Cracking The Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life Of Jean-François Champollion
The study of the deciphering of various ancient languages has led me to understand all the more clearly that to decipher a past language is an act that requires a great deal of intense creativity, in that it requires us to put ourselves in the perspective of the past and seek out the internal logic of the language that we are working with, which is likely to be very different than the logic of our own age. Linear B, after all, was a script that used a particularly infelicitous syllabary to write out archaic Greek, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs use a baffling array of signs for syllables, logographs, phonemes, and determinatives to portray Egyptian. For those who think English is a particularly madcap language, the writings of the ancient world show even less attention to consistency and our own logic of one letter = one phoneme than contemporary languages and alphabets do. And this book does a good job at figuring out that complexity and how much of a challenge it was to understand the precise nature of Egyptian writing even when there were two forms of Egyptian and a comprehensible koine Greek combined together on the same Rosetta stone, as it were.
This book of about 250 pages is divided into sixteen chapters. The author begins with acknowledgements and a discussion of the mania for Egypt that followed Napoleon’s invasion of that country in 1798. After that the author discusses the state of heiroglyphic understanding before Champollion (1) before discussing the subject’s revolutionary childhood (2) and his being a reluctant student as many bright people are (3). The author then talks about Champollion’s encounter with Egypt (4) and his going to Paris to study the copy of the Rosetta stone there (5), as well as his role as a teenage professor in Grenoble with his older (half-)brother (6). At this point the author discusses the beginning of the race to understand the hieroglyphics (7), the subject’s relationship with Napoleon (8), and his exile from Grenoble after Waterloo and the revolt that was soon undertaken there (9). The author discusses the breakthrough in better understanding the complexities of Egyptian writing (10), an Egyptian renaissance that followed (11), and Champollion’s time as curator at the Louvre (12) before the subject goes to Egypt (13). After this the author marches steadily to the conclusion of Champollion’s short life with a discussion of the subject’s time in Egypt in search of Ramesses (14), his role as the first professor of Egyptology (15), and the state of hieroglyphics and Egyptology after his death (16), as well as a discussion of geniuses and polymaths.
There is a lot to enjoy about this book if one is a fan of the mysteries of ancient languages as I am. There are, however, at least a few difficulties I have with the author’s framing of the work. For one, the author seems to excuse the bullying and abusive behavior of the subject towards others as well as the foibles of his revolutionary politics because he was a genius, as if being a genius made it unnecessary to behave properly towards others. Likewise, the author makes much ado about the apparent discrepancy between the Egyptian dynasty lists and biblical chronology, attempting to portray the Egyptian chronology as superior despite the fact that frequently two or even three dynasties that reigned simultaneously in different parts of Egypt were given different dynasty numbers and portrayed as reigning in sequential order, demonstrating that Egyptian chronology, when taken at face value, was far inferior to biblical chronology, despite the author’s desire to denigrate biblical authority. Alas, people write histories and biographies and not all people are able to frame ancient history in a fair-minded fashion, like the author.