Napoleon, Egypt and the Birth of Modern Egyptology with Dr. Tara Sewell-Lasater

Napoleon, Egypt and the Birth of Modern Egyptology with Dr. Tara Sewell-Lasater

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Intro (Gary speaking):

Today’s special episode is by Dr. Tara Sewell-Lasater

Dr. Sewell-Lasater received her Ph.D in history from the University of Houston in 2020. Her research focuses on Hellenistic Egypt, numismatics, and gender, specifically exploring the roles open to royal women in Ptolemaic Egypt and the expressions of female power on coinage. Her dissertation “Becoming Kleopatra: Ptolemaic Royal Marriage, Incest, and the Path to Female Rule,” provides the first overarching and comparative study of Hellenistic Egyptian queens, from the origins of the dynasty to the final ruler, Kleopatra VII. She hopes to turn her dissertation into a book and has two articles forthcoming on Ptolemaic queenship.

Today, Dr. Sewell-Lasater details how Napoleon’s 3-year campaign in Egypt birthed modern Egyptology. The scholars that accompanied Napoleon made incredible discoveries, the most important of which was the Rosetta Stone, which allowed historians to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and recover thousands of years of lost history. France has had an important, albeit complex relationship with Egyptian history as French scholars led the world in the study of this ancient culture, while igniting controversy through their accumulation of artifacts. Please enjoy.


Dr. Tara Sewell-Lasater:

Historians often delineate the history of an area into various periods or timelines in order to make them easier to study. Just as France had an ancient period of development, was influenced by the Greeks, dominated by the Romans, and transitioned into the medieval, so too did Egypt follow a similar pattern. Egypt has a long history which can be traced through several periods of achievement and conquest. It was one of the Cradles of Civilization during the Pharaonic period of 3500 to 332 BCE. It then entered into the Classical period when it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, ruled by the Hellenistic Ptolemies from 323 to 30 BCE, and it was ruled by Rome from 30 BCE to 395 CE. The territory was held by the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire from 395 to 619 CE and then the Sassanid Persian Empire from 619 to 641 CE. After the Islamic conquest in 641 CE, Egypt became a province of successive Caliphates and Muslim dynasties, including the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and then the Ottoman Empire. Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1882, with a brief interlude of French rule from 1798 to1801 under Napoleon Bonaparte, and it became part of the British Empire in 1882. The British dominated Egypt until 1953, when the country declared its independence from foreign rule.

The period we are concerned with today is, of course, the French period from 1798 to 1801. This period of French occupation, while brief, would have a lasting effect on the study of Egypt, one that is still felt by Egyptologists today. But, before we get to the nitty-gritty of the expedition itself, one note must be made: The Napoleonic Expedition of 1798 is often heralded as the “rediscovery” of Egypt. The term “rediscovery” is not completely accurate, however, as travel to and writing about Egypt was popular throughout history. For instance, since Pharaonic Egypt was a civilization that lasted for thousands of years, even the Greeks and Romans considered it ancient. The Greek writer, Herodotus, known as Europe’s Father of History, wrote a chapter on Egypt in his work The Histories, which included a brief overview of pharaonic chronology and the cultural traditions of the Egyptians. It was an important first attempt by a non-Egyptian to chronicle the history of Pharaonic Egypt, even if it had some noticeable errors. Following Herodotus, the Hellenistic historian Eratosthenes of Cyrene described Egypt in his Geographica. Later, the Roman historian, Strabo included Egypt in his Geography. In addition to well-known Greek and Roman scholars, graffiti in the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, and other monuments throughout Egypt reveal that it was a popular destination for Greek and Roman travelers.

Travel to Egypt slowed by the third century CE, during the Third Century Crisis, when much of the Roman centralized authority and administration broke down. After the Roman Empire was split by Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century, Egypt became part of the Eastern half of the Empire, later termed the Byzantine Empire. The period from the fourth to seventh centuries is defined by the growing influence of Christianity in the area, so most of the travel to and writings about Egypt from this period involved religious turmoil and covered the disagreements within the various ecumenical councils, such as the Arian Controversy and the Monophysite Schism.

In the seventh century, Islamic rule replaced Byzantine rule. Due to the Islamic government’s policy of tolerance, the Nile Valley once again became a popular travel destination. As Egypt became a base for Islamic military expansion further into North Africa and the Mediterranean, many Arab soldiers passed through or settled in Egypt on the way to new postings. Additionally, Egypt became a center of Islamic learning, as the foundational area for two of the four schools of Islamic law, and people from all over the Islamic world travelled to Egypt to learn from the teachers of these two schools of jurisprudence. In addition to religious scholarship, however, Islamic rulers also encouraged the writing of history, since the study of human history was described in the Qur’an as being “both a need and a duty.” Very soon after the Islamic conquest, the first Muslim-Egyptian historian, Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, wrote a detailed history of the Muslim conquest of Egypt and its aftermath. Each of the succeeding Islamic dynasties had historians of their rule, and these same historians produced a corpus of Arabic material on ancient Egyptian culture and monuments, writing hundreds of works on ancient Egypt during the twelve-hundred-year period of Muslim rule.

Furthermore, travel to and writing about Egypt by Europeans continued during the Islamic period as well. In fact, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries CE, the Ottoman government permitted increasing numbers of Europeans to travel to Egypt. These early European travelers provide the first examples of modern antiquarians who explored the country and took Egyptian artifacts and mummies back to their home countries for study. For instance, John Greaves (English, 1638-1640) measured the pyramids and Claude Sicard (French, 1708-1712), with the aid of the Greek and Roman authors, identified Thebes, Memnon, and the Valley of the Kings. Benoît de Maillet (French, 1692-1708), Richard Pococke (English, 1737-1741) and Friderick Ludvig Norden (Danish, 1737-38) all travelled to Egypt and produced books on the monuments along the Nile, which circulated throughout Europe.

So where does the Napoleonic Expedition come in? The early European travelers who ventured into Ottoman-controlled Egypt increased interest in the region throughout elite European circles, and this rising interest coincided with the period of colonial expansion. France wanted to compete with Britain’s colonial empire and acquire a territory as equally lucrative and prestigious as India. According to Nina Burleigh, a scholar from Columbia University, “Napoleon and the French government hoped that taking Egypt would be the first step towards founding a grand French empire that would encompass generous swathes of Africa and Asia.” Accordingly, in 1789, Napoleon and his army seized control of Egypt from the Ottomans. By establishing a strong Mediterranean presence, Napoleon also hoped to weaken Britain’s access to their territories in India, thereby increasing his own power.

Most importantly, Napoleon heralded the conquest as a mission civilisatrice, and brought with him 167 scientists, historians, writers, artists, and linguists to explore and record the ruins of ancient Egypt. The expedition established the Commission of the Sciences and Arts (Commission des Sciences et des Arts), which remained even after Napoleon left Egypt in 1801. While these scholars are generally remembered for the work they did on preserving the history of Egypt, it should also briefly be mentioned that the Commission included French geologists, mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, botanists, and engineers, many of whom would go on to make great discoveries and/or help establish important research institutions in France. For example, my personal favorite is Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who invented the modern pencil!

But, anecdotes aside, their most important endeavor for our purposes today, was that the scholars of the Commission produced the monumental work, the Description of Egypt (Description de l’Égypte). Twenty-four volumes of text and twelve of plates were assembled during the period of 1809 to 1829, and they comprehensively catalogued all the information the Commission gathered about ancient Egypt, including monuments, natural history, and aspects of social and political history. This work was important, not only because of its scale, but also for the effort that was put into it. It is a very early example of the scientific accumulation of data and systematic cataloguing, features that would later become key components of the fields of archaeology and Egyptology. The Description was also not the only work to come out of this expedition. For example, prior to the publication of the Description, an individual member of the expedition, Dominique Vivant Denon, produced a book entitled Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt (Voyage dans la haute et la basse Egypte, 1802), in which he attempted to create a detailed and comprehensive survey of surviving Egyptian monuments, accompanied by his own drawings of the structures. As a result of the book’s popularity, Denon was later appointed as the first director of the Louvre. This work is another example of the early scholarly endeavor to begin categorizing facets of Egyptian history and surveying the remaining monuments. Both of these works are often credited as setting the foundation for the modern field of Egyptology.

Accordingly, the expedition and its resulting literary productions had two major outcomes, one negative and one positive. First, the Napoleonic Expedition initiated a period known as Egyptomania, during which European countries became fascinated with Egyptian art, architecture, and aesthetics. Although, it seems that the producers of the Description of Egypt did not realize that their massive work would inspire a popular craze for all things Egyptian, manifested in items like furniture, decorations, and architecture. In England, France, and other areas of Europe, the wealthy elite patronized artists who could produce clocks, tables, and chairs in a Neoclassical Egyptian style, and they attended Egyptian-themed entertainments, such as the popular Verdi opera, Aida. If you google “Egyptomania” and go to the images tab, you will be presented with a plethora of associated images, both of Egyptian themed advertisements from the time and of people in Egyptian costumes or with Egyptian style furnishings.

This craze, however, had a negative side-effect, as Burleigh acknowledges, it “inspire[ed] a century of wholesale cultural plunder, an insatiable European demand for things Egyptian.” This meant that those who could afford it sought, not only goods produced in the Egyptian style, but also the real thing. Private travelers to Egypt looted ancient sites for curios, such as scarabs, papyri, and mummies. The artifacts were brought back to Europe to decorate elite homes, be displayed at Egyptian themed gathering, or be used in popular entertainments, such as destructive mummy unwrapping parties. Elite Europeans with the money to do so amassed large private collection of Egyptian antiquities, all with no documentation of where the items were found. Most damagingly, the so-called “explorers” and “consul-generals” of Egypt, men who were endorsed by the nation they represented to collect and sell antiquities, had the means to confiscate much larger features. Men like Bernardino Drovetti, who sold artifacts to the Museo Egizio in Turin and the Louvre, Henry Salt, who sold collections to the British Museum and the Louvre, and Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who acquired monumental carvings for the British Museum, all controlled the antiquities trade into Europe for a thirty-year period of unbridled pillage during the early 1800s. For instance, Drovetti and Belzoni both removed entire monuments and wall carvings, at times blasted from their original positions with dynamite, back to their home countries and museums, all while producing no records of the original edifices.

The Egyptomania fad, and even these early looters, had one positive outcome, however. It encouraged the increased interest of European scholars who studied Pharaonic Egyptian history and language, which led to the creation of the field of Egyptology and the first large-scale systematic study of Egypt. For example, as a result of the acts of plunder by men like Drovetti and Belzoni, key artifacts, such as the Rosetta Stone, found new homes in European research institutions.

So, why was the Rosetta Stone, along with the French and English scholars who studied it, a key artifact in establishing the field of Egyptology? The Rosetta Stone itself is a large stele, which was issued by an assembly of Egyptian priests in 196 BCE during the Ptolemaic period to commemorate the inclusion of the pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes into the Ptolemaic ruler cult. It is a trilingual proclamation, meaning the text was inscribed in three scripts: hieroglyphics, the religious language of Egypt, demotic, the native Egyptian script used for daily purposes, and Greek, the administrative language of the Ptolemies. It was the first trilingual decree modernly uncovered; although, several others are available now, since trilingual proclamations were issued by several of the Ptolemaic monarchs.

For being such a large stone, it moved a great deal during its period of existence. It was likely placed in a temple after its initial carving, perhaps in the town of Sais. After the Roman emperor Theodosius closed all non-Christian temples in the fourth century CE, pagan temples were often reused for building materials, and the Rosetta Stone fell victim to this practice. The top of the Stone broke at some point, perhaps by accident during moving, or, more likely, in a deliberate act to deface the images of the deified pharaoh and gods that we now know were usually carved at the tops of these types of stele. The bottom half of the stone was re-used in the foundations of a fortress constructed by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay in the 15th century outside the town of Rashid, also called Rosetta. Napoleon chose to rebuild this fort during his expedition, renaming it Fort Julien, and during the process, one of the scholars on the expedition, Pierre-François Bouchard, discovered the stone and immediately identified the possibilities presented by the trilingual inscription. French scholars were the first to identify and work with the stone, but in 1801 British troops overran Fort Julien, took the Stone, and removed it to the British Museum, where it has remained British property under the conditions of the Treaty of Alexandria.

Since hieroglyphics was the religious language of Ancient Egypt, knowledge of how to read and write it was lost after pagan temples were closed and their priests outlawed in the fourth century CE. The script became a mystery from that point on, and the thousands of years of Egyptian history that were carved into the monuments and temples throughout the country became indecipherable. But, fourteen centuries later, using the Rosetta Stone, the French scholar Jean François Champollion, deciphered hieroglyphics by 1822, as described in his Letter to M. Dacier concerning the alphabet of the phonetic hieroglyphs (Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l’alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétique). Champollion compared the Greek text on the stone to the Demotic text, which he then used to finally unlock the hieroglyphics. His Lettre proposed the first corrected list of alphabetical hieroglyphs and outlined the first notes on the system of grammar. Edwyn Bevan, an early twentieth century historian of Hellenistic Egypt, nicely sums up the importance of the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of hieroglyphics in his monumental work the House of Ptolemy. He stated that “it was this stone which first gave the key of the ancient language of Egypt,” and it “is thus the foundation upon which the whole of modern Egyptology has been built up.” Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the knowledge and scholarship on Egypt increased exponentially, and within a fifty-year period, Egyptology would become a thriving area of scholarship.

With the system of hieroglyphics unlocked, the initial serious European scholars, such as Karl Richard Lepsius (Prussian Egyptologist), Auguste Mariette (French Egyptologist), James Henry Breasted (American Egyptologist), and Alan Gardiner (English Egyptologist), produced the first works on ancient Egyptian history and culture that were corroborated with Egyptian inscriptions. As a result of the increased interest in Egyptian history and the ability to learn about the culture through their own writings, there was a move away from the wonton looting of the earlier periods and the implementation of more scientific methodology. The men just listed instituted the earliest scientific practices of archaeology and Egyptology, including photographing objects in place before extracting them and taking detailed notes of where and how artifacts were found. The shift from looting to Egyptology was also furthered by W. M. Flinders Petrie (English Egyptologist), who developed the first European systematic methodological approaches to Egyptian archaeology and developed a system of dating based on the pottery findings at a site. Around the same time, the French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé, another early curator at the Louvre, helped establish Egyptology as an academic discipline in France. All of these men were contemporaries of Howard Carter, whose discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 initiated a second phase of Egyptomania throughout Europe. Although, this second phase was not accompanied by the wide-scale looting of the first. Carter, for example, meticulously catalogued the tomb over a period of several years under the auspices of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, which at the time was directed by the French Egyptologist Pierre Lacau, who ensured the artifacts from the tomb went to the recently built Egyptian Museum in Cairo, rather than to the Louvre or British Museum.

From this point on, Egyptology became a key area of study in most Western Museums and Universities. Erin Peters, who wrote a thesis on the impact of the French Expedition on European Museums, notes that, “While [Napoleon’s] military campaign was a failure, the associated cultural appropriation of Egypt had a lasting effect on European culture,” and “the enthusiasm for Egypt created by Napoleon’s campaign decisively influenced the development” of museums in both Europe and the United States. The Louvre, for example, was the first Western art museum to create an Egyptian department. France was also one of the earliest countries to establish Egyptology as a field of study in its universities, thanks to the efforts of M. de Rougé. Peters further argues that “without the Napoleonic Egyptian Scientific Expedition, Egyptian art might not have become part of the Western art canon, or a standard element in the Western art survey museum.”

As I hope you have noticed throughout this discussion, many things have been identified by various scholars as the thing that formed the basis of modern Egyptology- from the Description of Egypt, to Denon’s Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt, to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. Rather than being initiated by one specific event or action, however, there was a series of events and actions that all, in conjunction, led to the development of Egyptology. But, the one commonality they all seem to share, is that they can be traced back to the Napoleonic Expedition and the scholars who were allowed to accompany it.

I will end here by emphasizing the importance of French scholarship to the field of Egyptology. While the Napoleonic Expedition initially caused a period of looting that was detrimental to Egypt, it eventually inspired the field of Egyptology itself. French scholars from the 20th century on continued to define the field, especially as the Louvre became a world-renowned center of learning. Even now, French scholars are some of the foremost in the field, so much so that American Egyptologists, such as myself, who hope to contribute to scholarship must learn to read French. The study of Egyptian history is thus undeniably intertwined with French history. And, it is interesting to see the impact that an event which might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of French history, i.e. the three years Napoleon’s expedition spent in Egypt, had on our world-wide culture.


Selected Sources

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

Curl, James Stevens. Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival, a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Peters, Erin A. “The Napoleonic Egyptian Scientific Expedition and the Nineteenth-Century Survey Museum.” Master’s Thesis, Seton Hall University, 2009.

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