The “Alphabet” of the Egyptian hieroglyphics is found (July 15, 1799) - History Key

The “Alphabet” of the Egyptian hieroglyphics is found (July 15, 1799)

Napoleon, apart from being a brilliant strategist and a skilled leader, he has shown that he is an open minded leader. In 1798 when he sailed to Egypt with a fleet of 328 ships and 38,000 troops to blur the British domination of the Mediterranean, he decided to bring 175 scientists in the expedition. Their main objective was to bring France the knowledge of the history from Middle East.

Bonaparte devant le Sphinx (Bonaparte Before the Sphinx) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt (1798–1801) brought Egypt and its civilization into focus in France, and started a period of Egyptomania
Bonaparte devant le Sphinx (Bonaparte Before the Sphinx) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt (1798–1801) brought Egypt and its civilization into focus in France, and started a period of Egyptomania © Image Source: Wikipedia

Brief history

Thanks to Napoleon’s initiative, the greatness of that territory was rediscovered. Among the first discoveries of that mission was the Rosetta Stone, founded in Rosetta which is believed to be the “alphabet” of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum
The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum © Olaf Herrmann /Image Source: Wikipedia

The stone was found by a worker in the foundation of the ancient Arab city and it was shown to French captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard. Bouchard believed that the three texts in different languages engraved on the stone could be identical, which would have led to the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.

One of the generals of Napoleon, who spoke Greek, translated the text. At Napoleon’s order, copies were made of the inscriptions and sent to various universities across Europe, in order to study the inscriptions.

However, in 1801 the French army was defeated and the Rosetta Stone was retained by the English troops. By 1802 the stone was already in London and it was in the custody at the British Museum.

Why is so important?

1. It had led to the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, by comparative method. Keep in mind that less 1% of the Egyptian hieroglyphs were successfully translated.

Writing on the Rosetta Stone
Writing on the Rosetta Stone © Image Source: ancient-egypt-online.com

2. Thomas Young, an English physicist noted that the hieroglyphic writing should be read from right to left, as all the hieroglyphs of animals are engraved with their front pointing at left. Also, Young managed to identify in the text the pharaoh Ptolemy V.

Tetradrachm issued by Ptolemy V Epiphanes
Tetradrachm issued by Ptolemy V Epiphanes © CC BY-SA 3.0/British Museum /Image Source: Wikipedia

3. Jean-Francois Champollion was the one who managed to decipher the mystery of the Rosetta Stone. He compared the 1419 hieroglyphs with the 486 Greek words and concluded that the hieroglyphics are phonetic elements or the letters of an alphabetical system.

Jean-François Champollion
Jean-François Champollion © Léon Cogniet/Image Source: Wikipedia

In conclusion, Napoleon deserves a lot of credit. Despite his conquering aims, the French leader recognized Egypt’s rich history. Even more, he formed a scholarly organization, called the Institute of Egypt. He also instructed his soldiers and commanders to “search” for anything valuable.

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