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The Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

By Max Sewell

An Oriental Expedition

Bonaparte returned to Paris in December 1797 following his successful first Italian campaign and the Peace of Campo Formio as a public hero. He received many distinctions, one of which was his election to the National Institute, an exclusive body of scientists and men of letters. In this unstable period, the Directory employed Bonaparte in a plan to make a direct invasion of England. After a review of these plans, he suggested that an effort be made against her possessions in India might be more successful than a channel crossing. Plans were drawn up to capture Malta and then Egypt in the hopes that the latter occupation would give France control of the lucrative trade routes to the east. The Directory also instructed Bonaparte to build a canal through the Isthmus of Suez and improve the situation of the local population. As Egypt was a nominal Turkish possession, foreign minister Talleyrand was to be sent to Constantinople to explain French plans, but in the end he never met with the Sultan.

Swiss gold helped finance the enterprise. Twenty-one demi-brigades marched toward the ports of Toulon, Marseilles, Genoa, Ajaccio, and Civita Vecchia. Admiral Brueys would command the fleet of 300 ships, and Bonaparte would lead the expedition. In keeping with France's hopes to advance the ideals of the revolution, bring prosperity to Egypt (for their own gain as well as the population's), and unlock the secrets of that ancient land, a large number of civilians would also take part, including many men of letters and science, carefully selected by Bonaparte, General Cafarelli, and the scientist Berthollet. They set sail on 19 April 1798. The convoy eluded the Royal Navy, took possession of Malta, continued on and made a landing at Marabout (just west of Alexandria) on 1 July.

Arrival in Egypt

The French occupied Alexandria on 2 July. Murad Bey, the Mameluke leader and governor of Egypt, fought and lost to the French at the Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July, and Bonaparte entered the capital of Egypt on 24 July 1798. The Institute of Egypt was established on August 22, organizing the scholars, and was divided into four sections: Mathematics, Physics, Political Economy, and Literature and Arts, headed by Gaspard Monge. There were many improvements made. Hospitals were established in Alexandria, Cairo, Damietta and Rosetta. Disease was studied, and sanitary regulations and quarantines reduced epidemics. Streetlights were installed on the main thoroughfares of Cairo. Citizens were disarmed. Taxation was reorganized.

Two printing plants had been brought from France and the first book was printed in Egypt: Exercises In Literary Arabic Extracted From The Koran, For The Use Of Those Who Are Studying That Language. A private printer established a weekly newspaper: Le Courrier de l'Egypte, and the literary and scientific journal of the Institute: La Décade Égyptienne came into being. Studies were made of zoology, botany and agriculture. The results of these labors were eventually collected in a twenty-four volume work: Description de l'Egypte published between 1809 and 1828.

Discovery of the Stone

Rosetta Stone

Two particular areas of study resulted in significant and long-lasting discoveries or achievements. The savants traveled with the army and the geography was charted and a map of Egypt was drawn (completed in 1806) that remained classified until the end of Napoleon's reign. The great monuments were examined and the science of Egyptology was founded. One of the most important discoveries in that field was the Rosetta Stone. The Stone is a block of basalt with engravings made on its polished surface. It was named after the village where it was found, Rashid (known as Rosetta to Europeans) located a few miles from the sea in the western delta of the Nile. It measures 3'9" (114 cm) in height, 2'4-1/2" (72cm) in width and 11" (28cm) in thickness. It weighs just under a ton (762kg). It is somewhat damaged, missing a large part of the upper left-hand corner, and a smaller part of its lower right corner. The chiseled inscriptions are in two languages, Greek and Egyptian, but three scripts. The first of the Egyptian scripts is Hieroglyphs, used 3,000 years ago at the time of the First Dynasty. The second was later determined to be Demotic, a cursive language that evolved from Hieroglyphs and dating from 643 B.C.

The Stone was discovered in mid-July 1799, but the circumstances are unclear. Some say it was found just lying on the ground. Others claim that it was part of an old wall which was ordered demolished by French soldiers in order to extend Fort Julien. This claim is supported by the Institute's Egyptian map which indicates the fort being on the west bank of the Nile in the area of Rosetta. The Stone was discovered by Captain (or Lieutenant, sources differ) of Engineers, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, who headed the demolition team. Scholars immediately recognized that this stone contained the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian language. This was because it appeared that the Stone's message was repeated in the three scripts, and because Greek could be read, over time it might be used to decipher the other two. General Jacques-François Menou, military governor of Rosetta, quickly arranged to have the Greek characters translated in order to determine the nature of the text.

The discovery of the Stone was not made public until September 1799, in an article printed in the Courrier de l'Egypte. It was shipped to Cairo in mid-August, and became an object of study at the Institute. Jean-Joseph Marcel and Remi Raige were able to identify the unknown cursive script, Demotic, but they were unable to read it. Copies of the scripts were made by the lithographers Marcel and A. Galland, who covered the Stone's surface with printer's ink and lay sheets of paper over it and used rollers to obtain an impression. Several sheets were sent to scholars throughout Europe, and two copies were presented to citizen Du Theil of the Institute Nationale de Paris by General Charles-François-Joseph Dugua (former Commandant of Cairo) on his return from Egypt. A French translation of the text was made by Du Theil, revealing that the Stone "was a monument to the gratitude of some priests of Alexandria, or some neighboring place, towards Ptolemy Epiphanes." A Latin translation was made in 1801, and English in 1802.

Deciphering the Stone

In 1802, a French Orientalist, A.I. Sylvestre de Sacy began to decipher the Demotic text. Equivalents for proper names found in the Greek section were identified in Demotic. Working at the same time, the Swedish diplomat, J.D. Åkerblad recognized the words: 'temples,' and 'Greeks.' Later in 1814 the Englishman Thomas Young discovered that Demonic words were not always alphabetically written, and closely compared the Hieroglyphic and Demonic scripts. He made many advances, identifying eighty-six signs. He studied the repetition of Greek words and looked for the same number of repeated signs in the Demonic script. In this way he identified the words 'and' as well as 'king,' 'Ptolemy,' and 'Egypt.' He was hampered by the missing parts of the Stone and the fact that the Greek and Demonic sections were not literal translations of one another. He later identified the word 'Ptolemy' in Hieroglyphics and in 1816, he determined that some hieroglyphs were not only word symbols, but at least in some cases were phonetic values. The French scholar Jean François Champollion, working at the same time, reached similar conclusions. Each worked with the Stone scripts and with other script discoveries, such as an Hieroglyphic inscription found at Karnak and a bilingual inscription on an obelisk discovered at Philae in 1815 to advance understanding of the ancient Egyptian language. In September 1822 Champollion presented his: Lettre À M. Dacier Relative À l'Alphabet Des Hieroglyphes Phonéntiques, which deciphered the hieroglyph forms for many of the Roman Emperors of Egypt. Young was unable to make further progress, but Champollion continued making great strides. He classified many hieroglyphs, formulating a system of grammar and general decipherment. He was greatly aided by his use of Coptic, a language of the Christian descendants of the Egyptians. He is now looked upon as the "Father of the Decipherment of Hieroglyphs."

Fate of the Expedition

Following the Royal Navy's defeat of the French Fleet at Aboukir Bay on 1 August 1798 (the Battle Of The Nile), the expedition found itself cut off from France and under blockade. Relations between Paris and Constantinople deteriorated, and news of Nelson's victory may have had a direct affect on the formation of the Second Coalition. Turkey, Naples, Russia and Austria joined Great Britain and Portugal between September 1798 and 1799, all in opposition to France. These events did not immediately affect the expedition, but in the long term, doomed it to failure. French military setbacks in Germany and Italy later provided Bonaparte with a political opportunity to return to Paris and overturn the Directory. When the blockading fleet left Egyptian waters, he sailed for France on August 22 with a select group which included his secretary Bourienne, his stepson Eugène Beauharnais, the generals Berthier, Lannes, Murat, Bessieres, and Marmont as well as the savants Monge, Berthollet and Denon.

The capable General Jean-Baptiste Kléber was left in command of the remaining French forces in Egypt with orders to hold out until a peace was concluded. When he was assassinated on 14 June 1800, Kléber was succeeded by General Jacques-François (Abdallah) Menou, who declared Egypt to be a French territory. Turkish and British forces landed and maneuvered against the French in October 1800. Menou was defeated by Sir Ralph Abercromby in the night battle of Aboukir on 21 March 1801. He retreated and was besieged in Alexandria. When Cairo was threatened, the savants left the capital for the safety of Alexandria, taking their documents, specimens and collected antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone. Cairo surrendered on 27 June, and the French forces there marched by agreement to Rosetta where they embarked for France. Alexandria held out until the end of August, but capitulated under similar terms as Cairo. The remaining French forces marched to Aboukir and embarked for France on 14 September 1801 ending French ambitions in the Orient.

Dispute over Collections

General John Hely Hutchinson succeeded Abercromby after the latter's death. He claimed the savant's collections and several antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone under Article XVI of the treaty of capitulation. The scholars, led by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire refused to surrender their work, and insisted on accompanying their collections to England rather than surrender them. Menou begrudgingly agreed to this, but himself refused to surrender the Stone, claiming it to be his private property. Hutchinson allowed the savants to keep their collections but insisted on the Rosetta Stone, which Menou was forced to relinquish. 'You want it, Monsieur le Général?' he wrote. "You can have it, since you are the stronger of us two...You may pick it up whenever you please." A Colonel Turner came to claim the Stone, which had been stored in a warehouse in Alexandria beside Menou's personal baggage, protected by a double matting and cloth cover.

Apparently it was turned over by a French officer in the streets of Alexandria, accompanied by a member of the Institute and witnessed by three British antiquarians including Edward Clarke who recorded the incident. The French officer threatened that the Stone should be removed from the city before the French troops discovered what had happened, and it was taken away under a British military escort.

The Rosetta Stone was shipped to England on HMS l'Égyptienne (a 44-gun vessel captured from the French in Alexandria harbor on 2 Sept 1801), and arrived in Portsmouth on February 1802. It was delivered to The Society of Antiquaries in London where the inscriptions were studied by Oriental and Greek scholars. Four plaster casts were made for the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Trinity College, Dublin. Copies of the Greek text were sent to Universities, Libraries, Academies and Societies throughout Europe. Near the end of 1802, the Stone was transferred to the British Museum in London, where it is still on display for the general public.

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