Rediscovering Egypt – y Napoleon Bonaparte of France fired up European and American passions for the wonders of a forgotten ancient civilization.

An ancient world

An illustration from the Description de l’Égypte, a collection of observations made by scholars during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, shows the portico of the Temple of Isis on Philae.

The French First Republic had been at war with Britain and several other European monarchies since 1792. The territory of Egypt was shortly to become a pawn in this game of empires. Napoleon and his advisors saw that by occupying this distant province of the declining Ottoman Empire, they could divide Britain from its colonial interests in India

The French occupation

On July 1, 1798, some 40,000 soldiers of the Armée d’Orient were put ashore at Alexandria, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. The occupation was not a success. Early victories against Egyptian forces on land, including the capture of Cairo, were undermined by the British sinking the French fleet at its moorings. Now stranded in Egypt, the French army had to combat local insurgents who were aided and abetted by the British and the Ottoman Turks. Napoleon secretly fled back to France in October 1799. His abandoned and subsequently defeated army was repatriated by the British two years later.

What might be regarded as an inglorious episode was, in time, more than redeemed by the efforts of over 160 scholars, scientists, engineers, botanists, cartographers, and artists who had traveled with Napoleon to Egypt. Their mission was twofold: to bring European Enlightenment ideas, such as liberty and progress, to Egypt, and to study a country that, until then, had only had minimal contact with the West. They were sent out to survey and document all that they saw, both ancient and modern, and to gather specimens and artifacts.

Egyptian fountain

Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign inspired many artists to explore ancient Egyptian styles. This neo-Egyptian statue at 52 rue de Sèvres, Paris, was made by sculptor Pierre-Nicolas Beauvallet in 1806.

Description de l’Égypte

The results were gathered in the encyclopedic Description de l’Égypte, which ran into 23 outsize volumes, published in 1809–29. At the same time, one of the artifacts was found byand across the Mediterranean to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Jaffa in Palestine, and Alexandria in Egypt. The sense of awe engendered by such a journey was perfectly captured by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his sonnet Ozymandias, with its famous opening line: “I met a traveler from an antique land.

Rosetta Stone

Found in 1799, the Rosetta Stone is a rock stele on which a decree was inscribed in 196bce on behalf of King Ptolemy V of Egypt. The decree was written in three scripts, the comparison of which gave modern scholars the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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Last word

Together, these laid the foundations for the science of Egyptology and sparked a fascination in Europe and America for all things Egyptian and Oriental. For the remainder of the 19th century, what is now the Middle East (but was then better known as the Near East) became an extension of the Grand Tour.

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