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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles and Campaigns

The Napoleonic Institute of Egypt

Melanie Byrd
Valdosta State University

The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt was a turning point in history for several reasons. Culturally it opened East to West. The East had grown somnolent compared to the more progressive West, the reverse of the Crusader period when sleepy Europe learned from aggressive East. Militarily, it was the first encounter of a professional, trained, modern European army with an Eastern military force. Military historians have pointed to the Battle of the Pyramids as the meeting that established the superiority of western over eastern military tactics, but this is not quite correct. [5]

During the Revolutionary era, French forces occupied Egypt for both colonial and strategic reasons. Egypt was to be a colony, thus making France a power in the Levant, which could challenge British domination of India. Though the Egyptian Campaign was a military failure, its cultural legacy to Europe was remarkable. Along with his army, Napoleon Bonaparte took to Egypt between 150 and 200 civilian scholars to examine systematically almost every aspect of contemporary and ancient Egyptian civilization. Inclusion of the scholars reflected France's sense of colonial mission. Europeans knew relatively little about Egypt, so in order to govern it effectively, the French sought comprehensive information about modern Egyptian society, as well as Egypt's physical environment and natural resources.

Beyond the research needed for colonization, the study of Egyptian antiquity would enhance France's cultural prestige. Numerous Europeans, from Herodotus to Constantin-François de Volney, had traveled to Egypt and written accounts of its history and culture, but much of Egypt's antiquity was obscured by romanticized speculation. While ancient Egyptian motifs such as pyramids and obelisks had become popular in the decorative arts, and mythological themes appeared in works like Mozart's Magic Flute, most Europeans regarded Pharaonic Egypt as a lost civilization. Many scholars believed that hieroglyphs represented arcane Neoplatonic "ancient wisdom," while apothecaries sold mummy parts as medicine. [1] The savants who accompanied Napoleon had the resources and protection of the army to investigate and record ancient sites more thoroughly than their predecessors, so Napoleon could claim that the French had "rediscovered" and "restored" a great ancient culture. Thus, the military might and perceived exotic grandeur of Pharaonic Egypt would be reflected on to Napoleonic France.

Shortly after having been admitted to the French National Institute Napoleon wrote that, "True victories, the only ones that cause no regret, are those made over ignorance." [2] He further asserted that the French Republic must assume leadership in the formulation of new ideas. Moreover, the preface to La Description de l'Egypte, the magnum opus of the Napoleonic scholars, made explicit their attitude toward Egyptian civilization. Egypt was important precisely because it was very ancient, and considered the birthplace of European wisdom, where Homer, Lycurgus, Solon and Pythagoras had reputedly traveled to study to science, law and religion. In contrast, the current masters of Egypt, the Mamelukes, had forced the nation into a state of barbarism and ignorant superstition. French conquest would bring technology and efficient government to Egypt, making it an extension of France. [3]

In order to support both the practical and antiquarian research that were part of the French occupation, Napoleon planned to establish a scholarly body modeled on the French National Institute. Its purpose was to provide organization for the diverse work of the savants. Both the Directory and Napoleon supported the inclusion of scholars with the military invasion force. The Directory authorized Napoleon to gather the necessary equipment and personnel, including scientists, engineers and artists who came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior. [4]

Because he was busy assembling the army, Napoleon delegated the administrative and financial aspects of recruiting scholars to men whom he trusted, such as General Louis Caffarelli du Falga, commander of the Corps of Engineers, and Claude Louis Berthollet, the eminent chemist. Preparations for the Egyptian campaign were secret, so most of the individuals approached for participation were told only that their talents were requested for a mission on behalf of the Republic, of which Napoleon would be the leader. They received assurance that their posts and salaries would be protected in their absence, and their stipends increased. [5]

Some of France's outstanding luminaries joined the "Scientific and Artistic Commission," as the civilian scholars were known collectively. Gaspard Monge, noted for his contribution to descriptive geometry, as well as for his patriotism, collected the necessary maps, equipment and Arabic printing apparatus for the scholars. Monge was an especially zealous supporter of the French objectives for Egypt. He hailed Napoleon as, "our new Jason," and saw himself as an Argonaut with the mission of carrying "...the torch of reason to a country, which for a long time had been without enlightenment." [6] Guy-Sylvain Dolomieu, the mineralogist for whom dolomite was named, joined the commission after receiving assurance that the undisclosed destination would have rocks, mountains and an interesting terrain. [7] Etienne Geoffry Saint-Hilaire, a promising young zoologist from the Museum of Natural History, and the mathematician Joseph Fourier, known for his research in calculus also joined the group. While the majority of the Commission consisted of scientists and engineers recruited through institutions like the Ecole Polytechnique, the cosmopolitan illustrator and art historian Dominique Vivant Denon enthusiastically added his talents to the body of scholars. His lively narrative about Egypt and its antiquities became one of the most popular accounts of Egyptology in the early nineteenth century.

Though Napoleon conversed about various abstruse topics with some members of the Scientific and Artistic Commission while sailing to Egypt, he was preoccupied with the exigencies of military conquest for the first several weeks after the army landed. Following the destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir Bay (August 1798), Napoleon, effectively stranded in Egypt, turned his attention to administration and research. He delegated the details of establishing the Institute to his trusted colleagues, Caffarelli, Monge and Berthollet. They chose the spacious palace of Hassan-Kashif and the garden of Qassim Bey on the outskirts of Cairo as the headquarters of the Institute. [8] Saint-Hilaire commented that the accommodations surpassed academic institutions in France, even the Natural History Museum. [9] The drawing room of the palace harem became the assembly hall for meetings of the Institute, while the other chambers, gardens and adjacent buildings housed the library, menagerie, laboratories, workshops and the savants¹ various collections.

The Institute's workshops alone were quite impressive, and reflected the importance attached to it. The ingenious Nicholas Conté, inventor and chief of the army's brigade of balloonists, managed nine different studios. These shops produced all of the necessary equipment for the scholars, engineers, draughtsmen and the army. Conté's skills became especially vital after the ships containing most of the mechanical implements were sunk at Aboukir Bay, while even more apparatus was destroyed during the Cairo Revolt (October 1798). Conté's studios, which produced everything from windmills and surveying instruments to clocks and parts for the printing press, replaced nearly all of the lost equipment. [10]

Between 20 and 22 August, 1798 Napoleon officially organized the Institute of Egypt. Monge, Berthollet, Caffarelli, Saint-Hilaire and mathematician Louis Costaz, all members of the National Institute, joined René Desgenettes and Antoine-François Andreossy in helping to formulate the purpose, regulations and composition of the new learned society. The second article of the twenty-six part document that created the Institute set forth its purpose:

"This establishment will have for its principle goal: 1) The advancement and propagation of enlightenment in Egypt 2) The research, the study and publication of industrial, historical and natural phenomena in Egypt 3) to offer its opinion on different questions which it will be consulted by the government." [11]

The Institute of Egypt
The Institute of Egypt promoted increased understanding of Egypt and support for the French occupation

Like the National Institute, the Institute of Egypt had different sections according to subject matter: mathematics; physics; political economy and literature and arts. Each section had 12 members. Composition changed throughout the occupation, as members departed or died and were replaced, or new ones were added. For example, French officers were admitted to sessions of the Institute, and, as an honor, some, including Generals Louis-Antoine Desaix, Jean-Louis Reynier and Jean-Baptiste Kléber were elected to membership. [12] Ironically, General Jacques-François Menou, who was genuinely interested in the work of the savants, was never elected. The Institute met twice a decade, the ten day interval of time that replaced the week on the Republican calendar. Members formed commissions to research various topics and answer questions proposed at each session. Non-members, at least half of the Scientific and Artistic Commission, could submit research to be presented at meetings with the permission of the president, and an appointed commission would determine if the work merited inclusion with the Institute's publications. [13]

Because a goal of the Institute was to propagate knowledge, it summarized the savants' research in its own journal, La Decade Egyptienne. In addition, it printed a newspaper, the Courrier d'Egypte, which offered general information about the French occupation of Egypt, as well as specific details about the work of Scientific and Artistic Commission and the Institute. During and after the campaign, the French government published papers from Institute as the Mémoires sur l'Egypte. The Mémoires replicated and expanded on much of what was in the Decade, but included other scholarship from the Institute as well. Finally, when the scholars returned to France, they began the lengthy process of sorting and organizing all of their research including notebooks and illustrations for composition of the multi-volume Description de l'Egypte, which appeared between 1809 and 1821. It featured articles by members of the Institute and members of the Scientific and Artistic Commission who were not part of the Institute.

The Institute's first projects were clearly intended to support the French occupation of Egypt. At the inaugural meeting, held on 23 August, 1798, Napoleon proposed investigation of the following questions, relevant to the survival of the French in Egypt:

Could the ovens used for baking the army's bread be improved?; Was it possible to make beer without hops in Egypt?; How could water from the Nile be clarified and purified?; Would it be more practical to build a windmill or a watermill in Cairo?; Were there resources in Egypt to manufacture gunpowder?; What was the situation of jurisprudence, civil law, criminal law and education in Egypt [and] What improvements did the citizens want? [14]

Napoleon appointed commissions to study each question and report their findings. For instance, the commission on improvement of the ovens discovered that the reeds of safflower stalks heated ovens better than the wood used for fuel in France. [15] During the early sessions of the Institute, Napoleon continued to raise practical issues for research, such as wheat cultivation, viticulture, the Citadel's water supply, and construction of an astronomical observatory. [16]

The Ancient city of Edfou
The Ancient city of Edfou

The Institute soon became the focal point for all of the savants¹ work in Egypt, and provided both physical space for scholarly discourse and a bureaucratic structure to organize data. The Institute also corresponded with learned bodies in France, such as the National Institute. Like any corporate body, the Institute faced internal problems. Throughout the occupation, it became increasingly bureaucratic, and sometimes devoted more time to points of procedure and formation of committees than to the pursuit of knowledge. Rivalries, perhaps over personality and prestige, erupted between members of the Institute, most notably Saint-Hilaire and Fourier.17 In addition, the members of the Institute became resentful of what they viewed as unwarranted interference from General Menou, the commander during the last phase of the occupation. Despite such conflicts, the Institute of Egypt functioned effectively, and the savants as a whole collected and cataloged a significant amount of information.

Mourad Bey
Mourad Bey - Chief of Napoleon's first adversaries, the Mamelukes

Some of the scholarship on Egypt's flora, fauna, geology and natural phenomena, like mirages, reflected human curiosity and the quest for discovery, regardless of immediate practical application. [18] Other inquiries on topography, diseases, and natural resources were relevant to colonization. The savants were especially interested in Egyptian social, economic and political institutions, which they contrasted sharply to Republican France. In their interpretation, the repressive Mameluke rulers stripped the people of ambition and dulled their minds with religious dogma. Moreover, the practice of sole proprietorship of land, which the French considered a patriotic institution derived from natural law, did not exist for Egyptian peasants, so they had no motive to cultivate the soil fully. The corruption and inefficiency of the government, cumbersome taxes and dues generally impeded productivity and technological development. [19] The French concluded that everything combined to make the moral character of the Egyptians timid, passive, inscrutable, and very much in need of enlightened French government. [20]

Not all of the savants' work involved colonial development. Napoleon shaped the focus the scholars, and he demonstrated some interest in antiquities. He climbed the Great Pyramid at Giza and eagerly investigated the remains of an ancient canal bed in the Isthmus of Suez. He also gave specific orders about the inclusion of monuments and ancient Egyptian imagery into the French New Year celebrations held in Egypt. Most importantly, prior to his departure for France, Napoleon ordered the formation of two commissions to investigate various aspects of Upper Egypt, including antiquities. [21]

Upper Egypt was far less familiar to Europeans than the Delta. They knew little about it, beyond the location of famous sites like Thebes. Many ancient monuments were decayed, destroyed, enveloped by sand or converted to mosques or Coptic churches. Furthermore, archaeology and Egyptology did not exist as professions in eighteenth century Europe. Collectors who sought artifacts were frequently wealthy amateurs, travelers, or diplomats instructed to gather antiquities for royal societies. The Napoleonic scholars were the first group to apply technological skills and systematic teamwork to the study of Egyptian antiquity.

Collecting artifacts, exploring and recording ruins inspired genuine enthusiasm among the savants. For instance, Saint-Hilaire became interested in animal mummies and the cult worship of certain animals during Pharonic times. [22] Dolomieu was particularly interested in the materials used to construct various monuments, and how monuments' composition related to their state of decay. [23] Costaz, who led one of the commissions into Upper Egypt, investigated scenes in private tombs that showed ancient agricultural tools and practices. Other scholars examined the habits, work and customs revealed in genre scenes, or tried to determine the physical appearance and "race" of the ancient Egyptians. [24] Such interest in the nature and society of pharaonic Egypt was an important departure from the work of previous travelers, which had emphasized the location and description of monuments. The savants' investigation of daily life and culture in antiquity clearly foreshadowed trends in nineteenth century Egyptology.

Engineers near Memphis studied, measured, surveyed and drew the ancient tombs and monuments

Fourier, who led the other commission into Upper Egypt, and some of the young engineers studied astronomical tableaux in certain monuments. Some savants believed, erroneously, that such scenes depicted the heavens at specific times, and could be used to date the sites. [25] Their conclusions provoked much interest and debate in the academic community. In addition, various architects and engineers explored tombs, measured, surveyed, produced architectural renderings and in some cases, imaginative reconstructions of monuments previously unseen by Europeans.

The first member of the Institute to visit Upper Egypt and report his discoveries was Denon, who had independently joined Generals Louis Desaix and Auguste Belliard in the pursuit of the Mamelukes. During the course of the arduous campaign, he made over 200 drawings of panoramic scenes and monuments. The artist attempted to give various sites a place in the chronological development of art history based on his judgment of the aesthetic merit of each. [26]

Though zealous, Denon and his associates made some egregious errors. The monuments, which they found most impressive and therefore concluded must be quite ancient, like the temple at Dendera, actually dated from the Greco-Roman era. The scholars' inability to read hieroglyphic writing hampered their historical conclusions. Ironically, discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone, which would later hold the key to the ancient language, was completely serendipitous. A military engineer working on fortifications in El-Rashid (Rosetta) in the Delta found the stele, and the scholars immediately grasped its significance. They took it to the Institute, made numerous copies, and began to translate the Greek portion of the inscription. At the end of the occupation, the British, too, recognized the artifact's value, and claimed it in the official negotiations for French withdrawal. [27]

When the French evacuated Egypt in 1801, the scholars took with them their collections of small artifacts, papyri, minerals and preserved flora and fauna, drawings and notes. By the end of the occupation, the savants were eager to return to France, resume their careers, and continue compiling their research, a task which they had already begun under the direction of the Institute. The Institute of Egypt ceased to exist when the French departed. In 1802, Napoleon decreed that the Ministry of the Interior would oversee publication of the scholars' work. [28] Former members of the Scientific and Artistic Commission, like Conté and the engineer Edmé François Jomard served as editors. Though the publication commission was frequently behind schedule and over budget, it completed the texts and plates for the multi-volume Description de l'Egypte by 1822, and issued the atlases in 1828. The plates and maps required velin paper in grand folio format, and were so large that designers created a special storage cabinet for the completed volumes. The Description itself was a work of art, and in 1825, the Louvre displayed it in an exhibition on the use of technology in the fine arts. [29] A smaller, affordable edition without color illustrations appeared during the Restoration.

The Description was the first comprehensive work on Egyptology, and it provided valuable information to the early generations of professional Egyptologists. Furthermore, some of the Napoleonic scholars retained interest in Egypt. Jomard, for example became a leading proponent of French interests in contemporary Egypt, earning him the name of "the old Egyptian." [30] Fourier, became Prefect of Isère, and promoted the academic career of Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s. Champollion used the Description in his own research on ancient Egypt. His older brother, Jacques-Joseph, an avid Bonapartist, wrote the major review and advertisement of the Description, in which he asserted that for the first time in history, an army had assured the conquest of knowledge. [31] Champollion's comments echoed the savants' own views of their work, which they believed contributed to scientific progress. As a whole, the output of the Institute of Egypt reflected the enlightenment's stress on empirical observation, taxonomy and compilation of knowledge, including understanding of other eras and cultures, in a rational, scientific manner. The scholars' work also aided Napoleon's career, and thus it was an example of creative, intellectual energy harnessed to the service of the state. The savants' achievement overshadowed the military loss, and often sought to justify the occupation, but it represented more than mere propaganda. It laid the groundwork for the development of Egyptology and contributed to the romantic orientalism that characterized the fine and decorative arts in the early nineteenth century. The Napoleonic scholars also left modern researchers a rich legacy, because their work offers insight to early nineteenth century French attitudes toward scholarship, colonialism, ethnography and ancient history.


  1. Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists and Archaeologists in Egypt (New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1975), 45-7
  2. Napoléon I, Correspondance de Napoléon 1er publiée par ordre de l'Empereur Napoléon III (Paris: Imprimerie Imperial, 1858-69) 2103, Bonaparte to the President of the National Institute, 26 December, 1797, III, 465.
  3. Joseph Fourier, "Préface Historique," La description de l'Egypte (Paris: Imprimerie National, 1809-21), 25-38.
  4. René Edouard Devilliers, Journal et souvenirs sur l'expédition d'Egypte (Paris: Plon, 1889), 2.
  5. Correspondance de Napoléon, 2452, Bonaparte to the Minister of the Interior, 26 March 1798, IV 23-24.
  6. Clément Etienne de La Jonquière, L'expédition de l'Egypte (Paris: Charles Lavauzelle, n.d.) I, 303.
  7. Deodat Dolomieu, "Livre de la captivité" in A. Lacroix, Dolomieu, membre de l'Institut National (Paris: Perrin, 1921) I, 15.
  8. Both Bey and Kashif were titles given to administrators in the Ottoman Empire.
  9. Etienne Geoffry Saint-Hilaire, Lettres écrites d'Egypte (Paris: 1901) XVII Saint-Hilaire to Jussieu, 23 August 1798, 73-5.
  10. Courrier d'Egypte, No. 40, 20 Vendemiaire, An VII, 2.
  11. Correspondance de Napoléon, 3083 Bonaparte to Caffarelli, 22 August 1798, IV, 383-86.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. France. Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. Manuscript 3813(3) "Liste des membres de l'Institut d'Egypte et procès-verbaux," folio 1. Hereafter, Procès-Verbaux.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Saint-Hilaire, Lettres, LXII, Saint-Hilaire to Cuvier, 19 December, 1801, 212.
  18. For a complete overview of the scientific research of the Institute see, Charles C. Gillispie, "The Scientific Importance of Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign," Scientific American, September 1994.
  19. The scholars' critique of modern Egypt was strikingly similar to the philosophes' commentary on pre-Revolutionary France. Both were inefficient, feudal states burdened by monarchy and religious superstition.
  20. Description de l'Égypte, État Moderne, II, 408; 478.
  21. France. Bibliothèque Nationale, Nouvelles acquisitions françaises, "Commission d¹Égypte, local et matériel', plaquet 21950 mss 76.
  22. Hereafter, B.N., Nouvelles acquisitions.
  23. Saint-Hilaire, Lettres, No. LIV, Saint-Hilaire to professors, 11 February 1801, 196.
  24. "Procès-Verbaux" 3813(3).
  25. Mémoires sur l'Égypte, (Paris: P. Didot, 1799) III 155-58.
  26. Description de l'Égypte, Antiquités Mémoires, I 813-23.
  27. For a full account see, Dominique Vivant Denon, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt During the Campaigns of General Bonaparte (London: Longman, 1802).
  28. Edmé François Jomard, "Relation de l'expédition scientifique des Français en Egypte en 1798," Encyclopédie des gens du monde (Paris, n.d.).
  29. B.N., Nouvelles Acquisitions, 21950; 3577.
  30. Ibid.
  31. See François Charles-Roux, Edmé François Jomard et la réforme de l'Égypte, (Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1955).
  32. Champollion-Figeac, "Description de l'Egypte ou recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Egypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française publiée par les ordres de sa majesté l'Empereur Napoléon le Grand," analyse insirée dans le Magasin Encyclopédique, (Paris: Sajou, 1811), 6.