Today is the 215th anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
The Bible does not give any descriptive details of the “tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). It merely says that God presented the tablets to Moses on top of Mount Sinai, which raises one very major question (apart from why give a nomad heavy stone tablets), namely: which alphabet were they written in?
One simple answer may be: none. Mainstream historians do not believe the book of Exodus’s account of two million Hebrews being captives in Egypt before being led across the Sinai for 40 years by Moses, where God fed them on magical manna, gave them the Ten Commandments, and finally escorted them to the land of Canaan where he had once promised Abraham (an old man from modern-day southern Iraq) that his people could settle. There is no scientific evidence for any of it in Egypt or the Sinai (two million people usually leave quite a bit of stuff for archaeologists to find). Even Goshen, the place in Egypt where it is said they lived, remains unidentified. On balance, most scholars consider Exodus to be ancient tribal folklore — like the battling Welsh dragons, the Indian Mahabharata, or the Norse cosmology. Even Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, has run numerous features explaining that the account of the Egyptian slavery, the Exodus, and delivery into the promised land as told in the Bible is legend, not hard history.
The Ten Commandments may be further evidence of this mythos, as there are, in fact, three different sets of the Ten Commandments in the Bible, which all tend to get jumbled up as Exodus and Deuteronomy repeat themselves. Interestingly, the only one that is explicitly called “The Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34) leaves out “You shall not kill” and replaces it with the splendidly eccentric, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”.
Anyway, assuming for the moment that there was someone called Moses, and that he did have stone tablets with ten laws on them at some stage, then which alphabet were they carved in?
The biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews lout of Egypt is usually considered to be set in the middle of the second millennium BC. However, the book of Exodus, which tells the story, is normally placed around 500–400 BC. And the oldest known manuscript fragments of Exodus and the other writings of the Torah date from later still, c. 150 BC–AD 70. Interestingly, in each of these distinct periods, Hebrew was written with a different alphabet. Classifications vary, but basically the first paleo-Hebrew alphabet that emerged c. 900 BC mutated several times until it settled into the modern “square” alphabet by c. 300 BC. However, crucially, none of these alphabets was around c. 1500 BC when Moses received the Ten Commandments.
So what did the Ten Commandments look like?
According to the Bible, Moses was abandoned as a baby by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. He was then found beside the river Nile by Pharaoh’s sister, who took him in and raised him at the royal court of Egypt. So the first question is: what language did he learn when growing up? No one knew he was a Hebrew, and the whole court would have spoken Egyptian. So there is no reason why they would have taught him the language of the Hebrew slaves. He would have spoken (and, if he was educated, read) Egyptian.
The same may also be true of some of the other Hebrews in Egypt, as they had been there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41), which is long enough to have learned the local language. This needs to be seen in the context of the later Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC, when many Hebrews were carried off by Nebuchadnezzar from Judah in modern-day southern Israel to Babylon, 50 miles south of modern-day Baghdad. Even though their captivity lasted only 60 years, during that time they definitively abandoned Hebrew and switched permanently to the Babylonian language of Aramaic, retaining Hebrew only as a liturgical and scriptural language until its revival in modern times. (Hence in the New Testament Jesus and everyone else speaks Aramaic, not Hebrew.)
So, if the Hebrews had been in Egypt for over 400 years at the time of the Sinai wandering, might the Ten Commandments have been written in Egypt’s sacred alphabet — hieroglyphs (Greek: hieros, sacred, glyphe, carving)?
Moving forward in time, today is the 215th anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone — the unique artefact that allowed 18th-century scholars finally to unlock the baffling enigma of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, whose meaning had been lost to the world for over 1,500 years.
The Rosetta Stone is an unassuming, irregular piece of granite, 112 by 76 by 28 cm. It was found in 1799 by French Napoleonic troops near Fort Saint Julien at the Egyptian town of el-Rashid (Rosetta), 40 miles east of Alexandria in the Nile delta. When the French in Egypt surrendered to the English in 1801, the Treaty of Alexandria required the handover of all looted antiquities, following which the Rosetta Stone made its way to the British Museum back in London, where it has been on permanent display since 1802 — save for a short stint in a postal railway tunnel 50 feet under Holborn in 1917 to protect it from aerial bombardment, and a trip in 1972 to the Louvre.
What makes the Rosetta Stone so unique for Egyptologists is that it is carved with the same text in two languages and three alphabets (Greek, formal Egyptian hieroglyphs, and day-to-day Egyptian demotic), In 1999, the dirty black stone was fully cleaned, removing centuries of finger grease, printers’ ink, protective carnuba wax, and even white paint that had been used to fill the letters to make them legible. The object that emerged was a beautiful grey flecked with pink.
Soon after the stone arrived in London in 1802, two men — one in England and one in France — set about trying to unlock its coded mysteries. As their starting point, they looked to the three alphabets carved into the stone. Hieroglyphs were the Egyptian priests’ sacred language, demotic was the country’s ordinary day-to-day script, and Greek was the official language of the Ptolemys’ administration. Both men hoped that the presence of all three alphabets would allow them to use the stone to unravel the ever elusive hieroglyphs.
In England, Dr Thomas Young (1773–1829), a polymath, polyglot, physician, and scientist made the first breakthrough. While holidaying in Worthing with an image of the stone’s inscriptions, he made two startling discoveries.
Most significantly, he shattered the widely held myth that the hieroglyph pictures had meanings. Instead, by focusing on a series of names enclosed in stylised oval borders known as “cartouches”, he succeeded in reading the name “Ptolemy” phonetically. In other words, he saw that each symbol of the hieroglyphs represented a phonetic sound, just like in English and most alphabets today.
With this breakthrough, he was able to read the first words in hieroglyphs in a millennium and a half. This phonetic revelation also led him to his second discovery — that the writing should be read in the direction the animals in the text were facing.
Based on these two discoveries, he went on to find other names in cartouches. However, he also believed that his phonetic approach only applied to the names of non-Egyptians like the foreign Ptolemy dynasty from Macedonian Greece. He still imagined, along with everyone else, that all other hieroglyphs were picture writing.
Young, in fact, had a truly amazing mind. Although he described his work on the Rosetta Stone as “the amusement of a few leisure hours,” he went on to compile a dictionary of over 200 hieroglyphs, as well as giving his name to the “Young’s modulus” theory of elasticity, discovering astigmatism, working on colour vision, and making advancements in the wave theory of light.
As Young left off, across the Channel in France, Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) was just beginning his hieroglyph studies in earnest. He was a very different kind of scholar to Young. Aged 10, he had become captivated by the mystery of hieroglyphs, and vowed that one day he would crack them. He was obsessive about it.
Building on Young’s work, he found that even the most ancient Egyptian royal names in cartouches (and not just those of later invaders) were spelled phonetically. He also discovered that some hieroglyph symbols operated on the rebus principle, in which, for example, in English, a picture of a cat requires the reader to make the sound “cat” rather than think of a physical cat. Champollion made this breakthrough by applying his fluent knowledge of ancient liturgical Coptic (his preferred language when writing in his personal journal). He knew that in Coptic the word for sun was “ra”, and realised that a picture of the sun in the hieroglyph text required the reader to make the sound “ra”, as at the start of the name “Rameses”.
It was 1823, and putting this all together with Young’s phonetic discoveries, Champollion had finally cracked it. The hieroglyphic alphabet was a mix of phonetic characters and characters based on the rebus principle, with the underlying language being Egyptian, traces of which survived in liturgical Coptic.
Now Champollion had the key, the world could see that the Rosetta Stone was a proclamation by the priests of Memphis affirming the religious cult of the 13-year-old Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205–180 BC).
Whereas King Ptolemy, living forever, the manifest god whose excellence is fine, son of King Ptolemy and Queen Arsinoe, the father-loving gods, is wont to do many favours for the temples of Egypt and for all those who are subject to his kingship, he being a god, the son of a god and a goddess, and being like Horus son of Isis and Osiris, who protects his father Osiris, and his heart being beneficent concerning the gods, since he has given much money and much grain to the temples of Egypt … (R Simpson, Demotic Grammar in the Ptolemaic Sacerdotal Decrees, 1996)
It is fairly formulaic and turgid stuff, but formal royal proclamations of any culture are rarely light reading.
So, should the plaudits for cracking the Rosetta code go to Young or Champollion?
Both men have their supporters and detractors. It was an age of intense Anglo-French rivalry, and, not surprisingly, their work was quickly viewed as a competition of national intellectual prowess. Young was humble by nature and congratulated Champollion on his discoveries, but he also wanted Champollion to acknowledge his original breakthrough. Champollion refused, claiming to have solved it all entirely by himself, dismissing Young’s claims with a certain inimitable Gallic swagger:
The Briton can do as he pleases — it shall be ours: and all of old England will learn from young France to spell hieroglyphs by a totally different method. (Champollion, letter to his brother from Thebes, 1829)
However, both men undoubtedly deserve the laurels. Young had the initial eureka moment and made the connection that had eluded the world’s savants for centuries. As his tomb in St Andrew’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey records, it was he who:
first penetrated the obscurity which had veiled for ages the hieroglyphicks of Egypt.
But it was Champollion who worked assiduously to unravel the whole alphabet and develop a rigorous understanding of the entire system of hieroglyphs. Where Young was almost an accidental Egyptologist alongside his career as a physician and experimental scientist, Champollion was fiercely driven by the baffling world of hieroglyphs to the exclusion of all else. They were his life’s work. Once he had solved them, he took to his bed for five days with exhaustion.
The world’s 1,500-year loss of understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs is a reminder of the impermanence of even the most monumental empires and their legacies. Where once hieroglyphs boldly adorned a thousand walls, the last known example was finally incised on the island of Philae in AD 394. Although Egyptian continued to be spoken, Egypt’s new Christian authorities soon outlawed hieroglyphs as pagan, and replaced them with the Greek Coptic alphabet. Several centuries later, when Egypt fell to Islam, the chain was finally broken as Coptic gave way to Arabic. The process of forgetting was complete.
Around the time Young published his revolutionary findings on the Rosetta Stone in the supplement to the fifth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry for “Egypt”, the English poet Shelley summed up the romance of the lost, sandy, transient world of the Pharaohs:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, 1818)
So, back to Moses, the Ten Commandments, and whether the tablets might have been written in hieroglyphs. Honestly? Who knows. Who knows if he was even there. But it can be said for certain that in the second millennium BC, in the Sinai desert, the hieroglyph alphabet was well known, whereas biblical Hebrew was still a thousand years off.
As the unrest in the Middle East again endangers the priceless holdings of the region’s museums, just like during the 2003 war, when thousands of artefacts were looted, the anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone is a poignant reminder of the value of every artefact from the past — especially the ones whose value we do not yet understand.