Friday, October 16, 2009

Land of Bells

I finally finished the book Jamie got me, and it was great. My slow speed was not due to listing attention but lack of time! It was The Codebreaker’s Secret Diaries, the first translation into English of the diaries and letters of Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, the Frenchman who cracked the hieroglyphs in the early 19th century, and someone about whom I was mostly unaware. I would love to read the original material in French as something is always lost in the translation, and though the book is well put-together and has good linking material, the footnotes seem to be off and there are some editing issues.

Overall, though, a fascinating read. This probably wouldn’t have been a book I would have picked myself and therefore would have cheated myself of a compelling story that has convinced me that a), b) or both needs to be made into a radio play:
a) Champollion’s journey through Egypt, 1828—1829
b) The 1801 surrender of the Rosetta stone passing from French hands to English ones
I also feel I need to visit the British Museum again, as Champollion’s enthusiasm on all things Egyptian will not be sated by the poor mummy of Hor in Swansea Museum.

The title is a slightly misleading one, as though the book consists of Champollion’s letters (mostly to his older brother) and his diary entries, they really weren’t secret. Nevertheless, despite his mastery of languages and intuition on hieroglyphics, Champollion was embroiled in the politics of Egyptian decoding in the early 19th century and as such had a few enemies who made his trip to Egypt difficult—not to mention the political situation in Egypt at the time and the perils of the journey itself.

Because I have been interested in ancient Egypt since at least the age of 10, it was inconceivable for me to imagine a time when hieroglyphics were not understood. Yet reading Champollion makes you realize for how many centuries the pictographs sat undeciphered. Champollion assembled his dream team, a mixed group of Tuscan and French naturalists and draughtsmen, and told them to provision a year for the journey! (Think—we can fly from Europe to Egypt in a few hours!) I feel very cool to have visited the Egyptian museum in Torino which is mentioned in this book—at the time it was the prime source for Egyptian antiquities in Europe (what Champollion shipped back during his expedition formed the basis of the Louvre’s collection).

For the non-Egyptologist, what is the value of the book? Well, as the quotation on the back from the Sunday Times says, “his enthusiasm is infectious.” As a travelogue it’s quite interesting; his descriptions of Cairo and Alexandria in particular. He’s an amusing and witty writer, and as any Frenchman would talks about the food in Egypt, particularly trying to relish salted crocodile meat on the occasion of his daughter’s birthday and about the virtues of drinking gallons of Nile water. Champollion’s theories on the hieroglyphs were, at the time, controversial because if he had deciphered the dates correctly it would invalidate the literal reading of Genesis in the Bible—he also writes surprising things like, “If I were to judge the future by the past, it isn’t the Muslim population who will hinder me but rather the European one, that is to say ‘Christians,’ who , as in the rest of the Levant, are the worst of their kind.” He also describes the local dress he adopted, the better to work in, and has much to say on negotiating with the Ottoman Turks who controlled Egypt at the time.

Champollion talks occasionally about Egyptian women in something between an ethnologist’s observations and sort of objectifying, and it’s curious that none of his letters to his wife are in the book (either he didn’t write them or they don’t include anything relevant; he does mention her a few times with affection but no indication of what she thinks of her husband being away for a year!). He does reflect approvingly on the “courteousness” of the ancient Egyptians, that the wife of the prince Satmei is “shown after her husband and before all the other officials.”

The sad thing is that Champollion’s poor health finally conquered him at the premature age of 42, exactly two years after he returned from his Egyptian expedition. There is definitely a bittersweetness as he leaves Egypt, knowing with certainty he will never see it again. This is something somewhat foreign to us now, as even though you can be pretty sure you may leave a place, with technology it’s not 100% certain you’ll never be there again. Though he had the companionship of his team and the fellahs he hired as workers, the long days he spent in his tent due to gout must have been lonely and frustrating. “I am still without news from all of you since the letters from July. Either the post is very badly organized (frustrating) or you are not writing. –unforgivable. Either hypothesis only depresses me, which I am doing wholeheartedly. Egypt is the most beautiful school in patience that exists in the world, but its lessons don’t stick.”

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