The exhibition. In 1822, Jean-François Champollion made history by deciphering the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Several meetings, in this year 2022, celebrate the bicentenary of this discovery which founded Egyptology. The exhibition entitled “L’aventure Champollion”, at the National Library of France (BNF), opened the ball of these tributes. The BNF was particularly well placed for this: in addition to the fact that the self-taught scholar had assiduously attended the establishment (which was then called the Imperial and then Royal Library), in addition to his older brother Jacques-Joseph – constant support in the search for his younger brother – was curator of the manuscripts there, no less than 88 volumes of notes and drawings by the Egyptologist are kept there.

Nothing better, therefore, to follow the intellectual and scientific approach of this one, a hard worker who, throughout his life, wrote lexicons, dictionaries, grammars. When this language lover embarks on the adventure, Europe rediscovers Egypt following the famous expedition led by Napoleon Bonaparte, but the meaning of hieroglyphs, ubiquitous on ancient objects and sites, has long been lost. (the last inscription dates from the year 394). More or less eccentric theories circulate about them, some lending them a relationship with Chinese, most thinking that it is not a question of a real writing but of a secret code, when they do not consider them as magic symbols.

Papyrus and sunglasses

The Rosetta Stone – of which a cast is on display at the BNF, the original being jealously guarded at the British Museum, London – is of course of paramount importance in the journey that leads Jean-François Champollion to his “eureka” moment. , towards this letter where, more than enthusiastic, he announces to his brother “I hold my business! “. But the Rosetta stone alone would not have been enough since others than the Frenchman were working on it and still stumbled on the enigma. What makes the difference in favor of Champollion is both his fine knowledge of Coptic, this language spoken by the Christians of Egypt which derives directly from ancient Egyptian, but above all his never satisfied appetite for this vanished civilization. . Not only does he immerse himself completely in hieroglyphs, copying endlessly (and without the slightest error) texts which he then understands absolutely nothing, but he imbibes pharaonic culture.

The visitor is in turn invited to an Egyptian immersion, because if the BNF constitutes a temple of the text, the exhibition also presents elements other than written to visualize the richness of this culture. These are photographs taken in the field in the 19th century, from the invention of this imaging technique, they are objects such as a series of bronze statuettes representing gods and goddesses of Egypt or even papyri.

It is not without emotion either that we discover the sunglasses or the pipe that Champollion brought back from his Egyptian expedition of 1828-1829. Because, even if the surname of Champollion has almost become a common name designating a mystery breaker, there was indeed, behind the spirit, a man of flesh and bones, who died in 1832 at only 41 years old, in the make his glory. A man who, by deciphering the hieroglyphics, allowed a fascinating civilization to resurrect.