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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / history


Cracking the Egyptian Code

Andrew Robinson

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To purchase Cracking the Egyptian Code

Title: Cracking the Egyptian Code
Author: Andrew Robinson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 254 pages
Availability: Cracking the Egyptian Code - US
Cracking the Egyptian Code - UK
Cracking the Egyptian Code - Canada
Cracking the Egyptian Code - India
  • The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion
  • With 86 illustrations, 16 in color

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Our Assessment:

B : solid overview of a fascinating figure in fascinating times, nicely presented (with lots of illustrations)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 21/4/2012 John Ray
The Independent . 12/5/2012 Brian Morton
The National . 22/12/2012 Steve Donoghue
Publishers Weekly . 13/2/2012 .
Wall Street Journal . 16/6/2012 David Stuart
The Washington Post . 22/8/2012 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Fascinating figure; well presented

  From the Reviews:
  • "Champollionís decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 certainly features here, and rightly, because it remains one of the greatest of intellectual feats. But this is only one achievement, and Robinson has a feast in store for us. Champollion is painted here as a leftwing revolutionary, whose espousal of republicanism earned him enemies in a country that had lost the equivalent of a world war and was split apart by grudges and mistrust." - John Ray, Financial Times

  • "Robinson has previously written about Young and about Michael Ventris, decipherer of Linear B, but he isn't blinded by knowledge of his subject and he lacks the faintly sensational touch of Lesley and Roy Adkins' book The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphics. He presents instead a convincing and warm-hearted intellectual portrait of Champollion, who died at 41 after transforming our understanding of the ancient world. Champollion was a hedegehog in every possibly sense, not just single-mindedness." - Brian Morton, The Independent

  • "(T)he best English-language account yet written of Champollion's tempestuous life." - Steve Donoghue, The National

  • "Robinson paints an engrossing portrait of a difficult geniusís punishing pursuit of knowledge, although his deft breakdown of the technicalities of deciphering hieroglyphs may only appeal to professional and highly motivated amateur Egyptologists." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The story of the young, frail, hotheaded scholar and his volatile time, full of upheavals political and scientific, is a remarkable tale, wonderfully told (.....) Mr. Robinson takes us through many details of the decipherment, but his book is far more than an account of eccentric scholars and their code breaking. He ably situates Champollion within the fervor of early 19th-century France, revealing surprisingly political dimensions to the Egyptologist's academic work and outlook." - David Stuart, Wall Street Journal

  • "Although Robinson, who has written books about lost languages and the history of writing, relates Champollionís short life with authority, the great code-breaker didnít leave much personal material behind and seems to have spent most of his time being ill or studying in libraries. (...) But be prepared: Robinson does his best to be sprightly, but much of the material about the Rosetta Stoneís decipherment requires close attention." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The story behind 'cracking the Egyptian code' -- the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and its hieroglyphs -- remains one that fascinates, and the two very different men who figure most prominently in the story were remarkable. Andrew Robinson previously wrote a biography of one of them, the polymath Thomas Young (The Last Man Who Knew Everything (2006)), and now presents what is billed as the first English-language biography of the other, Jean-François Champollion.
       Although Champollion died young -- only 41 -- and dedicated himself almost exclusively to Egyptology (unlike the the far more wide-ranging Young), he lived an interesting life in interesting times (as is also suggested by the length of what is, as Robinson acknowledges, "still the most comprehensive" biography -- Hermine Hartleben's (German) Champollion (1906) --, which runs to some 1200 pages). Robinson's biography is more tightly focused on Champollion as Egyptologist than Hartleben's (or Jean Lacouture's (Champollion (1988)) -- two books he nevertheless relies on extensively), justifying the arrangement of title and subtitle of this volume: it is, indeed, primarily about Cracking the Egyptian Code (as a Prologue about the Egyptomania of the time, and a first chapter describing 'Hieroglyphic 'Delirium' Before Champollion' already suggest), with The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion largely presented in relation to that. Nevertheless, it does offer a good overview of this unusual man, beyond his great contribution to the understanding of hieroglyphs and ancient Egypt.
       Champollion was born in Figeac, the youngest child (by far) in the family; a brother, Jacques-Joseph, "who would have by far the greatest influence on Jean-François's life", was born in 1778, but Jean-François was only born in 1790 -- when his mother was reportedly already 48 (a ... surprising age for a woman to have a child in those times, especially since she had last given birth in 1782, at age forty). Given also his appearance -- much darker-skinned than his brother --, Robinson notes that it is quite possible that the brothers did not have the same mother. In any case, Jacques-Joseph, rather than their parents, clearly was the dominant and in many respects guiding figure in Jean-François' life.
       Figeac, and then Grenoble, where Jean-François joined his brother while still young, were rather off the Revolutionary beaten path, but the situation in France remained unsettled throughout Champollion's childhood and youth. Nevertheless, the boy was able to get a decent education. His obvious interest in languages was evident from early on. The story of how he taught himself to read is almost too good to be true: his illiterate but devout mother had memorized "long extracts of her missal" and repeated them to the young boy, who eventually got a copy of the missal and, by matching the words he had learnt with the printed ones, he 'deciphered' this writing system. And the picture of the boy's sleeping-arrangements, in Jacques-Joseph's library, is also a nice one:

Thus the 10-year-old Jean-François found himself sleeping in a cocoon of ancient works written in several Oriental languages, which would soon induce him to start upon his life's research.
       He studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean ... and reportedly already announced at fifteen:
I wish to devote my life to knowledge of ancient Egypt.
       (Robinson does, however, deflate a widely-repeated story of the younger Champollion already showing off his precocity -- calling it: "almost certainly false".)
       There are fascinating details of these tumultuous times throughout Robinson's account, as well a convincing portrait of a man with a single-minded intellectual passion and drive -- sometimes in the same passage, as when Robinson relates how, coming to Paris in 1807, Champollion:
found himself able to study rare Coptic works at the Imperial Library that had been 'borrowed' from the library of the Vatican in Rome. After Napoleon's fall in 1815, much of this loot would be forcibly returned by the victorious allies. An English antiquary in Italy noted in 1827: 'I think there are very few Coptic books in Europe [Champollion] has not examined; a very learned friend of mine told me there is no book in theVatican in that language, that has not remarks of Champollion in almost every page, which he made when the MSS. were at Paris.'
       Champollion was a difficult and often antagonistic character, and not just with regards to sharing any credit with Thomas Young about the deciphering of the hieroglyphs. The unsettled political situation in France for much of his life may have meant that currying the proper favor was not always paramount, but Champollion was certainly not always up to winning friends and influencing the proper people. Ill-fated support such as that of his brother for Napoleon during his 'Hundred Days' also had very serious consequences. (Robinson provides an amusing list Champollion wrote to his brother at the time; having lost his professorship, he apparently considered becoming a notary and listed some of the pros of such a career-move -- including: "Of being for a while safe from revolution".) Occasionally, however, things worked out very well indeed, as when he happened to make the acquaintance of the duke of Blacas d'Aulps, who became a powerful patron and mentor.
       Robinson -- whose other works also include a biography of the decipherer of Linear B, as well as several about writing systems -- is particularly enthusiastic in relating the deciphering of the Rosetta stone and the 'race' (and controversies) between Chmpollion and Thomas Young. Noting that most biographical works on Champollion: "contain hardly a hieroglyph in the text (not a single one in the cases of Hartleben and Lacouture)" Robinson chooses a different approach: Cracking the Egyptian Code is filled with illustrations, and while in some cases it is distractingly busily so, the hieroglyphic examples and explanations are neatly tied into the text. Nevertheless, Robinson's account of Champollion's greatest achievement sits somewhat uneasily between general introduction and detailed explanation, and might be a bit much for those who just want a general sense of Champollion's work (and too little for those who want a truly thorough account of this particular achievement).
       In describing Champollion's many stations -- including his work at the Louvre, an extended trip to Egypt (he stayed over a year), and his early death -- Robinson gives a good impression of a complicated man. Robinson also does a fine job of situating Champollion's work within the general great enthusiasm for Egypt at that time -- as well as suggesting the post-Revolutionary and then post-Napoleonic turmoil in France, and the complications these brought with them. The role of Champollion's brother -- who adopted the name Champollion-Figeac, in (presumably large) part to differentiate himself from his better-known younger brother -- is also well-presented -- appropriately so, as he played a significant role in fostering Champollion's career.
       Cracking the Egyptian Code is an often fascinating account of a certainly fascinating, obsessive man and his remarkable accomplishment. Indeed, there's so much great material here that one suspects it could easily have been fashioned into a longer, less densely packed work (one can see how biographer Hartleben easily reached a thousand pages in her biography ...). If not definitive, it does offer as much overview and information as most readers likely could ask for; it's also an attractively illustrated work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 June 2012

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Cracking the Egyptian Code: Reviews: Andrew Robinson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Andrew Robinson was born in 1957.

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© 2012 the complete review

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