The Ciphered Autobiography of an 19th-Century Egyptologist

Simeone Levi

Simeone Levi was an Italian Egyptologist who lived in Turin during the second half of the 19th century. His major work is the eight volume hieroglyphic dictionary (Vocabolario geroglifico copto - ebraico) for which, in 1886, he was awarded the prize of the Royal Academy of Lincei. He was the brother of the mother of my great-grandfather, and I first heard about him when my grandmother gave her copy of the dictionary to my father. The dictionary is a lithographic copy of his handwritten manuscript and its aim was to compare the hieroglyphic words with the corresponding Coptic and Hebrew words, in an attempt to demonstrate their derivation from hieroglyphic.
Born in 1843 in the Jewish ghetto of Carmagnola near Turin to a poor family, Simeone Levi was the seventh of the 10 children of a goldsmith. Struck by a paralysis at two, he remained disabled all his life, sufferering the limitations imposed by his handicap. After getting a degree in mathematics, he earned his living at first by teaching mathematics. His interest in Egyptology started only at 33, after he attended a series of lectures by Professor Francesco Rossi, vicedirector of the Egyptian Museum of Turin. His only other classmate was Ernesto Schiaparelli, who was to become famous for discovering Queen Nefertari's tomb. From that moment he entirely devoted himself to papyrology, having Professor Rossi as his guide and maintaining a competitive attitude towards Schiaparelli.
Last year my grandaunt Giorgina Levi (Simeone's grandgrandniece) decided to find out more about the life of her famous ancestor and initiated an historical research. Through the documents, she got in touch with the lineal descendants of Simeone, Ettora and Massimo Levi. They had several papers, books and letters of their grandfather and among them a manuscript written in an unknown alphabet. They also reported that Simeone had imposed upon his sons the duty of interpreting and reading the 355-page manuscript. But all attempts to decode the mysterious text failed, even though it was given to fairly expert, but possibly not very motivated, people to examine.

·  E. Viterbo: "The Ciphered Autobiography of an 19th Century Egyptologist", CRYPTOLOGIA, vol. XXII, n. 3, pp. 231-243, July 1998.

·  G. Arian Levi, E. Viterbo:  "Simeone Levi - La Storia sconosciuta di un noto egittologo", Editrice Ananke, Torino, 1999, pp. 135, ISBN 88-86626-40-1.

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