Keys of Egypt: The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code

Overview

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops were astonished to find countless ruins covered with hieroglyphs — remnants of a language lost in time. Egyptomania spread throughout Europe with their return, and the quest to decipher the hieroglyphs began in earnest, for it was understood that fame and fortune awaited the scholar who succeeded.

In rural France, Jean-Francois Champollion, the brilliant son of an impoverished bookseller, became obsessed with breaking the code of ...

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2001 Trade paperback Perennial ed. New. Trade paperback (US). Glued binding. 368 p. Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade. Ancient; Ancient (To 499 A.D. ); Ancient ... Languages; Egypt; Foreign Language Study; History; Language Arts & Disciplines; Non-Fiction; North Africa; Translating & Interpreting Read more Show Less

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Overview

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops were astonished to find countless ruins covered with hieroglyphs — remnants of a language lost in time. Egyptomania spread throughout Europe with their return, and the quest to decipher the hieroglyphs began in earnest, for it was understood that fame and fortune awaited the scholar who succeeded.

In rural France, Jean-Francois Champollion, the brilliant son of an impoverished bookseller, became obsessed with breaking the code of the ancient Egyptians. At sixteen years of age he decided that he would dedicate his life to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Amid political turmoil in France caused by Napoleon's meteoric rise and catastrophic fall, Champollion was hounded, exiled, and even charged with treason, yet he continued to strive for the key to the ancient texts. In 1812, Champollion made the decisive breakthrough, beating his closest rival, English physician Thomas Young, to the prize and becoming the first person to be able to read the ancient Egyptian language in well over a thousand years. The Keys of Egypt is a true story of adventure, obsession, and triumph over extreme adversity.

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Editorial Reviews

Birmingham Post
The authors have done great service to Champollion. Their biography is graphic, gripping and a great read.
Daily Mail
The Keys of Egypt is a worthy tribute to the man who named—and unlocked—the Valley of the Kings.
Mail on Sunday
Lesley and Roy Adkins have written a classic.
New Scientist
A riveting account of the race to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Sunday Telegraph
A ripping tale of obsession and rivalry.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060953492
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/1/1901
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.33 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

(The Beginning of Time)

The house at 28 rue Mazarine, where Jean-François Champollion lived and carried on his research into hieroglyphs, was less than 200 yards from the Institute of France where his brother Jacques-Joseph had his office. Towards midday on 14 September 1822, Champollion covered the distance in the shortest time possible. Clutching his papers, notes and drawings, he fled along the narrow, gloomy street, around the corner and into the Institute. Not fully recovered from his latest spell of ill-health and at the highest pitch of excitement, he was already breathless as he burst into his brother's office, flung his papers on to a desk and shouted, ‘Je tiens l'affaire!' (‘I've found it!'). Working since early morning on the latest drawings of inscriptions from Abu Simbel, he had at last seen the system underlying the seemingly unintelligible Egyptian hieroglyphs, and it was now only a matter of time before he would be able to read any hieroglyphic text. He began to explain to Jacques-Joseph what he had discovered, but only managed a few words before collapsing unconscious on the floor. For a few moments his brother feared he was dead.

Perhaps not quite in the way he had always hoped for, this was to prove the most important turning point in Champollion's turbulent life. Through years of ever-increasing preoccupation with hieroglyphs he had been working towards this goal, but his first tentative steps had been made before he had chosen his life's work and even before he had seen any hieroglyphs — he was drawn to his destiny by an insatiable curiosity about the origins of the world. Earlyin childhood, apparently neglected by his parents, he was looked after and to some extent spoiled by his brother and three sisters, and they doted on the bright baby of the family who was so much younger than themselves. Champollion's high intelligence and extraordinary genius for languages were recognized by his brother, who was determined that these gifts should not be wasted. Having had his own schooling curtailed by the terrible upheaval of the French Revolution, Jacques-Joseph resolved to minimize its effects on Champollion, initially by giving him lessons, since all the schools had been shut down. Later a private tutor was found for the boy, but as a precarious political stability returned under the ascendance of Napoleon, the schools reopened. By the age of twelve Champollion was so prodigiously proficient in Latin and Greek that he was allowed to begin studying Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean. Since his knowledge of Latin and Greek had already opened to him a world of books on all manner of subjects, his passion for Oriental languages initially appears a curious caprice on the part of this son of a rural bookseller, born in the remote town of Figeac in south-west France. In reality Champollion had already decided to take on one of the great intellectual challenges: to investigate the creation of the world and the beginning of time itself.

Although the Revolution had outlawed the Catholic Church and suppressed religion, the only model for the origin of the world was still contained in the Old Testament of the Bible, which was believed to be a description of the history of the earth from the time of its creation by God. Scholars preparing to examine this theory had to possess a good knowledge of Oriental languages in order to study early versions of the Biblical texts and related documents. Since it was still believed that people lived on the earth very soon after the world began, it was natural to use the tools of history and philology to look for its origin — archaeology and geology were only in their infancy, not yet respectable sciences. Champollion's insatiable curiosity was to tempt him towards various other fields of study on many occasions, but once he became aware of the potential of ancient Egypt, he found the focus for which he was searching. He was gripped by energetic enthusiasm for this mysterious country, a Biblical land whose history was interwoven with that of the Israelites, but the history of Egypt (indeed, virtually all knowledge of Egypt) was locked away in hieroglyphic texts that could not be read — texts that might contain unimaginable secrets, even an accurate account of the origin of the world. Here was a challenge worthy of his talents, a prize of untold knowledge, forgotten for centuries — if he could only decipher the hieroglyphs.

Apart from his exceptional gift for languages, another gift that was to prove decisive in Champollion's success was his extraordinary visual memory, which allowed him to pick out similar signs and groups of signs among the thousands of hieroglyphs he was to study. It may have been this visual memory that caused his initial problems with writing and spelling — as a child he seems to have seen words as pictures and pictures as words, making little distinction between writing and drawing. This unconventional and careless approach was probably a result of his early childhood when he tried to teach himself by copying words from books — an indication of his ability to tackle problems in his own original way. In the unfocused freedom of these formative years, with no proper teaching, he developed the wide-ranging curiosity that later provided both the main driving force of his life and a tendency to be distracted by ever more interesting irrelevancies, but the legacy of this unusual childhood was not altogether beneficial. Restricted to the home because the social unrest of the Revolution made the streets unsafe for children, Champollion at least had the freedom indoors to explore whatever caught his attention, but this later caused problems when he was forced to cope with the disciplines of the schoolroom and the necessity to study subjects, such as mathematics, that completely failed to interest him. It took many years to learn how to cope with life as an ordinary schoolboy...

The Keys of Egypt. Copyright © by Lesley Adkins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2002

    Unearthing More Than Temples

    By deciphering the hieroglyphs covering so many of the ancient Egyptian buildings Champollion and his followers enabled historians to fill in so many of the gaps in the understanding of Egyptian society and how it fitted into the timeline of ancient history. Most of the knowledge contained in those writings would have remained unknown but for the tireless efforts of this frail Frenchman. A thoroughly interesting and informative read for anyone like myself fascinated by ancient history.

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