Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Napoleon's Institute of Egypt

In July 1798 Napoleon landed in Egypt with 35,000 soldiers. His goal was to take control of Egyptian society.

Only a month after his arrival, Napoleon started a cultural organization called the Institute of Egypt. Members of the Institute included over 140 writers, draftsmen, painters, architects, mathematicians, engineers, and interpreters. Their purpose was to master Egyptian culture to improve Egyptian support of Napoleon’s control of Egypt.

In January 1799, Napoleon left Cairo with members of the Institute and an escort of 300 soldiers. After a three-day journey on horseback, Napoleon and his men arrived at the port city of Suez on the Red Sea.

Napoleon’s men were looking for evidence of a canal built centuries before their time. It was believed to connect the Red Sea with the Nile River. They found some. This encouraged Napoleon to think about building a new canal to link the Red Sea with the Mediterranean.

On July 15, 1799, some French soldiers were digging near the coastal city of Rosetta (today’s Rashid). They were getting ready for a major battle against a large Ottoman army. They accidentally dug up a stone with letters carved on it. A French lieutenant, Pierre-Francois Bouchard, saw the stone, thought it might be important, and was able to escort it to Cairo. There he handed it over to members of the Institute of Egypt for study. Even Napoleon looked at what is now called the Rosetta Stone.

Napoleon had come to Egypt in July 1798 to take control of Egyptian society. A year later, despite many military victories and great cultural research, he knew that that would never happen. In August 1799 he gave up and returned to France.

His Institute of Egypt closed in March 1801. His poor army followed him in defeat five months after that. Before they left Egypt, French leaders gave control of all the loot they had stolen from Egyptians to the British. This loot included priceless objects of art from ancient days as well as the Rosetta Stone.

Members of Napoleon’s Institute of Egypt continued in France the work they had started in Egypt. Their research was published by the French government, between 1809 and 1828, in a series of 19 large books entitled Description of Egypt.

Readers across Europe bought large numbers of these books. Ancient Egyptian culture became wildly popular. This popularity became even stronger and more widespread as wealthy collectors and museums started displaying stolen mummies, furnishings, and sculptures created in ancient days. Even a 23-meter (75-foot) obelisk from Luxor was sent to France in 1833 and placed, where it stands even now, in the Place de la Concorde. Soon Egypt became the favorite new place for Europeans to visit. They all wanted to see Egypt for themselves if not take what they could.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.