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The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs Paperback – 3 Sep 2001
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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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Champollion the younger - the elder being his elder brother who supported and encouraged him - was born in France during a time of turmoil, which was to last just about all his short life. But earlier, Napoleon had adventured to Egypt, hoping to cut off the British trade with India; the account of Napoleon's three years trapped in the desert country by Nelson's ships is among the best parts of the book. Most of Egypt was utterly unknown in Europe at this time and the objects and drawings brought back by his scientists and scholars amazed everyone. One item was the Rosetta Stone, which was confiscated by England.
While considering the French we need to learn about the decades-long series of revolutions and short-lived monarchies but this can at times drown us in detail of politics and personalities. Some readers might just grab the gist of it and skip ahead to the race to decipher the scripts; Greek, demotic or ordinary Egyptian script, hieratic or the written version of the pictorial script, and hieroglyphs. Champollion was a highly gifted child and taught himself many ancient and eastern languages, working after lights out at school while hating his school. He immersed himself in the Coptic speech of the day which proved a great help when he later turned to the script of those people's ancestors. However he had poor health all his life, including prolonged gout - perhaps from drinking wine as the water was not good. The authors don't speculate much about his health. He wrote letters constantly, so there was no shortage of source material, but of course nobody wanted to put in writing the possibility that the world was much older than the few thousand years the Church taught.
I particularly enjoyed the accounts of the later expedition by scholars to Egypt, and the records they made, with their shock and distress at finding that entire temple sites had just recently been pulled down for building or dam material, or burnt in a lime kiln. Removing and selling antiquities went on wholesale, but on the other hand, these items often went to museums at some point, preserving them, as we see today. I'm delighted to have learned so much from one book.
I recommend reading along with this book: Zarafa; The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris; The Mamur Zapt And The Spoils of Egypt; The Seashell On The Mountaintop.
The Keys of Egypt is engagingly written, but it's not the best example of entertaining non-fiction out there. The pace of events is quite brisk at the beginning of the book but definitely tapers throughout the middle onwards, finally ending with a long description of Champollion's time in Egypt including many page-length quotes from his personal letters. This meant that the last fifty or so pages did feel like a bit of a slog; I was happy that Champollion had finally achieved his dream of seeing Egypt, I just didn't want to read all of his letters! Therefore, this non-fiction book probably falls in a category with the vast majority of non-fiction titles; fascinating if you are interested in the subject, a bit tedious if you aren't.
One thing I really appreciated about The Keys Of Egypt was how the authors put Champollion's achievements in their proper historical context. There was a section on Napoleon's troops discovering the Rosetta stone, several on the political aftermath of the French Revolution and a comparison with the work of Champollion's main rival, Young. Reading about all the events going on in Champollion's life and his personal hardships (he was born into poverty and never really left it), the Adkins' managed to create a real sense of how big his achievement was and how much he was able to accomplish through hard work and sheer determination.
There were also some strong themes throughout the book. Champollion was very close to his older brother and the theme of sibling love/respect was a thread throughout all of the sections. Despite being an academic himself and therefore at high risk of becoming jealous of his younger brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion often sacrificed his own goals and dreams in order to help Jean-Francoise. The snobbery and resistance to change of the academic community was another theme - Champollion really had to fight to have his achievements acknowledged, and there were also some sore losers who resorted to plagiarism claims. It's only really since his death that his accomplishments are freely recognised.
Whilst I loved this book (and will be giving it a high rating), I can see that it wouldn't be a book for everyone, only for big fans of Ancient Egypt and/or linguistics. If you are after only a brief introduction to the life of Champollion and the decoding of the Rosetta stone (as well as the discovery of many of Egypt's monuments), I would recommend Joyce Tyldesley's Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation Was Rediscovered and the excellent BBC series that went with it.
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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and have always been able to turn what can be a dry and dusty subject(pun intended), into something which can...Read more