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The story of The Napoleonic Survey of Egypt

In the memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, he lists the reason for conquering Egypt as simple "glory". Napoleon believed that the French "must go to the Orient, all great glory resides there" to such an extent that he named his massive 120 gun flagship, the largest of it's kind in the world, "L'Orient". Napoleon justified the French invasion and occupation of Egypt as an action to wrest control of the area from the hands of the British by striking at one of the sources of Great Britain's wealth. In Napoleon's romantic 29 year old imagination, the campaign would free Egypt from it's Mameluke oppressors, the formidable Ottoman people that had governed the country for 7 centuries.

Napoleon was educated during the Age of Reason, and his outlook had been formed in the turbulent period of the French Revolution. He was influenced by the readings of Pliny, Strabo, Pococke, Greaves, and Bruce, all authors who had formerly traveled in Egypt and documented various fragments of it's richness. Napoleon envisioned Egypt as an earthly paradise, and set about to recruit over 160 of Frances best scientists, surveyors, engravers, linguists, economists, physicians, and artists, along with an equal number of assistants, to accompany an expedition to document the mysterious country and capture it's images with Conte's special engraving machine in the manner of the encyclopedistes such as Voltaire and D'Alembert. The ultimate mission of French savants was to create bridges of understanding and cordiality between the Egyptian and French people. Their interests would be the Arabic culture as well as the antiquities, monuments, animals, vegetation, and geology of Egypt all to be documented and published as Description de L'Egypte by the command of Napoleon himself.

The massing of a 180 ship armada traveling for a secret destination in the Mediterranean port of Toulon in May of 1798 worried the rest of Europe. This armada would be joined in Mediterranean waters by 220 other ships sailing from three different European ports. On board were over 55,000 men, 1,000 horses, numerous pieces of field artillery, ammunition, and provisions required to support the vast force during an extensive campaign. For the civilian Scientific and Artistic Commission aboard, a 500 book reference library was included.

The British Navy, advised of Napoleons activity, had moved a fleet of 14 ships under the command of Sir Horatio Nelson to engage the French armada shortly after their departure, but bad weather dismasted Nelsons flagship, his frigates were dispersed, and the French evaded the British war ships by a narrow margin.

It was a 6 week journey to the secret destination, and a fishing village 8 miles west of the ancient port of Alexandria was selected as the place to disembark the passengers and supplies. The French war ships, including the intimidating L'Orient, remained at Aboukir Bay, anchoring themselves in a defensive crecent near the shoreline. The empty passenger vessels returned to the home land and the few remaining supply ships anchored near Alexandria. All the while, the British fleet was repairing and re-supplying itself in Sicily, providing the French a window of opportunity in which to establish themselves in Egypt.

Though terrified by the sight of the immense French fleet, Alexandria's defenders fought the French army valiantly at the city walls, but succumbed in short order to the siege. Napoleon and his army rested in Alexandria for only a short time before undertaking the 43 mile march to Cairo, necessary to secure the French position in the country and to forestall surprise attack by the Mameluke armies of Murad Bey. The Mamelukes, which means 'unfree' in Arabic, were a fearsome warrior caste, mostly of Georgian slave descent.

The journey to Cairo would require crossing a very inhospitable desert, and soon the French infantry, dressed in full uniform, bearing arms, with little or no water and dry biscuits for food, began to experience severe hardship with men dying in agony of thirst and heat prostration. The artists and savants of the Commission endured the same hardships, but all were relieved when they reached the great Nile River within sight of the Great Pyramid in mid-July, 1798.

The French army was reassembled, but only a few miles away the formidable Mameluke army prepared to engage them. Riding on 4,000 Arabian horses, the richly appareled Mameluke cavalry and infantry attacked Napoleons army, only to be fended off by the disciplined French. Their artillery and small arms fire repelled the Mamelukes, their courage was no match for the fullisade provided by the French. The French had easily won the Battle of the Pyramids, but Cairo was still miles away through a scorching terrain, and it's capture was imperative.

After enduring another grueling march, the French army encountered the regrouped Mamelukes standing in defense of the city of Cairo. Again the French engaged them, trapping them against the shores of the great Nile River. This time there was no escape, the Mameluke army was massacred. In a single day, the 29-year-old Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, ended their Egyptian rule forever. Cairo was seized and Napoleon declared Giza, in the shadow of the pyramids, his headquarters.

Near sunset on August 1, 1798, the British fleet surprised the French war ships still at anchor at Aboukir Bay. With their guns turned away from the shoreline and toward the ocean, the French Navy was caught in a desperate battle for survival when the shallow drafted British battleships were able to sail between the shore and the French anchor line, bringing the full ferocity of their cannons broadside against the French ships. While the French struggled to reposition their guns to defend themselves, the British pounded them from both sides of the anchor line with every weapon in their artillery. The battle raged for several hours. In the blood and the darkness, a spark ignited a powder store in the hold of L'Orient, and she blew up with an enormous explosion that could be heard 24 miles away in Cairo, sending 700 French sailors to the bottom of the bay. When the Battle of the Nile ended, only two French war ships escaped while over 2,000 sailors died. Not a single British vessel was lost, and only 218 British sailors were killed.

It took two weeks for Napoleon to learn of his naval defeat at the hands of the British. Napoleon had lost his battle fleet with tragic loss of life and his army was now stranded in a foreign land, communications were cut off and Egyptian resentment of alien rule was growing along with Frances fiscal deficit in maintaining the occupation.

With his supply ships and the materials they contained still somewhat intact, Napoleon continued with his plans to occupy the remainder of Egypt. To prevent further Ottoman attacks he marched on Palestine, sacking the city of Jaffa, and unsuccessfully laid siege to the city of Acre for two months during the spring of 1799.

In June, 1799 the first mission of Scientific and Artistic Commission was organized to examine and document the environs of the upper Nile River region.

Three months later, in August, 1799, the French government of the Directory, was foundering. When this news reach Napoleon he abandoned his army in Egypt, and slipped off with a small crew on a swift vessel to France. He arrived in Paris with great fanfare and in November, 1799, took advantage of the political turmoil to stage a coup d'etat, and ultimately crowned himself Emperor. Meanwhile, his army continued to struggle in Egypt in hostile conditions and under a new commander.

Two other expeditions by the Scientific and Artistic Commission were organized in November 1799 to explore and document the two sides of the Nile River in Lower Egypt. All three expeditions discovered temples that lay buried under the sand, along with columns, obelisks, sphinxes, and all of the curious wall reliefs full of hieroglyphics and pictures scenes of agricultural life such as hunting, sowing and harvest. When members of the three expeditions reconnoitered in Luxor (ancient Thebes), they examined the Temple of Karnak, the Ramesseum, and Medinet Habu. They also explored what was to be known as the Valley of Kings on the West bank. They had only enough time to see the tomb of Ramesses III known as "the harp-player's tomb" before it was time to return to Cairo.

The members of Scientific and Artistic Commission returned to Cairo with their portfolios packed with drawings and data that served as the foundation material for their anticipated publication of Description de L'Egypte. They wanted to return to France in order to compile their drawings and data into the publication, but were forced to remain in Egypt for two additional years, until the surrender of General Abdullah Jacques Menou on September 3, 1801 to British forces. By the end of the month, the last of the French army and members of the Commission had left the country. They managed to remove their drawings and other documentation along with some of the antiquities back to France, but the British confiscated the Rosetta Stone and other valuable antiquities, which were sent to the British Museum. In the end, the Egyptian campaign had been very expensive in cost to human life, one man out of every three that had departed France three years earlier had died.

After arriving back in France, a decision was made in 1802 to publish Description de L'Egypte, and the action included the payment of fixed salaries to the members of the Commission, at the expense of the public library. The publication required the next quarter century for the savants to put their collections, illustrations, and memoirs into print.

The final publication of Description de L'Egypte came in 1828. Napoleon had long ago died in exile and never saw the completion of the incredible work of the savants whose lives were touched by the tribulations and circumstances of the endeavor. They opened the eyes of France and the West to the depth of Egypt's previously unknown splendors and mysteries. So enchanted were the French by their role in the 'conquest' of Egypt, as Napoleon had succeeded in convincing them, that for the next century French art and culture would continue to glorify it.

Beaux Arts is proud to announce a gallery opening of the best engravings from Description de L'Egypte on May 12, 2007 running through July 14, 2007. This 87 piece show will be the largest exhibition of this incredible work ever held in the Southwest.

The link below will display an index of the engravings that will be part of the gallery opening.

Index to Plates

The link below will display an index of auxiliary items that will be displayed as part of the gallery opening.

Auxiliary Gallery

The link below will display an index of additional unframed copper engravings from Description de L'Egypte that are available for purchase.

Available Engravings
Index to Available Engravings

Beaux Arts expresses it's gratitude to Dr. Clair Ossian, President of the North Texas Chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt for his contributions to our plate description narratives.

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