The mysteries of Ancient Egypt were more or less unknown to Europeans at the start of the 19th century. It was understood that this backward province of the Ottoman Empire had once been a fabulously wealthy kingdom with a rich mythology, outstanding architecture and bizarre burial customs, but because nobody could understand the written hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptians, knowledge of their culture more or less ended there. Then the Rosetta Stone was discovered.
Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 with the aim of disrupting Britain’s trade with India. The coastal city of Rashid came to be called ‘Rosette’ by the occupying French and it was during the rebuilding of the nearby Fort Julien that some of Napoleon’s soldiers found a chunk of the rubble marked with mysterious script. This shattered block of granodiorite appeared to have the same passage of text copied in three languages later identified as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a later form of Egyptian called Demotic and ancient Greek. As ancient Greek could be read it became possible for the first time in history to decipher the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians.
Napoleon’s forces were pushed out of Egypt by the British in 1802 and the French army signed over their collection of Egyptian antiquities (including the Rosetta Stone) to the British. Prints and casts had already been made of the stone and now scholars all over Europe took part in the competition to decipher the text. It was the French Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy who suggested that, as in Chinese, some of the hieroglyphs might be written phonetically especially those encircled by ‘cartouches’ (ovals) which could contain Greek names (as the stone dated from the Ptolemaic Period). Thomas Young, foreign secretary of the Royal Society of London used this idea to list eighty similarities in the three texts. It was another Frenchman – Jean-François Champollion – who compiled an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphs and published the first translation of the Rosetta Stone in 1822.
So what is written on the stone? It seems to be part of a stele (a standing stone erected for commemorative purposes) during the reign of King Ptolemy V (204 – 181 BC). The third in a series of decrees issued at Memphis by the Hellenistic rulers of the Ptolemaic Period, it records the king issuing a tax exemption to the priesthood as well as a gift of silver and grain to the temples. The priests who issued the decree thank the king by promising to celebrate his birthday and coronation days annually and to worship him alongside the other gods across the land. Wikipedia has an illustration of how the stele may have looked in its complete form.
The Rosetta Stone still resides in the British Museum in London. The term ‘Rosetta Stone’ has come to mean a key to unlocking, usually in a linguistic context, secrets inaccessible in any other way.