Exactly 200 years ago, in 1802, an 11-year-old French schoolboy, Jean-Francois Champollion, was invited to see some antiquities brought to France by the savants of Napoleon, and fell passionately for ancient Egypt. Twenty years later, with the help of the Rosetta stone, he announced that he could read the hieroglyphs, which had been incomprehensible for almost 2,000 years.
Not long afterwards, in 1828, he set off on a long-cherished tour of Egypt, sailed up the Nile to Abu Simbel and the second cataract, and proved that his new system worked among the inscriptions of the great ruined temples, tombs and obelisks of the land of the pharaohs. Suddenly, humankind had acquired a reliable history dating back some 5,000 years. On his return, Champollion became the first holder of the chair of Egyptian antiquities at the Coll ge de France. Although he died, exhausted, the following year, he had founded a new branch of study, Egyptology.
His journal and letters were first published in France by his elder brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac, after Champollion's death in 1832. A standard edition appeared in 1909. But nothing extensive was translated into English, nor was any English biography of Champollion available until as recently as 2000. The appearance of Egyptian Diaries, a vigorous translation of the journal and letters that omits some material of more specialised interest (and, sadly, an index) but retains the 1909 notes, will therefore be most welcome to anyone interested in ancient Egypt.
At long last, English readers can form a reliable impression of an intellect that was always known to have been remarkable in any age but a personality that has tended to be seen, at least outside France, through the distorting prism of his bitter dispute with his English rival, the scientist Thomas Young, over Young's true contribution to the hieroglyphic decipherment. "So poor Dr Young is incorrigible? Why flog a mummified horse?" a triumphant Champollion writes to his brother from his camp in the magnificent tomb of Ramesses IV ("genuinely at death's door"). That Champollion was seduced by ancient Egypt, and that the polymath Young was not, has always been accepted in general terms. The immediacy and pungency of the letters and journal reveal the depth of the seduction. Several times, apparently, Champollion's assistants found him lying on the ground unconscious in the subterranean chambers. "I need absolute silence to hear the voice of history - the influence of local atmosphere is enormous!" he told them.
There are vivid, penetrating and often entertaining descriptions of contemporary Islamic Egypt and Egyptians - mosques and palaces, pashas, priests and peasants; of the machinations of French officialdom, whose trade in antiquities Champollion's excavations threatened; and of the difficulties and dangers of travel on the Nile, including a New Year dinner in Nubia with two rare bottles of Saint-George, "which the tropics had rather bludgeoned". But it is Champollion's observations on the hieroglyphs that have a special fascination. "I am no longer surprised that in hieroglyphic texts it is so difficult to differentiate the jackal from a dog... A dog is defined only by a tail curled up like a trumpet. This distinction is taken from nature: all Egyptian dogs carry their tail pointing upward in this way." Again: "One of the sailors showed me an enormous beetle with 'three' antlers: one antler, or rather a false antler, on its carapace; at either end of its carapace two horizontally placed antlers; and on its head two antlers which cross. Without any doubt, this is the Scarab." And he comments on a dead 6ft crocodile offered for sale by a hunter, that it has "a dull green colour and each of its scales was grooved with black marks forming a rosette; the bottom of its stomach was yellowish. It displayed absolutely all the shades of colour which the Egyptians use in the hieroglyphic inscription of its image." To the scholar in far-off Paris who first published his decipherment, he writes with justified pride: "I have the right to announce to you that nothing needs to be changed in our Letter on the Hieroglyphic Alphabet ."
The Egyptologist John Ray writes with a flair comparable to Champollion's, though with irony rather than with vitriol. He clearly has it in for Ramesses II, the pharaoh who immortalised himself in gigantic sculptures at Abu Simbel. "Ramesses II is the most famous of the pharaohs, and there is no doubt that he intended this to be so. He is the Jupiter of the pharaonic system, and this simile is appropriate, since the giant planet is brilliant at a distance but is essentially a ball of gas. Ramesses II, whose throne-name eventually gave rise to the Ozymandias of Strabo and Shelley, is the hieroglyphic equivalent of hot air."
Instead of dwelling on Ramesses and the other much-celebrated pharaohs, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, Ray offers a series of portraits of ancient Egyptians well known to Egyptologists but relatively unfamiliar to general readers: to "those who know a little about an intriguing civilisation and would like to know more". Ranging from the Old Kingdom to the Greek period, they include Imhotep, the world's first architect, who lived c. 2650BC; Queen Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh; and Prince Khaemwise, a son of Ramesses II and "the first Egyptologist" - but also several ordinary Egyptians, such as a farmer, a scribe and a temple recluse. The final portrait is of a god: Osiris, "the ancient judge of the netherworld, who created the land of Egypt, and before whom the characters in this book believed they would appear at the end of their lives."
Such an unconventional approach in a field crowded with introductory books works very well. Reflections of Osiris is an informative, varied and enjoyable read, which wears its decades of learning lightly, nicely complemented by black-and-white illustrations. It is not a book for Egyptologists, nor does it pretend to be. Its aim is to humanise what can easily seem an alien list of rulers and gods without losing complexity, and in this it succeeds admirably.
At the beginning, and at many points throughout, we are reminded that much of what we "know" about ancient Egypt is speculative. Imhotep's tomb, which records say was unearthed and reconstituted as a sanctuary c . 600BC, remains lost, notwithstanding decades of searching at Saqqara. Hatshepsut, despite ruling for 22 years, never went to war - because she was a woman, as a feminist might think, or because she could not trust the army, as Ray suggests? Was Khaemwise finally worn out, aged 60, by having to organise endless jubilee durbars for his vainglorious father Ramesses II, who lived into his 90s? What finally happened in the squabble c. 1950BC between the cantankerous farmer Heqanakhte and his sons, part of which is documented in papyri apparently scrumpled up by an angry son and inadvertently preserved in a tomb shaft, where they were discovered in the 1920s? According to Agatha Christie, whose Death Comes as the End was based on the letters, the quarrel involved murder.
Brian Fagan, an archaeologist with a formidable reputation for popularisation, is more conventional in his introductory book, which is what we expect from the publisher, National Geographic. Egypt of the Pharaohs is a sound, readable, up-to-date text, with an evocative foreword by the archaeologist Zahi Hawass, director of the Pyramids at Giza. It is beautifully produced, with lashings of absolutely superb, dramatically lit photographs showing ancient Egyptian art, archaeological sites and modern survivals of ancient practices. The book, like Ray's, is chronological, finishing with the suicide of Cleopatra and the arrival of Roman dominion in 31BC. But unlike Ray, Fagan ventures comparatively few opinions; the emphasis is more on reliable facts than on speculation.
He does, however, suggest: "Pyramid construction and an obsession with the afterlife created a unified state in a way that no pharaoh could have done on his own." And on the somewhat vexed question of what drove the pyramid workers to incredible labours, Fagan states: "[They] ranked as the pharaoh's finest craftsmen, not slaves of the state, as previously thought." This is a preoccupation of Hawass, who has been excavating the tombs and living quarters of the pyramid builders. Recently, seemingly too late for inclusion in the book, the discovery of the skeletons of women and children, and X-ray analysis of bones showing fractures healed with splints, has reinforced the current view that the men who built the pyramids were relatively well looked after.
An Egyptian Bestiary is even more impressive visually than the National Geographic book. Here, Champollion's descriptions of animals such as dogs, hyenas, scarab beetles, crocodiles and dozens of others - baboons, cows, falcons, ducks, cats, lions, hippopotamuses, snakes and so on - depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs, paintings and sculptures, come gorgeously to life. There is also, of course, the gallimaufry of gods and goddesses, in both animal and animal-human form - such as Anubis (dog-headed), Horus (falcon-headed), Khepri (scarab-headed), Thoth (ibis-headed) and Seth (headed with a fabulous animal), the murderer of Osiris - the most important of which are illustrated in a useful appendix. Curiously, and unsatisfactorily, the sphinx makes only a very brief appearance.
The linking text by the Egyptologist Philippe Germond, translated from the original French edition, is fairly short, though there are substantial captions. There is no doubt that the book would grace the coffee table of anyone with an affection for Egyptian art. But the text is by no means just descriptive of the captivating images and is full of compelling detail about the zoology and the myths of ancient Egypt (not least that the ancient Egyptian for "cat" was miw ).
At the outset, Germond makes an important point that there is no hierarchy in the Egyptian creation myth, unlike that of Genesis: "Humankind was not the final crowning achievement of creation, but was simply one of its elements, on a par with stones, plants and animals." He backs this up with a quotation from the Book of the Dead : "Falcons live on smaller birds, dogs on scavenging, swine on the desert, hippopotami on marshlands, men on grain, crocodiles on fish, fish on the incoming tide. [All this] in accordance with the command of Atum."
And if any ancient Egyptian did not behave with due respect for animal life, he ran the risk, at the day of judgement before Osiris, of his heart being devoured by Amut, a nightmarish creature with a lion's body, female hippopotamus's hind regions and crocodile's jaws - as depicted in the extraordinary, much-reproduced paintings from the Book of Dead showing Anubis, Horus and Thoth "weighing the heart" against a representation of Maat, the symbol of all truth and the universal order. As Ray remarks early in his book, ancient Egypt will always fascinate because of the tension between what seems familiar to us and what is alien.
Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is the author of Lost Languages : The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts .
Egypt of the Pharaohs
Author - Brian Fagan and Kenneth Garrett
ISBN - 0 7922 7294 3
Publisher - National Geographic Books
Price - £25.00
Pages - 288