Have you ever enjoyed an “Indiana Jones” adventure movie? Do you like stories about Egyptian tombs and mummies? Then you might be interested to learn that some real life adventurers went to Egypt with Napoléon Bonaparte. In 1798, Napoléon was just becoming famous as a successful general, and the French government sent him to Egypt. France wanted to make Egypt into a colony because of its fertile farmland. The Egyptian campaign lasted from 1798 to 1801. Though not a military success, it was very important for the future of Egyptology.
Into the Unknown
When Napoléon sailed to Egypt, he took with him not just soldiers. Artists, writers, scientists, and engineers also joined him. Their job was to discover and record as much as possible about both modern and ancient Egypt. They investigated many topics, from the nature of the exotic optical illusion known as the mirage to the state of politics, the economy, and manufacturing in contemporary Egypt. Engineers studied the Nile River; doctors studied diseases; cartographers made maps; and scientists collected specimens of plants, animals, and minerals.
Scholars got the most excited about studying ancient Egypt because so little was known about it. Today, we commonly see television documentaries about the pharaohs and visit museums with Egyptian art collections. In the 1700s, however, hardly anything about ancient Egypt was known. Most people thought of it as a mysterious, lost civilization. No one understood the ancient language and hieroglyphic symbols, and the only existing early histories came from ancient Greek and Roman writers.
Europeans were very curious about ancient Egypt, though. Individual European travelers and explorers had visited Egypt over the centuries and brought back souvenirs like mummies, which were especially popular. A few Europeans even believed that ground up mummies had magical powers and could be used a medicine.
Challenge and Danger
Uncovering information about ancient Egypt was very challenging for the Napoléonic scientists and engineers. They climbed the Great Pyramid and measured the Sphinx (whose nose was missing long before the French ever arrived!) with ease, but some ancient monuments that were partially buried in desert sand had to be excavated.
Because the French could not read any of the inscriptions in hieroglyphic writing, they didn’t know how old the temples and tombs were or the full meaning of the art that decorated them. They worked extremely hard to draw detailed copies of everything and saved them for scholars to analyze.
The art they saw fascinated them. Just the immense size of the monuments overwhelmed them! Many engineers described the ancient sites as wonderlands and places of enchantment. Some felt that they were uncovering the origins of western civilization itself.
The French faced dangerous conditions. They spent long days working in cramped, suffocating, dark spaces. One engineer, Edme François Jomard, got lost deep inside a tomb because a large flock of bats flew by him and blew out his candle. Luckily, he found his way out after about an hour. Others accidentally discovered a recently murdered corpse in a tomb. One enthusiastic engineer wrote that he actually enjoyed a dramatic night ride to visit the temple at Philae in southern Egypt because of the apprehension and awe that it inspired.
Drama aside, the climate was harsh and brutally hot. Epidemic diseases and eye infections posed a constant threat. Working during a military campaign was dangerous itself. One famous art historian, Dominique Vivant Denon, went on military campaigns up the Nile. Between marches and skirmishes, he hastily sketched pictures of ruins. The diary he kept of his adventures turned into a best selling book.
The engineers and artists made significant discoveries. They found the tomb of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled ancient Egypt at the height of its Empire. That tomb is still being studied today. Interestingly, tombs that the French explored contained illustrations of everyday life and work in ancient Egypt, which shed light on the little-known experiences of ordinary Egyptians. One engineer described these scenes as “monuments to the people” of ancient Egypt, in the same way that royal tombs and temples were monuments to pharaohs. He predicted that one day scholars would be as interested in daily life and customs in ancient Egypt as they were in pharaohs. Modern Egyptology has proven him correct!
The most famous discovery, though, was entirely accidental. A military engineer working on fortifications at the northern Egyptian site of Rosetta unearthed a piece of a black stone marker with what he recognized as an intriguing inscription on it. The inscription was in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Greek. While nobody could read ancient Egyptian, many educated people could read Greek. Immediately, French scholars began to translate the Greek inscription. They realized that understanding the Greek inscription would allow language experts to work backwards and “decode” the hieroglyphic writing. The Rosetta Stone was instantly recognized as a dramatic discovery because deciphering it would allow specialists to learn about ancient Egyptian culture.
It took more than twenty years for the Rosetta Stone to be translated completely. The scholar who finally deciphered the Rosetta Stone was Jean-François Champollion, who was still a schoolboy in France at the time that Napoléon went to Egypt. For the first time, modern people could read what the ancient Egyptians themselves wrote about their civilization.
Dr. Melanie Byrd
Department of History, Valdosta State University
Decoding is Fun!