Rosetta is actually the Frenchification (and possibly further Anglicization) of Rashid, which is the name of the town near the mouth of the Nile some 65 km outside Alex, where the French found the Rosetta stone, while attempting to restore the old Qaitbey fort there. Amid the foundations was this stone with inscriptions in three scripts, consequently providing the key to deciphering the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, or at least the Ptolemaic Egyptians.

Now I’ve seen the Rosetta stone – I did so 2003 at the British Museum, though at the time it was the sarcophagi and the smaller artifacts that fascinated me and so I did not spend hours gazing at it as I might now. I have also viewed it’s life-size replicas at the Egyptian museum and now at the Qaitbey fort. The image is familiar to most, I believe; a black surface with the now famous three bars of different scripts the decoding of which led to a race between the French and English, eventually won by Champollion. All that’s a well known story. A little less well-known perhaps is the question of how, when the French both discovered it and deciphered it first, it got into the grubby hands of the Brits. And as was usual with most French mishaps of the time, it was Napoleon Bonparte’s fault. First he abandoned his armies and his savants in Egypt to return to fight in France, and then he had to go get defeated there. Meanwhile, the Frenchies back here roundly routed as they were with ships destroyed and no way to get home, cut a deal with the British. In return for taking them back to France in their ships, the Brits took possession of all their archeological finds. Including this stone.

But the stone continues to provide us with stories.  For many years now the stone was believed to be naturally black – the legend beside the replica at Qaitbey informs us that it was a stone made of of black basalt – but apparently people harbored an erroneous impression. After a cleaning project about a decade ago, what emerged was a shade of pink. Evidently the travel and London Grime (deposited perhaps by waves of London Fog?) had covered the underlying stone so such an extent that it looked jet black. The stone turned out to be, by some strange coincidence, Rose granite. It’s very likely that it was the cleaned version of the stone I saw at the British Museum, but like I said I paid less attention to this piece than I should have then.

As for its original purpose? It was apparently a stone decree sent out by Egyptian priests during the reign of the Ptolemies exhorting the virtues of the Ptolemaic kings, as a way of showing their loyalty to the ruler (and currying his favor too no doubt). Such cannibalized pieces of the ancient world frequently turn up in later structures – you may remember my mentioning the use of Roman columns to fortify the crusader castles (in Byblos). And of course the white limestone layer over the Giza pyramids have been systematically eroded except for the tip of the second. Rome is full of churches made with the loot from the temples of the Romans of yore. And so it goes…

Before heading to the Qaitbey fort in Rashid, John took us on a walking tour of the town to show us a very interesting examples of some late 18th/early 19th century architecture and architectural decoration of painted bricks, which as I understand is singular in this town within Egypt (Yemen is where a lot of this type of decoration . Small as the town is, its governing body decided to divert considerable funds into restoring various buildings – private homes, mosques, a public bath – to their original state, and hence a walk through its streets is a visual treat. Muddy as the small streets were due to recent rains – it rains often and hard in these areas – the town was mostly clean, and the people (perhaps lulled by the holidays) did not accost us with outrageous comments or offers. And the red and black -painted brick facades were really beautiful. We visited a bath house and witnessed some strange acoustic tricks in the main bath area as well.

Click for some picks:

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After our walk, and a visit to the fort, we drove out to the point where the river flows into the sea, i.e. the mouth of the Nile. Out there we say some fishing boats bobbing up and down, haplessly it seemed, amid the opposing currents of river and sea, but those folks seemed to be holding their own. Their work inspired us to go searching for fresh fish of our own, only ours required less adventurous methods. We simply went to a restaurant.


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