Napoleon in Egypt, painted later by Jean-Leon Gerome
Even before leaving Paris, Napoleon had already decided that he was going to pour resources into studying Egypt. Although it was a time of war, Napoleon commissioned 150 scientists and scholars to sail to Egypt with the fleet! The French General was not a scientist himself, but he seemed as interested in studying Egyptian antiquity as he was in military success and colonisation. Was his goal, perhaps, to enhance France's cultural prestige?
The Institut d’Égypte was a learned academy in Cairo, specifically formed by Napoleon to carry out research during his military campaign. The Institute and its scholars were divided into four sections: maths, natural history, politics and the arts. Drawn from the Commission of Sciences and Arts, the members didn’t have to meet in any fleabag hotel. The Institute was housed in an elegant palace near the waters of the Nile, so they could do their thinking and debating in a delightful garden setting.
Institut d’Égypte Cairo
The International Napoleonic Society showed how the Institute soon became the focal point for all of the scientists’ work in Egypt. Naturally it provided physical space for scholarly discourse but it also provided a bureaucratic structure to organise their data. And scholars in Egypt were not intellectually isolated - the Institute also corresponded with learned bodies in France, like the National Institute.
How much influence did Napoleon have over the work done by the Institute? It is difficult to tell, since the scholars valued their academic independence and presented papers on the topics that fascinated them. But it seems inevitable that Napoleon made suggestions. Appropriately the scientific papers that the members presented were printed in Mémoires sur l'Égypt, the Institute’s official forum. Years later and back in France, as we'll see, these scientific papers were republished in the Description de l’Égypte.
Linda Hall Library of Science in Kansas City is another mine of information. As their Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition noted “meticulous topographical surveys were made, native animals and plants were studied, minerals were collected and classified, local trades and industry were scrutinised. Ancient Egypt was discovered — the temples and tombs of Luxor, Philae, Dendera and the Valley of the Kings. Each of these sites was measured, mapped, and drawn”, recording it all in meticulous detail.
First meeting of the Institute of Egypt in Cairo 1798, from Description de l’Égypte État moderne v. 1. Photo credit to the Linda Hall library exhibition.
Of course scientific expeditions had travelled to distant climes before 1798, but most of the earlier findings seemed to remain in the closed lecture theatres of universities and museums. On this occasion, either Napoleon or his scientists decided that their discoveries belonged to the whole world, via exhaustive publication. Thus each plant found and each tomb opened was documented in text, measurements and sketches.
It took a few years to complete their ambitious task in Egypt, the final meeting of the Institut d’Égypte in Cairo being held in March 1801. Soon after, the scientists (and soldiers?) sailed home.
In early 1802, under the orders the French Minister of the Interior and by decree of Napoleon, a commission was established to manage and publish the large amount of data. Hundreds more artists and technicians were added to the team, helping to collate, double check, write up and prepare engraving of the original findings. At first the team collated articles by members of the Institut d’Égypte in Cairo, but soon members of the Scientific and Artistic Commission who had not been part of the Institute contributed their data as well.
Description de l'Égypte, first books published 1809
The first test volumes of engravings were presented to Emperor Napoleon in January 1808 since he was the patron and source of inspiration for the project. The first nine volumes of the Description de l'Égypte appeared in published form in 1809. It took almost 20 years to process and publish the rest of the data; in total 37 huge books had been published by 1828. Linda Hall Library suggested that never before had a single country inspired such a monumental encyclopaedia of depth and splendour.
The Institut d’Egypte, one of Cairo’s most precious scholarly archives, was destroyed by arson in Dec 2011. The building housing the Institut d’Egypte pre-fire was built in the early C20th and was therefore not the building founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1789. However it contained a unique treasure trove of 200,000 rare books, manuscripts and illustrated documents, now largely destroyed.
Institut d’Égypte Cairo, destroyed Dec 2011
Since this post was written, I noted that History Today magazine published an article called "Calamity in Cairo". Jonathan Downs wrote: As the blaze took hold protesters and soldiers alike ran into the burning building to rescue what they could while the fire brigade fought its way through the anarchy of the Cairo streets, only to arrive far too late. In the end some 30-40,000 works were saved. However the toll was heavy: the Atlas of Lower and Upper Egypt of 1752 is gone, as is the Atlas of the Old Indian Arts and the Atlas Handler, a German publication of 1842 from Muhammad Ali’s collection, thought to be the only remaining copy in the world. The most lamented casualty, however, was the unparalleled work of Napoleon’s savants themselves: Cairo’s own copy of the gigantic 20-volume Description de l’Égypte went up in flames.
All is not lost for the Institute, however, as Sheikh Sultan al Qassimi, governor of the Emirate of Sharjah, announced he would bear the cost of the building restoration personally and donate some of his own rare acquisitions to it. Neither is this the end for the Description, as several copies do exist in Britain and France; indeed it could become a further bridge to the old colonial European powers in the debate for artefact repatriation, exchange and joint ownership.