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Champollion and the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs
Champollion and the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs

The name of Jean-Francois Champollion is known to every educated person. He is rightfully considered the father of Egyptology, since he was the first scientist who was able to correctly read the ancient Egyptian inscriptions. Even in early adolescence, seeing the hieroglyphs, he asked: what is written here?

Having received the answer that no one knows this, he promised that he would be able to read them when he grew up. And - I could. But it took him his whole life …


Jean-Francois Champollion heard about Egypt as a child. His elder brother Jacques, who had a special passion for the study of antiquities, was delirious with it. He did not see Egypt with his own eyes, he did not participate in the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon, but this culture seemed to him much more interesting than Ancient Greece and Rome.

Two brothers

Little Jean-François had little fun. Mother was a simple peasant and did not even know how to read, although my father was a bookseller, but, like most representatives of the third estate, he was more a seller than a scientist. And the role of the mentor went to the elder brother, Jacques-Joseph. Jacques was born 12 years earlier than Jean-François. And Jean-François was truly the youngest - the last child in the family.

It can be credited to Jacques-Joseph that he guided and educated the mind of his younger brother in every possible way and was the first to understand what an extraordinary boy is growing up in the Champollion family. And young Champollion was really an extraordinary child. He independently learned to read at the age of five, correlating the sounds of his native language with the letters printed in newspapers, and developed his own system for translating spoken speech into writing. And, having barely learned to read, he could not tear himself away from the books. Fortunately, there was a lot of this good in the bookseller's house. The brothers, of course, were separated by an abyss at the age of 12, but Jacques-Joseph was gentle and patient. He loved the younger one dearly, and then, when Jean-François's talent was fully revealed, he considered him a genius.

Young genius

Jean-François's ability to languages ​​was revealed very early. By the age of nine, he was reading briskly in Latin and Greek, his memory was phenomenal, and he could quote pages from what he read. But at the school where he was sent to study, things went very badly.

The boy had to be transferred to home schooling. And then everything worked out. With his teacher, Canon Kalme, he walked around the surroundings of Fizha and conducted conversations. Jean-François absorbed knowledge like a sponge. Soon, his brother took him to his place in Grenoble, where he worked as a clerk, and attached him simultaneously to a school and to private lessons with Abbot Dyuser, from whom the boy began to study the biblical languages ​​- Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac. It was here, in Grenoble, that Jean-François saw Egyptian artifacts brought from Cairo by Prefect Joseph Fourier.

When the lyceum opened in the city, Jean-Francois immediately found himself among the students - the lyceum students were taught at the expense of the state. But for young Champollion, staying at the Lyceum turned out to be a difficult test: there was always a timetable for the minutes, and he was not there for the Arabic and Coptic languages. The lyceum student pored over the ancient languages ​​at night and thought about escape. Jacques-Joseph managed to obtain special permission for him from the Minister of Education. Champollion Jr. was given three hours to practice contrary to the rules.

Relations with peers were difficult for him, he hated discipline, but in 1807 he graduated from the Lyceum with honors. Success in scientific studies can be judged by a simple fact. After the report of 16-year-old Champollion at the Grenoble Academy of Sciences, he was immediately elected its corresponding member.


From little Grenoble in the same year, he got into a completely different cultural environment - Paris, where he met Sylvester de Sacy, who was studying the Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone Artifact Riddle

The Rosetta stone, brought by the British from Egypt, was good because the same text on it was written not only in Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic letters, but also had an ancient Greek analogue. If no one could read Egyptian letters, then there were no problems with ancient Greek. Then it was believed that Egyptian hieroglyphs denote whole words, and therefore it is impossible to decipher them.


Champollion thought differently, even just starting to decipher, which would make him famous, he saw the structure of the language, although he did not yet understand how this would help him to reconstruct the language itself. In the demotic writing of Egypt, he saw the signs of the Coptic alphabet. Working on the deciphering and work on the history of Egypt, two years later he left Paris and took up a professor position at the University of Grenoble. He was 18 years old.

Syllabic writing

Initially, the young linguist believed that hieroglyphic writing was built on a phonetic basis. It was only in 1818 that Jean-François abandoned this idea, and in 1822 he presented a report that outlined the system for decoding the Egyptian script. So far, we have been talking about 11 characters of hieroglyphic writing. Hieroglyphs, he said, are not entirely ideographic or phonetic signs, but are a combination of both. The hieroglyphic script on the Rosetta Stone is written in a mixture of ideograms and phonograms.

At first, he was able to read the names of the rulers enclosed in cartouches on the Rosetta stone - Ptolemy and Cleopatra, known from the Greek text, and soon he could already read the names of cartouches on other artifacts, those that were impossible to predict - Ramses and Thutmose. Egyptian writing turned out to be syllabic, and vowels, as in other Middle Eastern languages, were absent. This created great difficulties in translation, since substitution of an incorrect vowel could completely distort the word itself.

Champollion immediately had both ardent supporters and numerous enemies.

Those codebreakers who came to a similar conclusion almost simultaneously with him were offended, those whose efforts he criticized were offended, the British were offended, because “no Frenchman can do anything worthwhile,” the French, because “Champollion has never been to Egypt and didn’t do anything important at all.”

With my own eyes

The Louvre didn't even have an Egyptian Hall! But in Italy there were two large collections of Egyptian antiquities - the former Napoleonic consul in Egypt Drovetti and the former British consul in Egypt Salt. Their collections were excellent. The return from Italy coincided with the appointment of Jean-François as curator of the Louvre's Egyptian artifacts. Together with his older brother, Champollion arranged Egyptian antiquities in four halls of the museum.

In 1828, he finally visited Egypt. In Upper Egypt, he visited Elephantine, Philae, Abu Simbel, the Valley of the Kings, even carved his own name on the obelisk at Karnak. After returning to his homeland, he was appointed professor of history and archeology at the Collège de France.


But he read only three lectures and fell asleep from the consequences of the hardships of the Egyptian expedition. He died of apoplectic stroke in the spring of 1832 at the age of 42. His brother, who lived to be 88 years old, collected all the unpublished works of Jean-François, edited them and published them. Alas, posthumously.

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