25 February 2012

Napoleon - military leader with a great eye for science

Italy had already been conquered as past of France’s revolutionary wars, so in July 1798 General Napoleon Bonaparte could turn his attention to the next target nation. He landed in Egypt with a massive invasion fleet - 400 ships and 54,000 sailors and soldiers! Although the invasion of Egypt was not hugely successful militarily, I am interested in a specific aspect of the campaign.

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.


glamour drops said...

Absolutely fascinating. Why, then I wonder, was Napolean so enamored with Egypt in the first place, to inspire such a daunting undertaking?

John Tyrrell said...

Interesting blog about a little known aspect of the disastrous Egyptian campaign. Egypt and Islam made a big impact on Napoleon. When he arrived on St Helena about his only recorded comment was something like "I should have stayed in Egypt." In a different environment he could have become a scientist, or almost anything he set his mind on: an enquiring open mind, great organisational abilities and a capacity for hard work which we tend to associate with genius.

Do you know anything about the motives for the arson attack?

Andrew said...

Oh, I didn't see that ending coming. I remember the destruction from last last year but I didn't know such precious items were destroyed.

diane b said...

What an interesting post. I had no idea Napolean was even in Egypt let alone be so instrumental in setting up the institute. How can humans in 2011 be so stupid as to destroy these treasures?

Please turn off this awful new word verification. It takes ages to decipher and publish a comment. Many bloggers are complaining about it.

Hels said...


great question, especially since Napoleon made the decision to take all the scientists and scholars BEFORE he even set sail for Egypt.

The practical answer was that Napoleon hoped to strike at Britain’s source of her wealth, her colonies and her maritime trade. Perhaps an invasion of Egypt would threaten British successes.

A more recent answer might be that Egypt was the closest exotic, seductive country that had a sophisticated history and a great location in the modern world.

Later in the 19th century, wealthy tourists agreed. They spent every winter season in exotic Cairo.

Travel France Online said...

The Napoleonic campaign of Egypt had a major impact on France at all levels architecture, arts, fashion etc...as you know. We ended with so many buildings and monuments built in the "egyptian style" to glorify Napoleon such as the Place du Caire, the fountain on Place du Chatelet etc... most of them now listed. And of course there is the obelisk on Place de la Concorde given to France a few decades later...but above all Champollion was able to decipher the Rosetta stone, opening the way to a wealth of ancient knowledge...and let's not forget that Napoleon was able to fill countless exhibition rooms in the Louvre museum with outstanding artifacts, a chance when you think that they might have been destroyed during the civil war that sadly now spreads in Egypt!

Hels said...


The Egypt Independent was unclear on the motive of the protesters. The paper made the point that the institute was the oldest scientific institute in Egypt, established by the French. Its mission was to advance high quality research in various fields, ranging from biology and mathematics to fine arts and archaeology. Its library contained more than 200,000 books, including the original volumes of the Description of Egypt, begun in 1798.

Some believe the protesters wanted to destroy any trace of European and Christian control of Egyptian learning? Others have suggested the fire was started deliberately by the military authorities (who certainly had access to the interior of the building) to discredit the protesters. Yet others have said the protesters were throwing molotiv cocktails at other buildings and that the Institute and its treasures were destroyed accidentally.

Hels said...


The uprising of 2011 was largely a campaign of non-violent civil resistance, but Cairo must have looked like a battle zone - politce brutality, deaths, injuries, looting, fire bombs, What a nightmare :(

Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquity Affairs reported that even in December, tombs in Saqqara, Abusir and other archaeological sites were still being broken into during the uprising. Destruction was both intentional and random.

Hels said...


there is no depth to which people cannot sink, if they are hungry or angry enough. I just wish they had taken their anger out on the politicians, the army and the wealthy, not on scholarly collections.

By the way, if you know how to turn off this hideous new word verification system, do let me know. I have asked everybody in blogcatalog and noone gave a usable answer. I too am desperate.

Hels said...

nod... fully agreed.... a major impact on France in all the arts etc.

In fact when spouse and I examined every nook and cranny of Chateau de Malmaison, I was impressed with just how much Egyptian influence there was.

This made sense, since Joséphine bought the house in April 1797 when Napoleon was still occupied with the Egyptian campaign. And after he returned home to France, he must have brought Egyptian taste with him. His study was special - apparently this was where Napoleon would hold Council meetings.

Albert Benhamou said...

Accident or arson, will we never know? The Library of Alexandria, also destroyed by "accidental" fire, lasted just over 200 years. The Institut d'Egypte too. Same country, same duration, same fate. History repeats itself to those who don't learn from it.

Hels said...


You are right. The burning of the Library of Alexandria was another barbaric destruction of scholarship. I wonder how literary and scientific life in Alexandria could have continued, given the scale of the destruction.

Do you think that soldiers and/or protesters actively target sites of learning, in their testosterone-pumping military action? What a tragedy.

Albert B said...

"Do you think that soldiers and/or protesters actively target sites of learning, in their testosterone-pumping military action?"
Of course they do, and this is not just about soldiers. The History of Humanity is full of it. Talebans destroyed Buddha statues. Nazis burned Jewish books. Inquisition too. etc etc.
People would generally destroy was is foreign/alien to their beliefs.

Andrew said...

Hels, you can only turn word verification off or on. I must say, I am struggling with it on various blogs. If you turn it off, you will get spam, but the spam filter is quite good however you do have to check it to make sure legit comments don't get a spam classification. It happens rarely and if you get comments sent to your email, you will quickly work out a comment is missing because it is thought to be spam. You can alter things at the 'settings' tab, and then the sub tab, 'comments'.

Hels said...

diane and Andrew

I had no idea that the stupid and irritating word verification command could simply be turned off. I had looked everywhere for the little sodder.

Andrew, I owe you a Big Drink!

Hels said...


I have since added a reference to History Today magazine's article (March 2012) called "Calamity in Cairo" by Jonathan Downs. It says Downs is a visiting lecturer specialising in the history of Napoleonic Egypt, so even if this article doesn't answer all our questions, he might be a researcher to search for.

Phil Morris said...

Some of the best work of napoleon is shown in the book Egyptomania which was authored by the directors of the Paris Louvre and Ottawa and a German connection also. Should be in your library. Most fascinating book with killer photos also. Some of the bookcases made for the "Description de l'Égypte" are in them. One of my favourite books of all time and I have a friendship with some of the authors I managed to make.

Hels said...

Thank you Phil.

Sometimes we find amazing treasures during our lives. Not often, but worth the wait.

Would I have to put my children into slavery to pay for Egyptomania?