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Bonaparte in Egypt (2): the scientific expedition

General Bonaparte left for Egypt at the end of spring in 1798, taking with him 50,000 men and eight hundred horses. This force included 160 scientists, engineers and artists whose task it was to study everything there was to find out about Egypt.

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Naturalists and biologists were asked to learn about Egyptian flora and fauna, whilst surveyors were expected to take lots of topographical readings (noting down features and characteristics of a particular area) in order to draw up accurate maps of the regions Bonaparte and his men visited. Archaeologists came along to study the country’s architecture, in particular the mysterious pyramids. People in Europe already knew of Egypt, but they did not know much about it. This was in part because no-one had succeeded in translating the ancient Egyptian languages. It was not until 1821 that Jean-François Champollion managed to translate his first cartouche of hieroglyphics (a small group of hieroglyphics containing a royal name).

Scientists working with soldiers
Bonaparte brought with him scientists to Egypt, initially to help his soldiers conquer the country. The French general knew that there would not be many roads, and any roads that they did find would be poorly maintained. Once in Egypt, he would also need people to make ammunition and find food. The scientists’ help in these jobs would be extremely important, and there was certainly plenty of work to be getting on with!

These scientists, many of whom were between twenty and thirty years of age, were extremely enthusiastic in their work and discovered much about Egyptian culture and society which they found to be very different to their own. They also came to share their European scientific knowledge with the Egyptian population. The Europeans who arrived with Bonaparte in Egypt were surprised by what they learnt: “Upon our arrival in Egypt, we were shocked to find a huge population that was deprived of many useful or pleasant things in life, and which – armed with only the most basic instruments available – faced many difficulties [in their daily lives].”

The Institute of Egypt
In August 1798, Bonaparte created the Institute of Egypt. The president of the institute was the scientist, Gaspard Monge, whilst his vice-president was General Bonaparte himself. It covered all of the scientists who were involved in the expedition and was divided into four sections, according to specialty: “mathematics”, “physics”, “political economy”, and “arts and literature”.

The newspaper La Décade égyptienne was also created at the same time, primarily to print the proceedings of the institute’s meetings and announce scientific discoveries. At this time, however, Egypt still did not have the printing press, so the French scientists organised one which could be used to print public newspapers, dictionaries, pamphlets and posters. These would all be useful for communicating with the French and Egyptian populations in Egypt. Arabic letters were made for the printing press, and the Egyptian population soon discovered how quickly a book could be printed with it.

Many discoveries
The scientists who participated in the campaign were told to take note of as much information about Egypt as they could, and they would go on to make many important discoveries. Gaspard Monge revealed the secrets of the mirage phenomenon, whilst the naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire uncovered the existence of many new types of fish. The artist Henri-Joseph Redouté drew every species of flower and plant that they discovered. Jean-Baptiste Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage (known simply as Devilliers), both engineers, made many technical drawings of the monuments in Thebes, Karnak, Abydos, and Antaeopolis (today Tjebu). The French scientists also had a great deal to learn from the Egyptians, and some practices and machines were taken back to France. For example, in Egypt, plaster was made up in a mill – making life much easier for craftsmen – whilst France still continued to make it up by hand. Egypt had also developed machines known as “chicken ovens”, which served as artificial incubators for chicks and other baby birds. The French scientists were also extremely interested by Egyptian jars which could be used to keep drinks and other liquids cold for many days.

This work was not easy though, and living conditions in Egypt were difficult. The heat was often unbearable (it could reach 50° C in the sun) and the native Egyptians, who did not always appreciate this interruption to their daily lives, were sometimes hostile towards the French visitors. It should also not be forgotten that Bonaparte had arrived in Egypt with soldiers: this was still a military operation and battle continued to rage all over the country.

With all these new discoveries and accumulation of knowledge, it was decided that a great library in Cairo would be built. Another newspaper, Le Courrier d’Egypte, was also started.

Scientific success, military failure
The scientific side of the expedition proved to be a great success, but from a military perspective, the operation was a failure, never more so than after the loss of the French fleet, which was sunk by British ships commanded by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay). French forces surrendered to the British on 2 September 1800 and were told to leave Egypt by 30 August 1801 at the latest. The British seized many of the discoveries that the French had made, including one of the most important, the Rosetta Stone. It can now be found at the British Museum in London. A few years later, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion used a plaster cast of the stone to decrypt the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language.

The Description de l’Egypte
The scientists’ discoveries and findings were recorded in one of the beautiful works ever written about Egypt: the Description de l’Egypte (external link). Between 1809 and 1828, twenty volumes were published, putting an end to western misconceptions regarding Egypt and the Middle East. The drawn-out publication was placed under the guidance of Vivant Denon (who also served as the first director of the Musée Napoléon, today the Louvre). The Description de l’Egypte constitutes a snapshot of Egypt at the start of the 19th century, with diagrams, drawings and maps of everything that made up the country. This publication remains an extremely important source of information for Egyptologists (people studying Egypt).

image one: the pyramids of Memphis and the sphinx at sunset (detail), painting by Charles Balzac © RMN
images two, three, four, five and six: drawings and plates taken from La Description d’Egypte. Image six depicts the scientists measuring the sphinx. © Bibliothèque numérique mondiale
image seven: Bonaparte, en route to Egypt, giving a speech to the scientists accompanying him © D.R.

Pauline Lefèvre and Emmanuelle Papot
December 2011 (tr. H.D.W.)

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