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The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt


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About the Author

John Ray is Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University, and is also a Fellow of Selwyn College.


The stone is an icon because it provided the key to decoding ancient Egyptian writing, allowing the pharaohs to speak to the modern world. It also stands for great intellectual achievement: the genius of Thomas Young, the English physicist and polymath who was the first to try and decipher it, and that of his rival, the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, who cracked the hieroglyphs in 1822 and founded Egyptology as a science. The stone also stands for national rivalry: between Napoleon's army, which discovered it in Egypt in 1799, and the British army, which took it to the UK. Though few people know what it actually says, the Rosetta Stone has come to symbolise the enduring power of writing. Ray writes knowledgeably about all these aspects of the stone, drawing on four decades of engagement with ancient Egypt--a career partly inspired by a schoolboy encounter with the stone in the 1950s. There are already some good books on the subject...but Ray sheds new light on topics such as the fragile political position of the stone's hero, teenage pharaoh Ptolemy V, and the issue of whether the stone should one day be returned to Egypt. -- Andrew Robinson * New Scientist *
[Ray] successfully captures the West's fascination with Egypt. Always the master of his subject, he entertains rather than lectures, is sparing with minutiae but still finds space for telling detail. -- Anthony Sattin * Sunday Times *
A wonderful introduction not only to the Rosetta Stone and its story, but also to the growth and development of modern Egyptology...Ray also offers an illuminating overview of dead language studies and the colorful figures who devote their lives to it...This informative text has an appealing, conversational tone that non-specialists should find especially welcoming. * Publishers Weekly *
Ray balances his acumen with accessibility in presenting the stele's history, which takes several forms. From a historical perspective, the text, a 196 BCE agreement between the Ptolemaic pharaoh and the Egyptian priesthood, opens a window on a culture and polity in distress. Another history is intellectual, that of the Rosetta Stone's spectacular role in the decipherment of hieroglyphics...Ruminating on whether it, or antiquities generally, should be repatriated, Ray underscores that its history continues. Concise and informative. -- Gilbert Taylor * Booklist *
Discovered in Egypt by Napoleon's troops, now the most visited object in the British Museum, the Rosetta stone has an interesting history as the codex for the language of ancient Egypt--and John Ray tells its story well and succinctly. Additionally, I found the design of this book--using the Rosella stone's text as its end papers--charming. -- Robert Birnbaum * Morning News *

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