La Description de l'Égypte: Antiquités, Volume IV
La Description de l’Egypte (The Description of Egypt), or Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’Armée française, publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l’Empereur Napoléon le Grand is the first encyclopedia devoted exclusively to Egypt. It is a work from Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, recounting the discoveries made during this scientific voyage.
The fourth book of plates is La Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, Volume IV. It is the fourth of five volumes describing ancient Egypt. Either the major part of the final work. The plates in this volume present numerous archaeological sites along the Nile. Over a distance of nearly 300km, the members of the commission travel down the Nile and detail the sites of Dendera, Abydos, Antaeopolis, Asyut, Antinopolis and Faiyum. It is also in this volume that pyramids are drawn for the first time. The specificity of this volume is that it details constructions dating from the Roman Empire and thus much less ancient than those detailed in the previous volumes. Most of the sites listed in this volume are located in Upper Egypt, but as the scientists are going down the Nile, they are getting closer to the sites of Memphis and Cairo. These are detailed in the final volume describing ancient Egypt, La Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, Volume IV.
Map of the archeological sites
The map shows the different places mentioned in this article, going from South to North. Click on the markers to get an overview of the archaeological sites.
Dendera 26°10′N 32°39′E also called Lunet, Nitentori or Tentyris, was a small town, 60km north from Thebes. It is mainly known for its temple complex, one of the best preserved in Ancient Upper Egypt. In fact, considering the little habitation in comparison with the size of the temple complex, the city was probably a priestly city organized around the Temple of Hathor.
However, it was once the capital of the 6th Nome (Pharaonic province) of Upper Egypt. The city first developed during the 6th Dynasty (2374-2140 BC), under the influence of Pepi I. Later, traces of a temple of Hathor were found, dating from Thutmose III and the 18th dynasty (1550-1290 BC). Although, the oldest observable monument today is the Mammisi built by Nectanebo I who reigned from 380 to 362 BC. The Mammisi is an ancient Egyptian chapel attached to a larger temple at the level of the pylons. The term was used and popularized by Jean-François Champollion. Some Mammisi have already been noted by the members of the commission in the first volume, notably on the island of Philae. The other monuments currently built on the site date from the Ptolemaic dynasty. The best known is the temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess Hathor.
The complex where the Hathor Temple is located has an area of about 40,000m². Like the vast majority of Egyptian religious complexes, it is surrounded by an enclosure. This massive mudbrick enclosure stops at two entrance gates, one of which, the north gate, is drawn in the fourth volume. This gate was built by the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan.
The main monument of the complex is the great temple, dedicated to the major goddess Hathor. The building that can be seen today was built during the Ptolemaic Dynasty and completed by the Roman Emperor Tiberius (42BC-37AC). However its foundations date back to Pepi I and the 6th Dynasty.
The 82m long temple is of a rather classical composition of the time. The succession of the small hypostyle hall, the offering hall and the pronaos date from the Ptolemaic dynasty. The wabet and the twelve crypts (some of which are in the foundations) also date from this period. On the other hand, the great hypostyle hall at the entrance was built by Emperor Tiberius. There are inscriptions there mentioning several Roman emperors from August to Nero. The temple also has terraces accessible for priests, entering from the west. On the terraces were the kiosk of Hathor and the Temple of Osiris.
The members of the commission made an extraordinary discovery during the expedition. They uncovered a circular zodiac, the first (and only) of its kind to be discovered in Egypt. It was discovered on the ceiling of the temple, cut out and then brought back to France. It was subject to controversy because of its dating. Indeed the very existence of a zodiac melting spirituality and astrology, or even star mapping was uncommon in Egyptian civilization.
The zodiac was first discovered during the military part of the expedition, but it was Dominique Vivant Denon who would come back to draw it later.
The zodiac is a planisphere that shows the five planets known at the time: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The twelve zodiacal constellations are also represented, as well as eleven other constellations. The star Sirius, a reference in the Egyptian civilization, is also engraved as well as two eclipses, one solar and one lunar. There is a difference of interpretation concerning the identity of the carriers but they are undoubtedly deities.
The controversy resides in the identity and the dating of the zodiac. Is it an object of worship? Or is it an astronomical object? Depending on the function, it could upset beliefs about Egyptian spiritual and scientific knowledge. Moreover, the representation of a circular zodiac is unique in ancient Egypt. Finally, the zodiac is dated to the Greek-Roman era (as proposed by Champollion). More precisely, we know that it is posterior to the year 50 BC thanks to the alignment of the planets and the two successive eclipses that are represented.
Abydos 26° 11′ 00″ N, 31° 55′ E is a city located on the west bank of the Nile. It is the main place of worship of Osiris. According to the religious myth, his brother Seth cut him up or drowned him in the Nile and the priests of the city were charged to keep his head in a reliquary. It is thanks to this religious tradition that the city has known an unparalleled attractiveness and continuity. Indeed, the remains of the archaeological site date back to all the periods of Ancient Egypt. However, the city has never had the growth of Thebes or Memphis. From a political point of view, it is a provincial town which is not a major administrative or economic centre. But from a religious and cultural point of view it is a city of high symbolic value. The territory of Abydos is synonymous with Osiris cultural centre, which made it the privileged place of passage to the Beyond, the world of the dead.
Although the majority of the buildings have been engulfed by the sand of the Libyan desert, we can identify different components of the 8km² archaeological site. To the north are located the ancient city (occupying an area of about 300 x 200m) and the temple of Osiris. Only vestiges of the temple remain and they were not surveyed by the commission, but it has been analysed that it was built over a period ranging from the old kingdom to the 30th dynasty.
A Thinite royal necropolis was found close to the city, proof of the spiritual importance of the city compared to its modest size. It is named Umm el-Qa’ab and contains tombs of kings from the Predynastic period to the Second Dynasty. This demonstrates the historical importance of the place of worship up to the fourth millennium BC.
In total, the site also contains tombs from the Old, Middle and New Kingdom (more in the South). But numerous temples were also built, such as the temples of Sethos I (drawn above) and Ramesses II. The site also contains a cenotaph of Osiris, and the funeral complex of Senustret III (12th dynasty). The members of the commission, however, made few surveys of the site, probably not measuring the spiritual importance of the place in comparison with its scale.
In fact the most detailed monument is the burial enclosure of Khasekhemwy of the 2nd Dynasty. Shunet ez-Zebib (its Arab name) is located in the northwest, away from the Thinite Royal Necropolis. It is 133.5m x 77.5m with a height of 11m. It is built of brick and is the best preserved of the site.
Antaeopolis 26° 54′ 00″ E, 31° 31′ 00″ E also called Tjebu, is a city in Upper Egypt, capital of the 10th nome. It does not have many vestiges apart from a few funeral complexes dating from the Middle Kingdom.
However the interest of the survey made by the members of the scientific commission is the temple built by Ptolemy IV Philopator (244-204BC). This temple is dedicated to Anteus, a figure in greek and berber mythology. He was a giant, son of Poseidon and Gaia living in the desert of Libya that lost against Heracles. He was considered as a warrior fusion between Seth and Horus. The limestone temple disappeared soon after the survey, due to a series of floods of the Nile, in the early 19th century. But the magnificence of its pronaos of 18 columns, divided into three rows is perfectly represented in the precious documents of La Description de l’Egypte.
The city of Asyut 27° 11′ 00″ N, 31° 10′ 00″ E, also called Saouty or Lycopolis is an important city of Upper Egypt located on the west bank of the Nile. It was a major crossing point for caravans because it was located in a very fertile valley on the road to the oases. Ancient Asyut was the capital of the 13th nome of Egypt around 3100 BC. It takes its name of Lycopolis from its representations of wolves. Some wolf mummies have been found in burial vaults and Osiris was represented there in canine form. Generally, the wolf cult was organized around the wolfheaded war deity Wepwawet. The city’s defeat against Thebes during the first intermediate period (2181-2055BC) precipitated its decline and loss of influence.
The city is mainly known and represented for its necropolis on the western hills at Gebel Asyut al-gharbi. Numerous hypogeums have been excavated there, with their entrance gates visible from the town. There are over 300 tombs, the largest tomb of its time was 120 meters long, up to 11 meters high, and extended downwards 28 meters. The tombs are those of nomarchs, treasurers and other important figures of the region from Dynasties 9, 10 and 11. It is also in this necropolis that the tomb of the wolves was found.
The case of the city of Antinopolis 27°49′N 30°53′E is particular. It was founded on an ancient Egyptian village on the east bank of the Nile, called Hir-we. During the Middle Kingdom, it was the location of a temple of Ramesses II dedicated to the gods Khmun and Heliopolis. In 130AD Emperor Hadrian erected the city of Antinopolis in memory of his favourite Antinous. He razed the existing buildings and the necropolis with the exception of the temple.
The construction of this city was also thought with a political purpose as it was the first Hellenic city in this region of the Middle Nile. It was intended to be a Greek cultural center, and to import this culture into the Egyptian civilization of the region. In order to do this he mixed the traditional cult of Bes, the deity of Hir-we, with the new deity Osiris-Antinous. The architecture of the city was also typical of the Helenistic heritage. However, the records of the commission are part of the last existing traces of the city . when initiated the industrial revolution in the region in the 19th century, the buildings were destroyed to feed the local industrial production. No trace remains of the theatre, temples, triumphal arch and colonnades described in La Description de l’Egypte.
Details of the hellenistic architecture
Faiyum 29° 18′ 30″ 30″ N, 30° 50′ 39″ E is a city in Middle Egypt located 100km south of Cairo. It is one of the oldest cities in Egypt. Indeed the first traces of occupation date back to the Epipalaeolithic. Other occupations from the Middle Holocene have been recorded north of Lake Moeris. In Ancient Egypt, the city was named Shedet, in honour of the crocodile god Sobek. It was its main cultural centre in Egypt.
Lake Moeris was a lake of between 1200km² and 1700km² located northwest of Faiyum. In 2300 BC the lake was connected to the Nile by a canal. This project, built during the 20th dynasty by Amenemhat III, was intended to control the flooding of the Nile. The lake was also used as a reservoir to irrigate the crops of the region.
The members of the commission discovered the lake covering a much smaller area. It was named Birket Qarun and its water was salty. Close to the western end of the lake was a temple dedicated to the cult of Sobek. It was built during the Middle Kingdom and is very modest in size. But it is decorated with several remarkables representations of the crocodile god. Apart from Faiyum, the most important place of worship of Sobek is Kom Ombo.
Pyramids between Faiyum and Cairo
In the north region of Faiyum, lots of pyramids were discovered. The first ones are located in Dashur 29°48′23″N 31°12′29″E, a royal necropolis in the desert, located on the west bank of the Nile 40km south of Cairo. This site is of major importance because it was on these pyramids that the Egyptians experienced the constructive change of the pyramids. They changed from step-sided to smooth-sided pyramids. Out of 11 pyramids, 5 still exist today.
The first pyramid represented on the plate above is Sneferu’s Bent pyramid (2613-2589 BC). It was the first attempt to obtain a smooth pyramid but the realization failed. In part because of miscalculations of the loads placed on the sand floor. Following this failure, the King Sneferu bult the Red Pyramid which is the first success of a smooth-sided pyramid. The pyramid is 104m high, with an angle of 43 degrees, it was built in red limestone. It is the tomb of King Sneferu.
The third smooth-sided pyramid was built by the son of King Sneferu, Khufu, but it is the pyramid of Giza located in Greater Cairo in the complex of the three pyramids.
The second pyramid surveyed was built for Amenemhat III, responsible for the works of the Faiyum Canal. This one, built in mud brick, was 75m high. But because of its many passages and corridors, its structure weakened and a large part of it collapsed. It is often referred to as the black pyramid.
Meidum is the fourth pyramid depicted. It was probably built for Huni, the last pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty. The pyramid was built on three successive extensions. It collapsed on itself during the first excavations prior to Napoleon’s expedition. This gave it the actual gradual aspect and the nickname of pseudo pyramid.
The last pyramids represented are those of the Saqqarah area on the road leading from Dahshur to Cairo, which included in total about fifty pyramids. Here you can see a detailed map of these pyramids.