After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, it became a Hellenized kingdom ruled by the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty, and Greek became the language of the rulers and the elites. Native Egyptian writing, whether colorfully picturesque hieroglyphs found on the walls of temples and monuments, or the simpler Demotic script used in everyday life, went into a steady decline. Hieroglyphs continued to be used by priests, and Demotic continued to be used by commoners. However, as century succeeded century with Egypt ruled by outsiders who used a foreign official language, native Egyptian writing waned.
The spread of Christianity centuries later eventually killed off the Ancient Egyptian religion. As the old gods’ priests vanished into history, so did their knowledge of hieroglyphs. Centuries later, the arrival of Islam, Arabs, and the Arabic language killed off the Egyptian Demotic language and script as well. Eventually, the day arrived when knowledge of Ancient Egyptian writing vanished altogether. Egypt became a country that teemed with ancient monuments, covered with colorful and intriguing texts and symbols that nobody could make head or tails of. That finally changed in the nineteenth century.
1. An Archaeological Discovery That Finally Gave Us a Window to Ancient Egypt
Pierre Bouchard was a French army captain who had accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. On August 21st, 1799, he was in charge of the restoration of an old fort near the town of Rosetta. When his men uncovered a block of basalt that measured 3 feet 9 inches high by 2 feet 4 inches wide, and inscribed with three different types of writing, Bouchard immediately grasped its significance. He promptly alerted a team of French scholars who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. The archaeological find, which came to be known as the Rosetta Stone, contained Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian Demotic scripts.
Nobody knew how to read hieroglyphs or Demotic, but scholars could read Greek. The Greek text informed archaeologists that the stone honored the second century BC King Ptolemy V. More importantly, the Greek text declared that the three scripts contained identical message. The artifact thus held the key to solving the riddle of ancient Egyptian writing, which had been dead for over a millennium. Several scholars made initial progress in cracking the hieroglyphs until French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion conclusively cracked the code in 1822. From then on, the language, history, and culture of ancient Egypt were opened to scholars as never before.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading