Deep in rural France, in a medieval courtyard in Figeac, I almost tripped on the Rosetta Stone. Unlike the surrounding sandstone houses and half-timbered facades, the enormous slab stands out in black granite, inscribed with three different scripts, including Egyptian hieroglyphics. This isn’t just a reproduction of the famous stone that unlocked the mysteries of ancient Egypt. This is a monumental work by American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth that pays homage to the town’s native son and hieroglyphics decipherer, Jean-François Champollion.
Two hundred years after this earth-shattering discovery, I went on a quest to learn about the man who cracked the code. From modest origins, Champollion would go on to determine the chronology of Egyptian pharaohs, launch the Egyptian antiquities department at the Louvre and help found the field of Egyptology — all before an untimely death at age 41. The decipherment is an extraordinary story of passion and perseverance, particularly considering he never even saw the real Rosetta Stone. France is throwing a party this year to celebrate.
Taking place all over the country, the bicentennial is a veritable Egyptomania fest of exhibits and events. Here’s a sample: The French National Library is hosting an ambitious show, three years in the making, featuring Champollion’s unpublished documents alongside spectacular artifacts; the Arab World Institute in Paris has opened a virtual-reality experience called “The Horizon of Khufu,” taking visitors “inside” the Great Pyramid; the Mucem in Marseille is staging “Pharaoh Superstars,” equating the fickle nature of the pharaohs’ posthumous fame to present-day pop culture; and the Louvre’s northern satellite in Lens will stage an autumn exhibit on hieroglyphics and Champollion’s story, accompanied by an “Egyptobus,” or mobile museum, touring the Pas-de-Calais region.
But it’s Champollion’s birthplace that’s going all out, with a six-month program called “Eurêka!” Running through October, the cultural extravaganza includes concerts, movie screenings, theatrical shows, museum exhibits and seminars with leading Egyptologists. Restaurants are offering themed dishes, combining French and Egyptian flavors. There’s even an initiative whereby local Figeacois pay homage to Egypt in their shop windows. But perhaps the coolest part of all is the sound and light show that will be projected on the historical facades of the Place Champollion on Thursday and Saturday nights in July and August.
“Champollion was a child of the Enlightenment who illuminated the era,” says Hélène Lacipière, a city councilor and vice president in charge of culture and patrimony for Grand Figeac. “We designed ‘Eurêka!’ to showcase how this territory [an aeronautics hub] is one of invention and discovery. … We are simultaneously a land of traditions, heritage and innovation.”
Champollion retained a lifelong connection to Figeac. As I walked in his footsteps, I noticed myriad references to the great scholar, but I also fell under the charm of the town’s architecture and ambiance. Figeac had been a major market hub in the 12th to 14th centuries but later declined during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. By the 20th century, the buildings in the town center were degraded and falling apart. It was Mayor Martin Malvy who, in the 1970s, championed a policy of heritage preservation. Since then, this priority has enlivened the city center by retaining local businesses. The revitalized central district was classified with historical protected status in 1986, and Figeac was awarded the “city of art and history” label in 1990.
The medieval edifices are museum-quality, but an even bigger draw for visitors is the town’s authenticity: This is a vibrant place where people live and work. “The Saturday market is an institution,” says local guide Aymeric Kurzawinski. “It’s been taking place here in the same place for a thousand years.” Designed in metal in the Parisian Baltard style, the covered market on Place Carnot is flanked by businesses such as the Mas butchery, the Champollion bookstore and the popular Sphinx restaurant, with tables spilling across the pavement.
Equally as packed is Café Champollion on Place Champollion. It faces the Champollion Museum, which incorporates the house where the scholar was born in 1790. Dedicated to the history of the world’s writings, the museum has an eye-catching double facade: Behind the original stone, a copper wall is carved with letter cutouts, filtering the light.
The Napoleonic origins of Egyptomania
Pyramids, sphinx, mummies: Ancient Egypt exudes a powerful attraction. Since the days of the Greeks and Romans, academics have hypothesized about the civilization that flourished for nearly three millennia along the life-giving Nile. This intrigue has only deepened over the centuries, with blockbuster museum exhibits breaking attendance records (such as “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” held in Paris in 2019) and new discoveries fueling the fire (the most recent being the May archaeological find of 250 sarcophagi in a necropolis near Cairo).
But there was perhaps no greater frenzy for Egypt than after Napoleon Bonaparte’s failed military campaign in Egypt in 1798. Champollion was 7 years old when this general with Pharaonic ambitions embarked on the expedition. Along with his soldiers, Napoleon brought a team of about 160 scientists and artists to gather research. It was an officer’s discovery of a mysterious stone that would change the course of history. The stone was inscribed with three types of writing (Greek script, Demotic Egyptian and hieroglyphics), thought to convey the same message. When the French were defeated by the British in 1801, the Rosetta Stone was seized, along with other antiquities, and now has pride of place in the British Museum.
Upon Napoleon’s return to Paris, his scholars amassed their observations into publications that together were known as “Description of Egypt” (published between 1809 and 1829). The books spawned a craze of Egyptomania that’s still visible in Paris today: sphinx sculptures, Egyptian water fountains, architectural friezes outside the Passage du Caire. There are even references underground in the obelisks pa
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