A grand meeting of the Department of History of the Ancient East Countries at St Petersburg University has been held at the State Hermitage. The event was dedicated to two dates at once: the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion and the 70th anniversary of the continuous work of the Egyptology division at the University.

The meeting was attended by teachers and students of the Egyptology and Assyriology programmes, as well as employees of the Hermitage.

The meeting was opened by Academician Mikhail Piotrovsky, Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies of St Petersburg University, Head of the Department of History of the Ancient East Countries, Director of the State Hermitage. He congratulated the first-years on becoming St Petersburg University students and reminded the audience that, by studying the past, Asian and African Studies help to understand the present and predict the future.

Egyptology is a rare profession. And most of you have been enrolled in this programme. This is very valuable and important.

Academician Mikhail Piotrovsky, Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies of St Petersburg University, Head of the Department of History of the Ancient East Countries, Director of the State Hermitage.

A report on the history of Egyptology was presented by Andrey Bolshakov, Doctor of History, Head of the Ancient Orient Department at the State Hermitage, a graduate of Leningrad State University. He noted that the Russian school of Egyptology is still quite young and small in comparison with the European one. Nevertheless, it has its own hallmark and it developed in a special historical context.

Andrey Bolshakov briefly spoke about the focus on the Egyptian culture during the Hellenistic period, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when that interest broke into two dimensions, Egyptology as a science and "Egyptomania", a passion for mystical ancient symbols and rituals. The famous Egyptian Campaign of Napoleon gave the world the first decipherers of Egyptian hieroglyphs. For them, however, these studies were merely one of the many scientific hobbies, so they quickly lost interest in trying to read the ancient scripts. Jean-François Champollion was the first scientist who was able to reveal the secrets of ancient Egyptian scripts.

When, as a child, he saw a copy of the Rosetta Stone, Jean-François Champollion immediately realised that this was his lifetime project. He made a long and persistent effort to decipher the hieroglyphs and eventually found the key to their understanding by being able to demonstrate their phonetic nature. Egyptology is probably one of the few sciences that does have a birthday: it was on 14 September 1822 that Jean-François Champollion made his discovery.

Andrey Bolshakov, Head of the Ancient Orient Department at the State Hermitage

At that time, the largest collection of ancient Egyptian treasures was already kept at the Museo Egizio of Turin, although, as Professor Bolshakov noted, it could have been in St Petersburg. That collection was based on the collection of Bernardino Drovetti, who had previously visited Emperor Alexander I of Russia with an offer to purchase the antiquities he had collected, but he was refused. Drovetti also offered another collection to Nicholas I of Russia − and to no avail again. ’Egyptology is a visual science to a large extent: you need to look at the monuments and train your eye. In this sense, a museum is even more important for an Egyptologist than a university,’ the speaker explained, adding that the Hermitage and the Kunstkammer have large (yet modest if compared to the ones kept at the museum in Turin) collections of Egyptian artefacts.

In 2022, ten Egyptology students were enrolled at St Petersburg University in bachelor’s programmes in Asian and African Studies. A ceremony of initiation into Egyptologists was organised for them. According to tradition, it was held near the sphinxes at the Universitetskaya Embankment.

The interest in Egypt came to Russia from Europe. The first major scholar here is considered to be Vladimir Golenishchev. He wrote his first articles, which brought him worldwide fame, based on materials from the Hermitage collections. The founder of the Russian school of Egyptology and the history of the Ancient East was his student Boris Turayev. He headed the Department of Egyptology organised in 1919 and laid the foundation for the university-based teaching of Egyptological disciplines. Yet after the death of Boris Turayev and many of his students, the traditions were lost. Later, in the 1950s, Academician Vasily Struve revived the Egyptological department and became the founder of the Russian school of the socio-economic history of ancient civilisations. Under his successor Iurii Perepelkin, in the 1960s—1980s Russian Egyptology was in the prime of life. Many discoveries were made then, and today’s Egyptologists consider themselves to be successors of the traditions of the Perepelkin school of thought, as Andrey Bolshakov said.

Natalia Makeeva, Assistant Professor at St Petersburg University, spoke about the main figures in the history of Egyptology at the University: Vasily Struve, Nikolai Petrovskii, Boris Piotrovsky, Igor Vinogradov, Oleg Berlev, Rostislav Gribov, Alexander Chetverukhin, Andrei Sushchevskii, and Andrey Bolshakov. She told the first-year students about the main works on the history of the department and the teaching aids prepared there. The speaker added that today first-year students could write their term papers on ancient Egyptian monuments stored in the State Hermitage. She also noted that over the ten years during which Academician Mikhail Piotrovsky has been Head of the Department of History of the Ancient East Countries, the department has expanded and strengthened its material base.

The Department of History of the Ancient East Countries at St Petersburg University is the oldest and the only academic subdivision in Russia that teaches a full range of Egyptological disciplines.

’We are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of our department. In 1952, the first enrolment of students was held at the recreated department, and from that moment on it included two divisions, the Assyriological one and the Egyptological one. The department was headed by Academician Vasily Struve, and Nikolai Petrovskii was invited to teach here,’ Natalia Makeeva said. ’Probably, from this perspective we can talk about the consolidation of the tradition of teaching Egyptology at our University. Thus, our current enrolment is an anniversary one and it is remarkable in that there are more students than usual. Most of them came to study Egyptology consciously, "with their eyes open"’.