Rosetta Stone

One of the most amazing things about the world is how small and interconnected it is and always has been.  When we think of the ancient world, the civilizations seem distant and completely removed from each other – and yet somehow people traveled across continents, connected with each other, fought wars, and forever influenced or changed each other. And in this process of connecting with each other, they left a richer world for us to inherit.

Rosetta Stone

Nowhere is this global connectivity more evident than in the Rosetta Stone.  This slab of black granite with writing on it shows us the connections we have with each other – Alexander from Greece invades ancient Egypt and his General’s descendants become the Ptolemy rulers of Egypt. Much to the dislike of the Egyptian high priests and natives, they only read and write in Greek. The high priests write in Egyptian hieroglyphics, whereas native Egyptians write only Demotic. So all legal papers, or granite slabs as the case may be, have to be written in all three languages – particularly one in which a descendant of Greeks is staking his claim on the throne of Egypt.

City of Rosetta, etching by Thomas Milton 1801 – 1803

The slab gets moved around in Egypt first by the pharaohs and later the Turkish Ottomans, until over 1500 years later it is found in an Egyptian town called Rosetta by a Frenchman from Napoleon’s army – only to be taken from them by the British army under the Treaty of Alexandria. And now, another 200 years later the Egyptian museum would like Britain to return it to them.

Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphic

It is these connections we have with each other that allowed humanity to gain insight into the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. The world becomes richer when we learn from our ancestors – and the deciphering of hieroglyphics through the Rosetta Stone gave us this knowledge and insight into the lives of ancient Egyptians.

On the surface, it’s an ancient stone monument, a decree by a King written in three languages. But to only see that in the Rosetta Stone is to not see it at all. Its power lies in what it represents, and its ability to remind us of the human need, since ancient times, to connect with each other across boundaries, to roam the wide expanse of this earth, and to understand our world and the people that inhabit it. (This vignette was written by my sister during her study abroad in London, after a trip to the British Museum. All photographs courtesy of British Museum)