Napoleon's expedition

In May 1798, General Napoleon Bonaparte set out from France for a major military expedition to Egypt. At that time, Egypt played a major part in the political ambitions of the European powers. Due to its geographical position, it formed a vital connection between England and its Indian colonies. Whoever could wrench this country from the Turkish Empire, would be master of the sea routes to the Indian peninsula and the Far East.

From a military point of view, the Egyptian Campaign was a failure. The army landed at Alexandria in the heat of mid summer and although it was able to win a number of important battles, difficulties were endless and revolts kept surging. At the Pyramids of Giza, the invaders were able to defeat the famed cavalry of the Mamluks (the ruling caste of Egypt). However, a band of Mamluk horsemen managed to escape to Upper Egypt, forcing the French to follow them further and further south. Just when General Bonaparte took the capital, Cairo, the news came that the English fleet commanded by Nelson had completely destroyed the French fleet at Abukir. The French were now effectively prisoners in a hostile country. The Turkish Sultan allied with Russia and England in order to win his province back. After a number of defeats, the French finally had to leave Egypt in the summer of 1801.

Napoleon in EgyptMuch more important were the lasting scientific effects of this expedition. For many centuries, Egypt had been a mysterious country known mainly from the Bible, from the texts written by Greek and Roman authors, and from very few reports from contemporary merchants and travellers. The French 'Army of the Orient' was accompanied by a ‘Committee of arts and sciences' consisting of ca. 200 savants (scientists) who set about studying all aspects of the country: geography, natural history, contemporary culture, and antiquities. Even though the antiquities collected by the French were confiscated by the British as trophies of war after the final capitulation of the French army, the scientists were able to return to France with a wealth of documentation. The combined outcome of these thorough explorations was the masterful publication of the Description de l'Egypte. With its twelve large-folio volumes of illustrations (comprising a total of 910 plates) and nine volumes of text, it formed a new standard of publication which was rarely surpassed or even equaled. Printing took from 1809 to 1828 and entailed several new techniques especially developed for this edition.

One of the effects of the Egyptian Campaign was a short-lived revival of Egyptian motives in European decorative art styles and architecture (Empire, Regency). More permanent were the results on the field of science. Bonaparte's expedition marked the start of the scientific exploration of ancient Egypt and brought about the birth of Egyptology. Among the confiscated antiquities that were brought to London was the famous Rosetta Stone. In 1822 French scholar Jean-François Champollion, using copies of its bilingual text, was able to decipher the hieroglyphic script and read the ancient Egyptian language.