3. Athanasius Kircher was regarded as the smartest man of his age, not least because the Jesuit priest could speak in 20 languages and even translate ancient symbols
In his day, Athanasius Kircher was seen by many as a human encyclopedia. According to some contemporary observers, the Jesuit priest had an understanding of all human knowledge. True or not, he was undoubtedly a remarkable man. Born in 1602, he was forced to flee war-torn Germany at an early age and survived an accident-prone childhood to become a leading man of letters. Above all, Kircher was known for his unique language skills. He could, it was said, speak 20 languages, both living and dead, and was also heralded as the man who could translate ancient symbols.
As a young boy in central Germany, Kircher was taught Hebrew by a local rabbi, alongside his native German and schoolboy Latin. Then as a teen, he was forced to leave his home country due to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. He made it to Rome, via Austria and France, and found work at the Vatican. Here, he devoted himself to his studies, and he taught Oriental languages as well as math and physics in the city. For more than 30 years, Kircher published widely and regularly on a huge range of topics, making a name for himself as perhaps the most learned man of the age.
Believed that the source of modern human civilization should be traced back to Ancient Egypt rather than to Ancient Greece. As such, if only he learned how to read Coptic, the written languages of the pharaohs, he would be able to understand the original language of God and thus reveal all the world’s secrets. Sadly for Kircher, the Rosetta Stone wouldn’t be discovered for another 100 years. Despite his best efforts, he never was able to accurately translate the hieroglyphics of Egypt. After his death in 1680 at the age of 78, many of his theories were discredited. However, his argument that hieroglyphics could be linked to the Coptic languages did turn out to be valid – so much so, in fact, that some regard Kircher as the original founder of Egyptology.