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The Story of Description of Egypt


The Story of "Description of Egypt"

by The Egyptian Government

Nicolas Jacques Conte, Cairo, view of Sultan Hasan's mosque, 1798-1801


Upon his visit to the Scientific Academy built by Napoleon Bonaparte during the time of the French Expedition, the great historian Abdur-Rahman al Jabarti describes the books and atlases in addition to the Arab writings that Bonaparte had brought from France, mainly to attract the attention of Egyptian intellectuals and to show his interest in Islamic culture.

The primary mission of the French orientalists who accompanied the Expedition was to create bridges of understanding and cordiality between the Egyptian people and the French invaders presenting translations of the French leadership instructions understandable by common people. There interests not only included the ancient pharaonic culture and monuments, but the contemporary Arabic culture, as well as the animals, vegetation and geology of Egypt.

Louise Francois Lejeune, The (French)Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798, 1806

Influenced by their readings of French orientalists, the French Cultural Cohort envisioned Egypt as an earthly paradise. However, as they first stepped into the country they were shocked to face difficulties inconceivable to them, as they were neglected by the military. The scholars lived in harsh conditions, difficult terrain and with scarce water. Worse, the Egyptians looked upon them as invaders.

Yet, their suffering came to an end as Napoleon Bonaparte moved into Cairo. They had the chance of living in appropriate houses. When he decided to establish the Egyptian Scientific Academy, Bonaparte had in mind the image of its French counterpart. To this end, he selected as members a variety of physicians, engineers, various scientists, artists, journalists, archeologists and economists. Bonaparte had, for the first time, a museum built for Egyptian antiquities that comprised ancient Egyptian coffins and mummies, together with the Rosetta Stone. The museum was initially based in as-Sanary House, a structure that still survives nearby as-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque.

Andre Dutertre, Cairo, view of the square known as al Rumeyleh and the citadel, 1798-1801

Most of the orientalists accompanying the Expedition could be counted among the experienced and qualified consuls, translators employed in near eastern embassies or scholars in the School of Oriental Languages in Paris that replaced the "bond of specialists in languages of prospective colonies. Among the lecturers was "Venteur", director of the Scientific Academy who died in 1799 during the siege of Acre. He was succeeded by Emide Juper who later translated "Geography" by al-Idreesi. He also compiled research on Bedouins on the Palestinian borders, for inclusion in "Description of Egypt".

Henri Joseph Redoute, Three-clawed emys or Nile Tortoise, 1798-1801

Henri Joseph Redoute, Three-clawed emys or Nile Tortoise, 1798-1801

Nicolas Jacques Conte, View of the fort at Alexadria, 1798-1801

Most orientalists who accompanied the French Expedition were students of "Sylvestre de Sas", the grand instructor of many orientalists. One of those was De La Porte who provided cartographers with a list of names of towns and villages in Latin for insertion in Egypt's map. He also compiled a brief study on the history of Mamluks for "Description of Egypt". Jan Joseph Marcel was instrumental in disseminating Arab civilization in France. He was commissioned by Bonaparte to manage the national printing press in Egypt. In October 1798, as the French cannons were shelling al-Azhar Mosque to quench the Cairo revolution, Marcel rushed into the flames to rescue the invaluable Quranic texts. After the end of the Expedition, he was appointed director of the National Printing House in Paris so he could assist with the publishing of "Description of Egypt". He had already contributed to the book significant studies on the Nile Meter at al-Gezira, Ibn-Tulun Mosque and Kufi Caligraphy. In addition, he published two books that reflected his experiences in Egypt and his extensive knowledge of the Islamic world.

Vivant Denon

Engineers of the Science and Arts Committee had the credit of introducing Pharaonic art. They inserted into "Description of Egypt" features of the Pharaonic civilization, including architecture, sculpture and arts from the modern kingdom and the Ptolemic age. In June, 1799 the famous Egyptologist Vivant Denon met in Qena with the first mission of engineers to examine the condition of the Nile waters, led by mathematician "Piere Simon Gerand". The mission included "Philier de Tirage" and "Goulois" who were the first to introduce objective description methods that were the only means of depicting the Egyptian monuments before the invention of photography. In this respect, they were the first to accurately copy the inscription of the horoscope at the Dandara Temple, which had fascinated them. When they arrived at Karnak Temple, the two engineers were overwhelmed by its grandeur and size. They spent hours copying many of its inscriptions.

Several months after the departure of the first expedition to Upper Egypt, two other expeditions followed. The first, composed of 12 members, was headed by a cadastral engineer. The second, composed of 11 members, was headed by a mathematician. One member discovered Edfu Temple that lay buried under the sand and upon which peasants cottages were built. He identify the road to the al-Kab Tombs on the western bank of the Nile. These tombs bore inscriptions showing scenes of agricultural life such as hunting, sowing and harvest.

Andre Dutertre, Portrait of Murad Bey, 1809-26

When members of both missions arrived in Luxor (ancient Thebes), they examined the Temple of Karnak, Ramesseum, and Medinet Habu. They also explored what was to be known as the Valley of Kings on the West bank. Unfortunately, they had time to see only the tomb of Ramesses III known as "the harp-player's tomb".

The French expedition scientists succeeded in surmounting all obstacles that had persisted for 18 centuries to access 12 royal tombs. When they arrived in Gerga, the commander of the military garrison guided them to a heap of ruins west of the Nile at Abydos earlier mentioned by ancient historians. They studied the great temple of Seti I, which they first thought to be a palace buried in the sand.

Henri Joseph Redoute, Island of Philae, collection of stained, carved and painted vases in the Great Temple, 1798-1801

When both missions came to an end in October and November 1799, the scientists returned to Cairo with their portfolios packed with drawings and data that served as useful material for their book "Description of Egypt". They tried to return to France in order to compile these drawings and data into the book but instead had to remained in Egypt until the surrender of General Mineau in 1801. Eventually, the scientists managed to remove the drawings, chants and some monuments to France. However, the British confiscated the Rosetta Stone and Neftanbo Tomb, which were kept at the British Museum.

After arriving back in France, a decision was made in 1802 to publish "Description of Egypt" or "Wasf Masr" at the expense of the public library including the payment of fixed salaries to the staff involved. Scientists also worked on a map of Egypt, which unfortunately depended upon some material that had been seized by the British .

The Painted monuments of Egypt, engraved after the painting by Charles Louis Panckoucke, 1821-1826

The Painted monuments of Egypt,
engraved after the painting by Charles Louis Panckoucke, 1821-1826

Charles Morel, cabinet designed to hold the volumes of the Descrition de l'Egypte, 1813-36

According to the introduction, Egypt was a meeting point between Africa and Asia. It was the birth place of arts that included almost an infinite number of monuments. The world was told that Egypt's main temples and palaces, built during the era of the Pharaohs, still existed, and that the latest of those monuments were contemporary to the Trojan war. Homer, Lycorgus, Solon, Pythagoras, and Plato came to Egypt to learn about its sciences, creeds and laws. Moreover, Alexander the Great constructed a wonderful city that remained for long the prime trading harbor.

Thus "The Description of Egypt" was typical of European attempts to understand and unravel the mystery of the orient in anticipation of occupying its lands and draining its wealth. "The Description of Egypt" comprises materials that belong more to science than to letters. It is composed of 12 large-size volumes of maps, lists and drawings, and 24 volumes of texts. It is noteworthy that the birth of "Egyptology" owes much to "The Description of Egypt" and was complemented by Champollion's eventual translation of the Rosetta Stone.

Prosper Jollois and Edouard de Villiers du Terrage, Thebes, Memnonium, bas-relief carved in the hypostyle hall, 1798-1801

Prosper Jollois and Edouard de Villiers du Terrage, Thebes,
Memnonium, bas-relief carved in the hypostyle hall, 1798-1801

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