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.