The Writing of the Gods


Edward Dolnick




Date Reviewed:

February 6, 2022

his the best kind of non-fiction writing - interesting topic, clear explanations, plenty of fascinating details. The Writing of the God. is the second book, after Seeds of Life, by Edward Dolnick that I have read, and both have been winners. I guess the next question is which of Dolnick's other books I should read now.

The Writing of the Gods discusses the deciphering of the Rosetta stone, and how it lead to the ability to read the Egyptian hieroglyphs, which no one had been able to interpret for the last 1500 years. The Rosetta stone was discovered in a town on the Nile called Rashid ("Rosetta" is the Frenchified pronunciation of Rashid) in July of 1799. Napoleon had led a French army into Egypt on a mission of conquest. Along with his army, Napoleon brought a team of scholars, historians, linguists, archeologists, artists - these were his savants and they were there to study Egyptian history, because all of Europe was fascinated by the marvelous, ancient civilization. Thus, when the Rosetta stone was spotted, canny Frenchmen immediately realized its value. Inscribed on the stone are three blocks of text - the top section was written using Egyptian hieroglyphs, which no one could read, the middle section was in a script that no one even recognized (it turned out to be short-hand Egyptian, a more concise writing system than the elaborate hieroglyphs). The bottom third of the Rosetta stone was written in Greek, which plenty of scholars could read. It was clear that here was the same message written out in three different languages, clearly this would provide the key that unlocked the mystery of the Egyptian text.

The Rosetta Stone did provide the key to deciphering Egyptian writing, but it still took decades of hard work to understand the message in the glyphs. Should the characters be read right to left, or left to right? (It turns out that the text can be read in either direction. Glyphs that are drawn in profile indicate where the reader should start; for example, if there is a duck hieroglyph drawn in profile, and the duck is facing right, then the start of the text is on the right.) Another problem is that the Egyptians only used consonants, no vowels. This could lead to confusion, without vowels, would the glyphs b - t spell "bat" or would they spell "boat"? To aid the reader, Egyptians added glyphs called determinatives, which would provide a clue about the meaning of the preceding glyph. For example, the drawing of a bat after the b-t glyphs would indicate that the word was bat and not boat.

Two dedicated inspired geniuses labored for years to decipher the meaning of the Rosetta Stone. (It turns out the message was written by a council of royal priests celebrating the coronation of Ptolemy V and boasting of his many accomplishments). An Englishman named Young was the first to recognize that the name Ptolemy appears in the hieroglyphs as a set of letters inside a cartouche (a cartouche is a group of glyphs with a loop drawn around them - the French thought that the oblong shape resemble a rifle cartridge, or cartouche, but in actuality the line that circles a Pharoah's name represents the path of the sun, indicating that the Pharoah's rule extended to the furthest lands under the sun). Young's rival was a Frenchman named Champollion, who built upon the initial deciphering of Young and eventually cracked the code. Champollion had knowledge of Coptic Egyptian, which had pronunciations similar to the ancient Egyptian, so it provided clues of the phonetic sounds of the glyphs. Young and Champollion were rivals (after all, one was English and the other French, and this was in the age of Napoleon). Dolnick does a great job at explaining why the hieroglyphs were so challenging, and the wrong guesses and correct suppositions that Young and Champollion made in finding the eventual solution. A lot of the difficulty was actually cultural - the Europeans expected that the ancient writing held deep wisdom, knowledge that the ancients knew that humanity had forgotten.

One thing that helped with the hieroglyph decoding is the fact that the Egyptian culture was deeply conservative, it was resistant to changes. So the same symbols and glyphs were used for the entire 30 centuries of the Egyptian cultures.

Dolnick includes lot of interesting details. Cleopatra lived closer to us in time (just over 2000 years ago) than she did to the founding of the Egyptian kingdom. The sphinx and pyramids, the most famous icons of their civilization, were not constructed until the Egyptian kingdom had already existed for 500 years. Archeologists discovered that not just people were mummified - the Egyptians mummified all sorts of creatures, including hundreds of thousands of cats. Egyptian society did not have cash, it used a barter system. There were multiple "Rosetta" stones throughout the kingdom - at the end of the book, the German explorer Lepsius discovered a stone with a different message, with both hieroglyphs and Greek lettering. Using Champollion's dictionary, the decoded glyphs matched the Greek words exactly.

I was impressed by this book. Recommended!