Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Original Bing Translator

Just outside the town of El-Rashid in Egypt, 218 years ago today, Pierre-Francoise Bouchard took a second look at a stone that diggers had unearthed. Napoleon had ordered his engineers to pay special attention to unusual items they found while exploring, since he had an interest in history.

Bochard noticed that the 3½ by 2½  by 1 foot slab of granite had writing on it. In fact, it had writing on it in three languages: Hieroglyphic Egyptian, which had died out in the 300s, demotic Egyptian, which was still spoken, and Greek. The stone, eventually named after the Anglicized version of El-Rashid, "Rosetta," dated from the time the Macedonian Ptolemiads ruled Egypt and proved to be the key to finally translating Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The British defeated the French and took the stone to England in 1801, where the hieroglyphics were finally translated a quarter-century later. Since hieroglyphics are picture-writing rather than alpha-numeric, the usual decoding methods don't work in translating it. Common sounds don't necessarily show up as common characters, since two different words might be represented by two different images even though they shared similar sounds.

Today the Rosetta Stone is displayed in the British Museum. It was moved to Paris on the 150th anniversary of its discovery and displayed in the Louvre for a month. Egypt asked for it back in 2003 but the museum refused and sent them a replica. Given the unrest in Egypt over the last decade or so, that might have been a good idea.

Although it's incomplete because part of the stone has been lost, enough remains to be able to tell that it contains King Ptolemy V's "Memphis Decree." Modern NBA fans might be excused for thinking it says, "Play the kind of defense that your opponent will feel in the morning," but it is actually an expression of hope for the reign of Ptolemy V. Essentially, what might be the most famous text in the known world is a PR blurb.

Ptolemy V ascended to the throne at five following the death of his father and the murder of his mother -- who was also his aunt. His mother's murderers were his regents until a rebellious general gained control over him and persuaded him to order them killed, whereupon the general became the regent. Your second grade year was probably a lot calmer.

The Ptolemiads were one of the groups inheriting parts of the empire that Alexander the Great had conquered. The other two were stronger, and divvied up the overseas holdings of their weaker neighbor. One of them, Antiochus III the Great, gave his daughter Cleopatra (not that one) to Ptolemy in marriage as a part of the peace treaty. Either she was not easy to live with or Antiochus was an awful father-in-law, because when he was at war with Rome Ptolemy sided with the Romans. This proved wise; the Romans defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia (the Seleucids couldn't stomach the Roman attacks) and Antiochus died three years later trying to rebuild his power and treasury.

And you thought the Trumps and the Clintons were bad.

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