” In the reign of the young one—who has received the royalty from his father—lord of crowns, glorious, who has established Egypt, and is pious towards the gods, superior to his foes, who has restored the civilized life of men, lord of the Thirty Years’ Feasts, even as Hephaistos the Great; a king, like the Sun, the great king of the upper and lower regions; offspring of the Gods Philopatores, one whom Hephaistos has approved, to whom the Sun has given the victory, the living image of Zeus, son of the Sun, Ptolemy living-for‑ever beloved of Ptah; in the ninth year, when Aëtus, son of Aëtus, was priest of Alexander …”
And so goes the glorification of King Ptolemy of Egypt in “the Rosetta Stone”, a large hunk of granite (sort of) found on today’s date in 1799 by one of Bonaparte’s soldiers in Egypt. “The Rosetta Stone” is very important because it holds the key to translating “Hieroglyphics,” the written language of Ancient Egypt, and thus enabled scholars to read about the first several thousand years of recorded human history.
Bonaparte in Egypt, and the Scholars he Brought With Him
First of all by way of a quick background, what the bloody hell was Napoleon Bonaparte (pictured at elft, circa 1799), the great conqueror of Europe doing in Egypt? At this point in time Napoleon was not the great conqueror of Europe. He was merely a successful General looking for a battlefield that would bring him glory. The Revolutionary government of France, the Directory, was willing to back his scheme for getting at British interests by striking at their life line to India, the Crown Jewel of British dominion, by striking in Egypt. Sounds far-fetched? Well it is actually. But the Directory looked upon the young general as a threat to their government, so they were more than happy to send him to this far-off land. So Napoleon took an armada of ships and soldiers to Egypt wherein he fought any number of battles that would suit his sense of his glorious destiny, such as the Battle of the Pyramids in which his modern army slaughtered the magnificently robed, but mid-evily armed Mameluke tribesmen of Egypt on July 21 of 1798. Happily for civilization’s sake, Napoleon also brought with him to Egypt any number of scientists, and technical experts to survey the country, log it’s natural wonders, its plant and animal life, and archaeologists to survey, map and draw images of the ruins of Egypt’s past civilization. And it was in this area wherein the French presence in Egypt made it’s most important contribution to the world today.
The Rosetta Stone is Found
The stone was found under circumstances which are a little unclear. The French forces in the area, which was a few miles from the sea in the western Nile delta were working on extending the wall of Fort Julien. It was said by some to have just been found lying on the ground. But more than likely the stone was unearthed as a part of the wall to the fort which was being demolished. Whatever the case, the stone was found by a Lieutenant of Engineers, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard (above), who was in charge of the demolition team. Bouchard, being one of the scientifically trained officers whom Napoleon had brought on this expedition immediately recognized the potential importance of the find, and informed general Jacques-François Menou, who happened to be present. The stone which was named for the village in which it was found, Rosetta (Rashid to the Egyptians), was shipped to Cairo for further study.
The Stone is a block of granodiorite (a kind of stone similar to granite) with engravings made on its polished surface. It measures 3’9″ (114 cm) in height, 2’4-1/2″ (72cm) in width and 11″ (28cm) in thickness. It weighs just under a ton (762kg). It is somewhat damaged, missing a large part of the upper left-hand corner, and a smaller part of its lower right corner. Above is a possible reconstruction of the original stone. The chiseled inscriptions are a royal decree inscribed on the stone three times, in hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration). The truly important feature is that the three languages all present essentially the same inscription. This provided scholars with a key to the meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphics which they had previously lacked. Not long after the fourth century AD passed into history, the hieroglyphs had fallen into disuse, and eventually the knowledge of how to read and write them vanished as well. But scholars did in fact know the use of the ancient Greek language. Thus with the advent of the Rosetta Stone, they were able with some difficulty, but with clear accuracy to determine the meaning of the Hieroglyphic text which accompanied the ancient Greek inscription. And thus, the whole world of Egyptian history was opened to scholars some 1400 years after the last gasps of it’s language had died out. The importance of this knowledge to the study of ancient history is beyond calculation.
The Little Corporal Books!!
As for Napoleon, he did in fact recognize the likely importance of this find, and did in fact inspect it… that is before he decided to leave Egypt and his army behind. You see, the little Corsican realized that he had taken his Egyptian adventure as far as it could be taken, at least as far as his own glory was concerned. And the information which he was getting from Paris made it clear that the government of the Directory was weakening, and was ripe for replacement by a military leader who had covered himself in the exotic “glories” of Egypt. SO he booked! That’s right…. he decided he had bigger fish to fry back in Paris, so he got on a ship, slipped past the British blockade, and left his army, his scientists, and his Rosetta Stone behind. The Army and it’s leaders lingered on for awhile before eventually surrendering to the British and the Turks. Oh, and the Rosetta Stone. Yes, well THAT little item, which was one of only two or three items of lasting value to emerge from Napoleon’s Egyptian foray, was taken by the English authorities, and shipped to the British Museum in 1802, wherein it resides to this day, as pictured above, for all to see.
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by Christopher Herold, American Heritage Publ. Co., New York 1963.
A full translation of the Rosetta Stone can be found at: