The Keys of Egypt

UK hardcover

Publication Details

The Keys of Egypt was published in the UK and US by HarperCollins in hardback and in paperback.

Translated editions have so far been published in the Netherlands (by Kosmos-Z&K) as Egypte Ontraadseld, in Italy (by Piemme) as Le Chiavi dell’ Egitto, in Spain (by Debate) as Las Claves de Egipto, in Germany as Der Code Der Pharaonen (by Lübbe), in Sweden as Egyptens Nycklar (by Wahlström & Widstrand), in Norway as Nøklene Til Egypt (by Cappelen), in Japan as Rozetta Suton Kaidoku (by Shinchosha), in Austria as Der Code der Pharaonen (by Tosa), in Taiwan by Owl Publishing, in China by SDX Publishing and in South Korea by Minumsa.


The book tells the true story of the early nineteenth-century race to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and how it came to obsess the brilliant French scholar Jean-François Champollion, whose painstaking work finally solved the mystery of the hieroglyphs. He faced bitter academic and political opposition, at a time when France was often in turmoil with the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. His greatest rival was Thomas Young, the exceptionally gifted scientist and physician. Champollion’s discoveries started a process which revealed the incredible history of ancient Egypt.

The Keys of Egypt was a fascinating book to research and write, with so many different strands – the struggle to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and the rediscovery of ancient Egypt intertwined with the very different lives of Champollion and Young, the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon, the turbulent political situation in France, and expeditions through Italy and Egypt. The drama of the story far exceeded our expectations, a story that is at times desperately sad, exciting and exultant, but also – we hope – informative. We are delighted that so many people seem to be enjoying the book and that it has received such wonderful reviews.


Swedish paperback


Excerpt: Introduction – ‘The Beginning of Time’

The house at 28 rue Mazarine, where Jean-François Champollion lived and carried on his research into hieroglyphs, was less than 200 yards from the Institute of France where his brother Jacques-Joseph had his office. Towards midday on 14 September 1822, Champollion covered the distance in the shortest time possible. Clutching his papers, notes and drawings, he fled along the narrow, gloomy street, around the corner and into the Institute. Not fully recovered from his latest spell of ill-health and at the highest pitch of excitement, he was already breathless as he burst into his brother’s office, flung his papers on to a desk and shouted ‘Je tiens l’affaire!’ (‘I’ve found it!’). Working since early morning on the latest drawings of inscriptions from Abu Simbel, he had at last seen the system underlying the seemingly unintelligible Egyptian hieroglyphs, and it was now only a matter of time before he would be able to read any hieroglyphic text. He began to explain to Jacques-Joseph what he had discovered, but only managed a few words before collapsing unconscious on the floor. For a few moments his brother feared he was dead….


The Beginning of Time
Chapter 1 – The Land of Egypt
Chapter 2 – The Pupil
Chapter 3 – The City
Chapter 4 – The Teacher
Chapter 5 – The Physician
Chapter 6 – Cleopatra
Chapter 7 – An Acquaintance of the King
Chapter 8 – Master of Secrets
Chapter 9 – The Translator
Chapter 10 – ….Who Gave Words and Script
Further Reading

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

We discovered that Kate Mosse has included The Keys of Egypt in her selected further reading at the back of her hugely successful novel, Labyrinth. We therefore decided to make time to read her book and found (on p.100 of our copy) four lines of hieroglyphs alongside the following words:

In the beginning of time
In the land of Egypt
The master of secrets
Gave words and script

As you can see, these tally with four of our chapter headings (and in our own book, too, we give the hieroglyphs as well). The theme of the book is a search for the grail, and Egyptian hieroglyphs are one of the keys to that search. Also, one of the main characters is an old man who has done many things in his long life, including writing an acclaimed biography of Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered the hieroglyphs, whose story is told in The Keys of Egypt.

We are thrilled that Kate Mosse used our biography of Champollion as a key element of Labyrinth, and it was thoughtful of her to acknowledge the works of non-fiction that helped to inspire her novel. We just hope that her character of the old man who wrote a biography of Champollion wasn’t based on us, as we are not (yet) that old – although some days we feel that way!

The Keys of Egypt - US Cover
US hardcover

The Keys of Egypt - Swedish Cover
Swedish hardcover

The Keys of Egypt - Norwegian Cover

The Keys of Egypt - Austrian Cover

The Keys of Egypt - Chinese Cover

The Keys of Egypt - Taiwanese Cover

The Keys of Egypt - Italian Cover

The Keys of Egypt - Japanese Cover

The Keys of Egypt - Japanese paperback cover
Japanese paperback

The Keys of Egypt - South Korea
South Korea

The Keys of Egypt - German hardcover
German hardcover

The Keys of Egypt - German paperback
German paperback

The Keys of Egypt - Netherlands jacket
Netherlands jacket

The Keys of Egypt - Taiwan jacket
New edition in Taiwan

Some Reviews

‘But an even more gripping journey into things Egyptological can be found in The Keys of Egypt – a compulsive account of the life of Jean-Francois Champollion … As told by the Adkinses, Champollion’s life is the stuff of a 19th-century novel … A first-rate blend of high scholarship and great narrative pace, this is one of those rare, wondrous books which turns an intellectual adventure into high drama. It deserves a huge audience’ (Douglas Kennedy, The Times)

‘The story behind the decipherment, as told by Lesley and Roy Adkins, is a ripping tale of obsession and rivalry… The Adkins duo succeed in providing a fascinating and elegantly written biography of Champollion, doing justice to one of the great stories of academic heroism’ (Simon Singh, The Sunday Telegraph)

‘Champollion’s story has long deserved to be told, and the husband-and-wife authors of The Keys of Egypt have told it extremely well, producing a fascinating account of the race to unlock the cryptic language of the pharaohs … The Keys of Egypt – always readable and enjoyable – is a worthy tribute to the man who named, and unlocked, the Valley of the Kings’ (Giles Milton, Daily Mail)

Lesley and Roy Adkins have written a classic detective story. Here is the maverick, the obsessive sleuth struggling with the problem itself as well as the stubbornness of his sceptical peers. Here are the false leads and incomplete clues, and here too, with the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, is that most important ingredient of all murder mysteries – the secrets of the silent dead’ (Philip Marsden, Mail on Sunday)

‘This book offers a clear and coherent synthesis of Champollion’s life, drawing on detailed research in a wide range of sources … it organises a huge mass of historical detail into a masterly narrative, making the intricacies of such information easily accessible to the general reader … This is an admirable work and a welcome addition to Egyptological bibliographies and history’ (Dr Richard Parkinson, Times Higher Educational Supplement)

‘What they [the authors] have done is to produce an admirably lucid introduction to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Writing up intellectual rather than physical adventure in an exciting way is always a stern test for a writer and the co-authors have done particularly well … a reader-friendly model of clarity’ (Frank McLynn, Irish Times)

‘This volume provides a thrilling account of the race to decipher hieroglyphics, and a gripping biography of Champollion, who got there first’ (Charles Osborne, Sunday Telegraph)

‘The story of Champollion’s unveiling of the mystery of the hieroglyphs, achieved in the face of ill-health, poverty, political turmoil and the machinations of rival scholars, is fascinating, and the Adkinses tell it with page-turning zest’ (Nick Rennison, Sunday Times)

‘A taut story of 19th-century scholarly research by husband-and-wife archaeologists, with lashes of intrigue and scandal thrown in for good measure…. The authors know their Egyptology, and in them Champollion has found worthy champions. Their highly readable account will be of wide interest to students of ancient history and cryptology – and to anyone who enjoys a bookish detective story’ (Kirkus Reviews)

‘A thrilling account of the race to understand hieroglyphs following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt’ (Paul Lay, BBC History Magazine)

‘The Keys of Egypt … is a riveting account of the race to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs’ (Maggie McDonald, The New Scientist)

‘a fine study of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics’ (Noel Malcom, Sunday Telegraph)

‘Champollion was a kind of Columbus who sailed into antiquity and brought back treasures that reawakened the memory of mankind. Just how he did it is laid out lucidly in this thrilling account … The authors never claim to be Egyptologists, but it is clear they have an excellent grasp of the linguistics involved in the solution. They take the reader through all the intricacies of hieroglyphs with magisterial clarity’ (Michael Browning, Palm Beach Post)

‘The Adkins’ narrative grips right from its electrifying opening. What might in less able hands have been a dry, impenetrable academic study is rendered as compelling as the most spellbinding fictional thriller. This is narrative history at its beguiling best in which the characters breathe and the complex is made accessible … An enterprising television or film producer would do well to read this book. That is, if the rights haven’t already been sold!’ (Steve Snelling, Eastern Daily Press)

Our comment: No, they haven’t – we’re still hoping.

‘In the hands of husband and wife team of archaeological consultants, Lesley and Roy Adkins, it [Champollion’s story] becomes a saga of discovery, squabbling experts and international threats to scholarly reputations. Throw in a spadeful of pure, dogged, even bloody-minded determination on the part of the French scholar who eventually unravelled the extraordinary hieroglyphs … and you have one of the great adventures of the 19th century … The authors have done great service to Champollion. Their biography is graphic, gripping and a great read for all those 21st-century Egyptologists who still feel that the Nile valley holds even further discoveries to astound a modern world’ (Christine Barker, Birmingham Post)

‘Lesley and Roy Adkins have provided a fascinating account of Champollion’s triumph over adversity in the race to unlock the lost language of the pharaohs. It is a gripping story which does justice to the man, who more than anyone, opened up the Valley of the Kings. It will be widely read and is of particular interest to all Egyptologists’ (Peter Weston, Western Daily Press)

‘The Keys of Egypt reads like a gripping detective story, moving along at a good pace, as well as offering the reader an introduction into how hieroglyphs can be understood. This is a “must read” for anyone interested in Egyptology’ (Lori-Ann Foley, Jersey Evening Post)

‘Champollion? I knew only vaguely how this Frenchman had figured in the studies of Egypt and the puzzle of its hieroglyphs at the outset of the 19th century. Now, a reading of “The Keys of Egypt” has crisply – and most delightfully – erased the fuzziness … The authors’ telling of the hieroglyphic mystery story is heavy on scholarship but sparkles nonetheless … Even those with no great interest in history can experience a pleasant kind of excitement in the story of how the decipherers – with Champollion dramatically ahead of the rest – wrestled with the enigma of pictograms and other Egyptian scripts’ (George Herbert, The Virginian Pilot and The Ledger-Star [Norfolk, Virginia])

‘Now this is a book which undersells itself. At a quick glance, a book about the race to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphics looks about as interesting as a book about watching paint dry. But that is where you’d be wrong. The book combines wars and invasions, a sad and miserable life in school for a miserable child, political intrigue and danger in post-Napoleonic France, where one slip of the tongue could lead to exile or even death. But it is also a tale of one man’s struggle against the odds, and his final success – always good material for a book’ (Mike Parker, South Wales Argus)

‘The story of Champollion’s struggle with the fiendishly difficult task he set himself makes thrilling reading’ (Chris Harbinson, Newsletter, Northern Ireland)

‘Forget Robert the Bruce and his under-achieving arachnid. For a demonstration of awe-inspiring fortitude and intellectual tenacity in the face of riot, death, pestilence, and any other horror you can conjure up, it is impossible to beat Jean-Francois Champollion … The quality of information and understandable detail presented by the Adkinses is impressive, for this is not an easy subject … In the dry and dusty world of Egyptology, he is a true hero’ ([Roy Towers, The Herald [Glasgow, Scotland])

‘Lesley and Roy Adkins have produced a fascinating account of Champollion’s triumph over adversity in the race to unlock the language of the pharoahs. It is a gripping story, which does justice to the man, who more than anyone, opened up the Valley Of The Kings. It will be widely read and is of particular interest to all Egyptologists’ (‘Egypt Online’ [Egyptian State Information Service Website])