Everyone today knows of the Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza, as well as other landmarks of ancient Egypt. Hollywood has made numerous films based on Egypt, and MGM’s Luxor Palace is one of Las Vegas’ most popular attractions. Surprisingly, though, our knowledge of Egypt and particularly ancient Egypt is a fairly recent phenomenon. The beginning of what’s now called Egyptology began not with a research study, but with a minor campaign in the French Revolutionary Wars.
When Napoleon Bonaparte sailed into Alexandria and defeated the local forces of the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids, he brought with him several French architects and scholars. Spurred by the Enlightenment thirst for classical history, the French started exploring the ruins that were left behind by the pharaohs and forgotten by the sands of time. However, observe as they might, the massive structures that spotted the Nile River Valley seemed to hold more secrets than answers. Who built these structures? How did the people live? Only scraps of knowledge remained from medieval writers and some from the ancients, but to really understand the land, the new scholars would have to decipher the pictographs that decorated the walls of the temples and tombs.
This was made possible when French engineers excavated a dark stone in the village of Rosetta in 1803. The stone included three types of script: Ancient Greek, Ancient Demotic and Hieroglyphic. The task at hand was to use knowledge of the ancient Greek text to decode the Hieroglyphics and thus unlock the mysteries of the pharaohs. It took scholars twenty years to be able to competently understand Hieroglyphics but the result was a huge leap for Egyptology. Now that we are able to read Hieroglyphics, we are able to understand much of that civilization that was once described by Herodotus as “the gift of the Nile.”