La Description de l'Égypte: Antiquités, Volume V - Giza, Alexandria and the Rosetta Stone
Table of Contents
- Antiquités, Volume V
- Map of the sites
- Giza Heliopolis
- Rosetta Stone
- Description of the Stone
- Translation of the Rosetta Stone
- Other antiquities surveyed during the expedition
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 fifth book of plates is La Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, Volume V. It is the last of five volumes describing ancient Egypt. Either the major part of the final work. The plates in this volume present the most famous archaeological site in Egypt: the pyramids of Giza, near Memphis. The scientists finally arrive at the Mediterranean in their description and survey the city of Alexandria and its surroundings. Finally the last part is devoted to a major artefact of ancient Egypt: the Rosetta Stone. This volume retraces the millennia of ancient Egypt and definitively rekindles the craze for Egyptology for the centuries to come.
Map of the archeological sites
The map shows the different places mentioned in this article. Click on the markers to get an overview of the archaeological sites.
Memphis 29° 50′ 58″ 58″ N, 31° 15′ 16″ E is a city in Ancient Egypt. It is the capital of the first nome: Inebu-hedj (White fortress) and one of the major cities of Ancient Egypt. Its ruins and archaeological sites are located south of Cairo, east of the Saqqarah desert, near where the Nile valley becomes the delta. It was therefore strategically located between Upper and Lower Egypt, and it was obliged to control this city in order to ensure its authority. Memphis locked the access to the delta, giving it a crucial political, military and commercial role.
It was the first capital of Egypt, even before the time of the dynasties. It was by far the most important city of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Before losing its influence and seeing Thebes replace it during the Middle Kingdom. Under the New Kingdom, the city regained power and grandeur, once again rivaling Thebes. During the time of the Ptolemees, it is still considered a major city of Egypt. Alexander the Great confirmed this status by being crowned pharaoh in the city in 331 BC. But with the arrival of the Romans, Memphis and Thebes lost their influence to the benefit of Alexandria, more open to the Empire. The change of divinity, then the appearance of Christianity destroyed the reputation of the city. Later it was abandoned and became a quarry. The stones of its temples and necropolises were used to build the new cities of Egypt such as Fustat and then Cairo. Therefore the scientists of the commission of Egypt found beyond the pyramids and the sphinx, only scattered ruins, before the first excavations of the city started in 1820.
Memphis is reputed to be the residence of Kings and a sacred site for the Gods. Thus, it was a city for the living as well as a city for the dead. Indeed, its necropolis, which extends from Meidum to Giza, passing through Dashur, Saqqara or Zawyet El Aryan, is built in negative of the ancient city. The architecture and layout of the former being linked to the latter. This royal necropolis and its monuments such as the Great Temple of Ptah or its royal palaces ensured its spiritual and divine status.
The Necropolis of Giza 29° 58′ 34″ N, 31° 07′ 49″ E is located on a desert plateau on the west bank of the Nile at Memphis. Its role as a necropolis was mainly used during the Old Kingdom. Today it is located on the edge of the city of Cairo, and is world famous for its three pyramids. The plateau covers an area of about 1,6km by 1,9km. The whole surface was levelled by man in the third millennium BC.
The main monuments on the plateau all date back to the 4th dynasty (2670 to 2450 BC). The major monuments are the Great Sphinx, located to the east of the pyramids, the three great pyramids: the Great Pyramid or Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu), the Pyramid of Khafre to the southwest and the Pyramid of Menkaure, to the southwest of the other two. Between these major monuments there are also cemeteries, mastabas and satellite pyramids.
Napoleon and the Pyramids
The detailed architectural and archaeological surveys of the Pyramids contained in La Description de l’Egypte are totally new. In particular, they provide the first views of the interior of the Great Pyramid and very detailed plans. Following the publication and thanks to its diffusion, a strong craze for these pyramids will begin in Europe, which started a great period of excavation in the 19th century.
The site of the pyramids is also well known for the famous battle that Napoleon won there. He himself gave the name “Battle of the Pyramids” to the victory obtained on July 21, 1798 against the Mamelukes of Mourad Bey. This victory, which in reality probably took place on a terrain relatively far from the pyramids, opened the road to Cairo. He went there 3 days later and created the French Institute which allowed him to launch the archeological research. It was also while following Mourad Bey in his flight to Upper Egypt that the French army discovered the sites of Denderah, Thebes, Edfu and Philae.
Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops 9° 58′ 44″ N, 31° 08′ 02″ E was built about 2560 BC. It is the presumed tomb of the pharaoh Khufu and the largest of the pyramids of Giza. It was designed by the architect Hemionou, inspired by recent advances in architectural techniques for smooth sided pyramids. In particular, it benefits from the technical innovations used to build the pyramids of Khufu’s father, Snefru, in Dahshur. The pyramid has its own complex composed of the pyramid, three queen pyramids, and a low temple.
The pyramid is the most imposing of Egypt, it has a height of 146.5m for a square base of about 230.5m (it forms a perfect square to within a few cm). Inside it is pierced by long corridors. The large gallery, almost 9m high and 47.80m long, leads upstairs to the king’s bedroom, a 5m high space. After the ascending corridor, the horizontal corridor leads to the queen’s chamber, located about 10m below the king’s chamber. While a last corridor, goes down to reach an underground chamber under the pyramid. The apartments and the large gallery are made of pink granite while the pyramid is built of limestone. The volume of the whole Pyramid is roughly 2,300,000 cubic metres.
Pyramid of Khafre
The pyramid of Khafre 29° 58′ 32″ 32″ N, 31° 07′ 52″ E is the second largest pyramid in Egypt. It was built for Khafra, son of Khufu during the 4th dynasty. As for his father’s pyramid, this one is a smooth sided pyramid, but it is in very good condition. Indeed its top is still covered with the recognizable white limestone. The pyramid complex includes two temples and a satellite pyramid. The base of the pyramid measures 215.16m on each side (the error for a perfect square is only 8cm) while its height is 136m, barely 10m less than its big sister. It has two connected entrances leading to the lower chamber and the burial chamber.
Pyramid of Menkaure
The Pyramid of Menkaure 29° 58′ 20″ N, 31° 07′ 40″ E is the smallest of the three main pyramids of the Giza plateau, much less important than its two eldest ones. It was built during the 4th dynasty for the pharaoh Menkaure, son of Khafre and grandson of Khufu. The death of the sovereign during the construction of the pyramid will modify the precision of the superstructure. Moreover, it is the last great building site of the Egyptian pyramid complex.
The pyramid complex consists of a low temple, a funerary temple and three satellite pyramids (pyramids of queens). The base of the pyramid measures 104.6m on its side, while its height is 65m high. Originally, the pyramid was covered on its base (about twenty meters) with a red granite facing. The rest was made of limestone like the other pyramids (except for the disappeared pyramidion whose composition is unknown). The access to the infrastructure of the pyramid remained hidden for a long time and was at the origin of many degradations in the northern face (where the entrance of the funeral apartments is traditionally arranged) of the pyramid over the years. It was finally discovered in 1837, after the expedition and the survey of the scientific commission.
The Menkaure sarcophagus is unique, it was discovered in its burial chamber, but when the English wanted to bring it back in 1838 to exhibit it in the British museum, the ship that carried it with other antiques unfortunately sank and lost all its cargo.
Great Sphinx of Giza
The Great Sphinx 29° 58′ 31″ N, 31° 08′ 16″ E is an immense therianthropic statue that is situated in front of the pyramids. It was made around 2500 BC for Khafra or his father Khufu. It stands in front of the temple of the complex of the first one, like a guardian, which reinforces this commonly accepted hypothesis. It has the head of one of the pharaohs (which remains to be determined with certainty) and the body of a lion. Its length is 73.5m and its width is 14m for a height of 20.22m. Its specificity is that its body and head were carved out of the same rock, in the ground, which makes it the largest monolithic monumental statue in the world, with the legs stretched out and added in masonry.
The human head, facing east, is carved from a piton of grey limestone (the same on which the pyramids are built) while the lion’s body is carved from the underlying layer of softer limestone. Although it was built during the 4th Dynasty, it has undergone different stages of restoration (18th and 26th Dynasty, then by the Romans). A temple, the Temple of the Sphinx was found between its legs but it is a late addition, 1000 years after its construction.
The Sphinx has suffered greatly from silting and erosion over the years. Thutmose IV will make it desandblast a first time, the Romans a second time, but the sand came back. During the commission’s survey, only the head of the sphinx is visible. Today is entire body its uncovered.
Heliopolis (City of the Sun) 30° 07′ 46″ N, 31° 18′ 18″ E is a city in the Nile Delta, capital of the 13th Nome of Egypt. It is, as its name indicates, dedicated to the cult of the solar deities Ra and Atum. The city is one of the oldest cities in Egypt, it has been occupied since predynastic times, and continued to grow during the Old and Middle Kingdom. However, it was almost completely destroyed during the Middle Ages and the stones of its ruins were used to build medieval Cairo. The main surviving ancient artifact is the obelisk of the temple of Ra-Atum. The temple was built by Senusret I of the 12th dynasty. The 21m obelisk, the major vestige, has remained in its original location, which is now located in a northern district of Cairo.
The last urban archaeological site surveyed is the city of Alexandria 31° 11′ 53″ N, 29° 55′ 09″ E. It is also in this city that Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign will end. After the fall of Cairo on 27 July 1801 against the English troops, the French troops took refuge in Alexandria where the siege finally ended on 2 September 1801. Napoleon, who didn’t want his name associated with the defeats, had returned to France two years earlier. Therefore, the expedition ended in the same city where it had begun, 3 years earlier.
The city is not an Egyptian ancient city strictly speaking, although it was the capital of the country. It was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, west of the Nile Delta. He made it one of the most culturally important cities in the Mediterranean. The city was designed by Dinocrates of Rhodes according to a hippodamian (grid) plan. Its most important monuments are the lighthouse (on the island of Pharos) linked by the Hepstadion, the Soma (the tomb of Alexander, which has not been found) and the palace composed of various cultural buildings (museum, library, theatre) which covered a quarter of the city. Ptolemy (also at the origin of the construction of the lighthouse) who received Egypt at the death of Alexander, undertook the work of the famous great library. He initially ruled Egypt from Memphis but, once declared pharaoh, he changed his capital to Alexandria.
Cleopatra’s Needle is the name given to the two Egyptian obelisks dating from the reign of Thutmose III (18th dynasty). They have in fact no connection with Queen Cleopatra VII. They were erected in Heliopolis but the Romans brought them to Alexandria. One of the two obelisks was offered to France in 1828, but on Champollion’s decision, it was exchanged with one of the obelisks decorating the temple of Luxor. One of the two obelisks of Alexandria was given to the British and installed in 1878 on the banks of the Thames. Made of red granite, it is 21m high and weighs more than 200 tons. The other Cleopatra’s Needle is now in New York.
The Column of Diocletian (or Pompey’s Pillar) is a 25m high column of red Aswan granite. It was built for the Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 4th century, when he reconquered the city. It has little to do with Pompey who, after his defeat by Julius Cesar, fled to Egypt (where he was assassinated in 48 BC). It was the medieval travellers who thought that the column marked the site of his tomb, who called it so. The scientists of the expedition made a rather critical statement considering the fame of the column:
Although this order is Corinthian by its capital, it does not have the Greek proportion, because the various parts that compose it were obviously made after the shaft, and without harmony between them: it also seems obvious that the shaft alone is ancient, Doric in proportion, and it is beyond doubt that it was rebuilt at a time that we want to point out. The other parts are of mediocre taste: the capital is short, the base, which is of attic profile, is badly proportioned; the plaster is much too high, and the pedestal is ridiculously small under its column.
Other buildings surveyed
The scientists of the commission also made some surveys of buildings subsequent to Ancient Egypt in this already complete volume. For example, some mosques are precisely drawn, as well as water cisterns. The cisterns were built to store drinking water for the city during the flood seasons. Indeed, the city is not located on a direct bank of the Nile, so a large number of cisterns had to be built to meet the needs for water.
Concerning mosques, the members of the commission are a little sceptical about churches being converted into mosques. In particular, a survey was made of the Mosque of Attarine also known as the Mosque of St. Athanasius or Mosque of a Thousand Columns. The mosque was originally a church, built in 370 AD in honour of Athanasius of Alexandria. With the arrival of Islam in Egypt and the conquest of Alexandria (641 AD), it was converted into a mosque, like many Catholic churches. Following the drawing of the plan made by Vivant Denon, speculations arose among the French. As a small octagon was drawn in the courtyard, some believed that it represented a sarcophagus being the tomb of the founder of the city, the “House of Alexander the Great”. In fact the sarcophagus was of the last pharaoh of Egypt, Nectanebo II.
Surroundings of the city
To the west of the city, catacombs of Greek architecture have been discovered next to baths popularly known as Cleopatra’s baths. They were in fact probably baths that were part of the funerary rites with the burial of the bodies in their graves in the necropolis.
Finally, the last survey made in the surroundings of Alexandria concerns Taposiris Magna 30°56′46.2″ N, 29°31′7.3″ E. After the construction of Alexandria, Taposiris Magna became an important religious centre. The members of the commission surveyed two sites: the lighthouse and a temple enclosure. The lighthouse is a tower that was used to rebuild the lighthouse of Alexandria. The second is the enclosure of the temple of Osiris, which is today the privileged place to potentially be the tomb of Cleopatra VII.
The last survey of the volume concerns one of the most important artifacts in Egyptology, the Rosetta Stone. Its discovery is due to the military context in which the expedition in Egypt took place.
In 1799 the French army, following the destruction of its fleet in the bay of Aboukir, retreats in the face of the Ottoman troops. Rosetta is a city at the eastern end of the bay. Between Rosetta and the sea is a ruined 15th century fort that controls the Nile. Fort Julien (named after an officer of Napoleon) or Fort of Qaitbey, is a strategic point and therefore some fortification works began. Lieutenant Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard discovered during the works this stone where a Greek inscription is immediately identified. He very quickly understood the interest for science that the stele constitutes and he saved it. The Ottomans will be defeated and the stone brought back to Cairo, to the French Institute. Copies were made almost immediately. As the drawing is not precise enough and is subject to error, the stone is coated with ink and by an autograph process its content is transferred to paper.
As the conflict progressed, the English troops took over and the French were forced to surrender. The English were very interested in the stone, and didn’t want to let them leave with it. In the end the members of the commission kept their notes and samples, except for 17 of the most precious objects, including the Rosetta Stone, and they could come back to France.In 1802 the stone, which became the possession of the British Crown, was transferred to the British Museum.
Description of the Stone
The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of a Granodiorite stele dating from the 2nd century BC. It has a dimension of 112.3 × 75.7 x 28.4 cm for 760kg, but the original stele must have been approximately 149cm high. Its interest is that it presents three versions of the same text that allowed the deciphering of the hyeroglyphs in the 19th century. The inscription it contains is a decree promulgated in Memphis by Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BC. The three scriptures are derived from the Egyptian in hyeroglyph, the demotic Egyptian, and the Greek alphabet.
The understanding of the Egyptian hyeroglyphs is lost since the end of the Roman Empire and the closing of the Pagan Temples. The most recent hyeroglyph inscription is the one in Philae dated 396.
When the stone was discovered, only the Greek part was translatable. The first translation from Greek was made in 1803 and provided a starting point for the deciphering of the hyerogyphs. The main difficulty was that the subtleties of the language in the context of the Hellenic administration weren’t known. A new version of the translation, correcting the previous errors, was published in 1814.
When the stone was discovered, the demotic was not yet clearly identified. Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sancy and Johan David Åkerblad studied fragments of this writing and deduced that it was a derivative of the Coptic language. When they received a copy of the writing of Rosetta stone, they identified the middle text as being from this writing. They started looking for proper names. In 1802 Silvestre de Sancy identified “Alexandros,” “Alexandreia,” “Ptolemaios,” “Arsinoe,” and Ptolemy’s title “Epiphanes. While Åkerblad developed an alphabet of 29 letters (half of which turned out to be correct). However, the two men were unable to identify and translate the ideograms and phonetic symbols that were key to deciphering the hieroglyphics. They were right, however, about the link between demoticism and the Coptic language. The Egyptians had begun to adapt the Greek alphabet with some demotic sounds in order to reproduce the Afro-Asian sounds missing from the Greek language. This gave birth to Coptic in the 2nd century BC.
Silvestre de Sancy began to integrate the idea that some Egyptian names could be written in phonetics as in the Chinese language. Jean-Jacques Barthelemy then suggested looking at the characters in the cartouches, which according to him were names. Thomas Young followed this advice and deciphered the phonetic characters “p t o l m e s” (“p t w l m y s”) that were used to write the Greek name “Ptolemaios”. He made a comparison with the characters in demotics, finding 80 similarities between the two texts. Young maintained a correspondence with Jean-François Champollion, professor in Grenoble and scholar of ancient Egypt and languages. Champollion compared the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone with those on the obelisk of Philae. In 1822, he identified the phonetic characters k l e o p a t r a ( q l i҆ w p 3 d r 3.t ). Later he identified the names of the pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel. This allowed him to confirm his hypothesis of similar phonetic characters in Greek and Egyptian. He published in 1822, a table of hieroglyphic phonetic characters with their demotic and Coptic equivalents. From then on, the Egyptian hieroglyphic script was characterized by its combination of ideograms (word signs) and phonetic signs (which correspond to a sound). Champollion died suddenly but opened the way for the translation of the hieroglyphs and allowed a major advance in Egyptology.
Translation of the Rosetta Stone
The writing on the stone is a decree made by a council of priests in a temple in Memphis (Temple of Ptah). It is one of a series that was distributed in every temple in Egypt. It affirms the royal cult of the new king Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation (in 196 BC). In fact, at this time, the Ptolemaic dynasty had lost its power and influence in Egypt. The text evokes the good deeds done by the sovereign for the temples, a way to secure his support from the priests of the country. Especially while Thebes was still in conflict with the young pharaoh.
Other antiquities surveyed during the expedition
Throughout the expedition, the members of the commission made surveys of the antiques they discovered. In the monuments, tombs, ruins, they found many statues, engravings, hieroglyphic extracts, amulets… Very meticulously surveyed, many of them were taken away and are today in many museums in the world, mainly the Louvre and the British Museum.
The precision of the surveys, the quantity of drawings, graphic documents and the attention paid to the detail of the inventory make the expedition and the 5 volumes of La Description de l’Egypte concerning Antiquity one of the largest archaeological sources not only concerning Ancient Egypt but also in the world.