Book Review: Cracking the Egyptian Code

Hey Guys ♥

I’ve already threatened in my About Me that I won’t be able to stick solely to writing about my time in India, and here you already have my first non-Indian post 😉 By now you’re probably sick of me bragging about my stay already, so this might actually be a welcome change for you 😉 As some of you already know, I’m a giant bookworm and history nerd, and ancient civilizations especially have always fascinated me (when I was younger I was set on becoming an archaeologist and follow in the footsteps of Sydney Fox). I still get shivers down my spine when I visit the British Museum and get to take a look at the fragments of ancient temples, statues, or even just pottery. That we are able to reconstruct the lives of people who’ve lived hundreds or even thousands of years before our time using only the artifacts they left behind will never cease to amaze me. That their lives were both so very different from ours today and at the same time not-so-different at all never fails to impress me. And since I can’t always visit one museum after the other or travel around the world, I have to make do with the second best thing: reading about history and archeology. As much as I love reading about history, sometimes I love reading about how historians, archeologists, and scientists discovered the things we nowadays know about history even more. One such book is Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code, a biography of Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

cracking egyptian code

About the Book*:
Cracking the Egyptian Code – The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion was first published in 2012 by Thames and Hudson Ltd. in London. The author, Andrew Robinson, studied Oriental and African Studies in London and Oxford, and has already written several books about ancient languages and their deciphering (plus a book on the history of India, so maybe may next book review will be more aligned with the actual topic of this blog). The book consists of 16 chronological chapters, an afterword and is 328 pages long. Its subject matter is, of course, Jean-François Champollion, born in 1790 in Figeac, as the youngest of 7 children, and the first person to decipher and read the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It follows Champollion’s life chronologically, focusing on his impressive academic career and his obsession with ancient Egypt which started when he was still a young boy. The book also covers his strained relationship with his father, which would at times hinder his work immensely, his sometimes questioned heritage (because of his dark skin it is often assumed that his birth-mother was not his father’s wife, but an unknown gypsy woman), his controversial social and political ideas and opinions (both he and his brother were Republicans with strong sympathies for Napoleon Bonaparte), and his close relationship with his older Brother Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac, whose intellect, diplomacy and influence on French academia would be highly beneficial for him personally and professionally. Without his brother’s help, Champollion, who never shied away from making his sometimes harsh and controversial opinions on the social and political discourse of the time and the works of his fellow scholars public, would never have gotten the support necessary to continue his studies and fulfill his life-long dream of leading an expedition to Egypt.

And now to why I enjoyed this book so immensely:

First of all, it is incredibly well written. Robinson manages to bring Champollion’s character to life in a way which is more reminiscent of fiction than non-fiction. Champollion, who was an intellectual genius but far less talented at handling social and political situations (his blunt and harsh criticism of fellow scholars and his arrogance earned him many enemies in French academic and political circles) is certainly not an easily likeable protagonist, but Robinson effortlessly manages to sketch a complex and compelling picture of Champollion’s “all-or-nothing” personality. As passionate as he was about his love for Egypt and his studies, he was also capable of contempt for anything and anyone he considered unworthy of his time. Robinson is obviously full of admiration for Champollion’s genius, but never falls into the trap of glossing over his personal and even academic faults and mistakes. Furthermore, his portrayal of Champollion’s fascination with the ancient Egyptian civilization is immediately transferred to the reader. After reading this book, it is easy to understand why Champollion would dedicate his whole life to that one specific topic.

Unlike most other biographers of Champollion, Robinson, who has previously written a biography about Thomas Young, Champollion’s rival during the race to decipher the hieroglyphs, manages to celebrate Champollion’s achievements without taking away credit from Young and the other way around. Instead, he shows how Young laid the foundation for Champollion’s future work, and contrasts both their approaches to their studies (Champollion as the savant and Young as the allround scholar who dabbled in almost every discipline) and their personalities (the quick-tempered Champollion v the moderate, laid back Young).

Another great thing about the book is that he actually includes images of hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic scripture in his text, which makes Champollion’s process of deciphering the hieroglyphs and how these scripts relate to each other and to the modern Coptic language, which Champollion used for his work so much easier to understand for someone who has no previous knowledge of the topic. Robinson outlines how Champollion’s knowledge of Coptic, Young’s previous work, the Rosetta Stone and other vital papyri and inscriptions aided Champollion in achieving his goal of reading and understanding the ancient Egyptian language.

The book then ends with an outline of how the discipline of Egyptology evolved after Champollion’s early death, clarifies some of his mistakes and false assumptions about the Egyptian language and the hieroglyphs and how his successors rectified those, and brings up some of the struggles modern Egyptologists face today.

In conclusion, this book absolutely captured me and reminded me of why I am so obsessed with history. The many illustrations of Egyptian temples and pyramids, the fascinating and manifold Egyptian language, and the original excerpts from Champollion’s travel diary during his expedition in 1828 transport the reader back to early 19th century Egypt. If I could have, I probably would have signed up for Egyptology classes right away after finishing the book, and Egypt has definitely moved up a few spots on my to-travel list 😉 Even if you are not yet interested in Egyptian history, I would strongly recommend this book to you if you have any interest in history or languages at all. Robinson not only delivers an incredibly well-written biography of an extraordinary genius and his many personal, academic, and political adversaries, through the many illustrations of the hieroglyphs themselves and his explanations even those who have no previous knowledge of hieroglyphs can begin to understand how they work, how they relate to other languages (hieratic, demotic, Coptic) and therefor how they could finally be deciphered. And now I really want to learn to read hieroglyphs myself 😉

Cracking the Egyptian Code:
The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press (June 1, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-0199914999
~26 $

Wie der Hieroglyphen-Code geknackt wurde:
Das revolutionäre Leben des Jean-François Champollion

Gebundene Ausgabe: 328 Seiten
Verlag: Verlag Philipp von Zabern in Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (1. März 2014)
Sprache: Deutsch
ISBN-13: 978-3805347624
24,95 €

If you decide to read the book, let me know what you think!

See you guys after Holi 😉 ✿✿✿

* I own the translated, German version of the book


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