Napoleon and Egypt

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is an essay I wrote my second semester for a class called Great Discoveries in Archaeology. It focuses on Napoleon's influence on the preservation of Egyptian artifacts after his invasion in the early part of his reign over Europe.

Submitted: January 15, 2011

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Submitted: January 15, 2011

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“Here Osiris and his worshipers lived; here Abraham and Moses walked; here Aristotle came; here, later, Mahomet learnt the best of his religion and studied Christianity; here, perhaps our Saviour’s Mother brought her little son to open his eyes to the light.” -Florence Nightingale on Egypt

“Soldiers! You are about to embark upon a conquest which will change the world. Its effect upon civilization and world trade will be incalculable. You are about to inflict upon England the most certain and telling blow she can suffer, until the day comes when you can deliver the blow that finishes her off.” -Napoleon

“France, snatching an obelisk from the ever-heightening mud of the Nile, or the savage ignorance of the Turks…earns a right to the thanks of the learned of Europe, to whom belong all the monuments of antiquity, because they alone know how to appreciate them. Antiquity is a garden that belongs by natural right to those who cultivate and harvest its fruits.” Captain E. de Verninac Saint-Maur, Voyage de Luxor

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Napoleon, seemingly in spite of his endless ambition and hubris, was very receptive to advances in science and politics, and often actually facilitated these, including anthropology and archaeology. His early mastery of mathematics lent itself to a career in artillery, something his superiors saw and made happen. Napoleon himself realized that artillery was the future of war, and soon rose through the ranks of the military of Revolutionary France. Eventually, as is well known, he led the French Army to a defeat of Italy, became Emperor of France, and dominated European wars and politics from 1804-1815. However, one part of his early campaign to Egypt shows his eagerness to learn about science, history, and art.

Europeans had long known about the Pyramids at Giza and many of the other historic sites in Egypt; however, this knowledge was largely superficial until Napoleon’s early campaign into Ottoman Egypt. The original purpose, or the reason why Napoleon proposed it to the French Directory, was to cut off Great Britain’s trade routes to it’s colonies in India. Napoleon told the Directory that “as soon as he has conquered Egypt, he will establish relations with the Indian princes, and, together with them, attack the English in their possessions.”

However, while his apparent aim was strictly military, Napoleon had the foresight to bring with him 167 scientists (“savants”) who would study Egypt while the military force was there. It was this group of scientists, under Napoleon, who began the Institut de l’Egypte in Cairo in 1798.

Nairy Hampikian, in Napoleon in Egypt, says, ‘Bonaparte’s desire to dominate the world politically corresponded with his desire to spread civilization by regrouping all of the sciences in a unified body of knowledge. He must therefore have been fully aware of the fact that his glory would depend as much on the savants he gathered about him, as it would on his soldiers and officers. And if the military did not have the good fortune to glorify France and Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt, the savants more than filled the bill.”

The Institut began as a byproduct of Napoleon’s need for problem-solving in the field. Some of the first questions he asked of his scientists were how to make beer without hops (which were not available), purify water, make gunpowder, and what types of mills (wind or water) would be best suited for the Egyptian environment. This very much set the tone for the Institut, which Napoleon meant to be a valuable contributor to the war effort. Later in the campaign, the Institut was the sole provider of munitions to the French troops in Egypt after the French fleet off of Alexandria was destroyed by the British.

However, the most important product of the short-lived Institut was the publication of the Description de l’Egypt, an eight folio volume documenting pharaonic architecture, art, history, and geography in Egypt. Published in 23 installments between 1810 and 1828 (well after the French occupation had ended) the Description was a watershed of (much inaccurate) information on the present and the past Egypt. The Description was an encyclopedia in the greatest fashion: Each individual volume measured four and a half by two and a half feet. As Stuart Harten in Napoleon in Egypt says, “the individual volumes themselves…are not easy to move, let alone consult.”

Harten also says, “Mammoth in size and scope, encyclopedic in its arrangement and organization, the Description, when it was finally published, was an overwhelming statement of the colonial ambitions of Revolutionary France in the 1790s and a testament to the grandeur of the Napoleonic Empire.”

It contains a total of about 7,000 pages of text, 837 copper engravings, and more than 3,000 illustrations. The Description documented many archaeological sites, many known previously, many newly discovered. The savants excavated around submerged architecture and artwork to see the work in its entirety, something which had rarely been done before. Hampikian also says that “This eagerness to ‘see’ the ‘unseen’ has been shared by modern archaeology. Today most of the buildings presented in the Description de l’Egypte have been completely uncovered. In most cases, they have verified what the savants mad visible in their hypothetical illustrations.”

Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti was an Azhari professor who chronicled the French expedition (among many other things) in his Ajaib al-Athar. Donald Malcolm Reid says that al-Jabarti “reported that the French were anti-religious materialists, behaved licentiously with European and Egyptian women, and desecrated the beloved al-Azhar mosque. Yet al-Jabarti loved learning too much not to recognize it and admire it in the savants.”

Al-Jabarti says of the Europeans: “By nature and desire they like to study curious objects and inquire into trivial details, especially ancient ruins and wonders of the land, paintings and statues found in caves and ancient temples in Upper Egypt and elsewhere… In addition they excavated around the huge head near the Pyramids popularly called the Abu ‘l-Hawl [the Sphinx]. They exposed an enormous complete body, apparently made of a complete stone, stretched out as if resting on it’s body with it’s head in the air.”

One of the most important discoveries made by the French in Egypt was the Rosetta Stone, found in July 1799. It was not found by scientists, but rather soldiers who were making renovations to a fortress wall. The Rosetta Stone unlocked the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, which was done in 1822 by a Frenchman named Jean-Francois Champollion, despite the fact that the British had captured the artifact in 1802 and taken it to the British Museum. The stone has three translations of a single passage, one in hieroglyphics, one in Coptic, and one in Classical Greek. Champollion could already read both Greek and Coptic, and used this to break the code of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Napoleon may have had a good idea what he was doing when he brought a bunch of European scientists to Egypt with him in his military campaign. He said before the expedition, “Europe is a molehill…Everything here is worn out…tiny Europe has not enough to offer. We must set of for the Orient; that is where all the greatest glory is to be achieved.” Much of the glory he had been imagining must surely have been that of Enlightenment-like scientific discovery and archaeology in the ruins of Ancient Egypt. It only remains to be seen whether or not the Institut and Description can be taken at face value or if they were merely used as justification for the colonialization of Egypt, as many contemporary scholars suggest. Either way, the results of the scientific expedition changed the landscape of Egyptology and archaeology for the future.

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Bibliography

Bierman, Irene (Ed.). Napoleon in Egypt. Ithaca Press, 2003. Print.

Connely, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms: Managing Conquered Peoples. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1990. Print.

Fisher, H.A.L. “The Legacy of Napoleon.” New England Review 22.4 (2001): 186-199. JSTOR. Web. 4/25/010

Kohl, Philip L. “Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past.” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 27(1998): 223-246. JSTOR.Web. 4/24/010.

Messer, William Stuart. “The New Rome and Archaeology.” The Classical Journal 22.3 (1926): 179-188. JSTOR. Web. 4/24/010.

Reid, Donald Malcolm. Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian Identity from Napoleon to World War 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Shepherd, Nick. “The Politics of Archaeology in Africa.” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 31 (2002): 189-209. JSTOR. Web. 4/24/010.

Strathern, Paul. Napoleon in Egypt: ‘The Greatest Glory’. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007. Print.

Williams, L. Pearce. “Science, Education, and Napoleon I.” Isis 47.4 (1956): 369-382. JSTOR. Web. 4/25/010.


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