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Buried Cities and Bible Countries

George St. Clair

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
To all who are interested in the ancient history of mankind, the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs is a fact of the highest importance. As early as the fourth dynasty, and probably as early as the first, the Egyptians possessed the art of writing; but for thousands of years before the present century the hieroglyphs had become a dead language, which nobody could read. Temples and tombs in the valley of the Nile contained records which might be of surpassing interest; but the clue to them was lost, and the riddle remained unguessed. At length a discovery was made which began to open the way, and has proved to be one of the most remarkable events in the intellectual history of Europe. In the year 1799, when Napoleon’s army was in Egypt, a French artillery officer, by name Boussard, while engaged in certain works on the redoubt of St Julian, at Rosetta, discovered a large slab of black granite, bearing a triple inscription. The first or upper part was in hieroglyphs, the middle one was in the enchorial or popular character, and the lower one in Greek. The hieroglyphic text was partly broken away and lost, but the other two were nearly complete. The Greek text showed that the monument was designed by the priests of Memphis, in honour of the Pharaohs, and particularly of Ptolemy Epiphanes, who was reigning at the time when the decree was made (198B.C.). The monument stood originally in the temple of Tum, the god of the setting sun; and there were to be copies of it in other places. Among other things, the priests say of Ptolemy that “he was pious towards the gods, he ameliorated the life of man, he was full of generous piety, he showed forth with all his might his sentiments of humanity.” He lightened taxation, so that the people might have plenty; he released prisoners and the defendants in law suits; he ordered that the revenues of the temples, whether in provisions or money, should remain what they had been. As to the priests, he commanded that they should pay no new promotion fees, that those who had been obliged to make an annual voyage to Alexandria should be free from the obligation; and that what had been neglected in temple services should be re-established. Naturally the priests were grateful, and they ordered this testimonial of recognition to be engraved upon stone, in the sacred characters of Egypt, in the vernacular, and in Greek. All this was speedily made out from the Greek text, and it was thus clear that the other two forms of the inscription must be of the same purport. Here then at last was a key to the long-lost language of the hieroglyphs. The value of the monument was at once perceived, and after having been copied it was set apart and packed up. The victory of the English at Alexandria, and the surrender of the city in 1801, placed the Rosetta Stone in the hands of Mr W. R. Hamilton, the British Commissioner, one of the most distinguished and zealous scholars of the day. The treasure was despatched to England, and has found a fitting resting-place in the British Museum. This seemingly insignificant stone (says Baron Bunsen) shares, with the great and splendid work, “La Description de l’Egypte,” the honour of being the only result of vital importance to universal history, accruing from a vast expedition, a brilliant conquest, and a bloody combat for the possession of Egypt. The men of science and letters who accompanied Napoleon’s army in Egypt, employed themselves actively in collecting the precious materials for that great work on the antiquities, the topography, natural history, &c., of that wonderful country. When the work appeared, the monuments that it contained, and the learned commentaries by which they were accompanied, aroused the general attention of the European public to Egyptian research, which had been previously all but abandoned.