The extraordinary success of a megalomaniac, an uncharted world, and a team of savant explorers.
Egypt the mysterious. Throughout the ages the lives and legends of Ancient Egypt have stirred the imaginations of countless generations – the pyramids; Cleopatra, the boy king Tutankhamen; and above all the enigmatic Sphinx.
Until surprisingly recently that is all there was, legend and speculation. The man who changed all this, as with so many other things, was Napoleon I with his ground-breaking survey of Egypt.
Begun in the late eighteenth century, this came about as a French military force under Napoleon made plans to colonise Egypt. Preparatory to this it was felt necessary to learn everything possible about this relatively unknown land. To this end, members of the Institut de France established the Institut de L’Egypte in Cairo and began their exploration of the region. This Institut was replaced in time by the official Commission des Sciences et Arts d’Egypte which was instructed to collect all memoirs, maps, drawings, and observations relating to the sciences and arts during the Egyptian campaign. The assemblage of material, which touched on antiquities, the existing state, and the natural history and geography of Egypt was then used to produce an exact and complete publication. The first volumes were published by the government under Napoleon with his support. It is a measure of how important this work was considered to be that it was continued even under the Bourbon restoration.
Because of the great length of time necessary to complete the survey, the make-up of the book is not standard throughout the edition. However, at the heart of the book are the ten so-called elephant folios of plates. The huge volumes, typically measuring 69 x 54 centimetres, include two depicting the modern state of Egypt, the great cities of Cairo and Alexandria, etc.; and three which detail the flora and fauna of Egypt. This section is distinguished by the fine engravings after such notable artists as Barraband, Bessa, Redoute, and Turpin. The crowning glory of the work, however, are the five volumes recording the antiquities of ancient Egypt. These include frescoes in pyramids, still in their original pristine colour, as well as statues and sculptures recorded before they accrued later damage. Carefully measured, recorded, and depicted, we are thus provided with an accurate survey of all the great archaeological sites in Egypt known at that time.
The survey also includes a fifty-three sheet map of Egypt, the first true mapping of the country. In order to accommodate the scale of the mapping, this volume is usually found in a double-elephant folio, some 130 centimetres tall. Accompanying the atlas is often found some of the particularly large engravings from the antiquities and the modern state –sometimes folded and when viewed provide enormous detail and a true reflection of the vast size of some of the subjects.
Appearing between 1809 and 1813, the publication also contains a very detailed text consisting of scholarly papers on various subjects. These were issued in small groups in fascicules as and when they were ready and provided the bookbinder with quite a headache in sorting them into their proper volumes.
When complete, what Napoleon has bequeathed us is the first comprehensive description of ancient and modern Egypt. The work is the greatest of a number of outstanding scientific publications by the French government detailing the results of exploration, unequalled by any other nation during the same period.