Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer October 3, 2004
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It is famed as a critical moment in code-breaking history. Using a piece
of basalt carved with runes and words, scholars broke the secret of
hieroglyphs, the written 'language' of the ancient Egyptians.
A baffling, opaque language had been made comprehensible, and the
secrets of one of the world's greatest civilisations revealed - thanks
to the Rosetta Stone and the analytic prowess of 18th and 19th century
But now the supremacy of Western thinking has been challenged by a
London researcher who claims that hieroglyphs had been decoded hundreds
of years earlier - by an Arabic alchemist, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah.
'It has taken years of painstaking research to prove this,' said Dr
Okasha El Daly, at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. 'I was convinced that
Western scholars were not the first, and I have found evidence that
shows Arabian scholars broke the code a thousand years ago.'
The Rosetta Stone was found embedded in a fort wall by French engineers
during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. The stone - now displayed in the
British Museum - contains a text in Greek, Coptic and hieroglyph, but
still required another 23 years' work to be decoded, a task achieved by
Jean-Fran�ois Champollion, a student of ancient languages.
Champollion's breakthrough came in 1822 when he realised hieroglyphs
should be read, not as symbols of ideas or objects, but as a phonetic
script. The sound associated with each symbol was crucial to deciphering
it. It was a 'eureka' moment. 'Je tiens mons affaire (I've done it),'
Champollion shouted, before falling into a dead faint for five days. He
awoke to continue his work, but died 10 years later of exhaustion and is
buried in Paris's P�re Lachaise cemetery. Pieces of papyrus are still
placed on his grave in recognition of his great work.
But now it is claimed that Champollion had been beaten by Arabian
scholars who, eight centuries earlier, had twigged that sounds were
crucial to their decoding. 'For two and half centuries, the study of
ancient Egypt has been dominated by a Euro-centric view that virtually
ignored Arabic scholarship,' said El Daly. 'I felt that was quite
An expert in both ancient Egypt and ancient Arabic scripts, El Daly
spent seven years chasing down Arabic manuscripts in private collections
around the world in a bid to find evidence that Arab scholars had
unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyph. He eventually found it in the
work of the ninth-century alchemist, Ibn Wahshiyah. 'I compared his
studies with those of modern scholars and realised that he understood
completely what hieroglyphs were saying.'
El Daly stressed that Muslim scholars had not simply been handed the
secrets of hieroglyphs after Egypt was taken over by Islam.
'The secret of the hieroglyph was lost and then rediscovered by Arab
scholars, who used diligent work to break their code, eight centuries
before Champollion,' he said. 'These were people who possessed great
astronomical and mathematical knowledge. Decoding hieroglyphs was just
the kind of thing they would have been good at.'
� Arab World Books