L’Expédition d’Egypte

I have a great passion for history, and this passion originally sprung from my love of the Napoleonic period. This fascination originally grew from playing strategy games from the 2000s that featured him, and my subsequent readings on Revolutionary France and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. So the mention of Napeoleon’s expedition to Egypt and the many cultural finds made by his staff there on Tuesday’s class really struck my interest.  Because of that, I’d like to use this blog post to detail the expedition in a bit further depth, mainly focused on my personal interests about it.

A portrait of a young Napoleon during the Battle of Arcole.


Napoleon, while viewed by many as a brilliant general, thought of himself as a scientist and scholar. Along with 400 ships and 54,000 soldiers of the Revolutionary Army, Napoleon personally brought 150 savants. These were scientists, engineers and scholars, and their purpose was to document everything Egyptian, both present and past.  Napoleon hoped to annex Egypt and bring one of the cradles of western civilization under French control, and wanted to use these savants to bring modern science to Egypt through measures such as mapping the Nile, improving the standard of living, and helping the agricultural output. Within an international standpoint one could view this as a form of benevolent (in intent at least) proto-imperialism. Within the savants, Napoleon had three close colleagues to pick out his savants; Gaspard Monge, Claude-Louis Berthollet, and Joseph Fourier. All of these were men of noted intellect in French academia, and after they picked out their choices for savants Napoleon set out for Egypt on and landed at Alexandria on July 1, 1798.

A view of the harbor of Alexandria from the Description de l’Égypte

After the French Army arrived in Cairo and won the Battle of Pyramids, Berthollet and Monge were ordered by Napoleon to  create what would become the Institute of Egypt. The Institute was a four-part organization; it had sections in Math, Physics, Political Economy, and Literature and the Arts (the latter two are one whole category). Each section would have seats for 12 members of the savants, though not every section was filled. Napoleon originally wanted the Institute to create things such as better bread ovens or developing a system to filter pure water from the Nile, but these men would later go their own way to write papers and study other areas of Egypt such as desert mirages and local lakes. During the period of French occupation in Egypt, the Institute proved crucial to western discovery and thought on Egyptian culture and nature. Many of the papers written about these topics would later find their way in the Description de l’Égypte.

The first meeting of the Institute of Egypt. Note Napoleon in the center, and Monge, Berthollet and Fourier wearing glasses on the left.

One portion of the Description that personally fascinates me is the topographic atlas of Egypt. It was the last installment of the document, and was only published in 1828. It was originally planned to be the first piece released to the public, but the sheer scope of the topic made planning and documenting it a huge pain for the topographers. It took thirty-seven men overall to finally complete the new map of Egypt, and all they had to work with was the most modern map of Egypt at the time from 1765. This map was not based on actual observations and measurements with instruments at all, so the goal of the French was clear. The French surveyed areas and measured them off with chains, and fixed to circle sightings made by expert astronomer Nicolas-Auguste Nouet. Eventually a complete map of Upper Egypt was made, including detailed drawings of Philae and Syene. Hilariously, the final map was so terrific that the French military ordered Napoleon to keep it a state secret, resulting in the first map to be published in the Description to be the out-dated 1765 map. The completed map would be on par with modern satellite imaging in its detail and use of astronomical techniques to achieve as accurate a map as possible.

A section of the 1828 map. Names are included in both French and Arabic versions.

The scope of Egyptian life and culture covered by the Description is terrific, but that’s a good supplement to what was learned in class I think. If anyone’s interested in learning more of the specifics of what was covered in it, there’s a terrific website I found that covers most of the areas in the document and the contextual history below, that includes more relevant images and portraits of the people and events behind it. Check it out!