I was always going to love this book about deciphering hieroglyphics. During my time at university I took a few modules on linguistics, I love Ancient Egypt and I have visited the Rosetta Stone many times at the British Museum - I could hardly wait to open the cover of this one! Mainly a biography of the person to finally crack the code, Jean-Francoise Champollion, The Keys Of Egypt places Champollion's extraordinary discovery in context, explaining exactly why it took the world so long to be able to read hieroglyphics and the reaction of the academic community at the time.
The Keys of Egypt is engagingly written, but it's not the best example of entertaining non-fiction out there. The pace of events is quite brisk at the beginning of the book but definitely tapers throughout the middle onwards, finally ending with a long description of Champollion's time in Egypt including many page-length quotes from his personal letters. This meant that the last fifty or so pages did feel like a bit of a slog; I was happy that Champollion had finally achieved his dream of seeing Egypt, I just didn't want to read all of his letters! Therefore, this non-fiction book probably falls in a category with the vast majority of non-fiction titles; fascinating if you are interested in the subject, a bit tedious if you aren't.
One thing I really appreciated about The Keys Of Egypt was how the authors put Champollion's achievements in their proper historical context. There was a section on Napoleon's troops discovering the Rosetta stone, several on the political aftermath of the French Revolution and a comparison with the work of Champollion's main rival, Young. Reading about all the events going on in Champollion's life and his personal hardships (he was born into poverty and never really left it), the Adkins' managed to create a real sense of how big his achievement was and how much he was able to accomplish through hard work and sheer determination.
There were also some strong themes throughout the book. Champollion was very close to his older brother and the theme of sibling love/respect was a thread throughout all of the sections. Despite being an academic himself and therefore at high risk of becoming jealous of his younger brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion often sacrificed his own goals and dreams in order to help Jean-Francoise. The snobbery and resistance to change of the academic community was another theme - Champollion really had to fight to have his achievements acknowledged, and there were also some sore losers who resorted to plagiarism claims. It's only really since his death that his accomplishments are freely recognised.
Whilst I loved this book (and will be giving it a high rating), I can see that it wouldn't be a book for everyone, only for big fans of Ancient Egypt and/or linguistics. If you are after only a brief introduction to the life of Champollion and the decoding of the Rosetta stone (as well as the discovery of many of Egypt's monuments), I would recommend Joyce Tyldesley's Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation Was Rediscovered and the excellent BBC series that went with it.
Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: September 2000
Score: 4 out of 5