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The Keys of Egypt

The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs

Lesley and Roy Adkins
Reviewed for the Sunday Telegraph.

In the fourth century AD the Christian Church forbade the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs in order to break a vital link with the country’s pagan past. A script that had been employed for over 3,500 years was suddenly extinct. When the seventeenth century Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher attempted to decipher the meaning of hieroglyphic inscriptions he was convinced that the symbols were ideograms, because the Egyptians were too primitive to have conceived of a phonetic script. Kircher saw the civilisation of pharaohs as the source of all wisdom and wrestled with the hieroglyphs in an effort to extract the lost secrets of the ancients.

We now know that Kircher was wrong on both counts. Although there are a few ideograms, the majority of hieroglyphs are phonetic, just like the English script that we all know & ©. And, of course, hieroglyphic inscriptions do not contain the secret to eternal life, but they do convey the history, culture and religion of one of the oldest civilisations on earth, which makes their decipherment one of mankind’s most important intellectual achievements. Furthermore, the story behind the decipherment, as told by Lesley and Roy Adkins, is a ripping tale of obsession and rivalry.

The hero of the “The Keys of Egypt” is Jean-François Champollion, a child prodigy born in the French town of Figeac in 1790. By the age of twelve, having already mastered Latin and Greek, he was studying Hebrew, Arabic, Syrian and Chaldean. His interest in hieroglyphs was sparked by a meeting with the mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, who explained to Champollion that nobody could read the script that adorned his collection of Egyptian ornaments. The pre-teen genius declared that one day he would decipher their meaning.

Fourier’s own fascination with hieroglyphs started when he accompanied Napoleon on his invasion of Egypt. Napoleon wanted primarily to disrupt Britain’s trade route to India, but alongside the 38,000 troops were 150 scholars, including Gaspard Monge, who went on to explain mirages, and Nicolas Conté, who invented the graphite pencil and established a pencil factory in Cairo to supply his colleagues.

Although the expedition was a military failure, it was an academic success, culminating in the discovery of the celebrated Rosetta Stone. The slab contains the same inscription repeated three times, in Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic (a more cursive variation of hieroglyphs). Initially there was great optimism that the comprehensible Greek inscription could be used to unravel the principles of hieroglyphs, but scholars did not know which bits of Greek corresponded to which bits of hieroglyphs, and worse still they did not know the language of the ancient Egyptians and so they were not in a position to pronounce any Egyptian words.

What little could be gleaned from the Rosetta Stone was discovered by the English polymath Thomas Young, Champollion’s arch rival. Young is a forgotten hero of British science, having conducted research into how materials bend and stretch, the eye’s ability to focus, the eye’s perception of the colour of light, and the nature of light itself.

However, his magpie approach to research meant that he was ill-suited to the long haul that would be needed to crack the mystery of hieroglyphs. In contrast, Champollion studied nothing except hieroglyphs for two decades and eventually realised his childhood dream.

Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs brought meaning to the artefacts of Egypt. He was able to arrange the Louvre’s Egyptian collection logically and historically, while other curators looked on with envy. It was impossible to bring such insights to the classical galleries, because their vases and sculptures were not covered in writing. Virtually everything we know today about ancient Egypt is result of our ability to read the writing of the pharaohs, which in turn can be traced back to Champollion. It impossible to overestimate his contribution to Egyptology.

The Adkins duo succeed in providing a fascinating and elegantly written biography of Champollion, doing justice to one of all time great stories of academic heroism. Deciphering ancient scripts and seeing into the minds of the ancients is an inherently intriguing concept. As the classics scholar Maurice Pope, put it: “Decipherments are by far the most glamorous achievements of scholarship. There is a touch of magic about unknown writing, especially when it comes from the remote past, and a corresponding glory is bound to attach itself to the person who first solves its mystery.”