The famous Rosetta Stone, which enabled the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs, was found by Napoleon’s troops who invaded Egypt in 1799. It wouldn’t be long before many other similar steles and inscriptions began to appear, all with texts in two languages (Egyptian and Greek) and three writing systems (hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek).

The Rosetta Stone bears inscriptions of the Memphis Decree, and ten other copies of that same decree have been found, one of the six Ptolemaic Decrees that occurred from 243 BCE to 185 BCE.

The first and second decrees were issued by Ptolemy III, the third by Ptolemy IV in Memphis in 217 BCE, the same place of issuance by order of Ptolemy V of the homonymous decree (the fourth) contained in the Rosetta Stone, the Nubayrah Stele, and the reliefs of the Temple of Philae; Ptolemy V also promulgated the fifth and sixth decrees in Alexandria, Filensis I (186 BCE) and II (185 BCE).

The content of these decrees varied but always with the common element of being made on the occasion of an important event. Then, a synod of priests was responsible for writing the decrees using a pre-established formula that only changed the details in each case (hence the general similarity); copies in stone were then commissioned to be placed in the temple courtyards.

The Ptolemaic Decrees were fundamental to the religious policy of the Hellenistic period and to the spread of the cult of the sovereign as a living deity.

The Canopus Decree, the second oldest of all the decrees, was proclaimed by Ptolemy III in the city of Canopus, in the western delta of the Nile, on March 7, 238 BCE. The first copy of the decree was found by the Prussian archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius in Tanis in 1866, inscribed on a stele originally known as the Şân Stele, but which no one had been able to read until then.

It turned out to be in such good condition, with the stele almost complete except for a small fragment of the upper right part, which proved crucial for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs as it contained a greater number of hieroglyphs than the Rosetta Stone. It contains 37 lines of hieroglyphs and 76 lines of Greek uncial writing.

The inscription recounts military campaigns and praises the king for ending the famine that plagued the country, quelling insurrections, lowering taxes, and other aspects related to the governmental organization of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as declaring the deceased princess Berenice a goddess.

But the decree is also important for two reasons. First, because it inaugurates a solar calendar of 365 days and a quarter per year (that is, an extra day every four years, effectively creating the leap year), the most accurate in the ancient world.

Ptolemy III ordered the extra day be sacred, in his honor and that of his wife as children of Nut, the goddess of the sky and stars. The reform was unsuccessful due to opposition from the priestly class and the distrust of the people themselves, but the idea would be taken up by the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria when he made the Julian calendar in 22 BCE.

And secondly, because it attested, already in the 19th century, to the existence of the ancient city of Heracleion, which sank approximately a century after the promulgation of the decree, and whose ruins were found in the year 2000 by the archaeologist Franck Goddio 10 meters deep and 2.5 kilometers from the current coast, northeast of Alexandria.

In 1881, the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero found another copy of the Canopus Decree in Kim el-Hisn, in the western delta of the Nile. Subsequently, more fragmentary copies would continue to appear.

The last of them was discovered in March 2004 by the German-Egyptian archaeologists’ team excavating in ancient Bubastis, in the eastern delta near the modern city of Zagazig.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 7, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Decreto de Canopo, la inscripción que atestiguó la existencia de la antigua Heracleion y creó los años bisiestos


E.A.W. Budge, The Canopus Decree: Hieroglyphic Version | E.A.W. Budge, The Rosetta Stone and the Stele of Canopus | Richard Anthony Parker, The calendars of Ancient Egypt | Wikipedia

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