The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 11, 2008

Wenamun the Traveller

Thirty-one centuries ago, a Theban man named Wenamun made a trip on behalf of his priestly masters to the Levant. He was to obtain cedar logs in Lebanon for the construction of the barge of Amun. En route, he was robbed and he had to throw himself at the mercy of the ruler of Byblos.
"...while the god was resting in his tent by the shore of the sea. I found the ruler sitting in his upper room, with his back turned to a window, and the waves of the great Syrian sea were beating behind his head."
The king refused to release the goods Wenamun wanted, demanding - contrary to tradition - payment for them. Wenamun had to wait a long while for funds to arrive from his temple, and meanwhile pirates came looking for him, and he grew steadily more and more despondent, despairing that the wishes of the great god Amun-Ra were being unfulfilled. Filled with sorrow at being far from his home, he lamented:
"I sat there weeping. And the scribe of the ruler came out and asked, "What is the matter?" I said to him, "Can't you see the wading birds who are returning for a second time to Egypt? Look at them; they are heading for the cool pools. How long shall I be here, abandoned?"
Wenamun seems to have lived an Indiana Jones-like adventure, ending up washed up on the shores of Cyprus where he is tended to by a queen. As John Ray points out feelingly in his lovely little book, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, ancient Egyptian is worth learning just for this little tale.

By the time this story was written, the Egyptian language had freed itself from the strict word order and verbal declension forms (reminiscent of Latin) of its older version, and become more loose and flowing. Wenamun, writing around 1070 BC, wrote in the hieratic variety of the language. The truly wonderful thing about this all is that we are now in a position to chart almost the entire history and evolution of the Pharaonic language across a period of 3400 years. By far, this was the longest unbroken use of a language, longer than either Greek or Chinese. And we owe this treasure chiefly to two men, Thomas Young and (more importantly) Jean-François Champollion, and the otherwise utterly unremarkable Rosetta Stone.

John Ray's book is one in a series - Wonders of the World2 - of delightful little treatises on the world's famous monuments. He covers in short, pithy chapters, the essence of Egyptology, the story of the discovery of the stone, the Franco-English battles for intellectual (and imperial) domination, the immense progress made by Thomas Young, and the brilliant breakthroughs of Champollion. He describes other wondrous discoveries made of the culture of the Egyptians, truly remarkable stories preserved across time. He happily points out that there is still much to be learnt about the languages of that ancient civilisation. Egyptology is far from dead, and this learned little book serves up a heady brew of intellectual and aesthetic simulation.


1. John Sturrock, Key words: unlocking lost languages. The Guardian. September 17, 2002.
2. BLDG BLOG, The Wonders of the World: An Interview with Mary Beard


Post a Comment