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Volume 27, Number 2March/April 1976

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The French Description

Written by John M. Munro

Arriving at the foot of Egypt's Great Pyramid in 1798, Edmé François Jomard, the French geographer, was "seized by a vivid and powerful emotion, tempered by a sort of stupefaction, almost overwhelming in its effects." Standing beside him was the man responsible for his being there to gaze on the timeless scene, Napoleon Bonaparte. But Bonaparte, though equally impressed, responded more prosaically. He demanded to know the measurements of the great monument, then calculated that its cubic content would suffice to build a protective wall 10 feet high and a foot thick around the borders of France.

Each man responded characteristically, of course. Bonaparte was in Egypt because the French Government had decided to occupy the country to use as a base to undermine British influence in India while at the same time protecting her own Eastern Mediterranean trade; Jomard was there to gather information for the massive work, Description de I'Egypte, which he later edited, initially under Bonaparte's personal patronage.

Looking back after some two and a half centuries, it is difficult to judge whether Bonaparte's conquest of Egypt or Jomard's editing of the Description is the more historic achievement. Twenty-four years in the making, and dependent upon the talents and industry of some 2,000 scholars, scientists, mechanics, draftsmen, typographers and engravers, the Description de I'Egypte was eventually published in 1826. In a sense this vast encyclopedic survey of ancient and modern Egypt was the most permanent result of Bonaparte's short and ill-fated venture into North Africa. Militarily, the expedition to Egypt must be accounted a failure, for although the French succeeded in transforming the administrative structure of the country during their brief occupation, it is the 20-volume Description which stands as the most enduring monument to this episode of French history.

Nothing like the Description had been attempted before. Not only did it give an illustrated account of Egypt's historic, artistic and religious treasures; it also described the topography and detailed the flora, fauna and mineralogy of the country. Indeed, every aspect of Egyptian life, past and present, everything that was known about Egypt up to the year 1826, was given a precise and accurate description. The exact geographical position of each monument and its relationship to neighboring buildings, the Nile and other distinctive landmarks were clearly indicated. Ceremonies, both public and private, were described with an almost pedantic devotion to detail, and even such minor objects of everyday use as cooking pots, musical instruments and smoking paraphernalia were painstakingly illustrated. The artists commissioned to draw the monuments, though evidently pulled in the way of the picturesque, never sacrificed precision for the grand effect. As a result the Description was not only a handsome, even sumptuous, piece of bookmaking, but also an authentic, definitive record of a country which few Europeans of the time knew anything about, except in the vaguest, most general way.

When the first volumes of the Description were published, the artistic and scientific value of the work were immediately recognized. Six years after the publication of the first volume of the series, a second edition began to appear, and both soon acquired the status of bibliographical rarities. Today, specimens of either edition are almost impossible to come by. Recently, however, under the title Splendor of Egypt, an anthology of some of the best and most representative engravings has been published by Caravan Books of New York, edited and introduced by Angele and Dickran Kouymjian, a handsome folio volume which enables modern readers to catch something of the spirit of the original.

From it one may have an idea of the immense care and erudition which Bonaparte's team of scholars invested in the production of the Description, reflecting the enthusiasm the French general himself had for Egypt. Long before the time came for him to undertake his expedition into the Mediterranean he had been fascinated by the Near East. As a young man he had read Baron de Tott's Mémoires sur les Turcs (1784), the Abbé de Marigny's four-volume Histoire des Arabes (1750), and the Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte (1787), whose author, Count Constantin François de Chasseboeuf, became one of his close friends. When the French Directory entrusted him with the conquest of Egypt, he was elated. This was to be no mere military campaign, but an opportunity to experience the ancient land at first hand.

France's decision to embark on the campaign was the inevitable result of Anglo-French rivalry which had been building up during the greater part of the 18th century. France had long dominated commercial activity in the Mediterranean and during the first part of the 18th century had begun to cast covetous eyes on India as well. This, naturally enough, did not please the British who, after the Dutch withdrawal from the country, had come to look upon that vast land as their own. When the French surrendered at Pondicherry in 1760-61, however, it seemed that the French threat to India was over. And though the French still retained the ascendancy in the Levantine trade, they were concerned that Britain might be trying to undermine them there as well. In 1766 the Mameluke Ali Bey assumed control of Egypt from the Ottoman Turks and immediately opened areas to foreign merchants. At the same time, the British consul in Egypt, George Baldwin, established an overland route to India through Egypt. French trade began to decline, British trade to grow. The French became increasingly alarmed and they determined by all means to stop the British from gaining further influence in the Nile Valley.

Anglo-French rivalry in the Mediterranean was halted temporarily in 1789 with the outbreak of the French Revolution, which directed the interest of both countries toward Europe. By 1792 an Anglo-French war seemed imminent, and it broke out after Holland had fallen to the French a year later. The British were acutely aware of the dangers implicit in French control of Dutch overseas interests, so they sent an expedition to Cape Town and occupied it in 1795. A year or so later, after the French had defeated Austria, Bonaparte decided to mount a massive campaign against Britain. The idea was that France should seize Egypt and from there attack British interests in India. This would simultaneously guarantee France's ascendancy in the Mediterranean. As Bonaparte expressed it: "Really, to conquer England we must make ourselves masters of Egypt." The Directory agreed, and the decision to attack was taken.

Upon receiving official orders to undertake the conquest of Egypt, Bonaparte enlisted the services of Count Claude Louis Berthollet, who had given him chemistry lessons after the Italian campaign, requesting that he gather a large number of intellectuals to accompany him. The majority, Bonaparte recommended, should be practical scientists and engineers, for at the back of his mind was a plan to excavate a canal to the Red Sea from Suez. Soon, 167 of the finest scholars of the French Enlightenment had joined him, most of them young, and these were designated the Commission des Sciences et des Arts of the Armée d'Orient.

When Bonaparte was appointed General-in-Chief of the Armée d'Orient and had embarked for Egypt, French anticipation of a quick and prestigious victory was high. As Talleyrand expressed it in a memorandum of February 13, 1798: "Our war with England represents the most favorable opportunity for the invasion of Egypt. Threatened by an imminent landing on her shores, she will not desert her coasts to prevent our enterprise. Furthermore, this offers us a possible chance of driving the English out of India by sending 15,000 troops from Cairo via Suez."

At first everything went well for the French. On June 12, 1798, Bonaparte seized Malta and on July 2, 1798, he made a triumphal entry into Alexandria. On landing in Egypt Napoleon distributed a proclamation printed in Arabic and addressed to the Egyptian people. In it he explained that the French had no intention of disrupting the religious, social and economic life of the country. In fact he and his soldiers would respect all Egyptians and their way of life. His quarrel, he said, was only with the Mamelukes, "an assortment of slaves bought in Georgia and the Caucasus," who had-tyrannized "the most beautiful part of the world." He went on to describe how the Mamelukes had made Egypt their "farm," exploiting the land and victimizing the people, and he assured the Egyptians that the French were their true friends.

Within three weeks his army had captured Cairo, forcing the Mamelukes to flee to Upper Egypt. Shortly after, on August 22, 1798, Bonaparte issued a formal decree establishing an Institut d'Egypte, modeled on the Institut National in Paris, and divided in to four sections: mathematics, physics, political science and literature and art. It was housed in a number of palaces near the Sayyida Zaynab mosque, which had been abandoned by the Mameluke Beys when they fled. The creation of the institute was a great stimulus to the scholars whom Bonaparte had brought with him from France and it soon became the acknowledged center of the commission's activity, sponsoring lectures, many of which Bonaparte attended in person.

A few months after the French army's arrival in Cairo, many of Bonaparte's scholars were divided into groups and charged with surveys of specific areas. The first mission was formed in March 1799 under the chief engineer Girard, and was sent off to study the course and characteristics of the Nile. However, the sight of so many majestic Pharaonic monuments along the river's banks so captured their interest and imagination that they devoted much of their time to studying the temples of Dendur, Karnak and Esna. Fortunately, as the mission was made up largely of engineers and mathematicians, they did not allow their professional concern for exactitude to be overridden by emotional enthusiasm. They executed rigorously faithful drawings. Using the plumb line, theodolite and compass, they determined the ground plan and elevation of each temple. With a pair of drawing compasses and a square they mechanically copied the bas-reliefs of these monuments, after having taken careful impressions of them. In this way the expedition set a high standard of precise and objective description, which later expeditions were obliged to maintain.

Two other scientific missions supervised by Fournier and Coustez took over the work in Upper Egypt, studying the cataract of the Nile at Aswan, the Islands of Philae and Elephantine, and the ruins at Edfu, Luxor, Karnak, Madamut, the Ramasseum, Madinat Habu and Gurna. Later they explored the Valley of the Kings, digging to the bottom of 11 known necropolises and discovering a 12th, that of Amenophis.

Unfortunately, from the French point of view, the success of Bonaparte's scientists and scholars was not matched by that of His soldiers, and after the heady victories of the first few months, the French began to run into difficulties. For one thing, despite France's insistence that her main concern was to restore Ottoman power to Egypt by driving out the Mamelukes, the Ottomans themselves did not see it that way. The result was the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III, formed an alliance with Britain in an attempt to wrest Egypt from France's control. And though Bonaparte made an expedition into Syria to engage the Ottomans, he suffered heavy casualties. It was not long before Cairo fell to British General John Hutchinson and the Ottoman Yusuf Pasha. Later, Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French army commander who had taken an Egyptian wife and embraced Islam, was forced to capitulate in Alexandria. By September 1801 the Egyptian adventure was over.

Yet its impact was considerable. Although Bonaparte was in Egypt for a relatively short time he greatly modernized the government structure, employing many local Christian Copts as administrators and tax collectors. He also honored all the Muslim feast days, and participated personally in the celebration of the Prophet's Birthday. In this way Bonaparte gained the trust and support of the Egyptians themselves, drawing them into the government of the country at the expense of their erstwhile Mameluke overlords. He also tried to introduce French civilization, taking care, however, to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities. He undertook a large public works program. Streets were lit, drains were installed and a quarantine was established. Later he opened a public library in the Nasriya district of Cairo, which excited the admiration of the Egyptian intelligentsia. All these innovations were supervized by the Institut d'Egypte, the same organization which assumed responsibility for the preparation of the Description.

Inevitably, however, tension grew between the occupying French and the Egyptian populace, particularly with the conservative shaikhs of al-Azhar Mosque and University (Aramco World, Sept.-Oct., 1973), who became the focal point of resistance. Islam could not be dominated, even by the victorious and high-minded Bonaparte. The opposition began to make Bonaparte's task of administering Egypt difficult. Nevertheless, the French occupation was to have a lasting effect. By removing the former Mameluke ruling class and elevating Egyptians to positions of authority, and by introducing orderly government and the knowledge and technology of the West Bonaparte's expedition helped set Egypt on a new course.

More important, despite military failure and its short duration, Bonaparte's expedition had the effect of awakening the interest of the West in Egypt and drawing attention to the Pharaonic and Muslim civilizations which had flourished there. In this last respect, especially, the French scholars' superbly illustrated, accurately documented Description de l’Egypte played a major and enduring role.

John M. Munro is Professor of English at the American University of Beirut and a free-lance writer whose work has previously appeared in Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 14-25 of the March/April 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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