A word of advice to our Northern Neighbour’s please listen what the BBC RADIO 4 says about the ethnicity of the Macedonians and Alexander the Great.
Rosetta Stone (erected in 196 BC) found at al-Rashid, Egypt.
Every day I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum, and every day there are tour guides, speaking every imaginable language, addressing groups of visitors who are craning to see the object that I will be talking about in this programme.
It is on every visitor’s itinerary and, with the mummies, it is the most popular object in the British Museum. Why? To look at, it is decidedly dull – it is a grey stone, about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports, and the rough edges show that it’s been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it’s pretty dull too – it’s mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the British Museum, appearances are deceiving, because this dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history – the cracking of hieroglyphics.
“In the Memphis Decree, we find a Greek view of the world in Egyptian terms.” (Dorothy Thompson).
“I think it’s quite weird. Why you would put this sort of statement, which is basically a statement of tax exemption, on such a heavy stone! It is 760 kilograms. Why did they do that?” (Ahdaf Soueif)
This is a week of objects connected to shifting empires and legendary rulers, from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Augustus. Over two thousand years ago, from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to India and China, these leaders found different ways of physically projecting their power and their authority. Today’s programme is particularly fascinating though, because it’s a special case. It’s about a ruler who is not strong but weak, a king who has to bargain for and protect his power by borrowing the invincible strength of the gods or, more precisely, the priests. We’re in Egypt, with Ptolemy V, a Greek boy-king who came to the throne as an orphan in 205 BC, at the age of six.
Ptolemy V was born into a great dynasty. The first Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great’s generals who, around a hundred years earlier, had taken over Egypt following Alexander’s death. The Ptolemies didn’t trouble to learn Egyptian, they simply made all their officials speak Greek, and so Greek would be the language of state administration in Egypt for a thousand years. Perhaps their greatest achievement was to make their capital city Alexandria into the most brilliant metropolis of the Greek-speaking world – for centuries it was second only to Rome. It was a cosmopolitan magnet for goods, people and ideas. The vast Library of Alexandria was built by the Ptolemies – in it, they planned to collect all the world’s knowledge. And Ptolemies I and II created the famous Pharos lighthouse, which became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Such a lively, diverse city needed strong leadership. When Ptolemy V’s father died suddenly, leaving the boy as king, the dynasty and its control of Egypt looked fragile. The boy’s mother was killed, the palace was stormed by soldiers, and there were revolts throughout the country which delayed the young Ptolemy’s coronation for years.
It was in these volatile circumstances that Ptolemy V issued the Rosetta Stone, and others like it. The Stone is not unique; there are another 17 similar inscriptions quite like it, all in three languages and all proclaiming the greatness of the Ptolemies. These were put up in major temple complexes across Egypt.
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