a fashionable craze for Egypt and all things Egyptian. When Napoleon moved into his palace at Malmaison in 1801, Josephine had many of the rooms decorated in the “Egyptian style,” Damietta roses were planted in the garden, and the park contained Egyptian gazelles. This craze quickly spread from Parisian high society throughout the fashionable centers of Europe, where such things as Egyptian-style evening dress, pyramids, and the pastel shade eau de Nil became all the rage. This craze would penetrate to the very heart of the Republic. When Napoleon decided to dispense with the fleur-de-lis as the national symbol, on account of its Royalist associations, he asked Denon to design a new symbol, and the artist came up with a striking but simple design of a bee (intended to portray industry and sweetness, but with the power to sting). This was copied directly from the hieroglyph of an ancient Egyptian temple. *
But in many ways this was just the beginning. Despite the British claiming the Rosetta Stone as one of the spoils of war, and exhibiting it to the public in the British Museum (where it still remains), scholars all over Europe soon became intrigued by the mysterious ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on this stone, which they were able to study on the plaster casts and rubbings which had been made and distributed by the French. These scholars soon agreed that the Rosetta Stone, with its three parallel texts, held the clue that could unlock the hidden secret of the ancient Egyptian language, but for the moment the task of deciphering these hieroglyphs proved beyond all who attempted it.
It was another of the savants who would play a decisive role in solving this mystery. The mathematician Fourier, former president of the Institute in Cairo, was rewarded by Napoleon on his return from Egypt with the post of governor of the Isère region in southeastern France. He would have preferred to continue with his mathematical researches, but reluctantly settled in Grenoble, where he proved an efficient and go-ahead administrator. † In the course of his work, he came across the eleven-year-old prodigy Jean-François Champollion, who exhibited an exceptional talent for languages. Fourier showed Champollion his collection of antiquities brought from Egypt, some of which contained ancient hieroglyphs, and the young genius was intrigued when he learned that they remained a mystery.
In the years to come Champollion became obsessed with the idea of deciphering these hieroglyphs, even going so far as to learn Coptic, which he correctly surmised was a late form of ancient Egyptian. By this time several scholars in Britain, Germany and France had begun to work on the hieroglyphs. Most suspected that they were like Chinese ideograms (some even thought that they might have been precursors of Chinese).Champollion’s great insight was that the hieroglyphs were a complex mixture of ideograms and alphabet: some hieroglyphs stood for a letter, others for a syllable, others for an idea, and yet others for an object or entity. In the 1820s he began publishing his sensational discoveries, and his eventual solution to the mystery of the hieroglyphs. With this, the academic aspect of Egyptology was launched, and scholars were able to translate the many different texts. Far from being an indecipherable code, the hieroglyphs now became a window into the 6,000-year-old world of ancient Egypt—its history, its customs, its rulers all sprang vividly to life, and humanity began to understand for the first time the mysteries of one of the first great civilizations to emerge from prehistory.
Having set Champollion on his path, Fourier would go on to write the historical introduction to the Description of Egypt , but by this stage he had begun to suffer from a strange disease, whose main effect was to render him extremely sensitive to cold. This caused him to wrap up in many layers of heavy clothing, and live in a highly overheated room from which he seldom