Monthly Archives: December 2020

The hardest cryptogram evurrrr

Champollion doing that weird Napoleonic hand-in-the-vest-for-my-portrait thing

A cryptogram is a puzzle where the letters of words are replaced with ciphers. A cipher is any symbol. To ‘decipher’ a code is to replace the ciphers with the correct letters. I told you the secret to solving cryptograms: you look for a short, common word, like ‘the.’ Young began the process by correctly identifying the word ‘Ptolemy.’

Jean-François Champollion (ZHEHN frahn-SWAH shahm-pōl-YŌN) was the tireless French scholar who broke the hieroglyph code. He started with Young’s discovery and used the Greek words to decipher the hieroglyphic and Demotic versions. He figured out that Ptolemy’s name was a rebus—meaning that those symbols must represent sounds. That was a beginning. He still had years of diligent work ahead of him. Eventually, in 1822 he was able to show that hieroglyphic symbols could stand for things, ideas, syllables or sounds. Demotic symbols stood for syllables or sounds. He’d sorted out how the reader can tell which of those a symbol stands for.

And so, after thirteen centuries of silence, the hieroglyphics could speak again. Nowadays if you put ‘Rosetta Stone’ in your search engine you’ll get ads for a company that teaches foreign languages. The Rosetta Stone was so crucial to solving the hieroglyphics mystery that it’s become a symbol for understanding all languages.

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Cartouche is not something you get from a long automobile trip

The Rosetta Stone has 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and ancient Greek

The big deal here is that there is one message written 3 times in different languages—just like Darius’ proclamation a few posts back. One of the Rosetta Stone languages is Greek. If you can read Greek, maybe you can piece together Ancient Greek. The next step is to treat the hieroglyphs and Demotic like a cryptogram. You look for common, recognizable words. An English physicist named Thomas Young saw the word ‘Ptolemy’ in Ancient Greek and figured it must also show up in the other 2 versions. Ptolemy was the pharaoh—a pretty important guy.* The hieroglyphic version of the Rosetta Stone has some symbols that look more important than the others. They’re inside a rounded rectangular shape called a cartouche (kar-TOOSH). Could those symbols spell out ‘Ptolemy?’

Here’s a close-up of the hieroglyphics with the cartouche:
Scroll down to see the 3 different versions of ‘Ptolemy:’

* Ptolemy was 13 years old when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed. He was Pharaoh of all Egypt. When I was 13 years old I was drawing cartoons in my room. My favorite food was peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

You can be a pharaoh, too! Just create a rebus of your name inside this cartouche which I thoughtfully drew for you. For example, if your name is ‘Doug,’ draw a dog. If your name is ‘Bethany-Mehitabel,’ you’ll need to do a lot more drawing.

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Napoleon’s soldiers discover something big

Here we go—we’re zooming ahead another bunch of centuries. I know, I know, we’ve bounced around time like a bb in a boxcar. You still want to find out how we know what ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics say, right? Of course you do.

It’s ad 1799, everybody! England had her trading empire—in Canada, the Middle East and India. Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte was building the French Empire. Napoleon was another of those military geniuses who considered the day wasted that wasn’t spent conquering some country. He was utterly ruthless and would do anything for more power. Napoleon had the idea to establish a military base in Egypt from where he could launch attacks on British forces in the Middle East. One day, on the Nile delta near the town of Rashid (‘Rashid’ was too much of a mouthful so the French soldiers shortened it to ‘Rosette’) Napoleon’s engineers were expanding the foundations of his fort. As they dug, they ran into rubble from old, forgotten walls. A piece of this rubble was a ‘stela’ (STAY-lah): a stone with lettering chiseled into it.

Hang on, though—the lettering was in 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The French officer in charge, Pierre-François Bouchard (pee-AIR frahn-SWAH boo-SHAR), was a smart cookie who recognized right away how important the Rosetta Stone is. He had the soldiers stop digging with their iron shovels and picks and carefully, very gently, tenderly lift the Rosetta Stone out of the sand and wipe it clean with soft cloths. After that he let them go back to shooting cannonballs at the sphinx’ nose. (Kidding! Kidding!—they didn’t really.)

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That old wheel of fortune

The Hagia Sophia. This style of church is called a basilica: an enormous dome set on a square base. I drew it as it was in its heyday, before being goombah’d up with minarets.

You see how this went? Christianity, which had been oppressed and persecuted 500 years earlier, grew popular within the Roman Empire until the Church came to be in charge and so now it squashed down the other religions. It’s never a bad idea to be aware of this stuff—what they call a ‘cultural shift.’ Which religion (or ideology) is in charge now? Where is it promoted? How is it promoted? Which religion or ideology is being discouraged? An easy way to tell is: look at what ideology you can make fun of—and what you’re not allowed to make fun of. If you mock a way of thinking and scorn is heaped upon your head, or your opinion gets you in trouble, or your opinion gets blocked on social media—the ideology you’re mocking is in charge.

I’m a Christian, which means Jesus is my Savior. You can expect me to champion Christianity’s indispensable role in shaping our great civilization. Nevertheless, I try to stay clear-eyed about Christianity’s past. All human beings are flawed. We Christians regularly fail at being Christ-like. Not only that, we live in a fallen, constantly-changing world. Religions and ideologies gain and lose their influence. Justinian built what may be the most magnificent Christian church human beings had ever seen—the Hagia Sophia. Fifteen hundred years later, it’s a mosque—a Muslim house of worship.

If you’d like to learn more about Justinian, try this fascinating book: Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen. It covers everything about that place and time but its focus is the bubonic plague. This year seems like a good time to read it. Highly recommended by me!

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People in charge sure like to close things down

Now we zip ahead about 150 years to Emperor Justinian. You knew I’d get back to Egyptian hieroglyphics eventually, right? Justinian wanted to discourage all religions that weren’t Christianity, so in ad 537 he closed the Egyptian temples where they worshiped ‘small-g’ gods Horus and Anubis and other deities (DAY-i-teez). With that, there was no need to read hieroglyphics anymore (‘hieroglyphics’ means ‘words of the gods’). After a couple of generations there was nobody left who could read or write or understand hieroglyphics.

Beware, this link has a buttload of pop-up ads:
What a visual treat! Look at this animated recreation of the Philae temple complex:

It’s official!

In ad 380, Christianity had become so popular that Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire.

It wasn’t quite so easy as that. Theodosius was a Christian, but he wasn’t very good at it. In fact, he ordered a horrific massacre to put down a rebellion. Bishop Ambrose wouldn’t let Theodosius into the church until he’d properly repented. It was a clash of wills. Ambrose insisted that you need to be humble before you can enter God’s house. Theodosius did repent and worked harder to be a better Christian, like stop massacring people so much. The upshot was that now everyone in the Empire—including the Emperor—submitted to the Church rather than the Church submitting to the Emperor.

Don’t worry—we’re still getting around to how we lost hieroglyphics.

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In hock Señor Wences

I deserve every “Okay, Boomer” sneer I get for this lame gag. I pray Señor Wences’ ghost will forgive me.

The persecuted Christians of the Roman Empire adopted a strange symbol to represent themselves: the Cross. The cross was the torture device used to kill Jesus. Maybe it was a way of saying they knew they might be put to death for worshiping Christ, and accepted that possibility.

We’re zipping ahead to ad 304—the Roman Empire was enduring a civil war. Emperor Constantine and Emperor Licinius were at it. It looked like Licinius had all the military advantage. But Constantine had a dream the night before the big decisive battle: the dream told him to fight under the banner of Christ. Constantine must’ve dreamed in Latin, so the takeaway message was: ‘In hoc signo vinces’—‘In this sign you will conquer.’ He had his soldiers paint crosses on their shields and they won the battle and the war. After that, Constantine decreed that all religions would be permitted in the Roman Empire and no one would be punished for worshiping Christ.

Here’s a very good read:

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The new religion

The Roman Empire became so enormous that it was too huge for one emperor. The Empire got split into East and West. Rome was still the capital city of the western half. Byzantium became the capital city of the eastern half. Within both halves of the Empire was a growing movement, a new religion—people who worshiped Jesus Christ. This was a problem, because—just like the Egyptians and pharaoh—Romans were expected to worship their emperor as a god. Christians had to worship in secret. Whenever they were found, Christians were rounded up, punished and even executed in grisly spectacles at the Colosseum where they were put in an arena with abused, starved lions. People bought tickets to watch. Human beings can be horrible, gang. (requires subscription)

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Merry Christmas!

Time toddled along and the Roman Empire got bigger. Forty-four years after Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by his senators, 31 years after Augustus’ navy beat Antony’s navy, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria and a royal decree had been issued throughout the Empire that everyone in it should be taxed…in an unfashionable province, in the sleepy hometown of a long-dead king, in a humble little house with barely enough extra room to squeeze unexpected guests in among the family livestock…a baby was born to a carpenter and his young wife.

This Baby was a promise from God. God would keep the covenant He made with His chosen people. God was giving us His only Son who would one day be sacrificed to pay for our sins. God knew that would happen, yet He still gave us Jesus—our Savior, our Messiah, the Christ. We’re forgiven no matter how bad we’ve been. Our Heavenly Father must really, really love us!

We here at Western Civ User’s Guide World Headquarters wish you all the peace and joy and hope of Christmas.

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‘Bi’ means ‘2.’ In Latin ‘remus’ means ‘oar.’ Zippity-doo-dah!

The warships used in the Battle of Actium were biremes. The bireme is a long galley with two banks of oars and a reinforced prow in front for ramming. I’m no Captain Hornblower, but it’s hard to see how those boats didn’t tip over. The oars come out really close to the water so it looks like they have no more draught than a canoe. The oars may have acted as outriggers to keep them from tipping but there’s a lot of stuff like masts, sails, castles and swiveling gangways that look top-heavy to me. Great fun to draw, though!

You can build a wood or plastic model of the Roman bireme warship from a kit, but they’re not cheap:
Wait! Here’s one that’s budget-friendly:

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