Napoleon in 1796
Napoleon, 1796. Photo credit: Strathern

Two hundred years ago, Egypt was an unknown country in the Middle East: unmapped, its history and people obscure.

The first recorded thought of exploring this Islamic culture of Central Europe was proposed at the Battle of Vienna in the late 17th century mostly by writers and merchants. This thirty-day voyage by sea from Europe to the Orient only increased the fascination of discovering “The Orient” and all the magical secrets that it held.  The hieroglyphic script and language of this civilization had not been translated in over 1500 years. Within these borders lay relics of the oldest human civilization in the world.

Why conquer Egypt?

According to Nina Burleigh in Mirage, her investigation of Napoleon’s Scientist and the Unveiling of Egypt, “The French did not invade Egypt in 1798 to solve historical mysteries.” On the contrary, Napoleon led 50,000 soldiers across the Mediterranean in the ongoing competition among European countries to claim territory.

As his hero, Alexander the Great, had done 2,000 years before, Napoleon wanted to conquer the world. According to Paul Strathern in Napoleon in Egypt, Napoleon read about Alexander’s conquest at the age of 20 in Volney’s Voyage en Egypte. Napoleon was 19. He was a romantic, inspired by the conquests of Alexander and Caesar. He spoke of a voyage to Egypt daily with his generals and became obsessed with mounting this campaign (27).

Egypt was a gateway to Africa and Asia. Nile provided sugarcane, flax, indigo, wheat and rice, gold, timber. Main Reason: to beat the British there. It would dampen British expansion, “a conquest taken from the English (36).”

In addition, as with Alexander, Napoleon would take with him on this journey scientists, artist, philosophers and botanists, or Savants as he would refer to them. Consequently, after three years of hunger, hardship, uncertainty and disease, these French scholars would return to France with a powerful respect for the land in which they had dedicated their lives and research.

In my reflections of why this particular expedition is of such great interest to me, I realized that in my own particular Frenchquest,  I felt a connection to these explorers, scientists, who were on their own quest of discovery.  The idea that these savants were able to travel with the Emperor Bonaparte-most of them personally chosen by him-to an unknown world is exciting! There previous knowledge came from years of studying the discoveries of others; books and specimen’s that were available to them. This was now a chance to make discoveries of their own, in the Far East, and to publish their impressions of these discoveries for the future worlds.

For this blog post, I will focus on these Savants and the botanical and scientific treasures that they left our world.  For those of you who faithfully follow my blog, you will note that close to one-half of my posts are related to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris including: Victor Hugo’s poems about his daily strolls in the Jardin with his grandchildren [see post]; the Galerie d’Evolution’s Diplodocus, T-Rex, Ammonites, and Baleines (whales)[see post]; the influence of the study of the unity species on Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine [see post] ; and my own personal experiences as this was my neighborhood garden when I lived in Paris. This wonderland has been a great influence to my Frenchquest.

So, besides my ongoing fascination and study of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte [see post], here is the connection of Napoleon’s expedition and my frenchquest: one of Napoloeon’s invaluable Savants, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, was the zoo keeper at the Jardin des Plantes. During this expedition, Hilaire would procure specimens and collections of flora and fauna and, with his collaborator and fellow botanist Georges Cuvier, would install this data and specimens in the the Jardin des Plantes.

Jardin des Plantes


Who were these 151 Savants and why would Napoleon choose to take them on this expedition?  They were Parisian artist and scientists, astronomers, engineers, naturalists, physicists, doctors, chemists, botanists, poet, musicologist. Napoleon’s goal was to have the Savants classify everything, map the land, find water, and befriend leaders. Some of the more notable savants were:

Chemist: Claude-Louis Berthollet, Geometer
French Artist André Dutertre: who sketched the scholars.
Mathematician Gaspard Monge (rue Monge, Arenes des Lutece !!!); best friend of Napoleon: invented descriptive geometry= representing figures in three dimensions on one plane.
Egypt scholar: Joseph Fourier; Diplomat and explorer: and Dominique-Vivant Denon (who would later become the director of the Louvre Museum). Upon their return, these Savants would produce a twenty-three volume, exhaustive encyclopedia of their findings in Egypt,  La Description de l’Égypte. These findings include engravings, rocks, peoples, plants, beasts, birds and fish.
Chemist Nicolas-Jacques Conté: worked with Greuze. Painter. Invented pencils of clay and graphite. Invented barometer for atmospheric pressure in which he measure Giza pyramids!**428 feet. After British invasion, French lost everything on ships. Conté found a way to manufacture: gunpowder, printing press, steel for sabers, baked bread, windmills to grind wheat, factory to make woolen cloth for uniforms.!! Watercolors of Egypt expedition.

Photo credit: Burleigh
december paris 043
Pere LaChaise cemetery

Napoleon’s expedition came at an opportune time for France as its citizens were still recovering from the Revolution. As religion had been banished, science became the head of the new Republic. Men of thought and action, questing and inventing became leaders.  The new Institutes for Higher Learning in 1798 became: 1. Museum of Natural History for biological sciences 2) École Polytechnique: math, physics, engineers 3. Institut of France: school of thought.

The bottom line: During this time, France didn’t have any money. They were fighting England for control of Egypt. Napoleon hoped that taking Egypt would help France rebound.

The expedition left from Toulon, France in June, 1798, on the Dauphin Royale. Napoleon brought a large part of his personal library with works by Plutarch, texts on chemistry and math. He also brought musicians and hosted operas in the evenings. One night on deck under a Lunar eclipse had a concert. Also spent evenings discussing with chemists, zoologists, mathematicians, artists etc. He was 28 years old.

The voyage was very pleasant; this would soon end. The next few months would be besieged with many battles. The first battle at Malta went to Napoleon. Here he snatched all the books about Egypt and Middle East from the Library including the Oldest Egyptian Travelogue by Herodotus who wrote about pharaonic Egypt when it was 2,000 years old. Herodotus catalogued Egyptian flora and fauna and geography. Since Napoleon’s childhood he had dreamed of going to Egypt.  He viewed Alex Great conquer East as greatest triumph. Napoleon said,  “The first city we shall arrive at was built by Alexander, and every step we take we shall meet with objects capable of exciting our emulation.”

The next port was Alexandria. Napoleon was greatly disappointed. There was no library left in Alexandria. He also had hoped to see Pharos lighthouse which no longer existed. Napoleon would find poverty and barbarism instead. With the pyramids of Cairo in the distance, the French fought Marmelukes in Alexandria, “The Battle of the Pyramids. [39] They also battled the elements such as flies, gnats, mosquitoes, diarrhea, and dysentery.

The older scientists, however, did find what they were looking for: The Column of Pompey, erected by Greek rulers of Egypt in 300 BC.

Despite harsh living conditions and bouts with the plague and disease, the Savants would continue their research and collaboration while in Cairo, Egypt. They would create the Institute of Egypt (Institut d’Egypte) which had three tenets: 1) The advancement and propagation of enlightenment; 2) The research, study and publication of industrial, historical and natural phenomena in Egypt 3) To offer its opinion on different questions on which it will be consulted by the government (Mirage, 71).”

Hilaire stated about these meetings, “The beauty of the sky, the perfume of oranges, the softness of temperature, add more agreeableness to these gatherings, sometimes prolonged into the middle of the night. It is our garden of Academus. More great thoughts, more true philosophy, more scientific discoveries are being born… (73).”

The main objective of the engineers who went on the expedition was to measure pyramids in Giza. [98]. When first saw the Sphinx, it was buried under the sand. Mapping Egypt was another assignment for the engineers. They lost most of their instruments during the British invasion at sea so they relied on compasses and measuring chains and astronomical calculations.

Savants measuring the Sphinx
Savants measuring the Sphinx. Photo credit: Strathern

In addition, the engineers were sent to help with the management of water of the Nile which Aristotle claimed had magical properties. Napoleon ordered the area between Red Sea and Mediterranean to be dredged, near Suez. Engineers did not build a canal. LePère wrongly concluded that the Red Sea was 33’ higher than Mediterranean and feared that the canal would inundate Egypt with saltwater. (In the 1860’s, French engineers would build the Suez Canal.)

One of the greatest contributions by the engineers, however, would be finding the Rosetta Stone.

 In July 1799, the engineers found an oddly inscribed pinkish rock in Rosetta. The Stone was a decree written in 196 B.C. by Ptolemy V. It detailed taxes and instructed that statues be erected in various temples and that the decree be published in the writing of the speech of the gods, the writing of the people (demotic) and the writing of the books, Greek.

The Rosetta Stone had 3 scripts: Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic. Translators could use the Greek and demotic to translate the Hieroglyphics!! When they found the stone, 1500 years had passed since any human could read Egyptian hieroglyphic script because the Christians who conquered Egypt in the 3rd century ordered Egyptians to stop using their ancient religious writing. So, they switched to the Greek alphabet (114).

Rosetta stone
Savants engraving of Rosetta Stone: Photo credit: Strathern

Some additional contributions by the French Savants would be to erect a large sun dial in Cairo with the inscription “L’AN VII RF” from 7-year revolution calendar of French Republic. They built a library, laboratory, zoo, aviary, observatory and a museum for the ROSETTA STONE. They started the newspaper Le Courrier d’Egypte and would publish a comprehensive study of aqueducts.

For most of the 3-year expedition, the British pursued and attacked the French army and fleet. In the Abukir Bay alone, the French lost 1700 men and 3000 were taken as prisoners.  Now there was no way to get back home nor any paper or pencils to write about discoveries [Mirage, 55]. The British intercepted communications from France to Egypt which led to great discouragement from the men as they could not hear from home.

On the final journey home, the British attacked the French ships and demanded the Rosetta Stone, maps, drawings, etc.. [212]. Hilaire pleaded with the British to not take their work stating that only the French scientist could decipher their own notes sketches and specimens. The British agreed and only took the Rosetta Stone. The French would never forget this or forgive. The Rosetta Stone was donated to the British Museum by King George III. The Savants would later record their findings in L’Histoire scientifique et militaire de l’expedition de l’Egypte.

The French scholars and artists who spent three years in Egypt believed they would bring home a body of knowledge that would edify their colleagues about animals, plants, minerals and medicine.  However, none of them would have predicted that the chief consequence of their efforts would be on European fashion, art and architecture. It would also create an insatiable demand for all things Egyptian- Egyptomania![241]

As one looks around Paris, there are obvious motifs today: the obelisk from Egypt in the Place de la Concorde; the Fontaine de la Victoire in the Place du Châtelet; the 3 pyramids in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum; Napoleon’s personal heraldic emblem of the bee, a hieroglyphic symbol for “ruler”; the Egyptian symbols around the city landscape including Père-Lachaise cemetery (designed under Napoleon and containing several of the savants buried there).

Place de la Concorde 2005 Lor K (8)
Obelisk, Place de la Concorde, Paris

This influence carried into other European cultures: English artists staged an Egyptian operatic festival; Italian jewelers created scarab brooches; Furniture designers all across Europe made desks, chairs, and tables with the Egyptian shapes of the obelisk, winged stars, lotus, Sphinx, crocodiles and Isis heads.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, every World’s fair contained an “Egyptian Room”.

After the French expedition ended, the plundering of Egypt was just beginning. As the Egyptians themselves were not concerned with historical preservation, their sites were easy plunder. The “Rape of the Nile” is evidenced in British museums with the torso of Ramses II, mummies, and sarcophagus. It is even evident in New York’s Central Park with Cleopatra’s Needle, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibits of mummies and Egyptian treasure.

The Unveiling of Egypt by Napoleon’s Scientists can be found today in the 24 volume Description of Egypte. The scientists did not receive a hero’s welcome when they returned. They were quarantined in Marsaille first and when coming home, the Bourbons did not respect them.  Many of the Scientists were too ill to finish their findings. They arrived in France at the end of the Age of Reason and beginning of Romantic era.

A few Savants, however, became prosperous in their professions: Denon would write about the expedition in Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt. Napoleon appointed Denon as first director of Louvre Museum.

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire would write of his theory of animal organization and become a member of the Institut of France in which he would also receive a professorship.

Fourier would receive the prefecture of Isère in Grenoble rewarded by Napoleon. Monge and Berthollet would be made Counts by Napoleon.

For Napoleon, his goal of a conquest of the East was never realized; he failed to understand the reason for his defeat.  During his last years in exile on St. Helena, he would often return to the them of his “Oriental dream” insisting : “If I would have founded an empire there [in Egypt], the destiny of France would have been left to take another course…I would have changed the face of the world (Strathern, 480).”

Works Cited:

Burleigh, Nina. Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

Strathern, Paul. Napoleon in Egypt. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.

Further Reading

 Cole, Juan. Napoleon’s Egypt. New York : Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

Herold, J. Christopher. Bonaparte in Egypte. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

 Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.

Napoleon’s campaign of 1812:

Copyright 2019. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (