Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) can be described as a pharaonic enterprise of modern times. The deployment of French forces is colossal, with around 40,000 men and around 300 ships. And the defeat of Bonaparte’s army, surrounded by Nelson and the Mamluks, is resounding. But Napoleon’s invasion also brought hundreds of French scientists to the Nile, who turned Egypt into a true modern laboratory. They are at the origin of the discovery of the treasures that are now on display in museums in England and France.
Revolutionary France didn’t just want to dominate an area under the Ottoman Empire and block Britain’s eastern route to India. She also sought to repair colonial setbacks suffered during the Seven Years’ War. Napoleon wanted not only to prolong his victories in Italy, but also to emulate Alexander the Great himself. Imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment and its civilizing mission, the French also wanted to spread the Enlightenment among a people they considered backward, but which had been “the cradle of civilization”.
150 Napoleonic Scientists in Egypt
About 150 scientists accompanied Napoleon’s French troops. They were engineers, geographers, naturalists, doctors, architects, cartographers and astronomers. The academic figure of the Ancien Régime gives way to a learned citizen, committed to the State and to the progress of humanity.
Napoleon created a Commission of Sciences and Arts, composed of the most eminent members of the National Institute of France, heir to the Royal Academy of Sciences, extinguished by the Convention in 1793. Like this institute and with the researchers of this commission, he founded theEgypt Institute in Cairo, a pioneering institution of Egyptology, still in operation and which suffered serious losses in a fire during the Arab Spring in 2011.
The Egyptian Laboratory
During Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaigns, Egypt became a laboratory, the scene of important discoveries in various scientific disciplines.
The possibility of building a passage through the Suez Canal is studied and maps are drawn up for Upper Egypt.
Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire studied and designed native zoological species. Lelorgne de Savigny produced a natural and mythological history of the ibis (Natural and mythological history of the ibis), whose mummified remains were used by Georges Cuvier to argue that species did not change over time, prior to Darwin’s arrival.
The mathematician Gaspard Monge (1746-1818), Count of Peluse, one of the fathers of descriptive geometry, was also one of the greatest confidants of the young general Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign. There he studied the optical phenomenon of mirages in the desert. He returned to France with Napoleon on 23 August 1799, the year in which he published his famous work Descriptive geometry.
Berthollet, one of the originators of modern chemical nomenclature, analyzed the lakes of Natrun west of Cairo and the reactions that took place between salt and calcium carbonate.
Conté, a wise man – it was said – “who had all the sciences in his head and all the arts in his hand”, had a typography built that gave rise to the Description of Egypt (1809-1829), sumptuous work in 23 volumes bringing together the commissioned work and comprising 837 fabulous copper engravings. It is a monument to the history of science, illustrated like few others, a useful encyclopedia for anyone who wants to learn about Egypt and how we came to build this object of knowledge and this discipline called Egyptology.
The political power of knowledge
in his orientalism (1978), Edward Said exposed the relations between power and knowledge that structure the vision of the other in the West, this dominant way of representing other cultures and of manufacturing knowledge about them. But it is not just about the scientific appropriation of one culture by another. As Mª Luisa Ortega, a Spanish teacher who did her doctoral thesis on the Napoleonic expedition, points out, Description of Egypt it was also a search for the roots of the accumulated and classified knowledge ofEncyclopediathe recapitulation of a science that became aware of its power.
His studies of the temples, archaeological remains and cultures of Lower and especially Upper Egypt revealed places like Thebes, Luxor and Dendera, where the famous zodiac, a bas-relief carved into the ceiling of a room dedicated to Osiris, was discovered. There, Dominique-Vivant Denon, an artist and diplomat who travels with the troops, said he felt “in the sanctuary of science and the arts.”
The trophies displayed in France
Today, the Dendera Zodiac is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Years later, Egypt gave France the Obelisk of Luxor, which stands on Place de la Concorde. And the Rosetta stone, the stele inscribed in Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic characters that allowed Champollion to reveal the mysteries of a language hitherto indecipherable? It was seized by the British, which explains why it is now kept in the British Museum.
Was the art of confiscating property a new branch of the exact sciences, as Christopher Herold wrote, and would such properties have been better preserved had they remained in Egypt?
The issue of cultural appropriation and the policies for the restitution of cultural goods are currently arousing considerable controversy. One thing is certain: for the modern era, it is impossible to separate the history of science from that of colonial empires.