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The Greatest (Scholarly) Adventure of All Time


The military importance of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, during the closing years of the 1790s, pales in comparison to what the team of scholars he brought along were able to achieve during the same period. Essentially giving birth to the modern study of ancient Egypt, the best brief description of the enterprise comes from Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 

It is not surprising — but it is shameful — that an unprecedented enterprise by occidentals that was mighty in size and in cultural consequences has remained virtually unknown to the educated in the western world. Most histories and biographies, if they mention it at all, give it a few lines that associate it with Bonaparte’s military failure and not with his cultural success. The subject that has been ignored is the expedition of French scholars, scientists, and artists to Egypt in the year 1798. It is a forgotten troop indeed: 167 men of high qualifications, plucked from schools, studios, and laboratories, pursuant to the order of the French government and led by General Bonaparte. The original idea was Talleyrand’s.

The government, Bonaparte, and the savants (as the group was called by the accompanying Army of the Orient) each had a different purpose in mind. The government (the short-lived Directory) wanted to hold at a distance the young general whose victories in Italy had made him popular. Bonaparte thought that glory beckoned to him as the founder of an empire in the East: if he won India, England would be weakened and he could be a second Alexander. The path was through Egypt. As for the savants, what they wanted was new knowledge and possibly adventure.

Description_de_l'Egypte,_Etat_Moderne_II,_Plate_97,_Panoramic_view_across_the_Great_Harbour_and_Kom_el-Dikka_from_the_parade_ground,_drawn_c.1798,_published_in_the_Panckoucke_edition_of_1821-9Their average age was 25. The oldest, the mathematician Monge, whom Bonaparte had befriended, was twice that age, and he shared with his friend Berthollet, a chemist, the lead in most operations. The youngest, not quite 15, was one of a half dozen students from the Polytechnic School, with as many again of its faculty and 33 of its alumni. The rest were: physicists, chemists, engineers, botanists and zoologists, geologists, physicians and pharmacologists, architects, painters, poets, musicians (one of them a musicologist), and a master printer on the supporting staff. Of those invited only two scientists and four artists refused, pleading age and family obligations. Many tried to be taken on, though not one among the 167 (or in the army) knew where “in the Orient” the group was bound for. Secrecy until the landing itself was imperative: Nelson with the English fleet patrolled the Mediterranean.

Would the brilliant mathematician Sophie Germain have been of the group had she been old enough? In principle, no women were to form part of the expedition, but some smuggled themselves in, disguised as men, and the troops took on female food servers and nurses. The sailors as usual had the help of young boys for odd jobs.

The organization was splendidly encyclopedic. Besides an amount of supplies and equipment that could have set up a town, the ships carried the scientific instruments used in each of the mechanical arts and the sciences; two whole printing presses with Greek, Arabic, and other fonts, materials for writing, drawing, and painting; and 500 works of reference. In May 1798, Toulon harbor was a forest of masts: 15 ships of the line, a dozen frigates, plus brigs, avisos, tartans — in all 300 vessels, to be joined in Corsica by three other convoys, to transport 38,000 troops and 10,000 civilians. The army numbered more officers than usual, especially generals.

800px-Description_de_l´Egypte_3Of the savants, those who were graded as “generals” included authorities such as Dolomieu (the geologist for whom the Dolomite mountains were later named), Fourier (physicist and mathematician), Conté (chemist), Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (zoologist), Quesnot (astronomer), Larrey and Desgenette (physicians), Lancret (surgeon), Le Père (engineer), Redouté (flower painter), Villoteau (musician). There were two pairs of brothers and one of father and son. No Egyptologist on the outgoing trip, many returning.

The repeated, painful vicissitudes of the journey were many and beyond full recording. For the savants the trip meant roughing it. The soldiers resented them and showed their contempt; the generals did not. The armada escaped Nelson and captured Malta without trouble, Bonaparte showed there his ability to rule and reform. He abolished slavery and overhauled the administration, finances, and educational system. Landing in Egypt — for now all knew their destination — was another thing altogether. Nelson ventured into the safe haven where the French fleet lay and sank several ships with loss of soldiers and sailors but not of savants.

From this moment on, the learned corps was repeatedly exposed to pitched battles and violent native revolts. Possibly worse was the torture of the many long treks through the desert in various directions, with fatigue, thirst, sunstroke, sand blindness, and the jibes of the soldiery as the price of scientific findings and amazing discoveries. Not the least of these, for the historian, is that these men, freshly out of their laboratories and studios and classrooms, turned themselves overnight into soldiers on the firing line, builders of fortified places, governors of occupied villages, excavators of ruins, and makers of machinery with unfamiliar materials. The savants’ courage was equaled only by their versatility. Conté, a chemist and a painter, invented a new kind of pump, made pencils without graphite, improved the gears of water mills, and found a way to reproduce color drawings — this, 10 years before lithography — all of it in response to Egyptian predicaments. Nectoux, a botanist, studied the agriculture and habits of the fellahin, the native peasants. The mathematician Monge worked out the peculiar hydraulics of Moses’ Fountain. Le Père, an army engineer, built a stairway and terrace for the palace that Bonaparte appropriated as his headquarters. Fourier shuttled between differential equations and presiding at trials in an improvised, necessary court. Marcel, an Arabist, became the publisher of the journal issued every ten days, which contained the reports of the learned at intervals and, more frequently, news for the troops. The surgeon Larrey took anthropological notes on the mixed population — Egyptian, Turk, Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and Bedouin. When mummies were found he studied embalming. At the onset of bubonic plague and typhoid the astronomers turned meteorologists to help the physicians predict wind and weather. Science conquers all.

Grande-galerie-description-egypteSo it went. The official program of the expedition was: (1) To study all of Egypt; (2) to spread enlightened ideas and habits; and (3) to furnish the government any information it might require. Duties 1 and 3 were abundantly fulfilled and 2 moderately so. The native population was not at all impressed by the machines and techniques. What they marveled at was that so many foreigners studied Arabic and dashed about the desert for silly reasons. The people of Cairo, the capital numbering 200,000 inhabitants, submitted to having the main streets swept twice a day and the garbage removed. They were shocked by the women’s unveiled faces, a little less by having their own appearance sketched in pencil, but horrified when color was applied to the portrait, which made it an aid to witchcraft.

On their side, the westerners were delighted by the sights, the mode of life, and the people, whom after a few months they came to think of as French. This has been a (very un-English) characteristic of the French colonists everywhere. In Egypt they tolerated all but the unsanitary practices, they took native mistresses (one general married a Muslim wife and was converted), and they studied native mores without condescension. Villoteau the musician was at first repelled by the several musics of the different peoples; he came to enjoy and distinguish their merits and share the emotions they were meant to arouse. In the survey of diseases the physician Desgenette told his aides to pay close attention to popular medicine — “superstitions may teach us something useful.” Except for this last piece of wisdom, the performance and the attitudes of the corps of savants could be called the Enlightenment in action.

Bonaparte was its prime interpreter. He suggested, organized, criticized, and inspired. He set up at once an Institute patterned on the home academies; he was, it will be remembered, a member of its scientific branch. In Egypt, Monge was named its president and Bonaparte vice president, to succeed the presidents in three months. The members discussed papers written on the spot as data and discoveries were gathered in. When approved, they went past Nelson’s watch, together with everybody’s letters to the family. Even at leisure in his palace Bonaparte made ideas into entertainment. A small company would be divided into two sides to debate prepared questions in philosophy, government, religion, or ethics.


To give an adequate idea of what this brain trust, the first and largest of its kind, achieved in 20 months is impossible in a few pages or yet a book. The Description of Egypt fills 20 volumes of mega-elephant size — approximately 54 inches by 28. The reason for this format was to make the plates of the Egyptian monuments—one in particular—illustrative in the utmost. Egypt was mapped in 47 plates. Publication, begun after the return to France, was laborious and took a quarter century The royalties were to benefit the authors, most of whom were then by current standards old men, and not a few were dead. There had been only a handful of casualties during the expedition, the most damaging being the assassination of General Kleber after he had succeeded Bonaparte as chief.

On the joint epitaph of the 167, so to speak, one could inscribe the following items. They gathered all the fauna and flora within reach, found new species, filled gaps in the known ones. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was the indefatigable searcher and his collection of fishes and mammals played a decisive part in forming his ideas of evolution and those of Lamarck after him. In chemistry, geology, geography, and mathematics, a number of important advances were made, thanks to new facts supplied by the Egyptian environment. To give but one example, Berthollet proved wrong the notion of affinity in chemistry by studying sodium and magnesium carbonates which are found ready made in Egypt, and he proposed a better hypothesis. The ancient civilization of Egypt was laid open for further study. At first, the explorers reared on Greco-Roman sights found barbaric the Sphinx and the Pyramids, but the Valley of the Kings, the sarcophagi, the mummies — one with a papyrus in her hand — the bas reliefs, the zodiac on the temple ceiling, won their unreserved admiration. They measured, made architectural plans, and inferred history and religion from the vestiges. The unresting pencil of Vivant Denon drew everything and everybody, alive or dead, and the panels of hieroglyphics besides.

When the big block of black granite was found at Rosetta, where the soldiers were clearing the ground for defensive earthworks and where that stone had no reason to be, the savants’ jubilation was at its height: it bore three texts, one in hieroglyphics, one in demotic (Egyptian cursive for common use), and one in Greek; it promised the decipherment of the Egyptian language. This was done 20 years later by the independent but combined work of two stay-at-homes named Champollion and Thomas Young. In the Description volume, the picture of the stone is life size. In the British Museum, where the stone reposes, the caption reads: “Captured by the British Army (1801),” which is literally correct. Adding “from the retreating French army in Egypt” would fit the facts still better….

[T]he savants worked like maniacs, not against a deadline, but in part because there was no other object in life, and in part to make the most of a unique opportunity. It was also unique that a large group of intellectuals should be let loose in a country much less advanced in art and science, but with a past highly civilized, “monstrous and sublime.” Uncommon too that such a group of civilians should without preparation be plunged into war. And soldiering was not the only ordeal. Both in Egypt and in Syria, where Bonaparte made a disastrous side-campaign, the French troops committed atrocities on a large scale and appalled the gentler breed of men who had to witness the carnage. Not until film and television brought these things into the living room did the like occur. Well before The Description of Egypt appeared, Europe learned about the country from the several books published and illustrated by members of the corps. Denon’s was the first, at once widely translated and in print through forty editions. Street names in Paris make up a hit-and-miss record of the expedition.

– Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 of Western Cultural Life, 442-446