Were it not for the Rosetta Stone and for the French scholar, philologist and orientalist Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832), the history and civilisation of ancient Egypt might have remained to this day an unresolved enigma. It was the Rosetta Stone that held the key to unlocking the secrets of the ancient Egyptian language, and it was Champollion who unlocked it. The two names Rosetta and Champollion will be forever interlinked. Last week, Champollion paid a visit to Rosetta. But this was Hervé Champollion, grandson of the great Jean-François Champollion. And Rosetta rose to give him a resounding welcome in the form of a three-day event under the title: “Rashid: ‘lieu de memoire’ … témoin des relations franco-égyptienne”, which translates into “Rashid [Rosetta, Arabic for Rosetta]: ‘place of memory’ … witness to French-Egyptian relations. The event lasted from 19 to 21 November 2017.
Rosetta is a Mediterranean port town in Egypt, known in Arabic as Rashid and pronounced Rasheed. It lies 65km east of Alexandria, at the unique point where the western branch of the Nile Delta flows into the Mediterranean. It is not a big town but is steeped in history and rich in historical monuments that span ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic times. Its wealth of Islamic monuments, houses and mosques is rivalled by no other city except Cairo.
Rosetta’s fame, however, owes to the relic to which it lent its name: the Rosetta Stone, a 1700-pound granodiorite rock discovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s military campaign (1798 – 1801) against Egypt. Captain François-Xavier Bouchard (1772-1832), an engineer and officer in Napoleon’s army, was in charge of the demolition of an ancient wall in the 15th-century Qaitbay Fort in Rosetta. The Stone was built into the wall, but Bouchard recognised that it might make it possible to decipher hieroglyphics. So he saved it, and the stone was taken to the French scholars in Cairo who had come with the military campaign. The stone is covered in inscriptions of essentially the same text in three different languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphs; and was key to understanding the ancient Egyptian language and reading hieroglyphs.
It was Champollion who unlocked the code that allowed the hieroglyphs to be read. He published a full exposition in 1824 that was the decisive analysis for decipherment. He had never been in Egypt nor seen the Stone, but worked from a copy of it. He visited Egypt in 1829.
The Rosetta Stone has been in the British Museum in London since 1802.
Proud grandson of great grandfather
Hervé Champollion flew from France to take part in the three-day Rashid celebration which began Sunday 19 November, organised jointly by the governorate of Beheira and the Damanhour University. Damanhour is the capital city of the west Delta governorate of Beheira which includes Rosetta. Champollion arrived with his wife, Catherine Collin who works with Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
They were greeted by Beheira Governor, the elegant Nadia Abdu who is Egypt’s first female governor. The Consul General of France in Alexandria, Nabil Hajlaoui and spouse, as well as Farouk al-Telawi, former governor of Beheira, participated in the three-day event which took off from Damanhour University.
The Rosetta celebration aimed for the town to be placed under the umbrella of UNESCO, aspiring for it to become an open museum.
Attending the launch of the celebration were Ebeid Saleh, President of Damahour University; Mohammed Abdel-Latif, head of the Ministry of Antiquities’ Islamic Antiquities Department; and Egyptian and French officials.
Mr Champollion gave a speech in which he expressed his pleasure with the celebration commemorating his grandfather. “I am proud to be the grandchild of the French scientist who was able to finally decipher the Rosetta Stone,” he said. He talked about the challenges that faced his grandfather in the process until he finally unlocked the secrets of the ancient hieroglyphics. Mr Champollion stressed on the time-honoured relations between Egypt and France, saying that the French people are particularly fond of ancient Egyptian civilisation. He also said that a lot of research on Egypt is being carried out in French universities. He called on the people of Rosetta to help in the development of their historic town, confirming that he is committed to boosting relations between Egypt and France, and joining Egypt’s efforts to see Rosetta on the global tourist map.
Under UNESCO care
Governor Abdu explained that the celebration comes within President Sisi’s agreement with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that 2019 would be the year of Egyptian-French culture and tourism. The celebration, she explained, is only the first step towards a larger plan for Rosetta to regain her cultural and historical stature. She said all the local authorities were working hard to complete the development of the town in three years, in compliance with a recommendation by the fourth National Youth Forum held in July 2017 in Alexandria, and sponsored by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
A number of speeches that talk about Rosetta and its history were delivered, and a documentary about the town was screened. Mr Ahmed Youssef, former regional director of the Middle East News Agency Bureau in Paris talked about the historical circumstances of the French expedition to Egypt. He gave a resume on Napoleon Bonaparte who led the military campaign against Egypt, and on other figures of this campaign. Among them was General Menou who came to Rosetta with the French campaign and was appointed Governor of Rosetta by Bonaparte. Menou fell in love with Egypt and its heritage, and married into a noble family in Rosetta. His wedding contract was witnessed by Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gammal, whose grandchild, Ussama attended the Rosetta celebration and talked about Menou’s marriage. Mr Youssef pointed out that Jean-François Champollion never actually saw the Rosetta Stone. In fact, Mr Youssef explained, he worked on transparencies that General Menou had ingeniously created through copying the engravings on the Stone. Mr Youssef promised to support the development of Rosetta, particularly the efforts to put it under the umbrella of the UNESCO.
Replica of Rosetta Stone
Beheira Governor presented Mr Champollion and the French Consul with a replica of the Rosetta Stone each, as a souvenir from Rosetta.
Rosetta’s guests then headed to Damanhour Public Library, where they viewed a photography exhibition of Rosetta at present and in the past, as well as a handcrafts exhibition. The photos displyed included an 18th-century map of the town of Rosetta and the Burullus Tower, as well pictures of Qaitbay Fort and several of the city’s monuments.
The guests were treated to a concert organised by Damanhour Library in the open air Roman Theatre where the repertoire included Arabic and French songs. They later attended another concert in Damanhour Opera, which featured a performance by a choir of children with special needs, and another by the Beheira folk dance group.
The second day saw Governor Abdu accompany her guests on a tour of the most important sites in Rosetta. They started their visit with Qaitbay Fort where the Rosetta Stone was discovered by Bouchard in 1799. Situated on the west bank of the Nile, some five kilometres northwest Rosetta, the fort is a low, squat rectangular structure with a central blockhouse that overlooks the final few kilometres of the Nile before it joins the Mediterranean. It was built around 1470 by the Mamluk Sultan Qait Bey who also built the Qaitbay Fort in Alexandria.
Mill, church, mosque
The guests headed to the National Museum of Rosetta, also known as Arab Killy House, which dates back to the 18th century and was home to the Ottoman ruler of the city, Arab Killy. The four-storey house is a stunning sample of the Islamic architecture and style prevalent at that time. The museum includes artefacts that tell the story of the battle of the people of Rosetta against the French and British occupations. It also displays pictures, manuscripts, tools and possessions of everyday life and professions of the people of the city. The delegation also had a tour in the adjoining Garden Museum.
They then had a free tour which they started with a visit to the ancient Mar-Morqos (St Mark) church which was built during the 5th century under sea level. At one point it was submerged under the waters of the Nile flood and went out of use, and became impossible to access. Some 600 years ago, a new church was built on top of the old one; it is built of bricks, and its ceiling made of domes and semi-circular arches. Inside the Mar-Morqos church, Mr Champollion was delighted to find his grandfather’s pictures hanging on the wall; he captured a few shots of them.
They stopped next at the Abu-Shahin Mill, which was built during the second half of the 18th century to grind wheat and rice. It used to run by horses or manpower. They also visited the Suspended Mosque as well as a number of old mosques and houses.
The day ended with a cruise on the Nile to the Abu-Mandour hill which is home to the ancient Mosque of Abu-Mandour which features a unique Ottoman style minaret.
The final day of the visit featured a visit to Alexandria to explore the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern-day version of the ancient Library of Alexandria which remained for centuries the learning and scholarly centre of the ancient world. Governor Abdu and Mr and Mrs Champollion were received by Mostafa al-Feki, Director of the Bibliotheca.
Mr Hervé Champollion told Watani that he was extremely happy to be in Rosetta, especially that this brings alive the memory of his grandfather. He also said that he would convey his impression of the beautiful historical city to the UNESCO, explaining that he is willing to support the project of placing Rosetta on global tourism map.
26 November 2017