We is accelerating north outside Cairo, running along highways and wide across a desert landscape and traversing into antiquity. After three hours we reach Madinat Rashid, formerly known as Rashid, a port city on the Nile delta, and we enter Fort Julian, walking clockwise around its interior until we reach the first corner and the reason for our journey.
It was in this place in 1799 that a discovery was made that would shake the world. Among the ruins of the fort’s foundations, a dark piece of granite-like rock caught the eye of Pierre François Bouchard, a lieutenant in Napoleon’s invading army. Bouchard served under Nicholas-Jacques Conte, the inventor of the pencil, and soon discovered the significance of the letters engraved into the painting.
This 762 kg piece of granodiorite, recycled from elsewhere for use as a building block, was registered by decree in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. Although somewhat boring, the letter was written decisively three times: in hieroglyphs (the beautifully illustrated ancient Egyptian text that can no longer be understood), in demotic (the grouped letters used in everyday writing), and in ancient Greek (the language of known).
Here, after a long, long, long time, was the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs, those perfect outlines of people, animals and things scratched in stone or written on papyrus thousands of years ago. The code was finally deciphered in 1822 by Jean Francois Champollion, who rushed into his brother’s office, shouted “I got it!” Then he fainted and was not the same for five days. The scale of his achievements cannot be overstated: thanks to this French linguist, and a few other scholars including the British Thomas Young, 3000 years of Egyptian history, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, came to light.
“This is not only EgyptologyIlona Regulski says excitedly as she stands next to a replica found at the place where the stone was discovered. “This is the birth of Egyptology!” It’s an evocative spot, now shaded by huge spreading branches of the royal poinciana, or flame tree, named for the cochineal flower.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of this earthquake, a major display on hieroglyphs, curated by Regulski, is about to open in The British Museum in London, where the Rosetta Stone now resides, was taken out by the British army from the French when they cut through their campaign in 1801. This stone is a universally recognized symbol of all attempts to understand the mysteries of the past, and is the museum’s most visited – and most merchandise. A large area of the large gift shop is devoted to the stone, his world-destroying hieroglyphs, nail files, tins of mint, and snow globes.
Hieroglyphics: Conquest of Ancient Egypt This rock star will take center stage, with a supporting cast of 240 exhibits including the Enchanted Basin, a granite sarcophagus believed to have magical powers, giving anyone who bathes in it respite from the torment of love. Along the way, hieroglyphs will provide insight into life in ancient Egypt, from poetry and international treaties to shopping lists and tax returns.
To delve further into Egyptology and hieroglyphics, Regulski takes a group of British Museum delegates and some journalists on a whirlwind tour of the world from which the Rosetta Stone originated. Our next stop, which creates an atmosphere of excitement on the minibus, is Alexandria LibraryOne of the greatest libraries on earth. His 2.5 million books – there’s room for 8m – are housed in a stunning 11-storey structure overlooking the Mediterranean, its glossy sides carved with giant hieroglyphs, and its 16.5-degree angled glass ceiling to make the most of the natural light.
“This is the largest open reading space in the world,” says our guide Raneen Essam, as we explore the interior. You wonder how anyone could take notice in this extraordinary place. Each of the skylights takes on the shape of an eye, with leather-like shutters, all raised by closed lotus-flower-style columns, and wrapped in a curved concrete shell made to absorb sound. Details include Zimbabwean black granite and oxidized Egyptian copper, intended to simulate materials found in ancient tombs.
Issam races us through space after stunning space, each decorated with ancient and modern paintings and statues, until we arrive at a massive interactive display. With a wave of her hand, she shows a dark blue coffin, spins, then discards its layers: We roll from the inner coffin to the carton to the packing, until the skeleton is revealed – arms crisscrossed, with amulets and earrings and inserted into the mouth to open it in preparation for the afterlife.
You can taste the real thing in the British Museum exhibit, which will feature Cartonage and the mummy of Bucktenhauer, once thought to be a princess, now a resident of Newcastle and her mummy Great North Museumwhich I lent. The Bucktenhauer inscription, translated by Champollion, is a prayer to many deities for the soul of the deceased.
The show will also dwell on the wonderful story of Ahmed Kamal Pasha, a curator who wrote the first dictionary of the ancient Egyptians almost as a hobby. The two 20 volumes (two missing) are now being carefully restored and preserved in the BA’s basement laboratory. Issam takes us inside, where teams of young women work in silence at giant tables decorated with scalpels, flasks, and brushes of all sizes. It’s surrounded by 21 large framed posters, each containing four close-ups of different bacteria and fungi.
It’s amazing and refreshing to see the written word so sacred, but then the library was built to commemorate Great Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world, which turned the city into a great seat of learning, and the capital of knowledge. Some estimates put his papyrus manuscripts at 400,000, with subjects ranging from mathematics and astronomy to physics and the natural sciences. It has now been lost in antiquity, and is popularly believed to have perished in a fire although this is only partially the case.
“Now,” Issam says with a laugh as our tour ends. “I have a question for you. How was it when Moon Knight was filmed in The British Museum? This is a nod to Disney’s new TV series about a Marvel character who frankly fights terrifying ancient Egyptian gods and monsters, then turns back on his mild-mannered ego, who works in the British Museum’s gift shop.
Back in Cairo, we head to the French Institute. Napoleon took 2000 artists on his campaign and the result was 10 volumes Description of Egypt, a very massive publishing endeavor that took more than 20 years to complete. Agnes McQueen, the institute’s librarian, wears a pair of white gloves and talks through the first edition copy.
“These three snakes,” she says, as we get to the exquisitely detailed animal section, “took two years to carve out.” Well, I think they fill up. “A thousand copies were published in the first edition,” she adds. “But it was so expensive that only 200 people were sold in its first year.” A copy of the British Museum, which is not as colorful as this charming huge document, will be on display in the exhibition.
The next morning, Regulski took us on a tour of the Egyptian Museum, a beautiful pink stone building in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “This museum is truly the mother ship,” she says as we pass a golden throne (complete with a footstool adorned with the enemies of its royal owner) and a towering statue that lost one of its toes. “I could only spend five years studying this,” sighs Regolsky, pausing at a wooden sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphs, before giving us an interesting comment to run in Tutankhamun’s room.
When the boy king’s treasures were loaned to Britain in 1972, They caused a big commotion, with people lining up all night and then making a beeline for the stunning blue and gold death mask. “It is topped with a cobra and an eagle, which signify his rule of lower and upper Egypt respectively,” says Regolsky. Then she points to the hieroglyphs inscribed on the shoulders of the mask, a mantra of book of the dead. A copy of this funeral text that accompanied Queen Nejmet in the afterlife – richly illustrated on a piece of papyrus over four meters long and 3,000 years old – is rarely shown in the British Museum gallery.
“Queen Najma also orchestrated the killing of two police officers,” Rygolsky says. “Had she been exposed on Judgment Day, these sins would have led to her eternal doom. But in the papyrus, she appears brave and waits with the scales of justice to weigh her heart against Maat, the goddess of truth.”
The anniversary of the decoding inevitably led to renewed calls to bring the Rosetta Stone home, from both Britain and Egypt. “Conversations can begin now, on the bicentennial of decoding, to bring it back and continue its journey,” Joyce Tyldesley, professor of Egyptology at the University of Manchester, told the Sunday Times. In Egypt, Dr. Monica Hanna, the Egyptologist who is leading the resettlement campaign, spoke of “people are demanding the restoration of their culture”. In response, the British Museum notes that “there was no official request from the Egyptian government to return the stone,” adding that 28 tablets bearing the decree were discovered in the country, and 21 tablets remain.
For a great finale, we take the minibus to Giza to see the pyramids and the Sphinx, baked in the late morning sun. Regulski leads us to what lies between the lion’s massive claws: The Dream Stele, a memorial slab bearing hieroglyphs that you can no longer get close enough to read. “We have the first ever made copy of this stele,” she says. “It is very accurate. The series tells the story of Thutmose IV, who came here when he was a young royal to hunt – there were lions and hyenas in those days. He slept, and the Sphinx said to him in a dream: I will make you king of Egypt, if you only remove the sand from around My body.”, he did as he asked and became king, then this story was put there.
And there it stood on the tumultuous sands of millennia, in plain sight but silent, and its meaning, like the great library, was lost in antiquity – until the code was broken and the sound of the Sphinx was heard again forever.