While Napoleon’s troops in the Egyptian Campaign strengthened defenses at Fort Julien, a stronghold just a few miles northeast of Rashid (also known as Rosetta), Lt. Pierre-François Bouchard came across a dark-colored stone that had strange, almost linguistic, markings on it. He made to report it, but other responsibilities arose, and the stone had been used in construction of new walls by the time he remembered. Bouchard thought nothing of it, merely noting a passage of the possibilities it could have been in his journal. Perhaps some kind of ancient story or even a pharaoh’s decree? No one would ever know, just as no one would ever confidently decipher the puzzling pictorial language of the ancient Egyptians.
To this day, Egypt remains a perplexing, though not terribly noticeable, land. Its pyramids and statues are shocking and impressive, but little genuinely scholarly work has been completed. Far more interest has been in more understandable regions, such as Greek constructions in Turkey across the Mediterranean Sea. Roman constructions in western North Africa also bring more tourists, usually making a stop in Alexandria for a quick glimpse at pyramids before moving on to Israel.
After more than a century of colonial dominance by the British, today Arabs dwell in the land not unlike their Egyptian half-ancestors must have thousands of years ago, though overpopulation has diminished the once potent cropland. Some entrepreneurs seek to glean tourist dollars away from the other parts of the Mediterranean, but the plan has rarely been realized outside of the odd tour of cyclopean constructs.
In reality, Bouchard quickly notified his commander, who notified his, and the knowledge of the stone passed gradually up to Napoleon’s new Institut d’Egypte. The significance of the same text in three written languages (one easily read Greek) was instantly understood, though it was not until 1822 that Jean-François Champollion deciphered the complex writing. Now armed with the ability to translate, Egyptologists over the past two hundred years have continuously been in Egypt, unraveling secret after secret about ancient life and literature. Any more mystifying, and it may be discouraging, but, thanks to the Rosetta Stone, we hold a great arsenal in unwrapping the past and millions tour Egypt every year, a tremendous boon to its economy and fairly open Muslim society.