Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 December 2004
Issue No. 719
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dig days:

Zahi Hawass

Champollion's desk

By Zahi Hawass

When the Egyptian delegation travelled to France on the occasion of the Ninth Congress of Egyptology in Grenoble, we were able to visit the house where the great Jean-François Champollion lived. Together with my colleagues in the delegation, who included my friend Ali Radwan, I wandered through his house, from his living room to his bedroom, until I reached his desk, where I stopped and stared in awe. I looked around the office he used while studying Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and reflected on this great man's life.

The Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering the Ancient Egyptian language. It was found in August 1799 by one of Napoleon's officers who was supervising the construction of a building at St Julien, near Rosetta, which lies about 70 kilometres east of Alexandria. The Rosetta Stone was made of granite and stood 113 centimetres high. On it was a text written in ancient scripts, with 14 lines in hieroglyphs, 32 in demotic and four lines in Greek. The French published the text in Déscription de l'Egypte.

While I was thinking of the Rosetta Stone's discovery, its translation and its importance to our understanding of Ancient Egyptian history. Jean-Claude Goyon, a great French Egyptologist, told me that although Champollion was married, his heart belonged to another woman whom he loved until he died. It seems that the hidden love of Champollion helped him to enter the strange world of the Pharaohs and give us a taste of the past. I have found that love changes the lives of the great Egyptologists of both the present and the past, and that it is always a secret love that has the strongest impact.

It is extremely strange that even after Champollion had deciphered the Rosetta Stone, he was not known in the streets of Grenoble. Yet now, years after his death, he is famous. When I sat in his chair I was so happy I could not believe I was touching it. I imagined that he used to sit for hours thinking about these strange signs known later as hieroglyphs.

Scientists began to study the Rosetta Stone in 1802 and Journal, le Courier d'Egypte published the news that Greek text was an exact copy of the hieroglyphic and demotic texts. Champollion knew Greek, and found that all the inscriptions were a decree from the priests from Memphis on the occasion of the coronation of Ptolemy V in 196 BC.

Champollion's cousin gave him a copy of the Rosetta Stone after he returned from a trip to Egypt. Champollion had studied Arabic, Persian, Coptic and other languages, and so he began to decipher the text. In September 1822 he wrote to the Academy of Literature and Inscriptions in Paris to tell them about his discoveries. The letter was under the title: "Lettre -- Monsieur Dacier relative -- alphabet des Hirogyphe ephonetiques".

Without Champollion we would not understand anything about Ancient Egypt. Now we are able to read the texts that were written in temples and tombs. We owe Champollion our deepest gratitude. Without him I never would have found my love, Egyptology.

We left his home and went with Goyon to open the exhibition of beautiful Egyptian art discovered in a cache at the Temple of Karnak by French archaeologist George Legrain in 1903. This consisted of thousands of artefacts and more than 751 complete statues. Twenty-five of these objects were sent to Grenoble to be exhibited as a gift to the congress in honour of Champollion.

What Nicolas Grimal and Cartogeni have done, attacking us in a non-scientific way concerning Pyramids which is not their expertise, will never affect the relationship between Egypt and the French. We have a great French ambassador as well as Denis Louche, the cultural counsellor, and Philip Gorgais from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All are wonderful people who are most sincere in their efforts to strengthen relations. We will all work together to ensure that this good relationship will continue. This effort can be seen in the Karnak project and the French mission working in Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic Egypt. France is not Grimal.

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