The discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon’s engineers, when they were renovating an Egyptian fort in 1798, enabled ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to be deciphered for the first time in millennia.
Breaking codes has always been a long and tedious business. The better the code, the longer it takes. However, codes generally have an element that makes the eventual solution somewhat inevitable. That element is some form of common ground between the code designers and the code breakers.
In modern times, breaking the Nazi German Enigma code during World War II required ingenuity, very hard work, brilliant thinking, and time. The success of the work came partly from the fact that Alan Turing knew the code was designed to transmit military orders in German.
The problem with hieroglyphs had always been that the creators had been dead for two thousand years, and no-one knew anything about their language. In addition, there was no known information about how their culture worked, or how they thought. In other words, there was no way of establishing any link about anything. The result was speculation, guesswork and hope based on the physical evidence left behind – the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and many other impressive monuments. Scholars had no idea how accurate their interpretations were or, indeed, if they were totally at odds with the truth. Frustrating, but fascinating, to say the least.
The Rosetta Stone appeared to be written in hieroglyphs, Greek and another, unknown, language. It provided the link, however tenuous, that allowed Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion to break the code. Scholars had thought for centuries that the ancient Egyptians had written in a mystical language of pure ideas rather than a language that had an alphabet. It’s easy to understand why they thought that way when you look at hieroglyphs.
Young proved them wrong. He thought that Coptic, Egypt’s language that was replaced by Arabic in the first millennium AD, might be a derivative of Ancient Egyptian. It was a new and controversial idea at the time, but Young pushed ahead with his theory, and used his mathematical training to try and find possible links. He succeeded.
For those of my readers who might be interested, there is a new book by Edward Dolnick called “The Writing of the Gods” that documents this breakthrough.
Reading about the Rosetta Stone and, more particularly, the hundreds of years of attempts to decipher hieroglyphs, made me realize how difficult it is to understand different people from different cultures and languages. Most wars have started because of a lack of understanding, whether real or fabricated, and just starting a war, or a protest for that matter, seems to be an easy copout. Actually making the effort to try and understand and accept differences, is much harder, and that is as true today as it ever was, both domestically and internationally.
We need many more Rosetta Stones for interpreting different cultures and languages, and scholars who are willing to use them. We also need people to understand the necessity of accepting the results of such work. Just because its different doesn’t make it wrong or bad!
The story of hieroglyphs is a fascinating case study into the impossibility of relating to other people when there is no common base on which to do so. It is also indicative of the effort required to understand and accept other morays and customs. It’s a great example of the need for humility, a human trait that seems to be less and less prevalent in today’s world.