Champollion and Figeac: an outstanding man still alive in his hometown – Meanderings through France n° 104
By Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny
Although Jean-François Champollion was born a long time ago in 1790 and died young at the age of 41, he still is today a man that makes French people rightfully proud. He not only is a French historical figure but gained international recognition, not for being a great war leader but for being the first man in modern history, able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was born in a small town of South Western France, Figeac (say fijak), where his childhood home has been turned into a museum dedicated not only to him and his brilliant discovery, but also to all kinds of writings throughout space and time on earth.
Champollion was a gifted mind. Even before going to school he learned to read all by himself and at only 11 he entered high school where he developed his love for ancient history, linguistics and philology. In a few years he studied several languages and writings from Middle East and Asia: Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Persian, Ethiopian, Chinese, Syriac… His thirst for knowledge was endless.
The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 in Al-Rashid (Rosetta), a village of the Nile Delta, by Bouchard, a French lieutenant of Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies. From 1798 till 1801, Bonaparte, who was not yet emperor, led a campaign in Egypt but was finally defeated by the British armies in Aboukir. The Rosetta Stone was taken as a spoil of war and since then is one of the major Egyptian artefacts of the British Museum. Since its discovery this black granite stele excited all Egyptologists’ curiosity in Europe and America. Many copies of the texts engraved on the stone, most of them partial or inaccurate, circulated from museums to specialized institutes and many linguists tried to decrypt the hieroglyphs. Without much convincing results!
It was not before 1818 that Champollion was able to get an accurate copy of the Rosetta Stone from a veteran of the Egyptian Campaign. The text written on the stone is a decree celebrating Pharaoh Ptolemy V dated 27 March, 196 BC. The same text is written in Hieroglyphs, in demotic Egyptian (the everyday way to write Egyptian language) and Greek allowing Champollion and his in-depth knowledge of ancient languages to make deciding connections between the 3 texts. He then started to translate all the ancient papyrus scrolls he could find in order to complete his translation method, until September 14, 1822 when according to the legend he exclaimed; “I’ve got it!”. He travelled through Egypt in 1828 and 1829 where he got a triumphant confirmation of his theory. He was able to read all the texts written on the ancient Egyptian monuments thus identifying them. If today it is quite obvious to us that the Abu Simbel temples were built by Pharaoh Ramses II or that the Great Pyramid of Giza was Pharaoh Cheops’ tomb, we must remember that all this knowledge had been lost for centuries and was rediscovered, thanks to Champollion.
The Champollion Museum was created in his childhood house in 1986 and was completely renovated last year. You will easily spot it on the Champollion Square with its high copper panels created by Pierre di Sciullo, where all kinds of writing signs have been cut. The Museum is now dedicated not only to this great man but also to writing in all its forms. It’s a journey through the cultures of the world, starting 5,300 years ago. Where does writing come from? Who invented it? What are the stakes of writing? Are there writings still un-deciphered? How did writings travel and develop? How did Champollion decrypt the hieroglyphics? Visiting the four-storey museum you will find answers to these questions. From the Sumerian pictograms, the oldest known writing, to the birth of books and the digital age, from clay tablets to the invention of paper, from quill pen to electronic pen, from cuneiform writing to Chinese ideograms or Mayan language, all aspects of human communication are explored in an interactive, playful and easy to understand way.
Outside, at the foot of the museum, go to the Place des Ecritures, the Writing Square, where Joseph Kosuth, a pioneer of conceptual art, has created a huge Rosetta Stone engraved in the pavement. Figeac has a lot more to offer to a curious tourist. It’s been a prosperous town since the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and many mansions and ornamented houses show this past wealth. Get lost in the maze of small streets of the city centre and discover gothic-style windows, finely carved columns, elegant turrets, Roman sculptures, half-timbered houses and the typical solelho, an open-air attic where people used to put fruits, vegetables or even linen, in order to dry them. You will notice them in many old houses of the area.
In the Boutaric Street, “La Dinée du Viguier” welcomes hungry tourists. In this beautiful gothic house you will have lunch or dinner in the former arms room with its huge fireplace or in the outside patio in the shade of the high castle walls. Friendly and inexhaustible about the castle’s story, Bernard Badia will tell you everything about the menu and about wine and food pairing, while the chef, Daniel Authié makes a tasty and authentic cuisine. Even if service is quick it feels good to take time to enjoy a good and relaxing meal. Having lunch here, at “La Dinée du Viguier”, is a way to understand why French people “waste” too much time eating!
For more information about Figeac and the Lot department: www.lot-tourisme.com
About the Champollion Museum; http://en.musee-champollion.fr/
More about the restaurant: La Dinée du Viguier http://www.chateau-viguier-figeac.fr/accueil.html
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny