Regardless of the historical context for the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its seizure by the British, “for the field of Egyptology and for Egypt, it’s definitely something to celebrate,” Regulski said.
“Today there are many Egyptologists around the world, including our colleagues in Egypt, and we are all working together, a huge community trying to refine our knowledge of ancient Egypt, all of which came from this one company.”
Regulski, who spent two years working alongside Egyptian colleagues at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, could not be drawn to the controversial topic of whether the Rosetta Stone should be returned to its country of origin.
More than 100,000 artifacts from Egypt’s rich past will be housed in the Grand Egyptian Museum, currently nearing completion at a site west of Cairo near the Giza pyramids.
Among them will be the 5,400 treasures buried with Tutankhamun over 3,300 years ago, including his iconic death mask, which after decades of circumnavigation will finally rest where it belongs.
However, the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding everything, will remain in Britain.
The British general who accompanied the stone to Britain in 1801 after it was captured from the French chose to view it and 20 other pieces not as booty but as “a proud trophy of arms of Britain – not plundered from defenseless inhabitants, but honorably acquired by the fortunes of war.
The British Museum exhibition will feature the document of the French surrender, on loan from the National Archives of the United Kingdom and presented for the first time. This, a British Museum spokesperson said, is “the legal agreement which included the transfer of the Rosetta Stone to Britain…as a diplomatic gift…signed by all parties; representatives of the Egyptian, French and British governments.
Today, an Egyptian government might rightly challenge the portrayal of an Ottoman military officer as the legitimate guardian of Egyptian heritage.
Certainly, at the time, there was no discussion whether the Rosetta Stone and other antiquities should remain in Egypt, a question which is becoming increasingly acute today, at a time when pressure is mounting on Western institutions like the British Museum to return the spoils of imperial wars and adventures.
“The only thing I would say is that after working closely with the Egyptian curators at the museum, it’s not a priority for many of them,” Regulski said. “I find it a bit sad that our relationship is framed in this way, about returning items or not, because our relationship with our Egyptian colleagues is much more than a question of which individual items went to which. place.
“It’s about celebrating ancient Egypt, and there’s still so much to do in Egypt, so much to learn and research and collaborate with, and that’s the positive thing to focus on.”
The public’s fascination with ancient Egypt owes its origins to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the most visited object in the British Museum, and “to a culture which has left behind such well-preserved and monumental evidence of its existence which also has such a powerful visual appeal, which you don’t have in some other ancient cultures.
“I think the general visitor to a museum is drawn to this highly visual art culture, including the writing system itself. If you compare it with cuneiform, for example, you will be more attracted to hieroglyphics, because it is so beautiful, so visually appealing. I think that’s what hooks people and encourages them to learn more about the culture.
Certainly the British Museum expects the exhibition, which will trace the journey to decipher hieroglyphs, from the initial efforts of medieval Arab travelers and Renaissance scholars to the triumph of Champollion in 1822, to be one of the most popular to this day.
“Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt” is in the British Museum from October 13, 2022 to February 19, 2023.