Voyages of scientific exploration: La Description de l'Égypte
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 18th century is marked by the increasing number of scientific voyages. Following the great discoveries they were facilitated by a great number of technical innovations. Numerous missions aimed at mapping the globe, cataloguing fauna and flora, making various anthropological, architectural and historical observations. They have of course a political and economic goal. These voyages make it possible to trace new commercial maritime routes, to strengthen the colonies, to create new diplomatic relations. But also to explore the thoughts of many philosophical currents related to science.
One of these scientific voyages is rather incongruous and takes place at the end of the 18th century. It is nevertheless one of the best known because it accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign. Indeed, the military campaign of Egypt is coupled with a scientific expedition. The Commission of Arts and Sciences is created on March 16, 1798 shortly before the departure. While the aim of the Egyptian campaign was to seize Egypt in order to block the road from India to Great Britain, the scientific commission was charged with establishing an encyclopaedic study of Egypt. Napoleon imagined that this expedition would follow in the footsteps of the great discoveries made by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, James Cook and Jean-François de La Pérouse. Although the military campaign is considered a failure, the scientific expedition is a success and will have worldwide historical repercussions. Made up of more than 160 scientists and scholars (mathematicians, astronomers, architects, antique dealers, draftsmen, sculptors, botanists, zoologists, doctors, geographers) the commission will be at the heart of the battles and adventures, suffering several human and material losses.
Shortly after the capture of Cairo by Napoleon, the Institute of Egypt (which still exists today) was founded on 22 August 1798. It served as a base for researchers, but also as a body of colonial control and dissemination of propaganda. During the three years of research, drawings, writings, measurements and surveys, considerable data on Egyptian civilization will be gathered. They concern antiquity, natural sciences, cartography, but also the modern state of Egypt. The explorations will notably lead to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, precise descriptions of the monuments of Upper Egypt and ancient sites, the study of the functioning of irrigation systems deriving from the Nile, a preparatory project that will lead to the Suez Canal, and an inventory of animal and floral diversity. Following the retreat of the French troops and the assassination of General Kleber, the expedition was blocked by the English and did not return to France until the end of 1801.
The Description of Egypt
The scientific expedition was launched in order to overcome the egyptomania of the Europeans. The collection of antiquity, the fascination for the hieroglyphs gave way to a scientific rigour without fault. This will be expressed in the edition of an encyclopaedia devoted exclusively to Egypt, in the spirit of the Enlightenment. In February 1802, the editorial adventure began. The graphic materials collected were submitted to a commission judging their relevance and accuracy. The whole will constitute a set of 23 volumes: nine volumes of texts (39.5x25x5cm), eleven volumes of plates (71×52.5cm), two volumes of mammutfolio plates (108×69.5cm) and one atlas of 49 plates (108×69.5). The latter with maps of military interest will be published well after the others.
The first edition, called the imperial edition, was editiorialy written to the glory of Napoleon. It was published in 1809 and was quite exclusive, especially because of its format. Even before its publication, it was already accepted that another, more practical and affordable edition should be published. The second edition was produced from 1820 to 1830 by C.L.F Panckouke, a famous Parisian publisher. The set of 37 volumes is smaller in size, the text alone requiring 26 volumes. It is interesting to note that any reference to Napoleon has been replaced by a reference to the King.
La Description de l’Egypte is an extremely remarkable work and the largest printed work of its time. Informing about both ancient and modern Egypt, it will have a worldwide influence and will launch modern Egyptology.
The frontispiece of the second edition is a copy of a Panckoucke painting. It shows an Egyptian landscape similar to the one on the first edition, but without any Napoleonic symbolism. Read the description (in French) here.