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Scenes from the Description de l'Égypte

THE FRENCH OCCUPATION of Egypt between 1798-1801 was the first colonial conquest which endeavored to bring the Enlightenment to the Orient. The invasion was justified exclusively by the assumed superiority of the Western value system, “liberating” the Orient from the yoke of Barbaric despots. Before this expedition, colonization was rationalized with religious arguments; now reason, rationality, and scientific thought justified the conquest of an extra-European country. The French expedition to Egypt therefore defined colonialism and provided the blueprint of all succeeding colonial undertakings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Theories about how an allegedly “inferior” society, dominated and abused by “despotic” tyrants, could be improved by bringing it up to Western standards of civilization and industry were used to prop the invasion plans ideologically. When the French occupiers set out to colonize Egypt, they considered themselves both liberators and saviors of the native Egyptians.

After a successful campaign in Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, France's military focus was turned toward a more powerful enemy, England. The Directory government of post-revolutionary France was completely surrounded by anti-republican monarchies, which did not want revolutionary ideas to spread to their own territory. The campaign to Egypt was supported by Napoleon Bonaparte, who, inspired by theories of the writer and philosopher Volney, was enamored of the idea of conquering Egypt. Western stereotypes of the eighteenth century portrayed Orientals as idle and unproductive. In Western eyes, the Orient had fallen into a dark age, in which men and women literally resided in the crumbling ruins of past empires, deprived of ambitions and visions for their nation. Beneath this pretext of good intentions, the Directory pursued the objective of crippling England by cutting her off from her profitable colonies in India.

For the first time in military history, an army set forth with martial as well as academic intentions. For this purpose, more than 160 scholars were selected to accompany the army to Egypt; they would later form the Institut d‘Égypte in Cairo. Printing presses and type for Western and Oriental languages were obtained from the Vatican store rooms. A library of 215,000 books was carefully chosen from the Vatican Library. For the scientists, every instrument they could possibly need was acquired and shipped, including entire labs of various types. The idea of conquering and retaining power through a complete knowledge and understanding of the country and its population had never before been pursued to this depth. This context made the campaign unique, because never before had an invading country shown such meticulous interest in the object of its conquest. The Description de l'Égypte a huge multi-volume collection compiled by the scholars of the Institut d'Égypte upon order by Napoleon Bonaparte, later became the principal resource for documenting and commemorating the French expedition to the Near East.

On the May 10, 1798, Napoleon's army of more than 30,000 men and women set sail from Toulon, France. On the way to Egypt, Napoleon conquered the island of Malta, to be used as a strategic base between Egypt and France. (Map 1)

On June 1, 1798 the French army landed in Egypt near Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile. Although the city was fortified, it quickly fell to the French. From Alexandria, Napoleon's troops marched on to conquer the whole of Upper Egypt. The country, although formally part of the Ottoman Empire, was primarily under the control of the Mamelukes, an eclectic group of marauding slave warriors, who fiercely resisted the French occupiers. The French considered them to be violent despots who suppressed women and indulged habitually in crimes such as murder, kidnaping, and sodomy.

At the pyramids, a short distance from Cairo, the French found an army of 50,000 warriors laying in wait for them. This army was made up of Mamelukes, Arabs, Bedouins, and Egyptians. The battle was easily won by the French, due to their technologically superior weaponry. Yet, the French soldiers admired the bravery and ferocity of their Oriental enemies. After his defeat, the Mameluke leader Mourad-bey and his remaining army fled into the desert, pursued by the French troops. (Map 2)

Just after Napoleon entered Cairo on July 24, 1798, the English were spotted on the horizon at Aboukir. General Nelson ordered the British fleet to surround the French ships, which were not near enough to the land fortifications to be protected by the battery. This way the British were able to destroy the French ships one by one. The destruction of the French fleet was a military disaster that sealed the fate of the French expedition to Egypt. The European occupiers could no longer communicate with, or receive supplies from France. The English took advantage of this situation and sent exaggerated propaganda reports about the impending French defeat to Europe.

When news of the Battle at Aboukir reached Cairo, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to extend his conquests into Syria, hoping to destroy the Ottoman Empire. The army was split into two parts. One contingent, lead by General Desaix, occupied Upper Egypt and pursued Mourad-bey into the desert; the other soldiers, lead by Bonaparte, embarked for the Holy Land. (Map 3)

Lacking ships, Napoleon's army traveled from Cairo to Palestine on camels and mules. The first major battle in the Holy Land occurred near Jaffa. It was there that the French army received its most crippling blow. The Ottoman Turks joined forces with the British, while the French army was incapacitated by a deadly outbreak of the plague. (Map 4)

The remains of Napoleon's army marched on to Acre. Here a final battle stalled the French advance. When Napoleon passed through Jaffa on his retreat, he ordered the doctors to poison his soldiers which were afflicted with the plague. According to Napoleon's rationale, they were terminally ill and hence a burden to the army.

In August 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte and a select few of his generals departed secretly from Alexandria to return to France, where they were celebrated and shortly thereafter overthrew the Directory government. The French Expedition to Egypt ended in disaster. However, it proved to be a powerful influence upon nineteenth-century European culture. France embraced a fashion for all things Egyptian, which only deepened the Orientalist stereotypes held by the West and shifted attention away from the abandoned soldiers and the failure of the Egyptian expedition. This enthusiasm for Egyptian paraphernalia became known as “Egyptomania..”

Bonaparte realized the political potential of Egyptomania and decided to use it to recast the outcome of the expedition. He ordered a large-scale project to publish all the recorded findings of the scientists and scholars who had accompanied him to Egypt. All of these documents were collected into a huge luxury edition, which appeared between 1809 and 1822 under the title Description de l'Égypte. The Description was made up of some twenty volumes, containing mostly oversized engravings, which were explained in accompanying text volumes. Although a monument to Napoleon‘s power, the Description was completed under his successor, the Bourbon King Louis XVIII.

Only 1,000 copies of the Description were printed, and complete sets are exceedingly rare today. Louisiana State University owns all the volumes of plates, examples of which are exhibited here for the first time. The copy of the Description on display includes many hand-colored prints, which were produced for only a few discerning collectors as a special edition. The great rarity of these polychrome prints is underlined by the circumstance that not even the BibliothPque Nationale in Paris owns a copy of the hand-colored prints.


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