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Episode 33 - Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone (erected in 196 BC) found at al-Rashid, Egypt

Every day I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum, and every day there are tour guides, speaking every imaginable language, addressing groups of visitors who are craning to see the object that I will be talking about in this programme.

It is on every visitor's itinerary and, with the mummies, it is the most popular object in the British Museum. Why? To look at, it is decidedly dull - it is a grey stone, about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports, and the rough edges show that it's been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it's pretty dull too - it's mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the British Museum, appearances are deceiving, because this dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history - the cracking of hieroglyphics.

"In the Memphis Decree, we find a Greek view of the world in Egyptian terms." (Dorothy Thompson).

"I think it's quite weird. Why you would put this sort of statement, which is basically a statement of tax exemption, on such a heavy stone! It is 760 kilograms. Why did they do that?" (Ahdaf Soueif)

This is a week of objects connected to shifting empires and legendary rulers, from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Augustus. Over two thousand years ago, from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to India and China, these leaders found different ways of physically projecting their power and their authority. Today's programme is particularly fascinating though, because it's a special case. It's about a ruler who is not strong but weak, a king who has to bargain for and protect his power by borrowing the invincible strength of the gods or, more precisely, the priests. We're in Egypt, with Ptolemy V, a Greek boy-king who came to the throne as an orphan in 205 BC, at the age of six.

Ptolemy V was born into a great dynasty. The first Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great's generals who, around a hundred years earlier, had taken over Egypt following Alexander's death. The Ptolemies didn't trouble to learn Egyptian, they simply made all their officials speak Greek, and so Greek would be the language of state administration in Egypt for a thousand years. Perhaps their greatest achievement was to make their capital city Alexandria into the most brilliant metropolis of the Greek-speaking world - for centuries it was second only to Rome. It was a cosmopolitan magnet for goods, people and ideas. The vast Library of Alexandria was built by the Ptolemies - in it, they planned to collect all the world's knowledge. And Ptolemies I and II created the famous Pharos lighthouse, which became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Such a lively, diverse city needed strong leadership. When Ptolemy V's father died suddenly, leaving the boy as king, the dynasty and its control of Egypt looked fragile. The boy's mother was killed, the palace was stormed by soldiers, and there were revolts throughout the country which delayed the young Ptolemy's coronation for years.

It was in these volatile circumstances that Ptolemy V issued the Rosetta Stone, and others like it. The Stone is not unique; there are another 17 similar inscriptions quite like it, all in three languages and all proclaiming the greatness of the Ptolemies. These were put up in major temple complexes across Egypt.

The Rosetta Stone was made in 196 BC, on the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V, by then a teenager. It's a decree issued by Egyptian priests, ostensibly to mark the coronation and to declare Ptolemy's new status as a living god - divinity went with the job of being a pharaoh. The priests had given Ptolemy a full Egyptian coronation at the sacred city of Memphis, and this greatly strengthened his position as the rightful ruler of Egypt. But there was a trade-off. Ptolemy may have become a god, but to get there he'd had to negotiate some very unheavenly politics with his extremely powerful Egyptian priests. Dorothy Thompson, Emeritus Professor at Cambridge University, explains:

"The occasion which resulted in this decree was in some respects a change. There had been previous decrees, and they take much the same form, but in this particular reign - the reign of a very young king whose kingdom was under attack from many quarters - one of the clauses of the Memphis Decree, the Rosetta Stone, is that priests should no longer come every year to Alexandria - Alexandria was the new Greek capital. Instead they could meet at Memphis, the old centre of Egypt. This was new and it may be seen perhaps as a concession on the part of the Royal household."

The priests were critical in keeping the hearts and minds of the Egyptian masses on side for Ptolemy, and the Rosetta Stone was their reward. Not only does the decree allow the priests to remain in Memphis, rather than coming to Alexandria, it also gives them a number of very attractive tax breaks. Of course no teenager is likely to have thought this up, somebody behind the throne was clearly thinking strategically on the boy's behalf and, more importantly, on the dynasty's behalf. So the stone is simultaneously an expression of power and of compromise, although to read the whole content is about as thrilling as reading a new EU treaty written simultaneously in several languages. The content is bureaucratic, priestly and dry - but that of course is not the point.

What matters about the Rosetta stone is not what it says but that it says it three times and in three different languages. In Classical Greek, the language of the Greek rulers and the state administration, and then in two forms of Ancient Egyptian - the everyday writing of the people known as Demotic, and the priestly hieroglyphics which had for centuries baffled Europeans. It was the Rosetta Stone that changed all that; and while the text of the stone itself is pretty unexciting, it dramatically opened up the entire world of Ancient Egypt.

By the time of the Rosetta Stone, 196 BC, hieroglyphs were no longer in general use, they were used and understood only by the priests in the temples. Five hundred years later, even this restricted knowledge of how to read and write them had disappeared - the script of Ancient Egypt was lost.

The Rosetta Stone survived unread through two thousand years of further foreign occupations - Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks, all had stretches of rule in Egypt. At some point the stone was moved from the temple at Sais in the Nile Delta, where we think it was first erected, to el-Rashid, or the town of Rosetta as we now know it, about 40 miles away. Then, in 1798, Napoleon arrived. The French invasion was not only military but intellectual. With the French army came scholars. Soldiers re-building fortifications in Rosetta dug up the stone - and the scholars knew immediately that they had found something of great significance.

The French took the stone as a cultural trophy of war, but it never made it back to Paris. Pursued by Nelson, Napoleon was defeated, and in 1801 the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria, signed by the French, British and Egyptian generals, included the handing over of antiquities - and the Rosetta Stone was one of them.

Most books will tell you that there are three languages on the Rosetta Stone, but if you look on the broken side, you can see that in fact there are four. Because there, stencilled on in English, you can read: "CAPTURED BY THE BRITISH ARMY IN 1801; PRESENTED BY KING GEORGE III". Nothing could make it clearer that if the text on the front of the stone is about the first European empire in Africa, Alexander the Great's, the finding of the stone stands at the beginning of another European adventure - the bitter rivalry between Britain and France for dominance in the Middle East and in Africa, which had continued from Napoleon until the Second World War. We asked the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif for her view of this history:

"This stone so makes me think of how often Egypt has been the theatre of other peoples' battles. It's one of the earliest objects through which you can trace Western colonial interest in Egypt, because of course it was found by the French in the context of Napoleon's invasion of the country, and then appropriated by the British when they defeated him, and the French and the British argued over it. No-one seems to have considered that it belonged to neither of them. But Egypt's foreign rulers, from the Romans to the Turks to the British, have always made free with Egypt's heritage. Egypt, for two thousand years, had foreign rulers and in '52 much was made of the fact that Nasser was the first Egyptian ruler since the pharaohs, and I guess we've had two more since, although with varying results."

The Stone was brought back to the British Museum and immediately put on display - in the public domain, freely available for every scholar in the world to see - and copies and transcriptions were published worldwide. European scholars now set about the task of understanding the mysterious hieroglyphic script. The Greek inscription was the one that every scholar could read, and was therefore seen to be the key. But everybody was stuck. A brilliant English physicist and polymath, Thomas Young, correctly worked out that a group of hieroglyphs repeated several times on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name - that of Ptolemy. It was a crucial first step, but Young hadn't quite cracked the code. A French scholar, Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, then realised that not only the symbols for Ptolemy but all the hieroglyphs were both pictorial 'and' phonetic - they recorded the 'sound' of the Egyptian language. For example - on the last line of the hieroglyphic text on the stone, three signs spell out the sounds of the word for 'stone slab' in Egyptian - 'ahaj', and then a fourth sign gives a picture showing the stone as it would originally have looked: a square slab with a rounded top. So sound and picture work together.

By 1822, Champollion had finally worked the whole thing out. From now on the world could put words to the great objects - the statues and the monuments, the mummies and the papyri - of Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

By the time of the Rosetta Stone, Egypt had already been under Greek rule for over a hundred years, and the Ptolemies' dynasty would last for another 150. The dynasty ended infamously with the reign of Cleopatra VII - 'the' Cleopatra who beguiled and seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. But with the death of Anthony and Cleopatra, Egypt was conquered by Augustus, whose image I'll be talking about later this week, and the Egypt of the Ptolemies became part of the Roman Empire.

In the next programme, I'll be in Rome's great contemporary - China - looking at how the Han Dynasty operated a super-state, and expanded their frontiers, while keeping close control over every aspect of society. All this through a lacquer cup!

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