The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs

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9780002570916: The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs

The exciting story of the scramble to decipher hieroglyphs, set against the background of Europe in the Napoleonic era and its aftermath, and the rediscovery of the Nile Valley after it had been closed to Europeans for nearly 2,000 years.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops were astonished to discover ancient temples, tombs and statues, all covered with hieroglyphs – the last remnants of an unreadable script and a language lost in time. On their return Egyptomania spread rapidly and the quest to decipher hieroglyphs began in earnest: fame and fortune awaited the scholar who succeeded.

Jean-Francois Champollion, the brilliant son of an impoverished bookseller, was obsessed with ancient languages from a very young age, and once he heard of the unreadable ancient Egyptian text he had found the challenge to which he would dedicate his life: the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

Desite his poverty Champollion made gradual progress, although he had to fight against jealous enemies, both professional and political, every step of the way – a dangerous task when in post-Revolutionary France a slip of the tongue could mean ruin, exile or even death.

Failure threatened, as he was only one of many attempting to read the hieroglyphs, and his main rival, the English Thomas Young, claimed that decipherment was imminent, but Champollion refused to be distracted and finally, in 1822, he made the decisive breakthrough. Even then he was forced to defend his reputation against attack from his critics, but his success was complete: he was the first person able to read the ancient Egyptian language in well over a thousand years.

This is a passionate tale of intellectual discovery and outstanding individual achievement.

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Jean-François Champollion's biography is neatly interwoven with Napoleonic history and the functions of Egyptian hieroglyphs in The Keys of Egypt. A gifted bookseller's son born in Revolutionary France, Champollion was to become "gripped by energetic enthusiasm" for Egypt. By the age of 12, he was studying several ancient languages and amid a "wave of Egyptomania", he would beat rivals to discover the key to deciphering hieroglyphs. If this was a race, it was a marathon. The breakthrough came after "20 years of obsessive hard work", not through the quick fix solution often thought to have been provided by the Rosetta Stone. The Keys of Egypt details Champollion's life and work, which was hampered by politics, poverty and an almost hypochondriacal series of health problems. Its sources include letters and journals, the authors having undertaken researches in major libraries and museums. Chapters on Champollion's travels in Italy and Egypt include a good smattering of excerpts from his writings. Although no bibliography is given, there is a helpful passage on various levels of further reading. Highly instructive and fast-paced, The Keys of Egypt is perhaps less dramatic than it might be in portraying troubled times and ground-breaking discovery. It is, however, a clearly expressed and wide-ranging book explaining the complexity of hieroglyphic interpretation and revealing the man whose achievements "meant the discovery of a whole new civilization". -- Karen Tiley


The Keys of Egypt reads like a gripping detective story, moving along at a good pace, as well as offering the reader an introduction into how hieroglyphs can be understood. This is a 'must read' for anyone interested in Egyptology -- Jersey Evening Post, August 25th, 2000

A taut story of 19th-century scholarly research by husband-and-wife archaeologists, with lashes of intrigue and scandal thrown in for good measure... The authors know their Egyptology, and in them Champollion has found worthy champions. Their highly readable account will be of wide interest to students of ancient history and cryptology... and to anyone who enjoys a bookish detective story -- Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 15th, 2000

As told by the Adkinses, Champollion's life is the stuff of a 19th-century novel... A first-rate blend of high scholarship and great narrative pace, this is one of those rare, wondrous books which turns an intellectual adventure into high drama. It deserves a huge audience -- Douglas Kennedy in The Times, Oct. 11th, 2000

At a quick glance, a book about the race to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphics looks about as interesting as a book about watching paint dry. But that is where you'd be wrong. This book combines wars and invasions... But it is also a tale of one man's struggle against the odds, and his final success -- always good material for a story -- South Wales Argus, Sept. 23rd, 2000

Champollion's story has long deserved to be told, and the husband-and-wife authors of The Keys of Egypt have told it extremely well, producing a fascinating account of the race to unlock the cryptic language of the pharaohs... The Keys of Egypt -- always readable and enjoyable -- is a worthy tribute to the man who named, and unlocked, the Valley of the Kings -- Giles Milton in the Daily Mail, Sept. 1st, 2000

In telling his story, Lesley and Roy Adkins have written a classic detective story -- Philip Marsden in The Mail on Sunday, Sept. 17th, 2000

The Adkins' narrative grips right from its electrifying opening. What might in less able hands have been a dry, impenetrable academic study is rendered as compelling as the most spellbinding fictional thriller. This is narrative history at its beguiling best in which the characters breathe and the complex is made accessible. Champollion is revealed as a real-life hero, a figure to rank alongside those remarkable Bletchley Park codebreakers from another age... An enterprising television or film producer would do well to read this book. That is, if the rights haven't already been sold! -- Eastern Daily Press, Oct. 28th, 2000

The Rosetta Stone has often been presented as if it alone made possible the reading of the past, but as Lesley and Roy Adkins show in The Keys of Egypt nothing is ever so simple... Champollion's story is a good one... One of the most enjoyable aspects of the hieroglyph story is the race between Champollion and his competitors, particularly Thomas Young -- Anthony Sattin in the Sunday Times, Oct. 22nd, 2000

The authors have done great service to Champollion. Their biography is graphic, gripping and a great read -- Birmingham Post, Oct. 21st, 2000

The quality of information and understandable detail presented by the Adkinses is impressive, for this is not an easy subject -- The Herald -- Glasgow -- Sept. 30th, 2000

The story behind the decipherment, as told by Lesley and Roy Adkins, is a ripping tale of obsession and rivalry... The Adkins duo succeed in providing a fascinating and elegantly written biography of Champollion, doing justice to one of the great stories of academic heroism -- Simon Singh in the Sunday Telegraph, August 27th, 2000

What they have done is to produce an admirably lucid introduction to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Writing up intellectual rather than physical adventure in an exciting way is always a stern test for a writer and the co-authors have done particularly well -- Frank Mclynn in the Irish Times, Oct. 7th, 2000

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Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy
Published by London : HarperCollins (2000)
ISBN 10: 0002570912 ISBN 13: 9780002570916
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 1
Irish Booksellers
(Rumford, ME, U.S.A.)

Book Description London : HarperCollins, 2000. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0002570912

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