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The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs [Paperback]

Lesley Adkins , Roy Adkins
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
Price: £14.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

3 Sep 2001

A vivid and superbly written account of the unravelling of one of the great intellectual puzzles, set against the backdop of Europe in the Napoleonic era.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops were astonished to discover ancient temples, tombs and statues, all covered with hieroglyphs – the last remnants of an unreadable script and a language lost in time. On their return Egyptomania spread rapidly and the quest to decipher hieroglyphs began in earnest.

Jean-Francois Champollion was obsessed with ancient languages from a very young age, and once he heard of the unreadable ancient Egyptian text he had found the challenge to which he would dedicate his life: the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Despite poverty he made gradual progress, although he had to fight against jealous enemies, both professional and political, every step of the way – a dangerous task when in post-Revolutionary France a slip of the tongue could mean ruin, exile or even death.

Failure threatened, as he was only one of many attempting to read the hieroglyphs, and his main rival, the English Thomas Young, claimed that decipherment was imminent, but Champollion refused to be distracted and finally, in 1822, he made the decisive breakthrough: he was the first person able to read the ancient Egyptian language in well over a thousand years.

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The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs + The Rosetta Stone: and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt (Wonders of the World)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; New Ed edition (3 Sep 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006531458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006531456
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 580,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

Jean-François Champollion's biography is neatly interwoven with Napoleonic history and the functions of Egyptian hieroglyphs in The Keys of Egypt. A gifted bookseller's son born in Revolutionary France, Champollion was to become "gripped by energetic enthusiasm" for Egypt. By the age of 12, he was studying several ancient languages and amid a "wave of Egyptomania", he would beat rivals to discover the key to deciphering hieroglyphs. If this was a race, it was a marathon. The breakthrough came after "20 years of obsessive hard work", not through the quick fix solution often thought to have been provided by the Rosetta Stone. The Keys of Egypt details Champollion's life and work, which was hampered by politics, poverty and an almost hypochondriacal series of health problems. Its sources include letters and journals, the authors having undertaken researches in major libraries and museums. Chapters on Champollion's travels in Italy and Egypt include a good smattering of excerpts from his writings. Although no bibliography is given, there is a helpful passage on various levels of further reading. Highly instructive and fast-paced, The Keys of Egypt is perhaps less dramatic than it might be in portraying troubled times and ground-breaking discovery. It is, however, a clearly expressed and wide-ranging book explaining the complexity of hieroglyphic interpretation and revealing the man whose achievements "meant the discovery of a whole new civilization". --Karen Tiley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


‘A fascinating and elegantly written biography of Champollion, doing justice to one of the great stories of academic heroism.’
Simon Singh, Sunday Telegraph

‘A fascinating account of the race to unlock the cryptic language of the pharaohs’
Giles Milton, Daily Mail

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A ripping Tale 27 Aug 2003
The Adkins' are well known authors in the field of Archaeology,
and have always been able to turn what can be a dry and dusty subject(pun intended), into something which can fascinate and draw the reader in.
The tale of the race to read the ancient hieroglyphics is set in a time period of european-wide revolt. Knowing that the results of his own work could go against his very faith, and the beliefs and work of his friends and colleagues, he Battles against what to you or I would be insurmountable obstacles of the body as well as the mind. This amazing tale takes you through a hostile and primitive egpyt, to the underbelly of Napoleonic France and back again into the elite circles of France's Bourgoisie.
The book has a brilliant narrative style, and never dwells too long on any one subject, but gives you enough to allow you to follow their trains of thought. Simply one of the most gripping, and well-told stories I have ever read. You do not need to know anything about archaeology, or history. You don't even need to be massively interested in either to appreciate what is probably one of the most amazing tales of coincidence, treachery, rivalry,human madness and greed.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars gripping subject slightly flawed 15 Mar 2002
By A Customer
For anyone who has heard about Champollion and decipherment of hieroglyphics this is a good combination of biog and description of the process. The image of the millennial, untouched antiquities of Egypt suddenly disturbed from 1798 on stays with you quite painfully. The negative 2-star review was probably written by a descendant of Young! The main problem I have with this book is the constant harking on about Champollion's illnesses, but more crucially the lack of space devoted to the process by which C. went from reading name cartouches to actually deciphering the language's nuts and bolts... But the subject matter is compelling in the extreme, and the romantic but bitchy background of Revolutionary and post-Rev. French academics adds some nice colour.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for the lover of Old Egypt and History 26 Dec 2000
By A Customer
I enjoyed this book -which I would define as a biography both of Champollion and of the hieroglyphic writing decipherment- very much. First of all it defines perfectly the historical and political context in which the discoveries were done. The description of the Napoleon expedition to Egypt is among the best I have ever read. The life of Champollion, the main subject of the book, is very well narrated and put into its context within the history of France, from the Revolution to Louis Philip. The description of the hieroglyphic writing decipherment is painted with a master stroke permitting the reader believe he has acquired some knowledge of the language and the problems of its reading presents. Further insight is provided when it lists different readings of the same name and the causes of this fact.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
The authors have done a marvellous job in telling the story of how hieroglyphs were deciphered by the Frenchman Champollion, and the bitter rivalry between him and other scholars, especially the English scientist Thomas Young. In an exciting story, the action shifts from Napoleon's conquest of Egypt, where the thirsty soldiers went mad because they had never before experienced a mirage, to the political and scholarly intrigues and street fighting of Europe during the Napoleonic wars, and back to Champollion's year-long expedition to Egypt after he had succeeded in reading the hieroglyphs. It is a really good read - a true-life adventure story.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 10 Nov 2007
By Mrs. A. M. Chadwick VINE VOICE
I have been to Egypt, the first time was in 1993, and I made my mind up that I'd like to study Egyptology.

I'm now in my third year of studying Egyptology with Exeter University, although it's not one of my study books I still wanted to read it.

This is an in-depth biography of Jean-François Champollion is interwoven with Napoleons fascination of rediscovering the Egyptian history and culture which he wanted to obtain for France, and Champollion's race to crack the code of the hieroglyphs.

By the age of 12 Jean-François Champollion was studying several ancient languages, which in later years help him to decipher the hieroglyphs. Finally after his 20 years of obsessive hard work he became the first to crack the code.

Reading this book will give you a more in-depth look at both his life and work, (it's by far the best I've read on him), which was hampered by politics, poverty and a huge series of health problems.

I found this book interesting, compulsive and enjoyable to read. It's well worth the money and it's one book I will read again. :-)
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
If you are like me, you learned at some point that Napoleon's forces had located the Rosetta Stone while invading Egypt, leading to the rediscovery of how to read ancient Egyptian. The writing on the stone contained the same material in Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphs. From comparing the three texts, scholars deciphered hieroglyphs. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, it really wasn't, which is where our school book learning was incomplete. And that's the appeal of this unusual book.
Why do I say the book is unusual? Well, most books about scholarly discoveries focus on the work itself. While this one certainly contains information about how the hieroglyphs were translated, the main focus is on what it was like to be a French scholar in a high visibility area from the time after the French Revolution through the Restoration. The story is a fascinating one of constant intrigue, danger, poverty, and overwhelming odds overcome. This book would qualify as an exciting novel if written that way.
Jean-Francois Champollion was the key translator who finally succeeded in 1822, 23 years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered. He was the son of an impoverished book seller at 16 when the stone was found. His main competitor was an English physician, Thomas Young, who was to turn out to be an implacable foe who denigrated and challenged Champollion's work.
The work would have gone on much more rapidly, but there was a shortage of materials available to Champollion to work on. He also had the difficult task of getting an education and then earning his living as a teacher, and often had to put off working on the hieroglyphs for long periods of time. When the Restoration came, he and his brother were exiled to the small town they started in.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
superb telling of story
Published 26 days ago by mr m h terrett
4.0 out of 5 stars Borrowed then bought
I first read this book when a friend loaned it to me. I enjoyed it so much I had to buy it. I am no expert in Egyptian history or indeed the history of hieroglyphics but this book... Read more
Published 21 months ago by _andy
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating.
I was always going to love this book about deciphering hieroglyphics. During my time at university I took a few modules on linguistics, I love Ancient Egypt and I have visited the... Read more
Published on 24 Jan 2012 by Sam
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book to read just BEFORE you visit the monuments!!
I saw the book's review by Simon Singh and assumed I'd be getting an Egyptian version of Code Book - but actually there's a lots less about the actual science of decoding of the... Read more
Published on 20 April 2007 by T. R. Allen
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious
This book conveys almost no excitement whatsoever over what should in principle be a most enthralling subject. Read more
Published on 1 Nov 2005 by W. JAMES
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Fascinating
...A must for all Egypt geeks, this book brings to life the frantic race to decipher the Hieroglyphics and all of the obstacles that Champillion had to overcome.
Published on 30 July 2002 by The Main Dave
5.0 out of 5 stars This was great read
A great book about the frenchmen Champollion and the quest to decipher hieroglyphs. Read this when first published as hardback and couldnt put it down. Read more
Published on 25 Sep 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping
Very enjoyable and well-paced. Also, it has to be said,unusually well-written. I bought it after reading a superb review in The Mail on Sunday and the journalist was right here.
Published on 15 Oct 2000
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