Napoléon Bonaparte & 500 others
« Soldiers, from the height of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on you.. » thus Napoleon is said to have addressed his troops shortly before the battle of the pyramids (17 july, 1798 ). His words aptly summarize the result of the « Egyptian campaign« , a military disaster which had an extraordinary consequences for archeology.
One must be mad as only the french can be to send one’s best army and on’s best general to the ends of the earth when the homeland itself is under multiple attack. The ostensible motive was a generous one : to free the egyptian people from the Ottoman Empire and its Mamelukes. The real motives was to found a French colony and make Egypt a province of the Republic, thus reinforcing French domination in the Mediterranean basin and even, perhaps, extending it into Asia. Napoleon dreamt of Alexander and Caesar and wished to emulate their glory. Intended to wound the soft underbelly of the English, the campaign was an abject failure. At Abukir, Nelson sank 200 ships which had conveyed the expeditionary force and the French army found itself a prisoner of its conquest. Napoleon abandoned his army, returning with all speed to France to defend his country against the Coalition and to have himself crowned Emperor.
The expedition was a military and political fiasco – and it changed the face of the earth : by revealing the splendor of a mysterious and forgotten civilization, it gave birth to Egyptology. The cultural and scientific elite of France accompanied the expeditionaty force. Was Napoleon seeking justification for its conquest? Or was this simply the cultural heritage of the Enlightenment? Whatever his motives, 500 civilians accompanied the army, amongst them a group of 167 scholars that included 21 mathematicians, 3 astronomers, 17 civil engineers, 13 naturalists, 4 architects, 8 draughtsmen, 10 men of letters, 22 printers equipped with Latin, Greek and Arabic characters.
Napoleon’s artillery destroyed the furious charges of 10,000 Mamalukes cavalry beneath the pyramids of Giza; then, as soon as he had seized Embabeh, forcing routed Mamelukes to scatter into the Nubian desert, the scholars went to work. For the greater gloty of the French Republic, they were to find, beneath the millennial sands, the vestiges of Pharaonic Egypt, the « cradle of the science and art of all humanity » as Napoleon put it. A commission of Science and Art and an Egyptian Institute were promptly founded. Under their guidance, everything was systematically catalogued and meticulously drawn, from the monolithic obelisks with their rich decoration to the vast statues that dominated the palm-trees of the Nile Banks.
All was completed in 23 volumes