The Code Breaker’s Secret Diaries: Rediscovering Ancient Egypt
Andrew Robinson reviews a book on Egyptology and hieroglyphics.
The Code Breaker's Secret Diaries: Rediscovering Ancient Egypt
Translated by Martin Rynja Gibson Square Books
ISBN 978 1903933831
‘Jean-François Champollion was the first, and to many the greatest, hero of Egyptology,’ begins Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley’s new preface to Champollion’s Egyptian diary written in 1828-29. Not only did Champollion decipher the hieroglyphic writing system in 1822-23, thereby doubling the span of recorded history from about 600 BC to about 3000 BC, he did so against high odds and with Gallic panache.
Born into a poor and undistinguished family at the beginning of the French Revolution, educated on a shoestring and exiled from his home town of Grenoble by the royalists for his republican activism, he was dogged by the poor health that killed him at the age of only 41. Champollion nevertheless became the first curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre and contrived to get himself sent to Egypt with royal support. There, he and his party sailed the Nile from Alexandria to Abu Simbel and found his decipherment triumphantly confirmed by inscriptions on the temples, tombs and statues of the pharaohs.
The diaries contain vivid, penetrating and often entertaining descriptions of contemporary Islamic Egypt and Egyptians – mosques and palaces, pashas, priests and peasants; of the machinations of French officialdom, whose trade in antiquities Champollion’s excavations threatened; and of the difficulties and dangers of travel on the Nile, including a New Year dinner in Nubia with two rare bottles of Nuits- Saint-Georges ‘which the tropics had rather bludgeoned’. His findings were kept ‘secret’ because Champollion’s dating of Egyptian civilisation challenged the creationist account of the Catholic church.
But it is his observations on the hieroglyphs that have a special fascination. ‘I am no longer surprised that in hieroglyphic texts it is so difficult to differentiate the jackal from a dog … A dog is defined only by a tail curled up like a trumpet. This distinction is taken from nature: all Egyptian dogs carry their tail pointing upward in this way.’ Again: ‘One of the sailors showed me an enormous beetle with “three” antlers: one antler, or rather a false antler, on its carapace; at either end of its carapace two horizontally placed antlers; and on its head two antlers which cross. Without any doubt, this is the Scarab.’
A French publisher created a large-format edition of this diary in 1989, L’Égypte de Jean-François Champollion, with magnificent photographs by his descendant Hervé Champollion and notes by an expert at the Louvre. Attractive and informative as that is, Champollion’s prose, in Martin Rynja’s vigorous translation, needs no embellishment. His diary is the finest antidote to dry-as-dust Egyptology I know.
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