Description de l'Égypte

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The Description of Egypt
Description de l'Egypte 1.jpg
AuthorCommission des sciences et arts d'Egypte
Original titleDescription de l'Égypte
PublisherFrench government
Publication date

The Description de l'Égypte (English: Description of Egypt) was a series of publications, appearing first in 1809 and continuing until the final volume appeared in 1829, which aimed to comprehensively catalog all known aspects of ancient and modern Egypt as well as its natural history. It is the collaborative work of about 160 civilian scholars and scientists, known popularly as the savants, who accompanied Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 to 1801 as part of the French Revolutionary Wars, as well as about 2000 artists and technicians, including 400 engravers, who would later compile it into a full work.

Egypt Country spanning North Africa and Southwest Asia

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is a Mediterranean country bordered by the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.

French Revolutionary Wars series of conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European monarchies from 1792 to 1802

The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 and resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted France against Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–97) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had conquered a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Engraving practice of incising a design on to a hard, usually flat surface, by cutting grooves into it

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.


The full title of the work is Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française (English: Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and researches which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army).


Approximately 160 civilian scholars and scientists, known as the savants, many drawn from the Institut de France, collaborated on the Description. Collectively they comprised the Commission des Sciences et Arts d'Égypte. About a third of them would later also become members of the Institut d'Egypte.

Institut de France French learned society, grouping five académies

The Institut de France is a French learned society, grouping five académies, including the Académie française.

Institut dÉgypte

The Institut d’Égypte or Egyptian Scientific Institute is a learned society in Cairo specializing in Egyptology. It was established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte to carry out research during his Egyptian campaign and is the oldest scientific institute in Egypt. The building in which it was housed was burnt down, with the loss of many documents, during the Arab Spring unrest of 2011. It reopened in December 2012.

In late August 1798, on the order of Napoleon also known as N.P., the Institut d'Égypte was founded in the palace of Hassan-Kashif on the outskirts of Cairo, with Gaspard Monge as president. [1] The structure of the institute was based on the Institut de France. The institute housed a library, laboratories, workshops, and the savants' various Egyptian collections. The workshop was particularly important, supplying both the army as well as the savants with necessary equipment. Many new instruments were constructed as well, to replace those lost during the sinking of the French fleet in August 1798 at Aboukir Bay (Battle of the Nile) and the Cairo riot of October 1798.

Cairo Capital city in Egypt

Cairo is the capital of Egypt. The city's metropolitan area is one of the largest in Africa, the largest in the Middle East, and the 15th-largest in the world, and is associated with ancient Egypt, as the famous Giza pyramid complex and the ancient city of Memphis are located in its geographical area. Located near the Nile Delta, modern Cairo was founded in 969 AD by the Fatimid dynasty, but the land composing the present-day city was the site of ancient national capitals whose remnants remain visible in parts of Old Cairo. Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life, and is titled "the city of a thousand minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture. Cairo is considered a World City with a "Beta +" classification according to GaWC.

Gaspard Monge French mathematician, inventor of descriptive geometry and father of differential geometry

Gaspard Monge, Comte de Péluse was a French mathematician, the inventor of descriptive geometry, and the father of differential geometry. During the French Revolution he served as the Minister of the Marine, and was involved in the reform of the French educational system, helping to found the École Polytechnique.

Battle of the Nile Naval battle between Britain and France

The Battle of the Nile was a major naval battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic at Aboukir Bay on the Mediterranean coast off the Nile Delta of Egypt from the 1st to the 3rd of August 1798. The battle was the climax of a naval campaign that had raged across the Mediterranean during the previous three months, as a large French convoy sailed from Toulon to Alexandria carrying an expeditionary force under General Napoleon Bonaparte. The British fleet was led in the battle by Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson; they decisively defeated the French under Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers.

One of the goals of the Institute was to propagate knowledge. To this end, the savants published a journal, La Decade Egyptienne, as well as a newspaper, the Courier de L'Egypte, which disseminated information about the French occupation and the activities of the French army, the Commission des Sciences et Arts d'Égypte, and the Institute itself.

<i>Courrier de lÉgypte</i> newspaper

The Courrier de l'Égypte was a newspaper used for propaganda purposes during the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, focusing on the matters of "war, travel stories of many correspondents wandering around Cairo on the lookout for a picturesque scene".

Plate 87, "Views of Qait Bey Fortress and the Diamant Rock", published in the Panckoucke edition of 1821-9 Description de l'Egypte, Etat Moderne, Plate 87, Views of Qait Bey Fortress and the Diamant Rock, drawn c.1798, published in the Panckoucke edition of 1821-9.jpg
Plate 87, "Views of Qait Bey Fortress and the Diamant Rock", published in the Panckoucke edition of 1821-9

The vision of a single comprehensive publication amalgamating all that the French discovered in Egypt was conceived already in November 1798, when Joseph Fourier was entrusted with the task of uniting the reports from the various disciplines for later publication. When the French army left Egypt in 1801, the savants took with them large quantities of unpublished notes, drawings, and various collections of smaller artefacts that they could smuggle unnoticed past the British.

Joseph Fourier French mathematician and physicist

Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier was a French mathematician and physicist born in Auxerre and best known for initiating the investigation of Fourier series and their applications to problems of heat transfer and vibrations. The Fourier transform and Fourier's law are also named in his honour. Fourier is also generally credited with the discovery of the greenhouse effect.

In February 1802, at the instigation of Jean Antoine Chaptal, the French Minister of the Interior, and by decree of Napoleon, a commission was established to manage the preparation of the large amount of data for a single publication. The final work would draw data from the already-published journal La Decade, the newspaper Courier de L'Égypte, the four-volume Mémoires sur l'Égypte (published 1798-18001) and an abundance of notes and illustrations from the various scholars and scientists. The huge volume of information to be published meant adopting an apparently haphazard modus operandi: when sufficiently many plates or text on a particular subject were ready, the information was published. Despite this, publication of the first edition took over 20 years.

Mémoires sur l'Égypte, long title Mémoires sur l'Égypte, publiés pendant les campagnes du Général Bonaparte dans les années 1798 and 1799 was a 4-volume series published by Institut d'Egypte in 1798-1801. A collection of writings, the books detail research during Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt, comprising some of the most foundational scientific research on the Middle East by Western scholars notably in the emerging field of Egyptology. A Paris reprint of the series was released in 1799-1803 and an English translation of Volume 1 was printed in London on 31 March 1800.

The first test volumes of engravings were presented to Napoleon in January 1808. Initially published by order of the emperor (Napoleon le Grand), successive volumes would be published by order of the king, and the last simply by order of the government.

A second edition (known as the Panckoucke edition) was published by Charles Louis Fleury Panckoucke. The text was expanded in more volumes and printed in a smaller format, new pulls were taken from the plates, and these were bound with many of the large format plates folded in the smaller format volumes.


Murad Bey by Dutertre in Description de l'Egypte, 1809. Murad Bey by Dutertre in Description de l Egypte 1809.jpg
Murad Bey by Dutertre in Description de l'Egypte, 1809.

The typographical quality of the texts, the beauty of engravings, and the unusual formats (the Mammutfolio is 1m x .81m) makes Description de l'Égypte an exceptional work.

The first edition usually consists of nine volumes of text, one volume with description of the plates and ten volumes of plates. Two additional volumes in Mammut size (also called Elephant plates) contain plates from Antiquites and Etat Moderne and finally one volume of map plates (Atlas), making for twenty-three volumes in all. Variants in the number of volumes do exist.

The second edition usually consists of thirty-seven volumes, with twenty-four volumes bound in twenty-six books (volume eighteen is a volume split in three books) of text, volume number ten being the description of the plates and ten volumes of plates, plus one volume of maps. The second edition was made at less cost, and is in black and white; the frontispiece, however, is rendered in full color.

The ten volumes of plates consists of 894 plates, made from over 3000 drawings, most of them located in Histoire Naturelle volume I and II. Some of these plates contain over 100 individual engravings of flora or fauna on a single plate. 38 of the plates are hand coloured. Some variants of the work may contain a few more plates; example Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books list a 38 volume second edition with 909 plates.

The plates have been republished partly in different works, most notable by "Bibliotheque Image", Taschen GmbH, and "Institut d'Orient" in 1988 and a subsequent edition in 1990.


Map of Lower Egypt during the expedition of Napoleon, to be used for the report on the Canal between two seas. NileDeltaNapoleon01.jpg
Map of Lower Egypt during the expedition of Napoleon, to be used for the report on the Canal between two seas.

Description de l'Égypte has been credited with starting the field of Egyptology, [2] although one historian has argued that the general conception and often-repeated idea that this is a unique and unprecedented work is inaccurate. [3]

False reports on destruction of the originals

It was incorrectly reported that the original manuscript of the Description de l'Égypte was destroyed in a fire at the Institut d'Égypte (Egyptian Scientific Institute) on December 17, 2011, during clashes between protestors and the military. [4] [5] In fact, the burnt building's collection had contained a set of the 23-volume first print edition, which was saved without irreparable damage. [6] Furthermore, according to a statement by the country's minister of culture, at least two more complete sets of the same original edition remained in Egypt. [7] The majority of the original manuscript material for the Description resides in Paris' National Archives and National Library.


Description de l'Egypte, Etat Moderne II, Plate 97, Panoramic view across the Great Harbour and Kom el-Dikka from the parade ground, drawn c.1798, published in the Panckoucke edition of 1821-9.jpg

There appear to be several variants of these editions, especially the first edition, containing one or more extra volumes. For instance, the Lauinger Library exhibition (Georgetown University Library), November 2000 - January 2001, lists a copy of a first edition presented to Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul general in Egypt from 1802–1814 and 1821–1826, as having 29 volumes, while a "standard" first edition contains 23 (20 plus 3 Mammutfolio).

The dates given on the title pages are often considerably earlier than the actual publication date. For example, Book 8, Volume I (Histoire Naturelle) of the first edition has 1809 on the title page, but its accepted publication date is 1826. [8] The geographical volume (which contains maps) was not printed before 1828, even though the volumes are dated 1818 and 1826 respectively.[ citation needed ]

First edition (Imperial edition)

Frontspiece EgyptFrontispiece.jpg

Second edition (Panckoucke edition)


  1. Louis de Laus de Boisy, "The Institute of Egypt," Napoleon: Symbol for an Age, A Brief History with Documents, ed. Rafe Blaufarb (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), 45-48.
  2. "Egyptology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-05-09.
  3. Bednarski, A. (2005) Holding Egypt: tracing the reception of the Description de l'Egypte in nineteenth-century Great Britain. Goldenhouse Publications. p.1-20. ISBN   0-9550256-0-5
  4. Napoleon's "Description De L'Egypte" Lost to Fire Amid Clashes
  5. Burning of the Library of l'Institut de l'Egypte
  6. Premier bilan de l'incendie de l'Institut d'Egypte au Caire, ENSSIB website, 22 December 2011 (french)
  7. Minister: Egypt still has 3 copies of Napoleon's 'Déscription de l'Egypte', in: Egypt Independent, 19 December 2011
  8. Tollitt, M.E. (1986). "Dates and authorship of the text volumes of Histoire Naturelle Section of Savigny's Description de l'Egypte. Z.N.(S.) 2515". Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. 43: 107–112. Retrieved 2017-08-21.
  9. On page four the titlepage year is given as 1821.
  10. On page four the titlepage is given as "Explication Des Planches" dated 1821. On page six the titlepage is given as "Tome Dixieme Explication Des Planches" dated 1826.

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