Updated: May 20, 2022
Edward Dolnick's The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode The Rosetta Stone is one of the best accounts of the decipherment of ancient script ever published. It also contains many factoid gems, the search for which is my chief pleasure in reading. Here is one:
It was the lure of treasure that had drawn Belzoni to Egypt. But he made perhaps his greatest find—and certainly his most spectacular -- only after he crossed paths with another European traveler who was motivated almost solely by curiosity and wanderlust.
That find would lead to the next breakthrough in the deciphering race. Once again, it would involve a collaboration between Belzoni and William Bankes (...).
In the years from about 1810 to 1820, Belzoni and Bankes were among a handful of Europeans dashing back and forth across Egypt in a kind of high-stakes scavenger hunt. The lives of both men changed, and the whole deciphering story veered onto a new track, when they met a tall, bearded, half-starved figure who spun tales of his travels that might have come from The Thousand and One Nights.
Jean Louis Burckhardt was a traveler almost without peer. Swiss-born, he had left Europe in 1809, at age twenty-five. He would never return. He spent his first few years abroad in Syria, where he immersed himself in the study of Arabic. Soon Burckhardt spoke so well that, with the help of a thick beard and a turban and robe, he could pass as a local. As Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdullah, he set off to explore the Middle East and Africa, unarmed, unaccompanied, and endlessly curious.
He would become one of the first Westerners to visit Mecca and the first to see Petra, in Jordan. (...) The year 1813 found him deep in the Nubian desert, some seven hundred miles south of Cairo. This was harsh, lawless territory, more than a hundred miles beyond the most remote spot that any of Napoleon’s savants had reached.
Burckhardt was chasing down rumors of an ancient, neglected temple on the banks of the Nile. He found it.
Carved into a cliffside in the forbidding land then called Nubia stood six enormous statues, three on each side of an entranceway that vanished into the rock. (The site is about 170 miles south of present-day Aswan.) For anyone approaching overland, the temple complex was hard to spot until the last moment, but from the river it was impossible to miss. Inside, Burckhardt saw more carvings, painted figures, and countless hieroglyphs.
He explored a bit and then turned to leave. As he clambered back up the cliffs from the river, he happened to glance toward the south. Suddenly he saw four immense statues, far bigger than the colossal statues he had already found. These, too, were carved from the sandstone cliffs, but sand now buried them almost completely.
Burckhardt had nearly missed what would prove to be one of Egypt’s grandest “lost” temples; what he had found first was a kind of secondary, companion temple.
He ran closer. The head and chest of one statue stood above the sand. The next statue in line was almost completely hidden. “Of the other two,” Burckhardt wrote, “the bonnets only appear.”
Those “bonnets,” it would turn out, were crowns; the statues depicted pharaohs—more accurately, one pharaoh four times. Burckhardt climbed his way up to the one statue whose head lay exposed. Here was “a most expressive, youthful countenance, appearing nearer to the Grecian model of beauty” than any other statue in Egypt.
Burckhardt measured the distance from shoulder to shoulder—seven yards. He measured an ear from top to bottom—one yard, four inches. There was no way to tell if the statues showed standing figures or seated ones. If they were standing, Burckhardt guessed, they were sixty-five or seventy feet tall. What was this place?
If only the sand could be cleared away, Burckhardt suggested, “a vast temple would be discovered, to the entrance of which the above colossal figures probably serve as ornaments.”
Burckhardt found Abu Simbel in 1813. Two years later, in the winter of 1815, in Cairo, he and two new acquaintances spent many an evening chattering away excitedly about the fabulous, inaccessible temple that Burckhardt had seen.
They made a conspicuous trio, not least because at the time Europeans in Cairo were rare. The tall, golden-haired man was William Bankes, the wealthy English collector who had found the obelisk at Philae. His huge companion was Belzoni, the strongman-turned-archaeologist who had helped Bankes ship the obelisk home. Both men tended to defer to Burckhardt, the most experienced traveler of the group. Burckhardt spun tales of disguises and beatings and robberies and narrow escapes. But his listeners clamored especially for tales of Abu Simbel. What riches might lie under the sand?
Edward Dolnick, The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode The Rosetta Stone