Maspero and the creation of the French School of Cairo

Maspero and the creation of the French School of Cairo

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Title: Gaston Maspéro.

Author : PIROU Eugène (1841 - 1909)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 20 - Width 15

Technique and other indications: Photographic print on silver paper laminated on cardboard.

Storage location: Institute Library website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Gérard Blot website

Picture reference: inv. 4 ° AA257-Page18recto / 07-522401

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Gérard Blot

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Keep a Frenchman at the head of the Antiquities Service of Egypt

In 1880, the state of health of the French Auguste Mariette, director of the Antiquities Service of Egypt and curator of the Boulaq museum in Cairo, was so degraded that Paris was worried about the possible loss, to the benefit of Germany. or England, such cultural influence in a strategically located country.

The cabinet of the Minister of Public Instruction Jules Ferry then asked the professor of Egyptology Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) to "draw up the plan of an oriental scientific school with its headquarters in Cairo, to bring together the elements and to leave without delay for Egypt, in order to support Mariette because if the latter were to die and be replaced by a foreigner, the management of the official excavation service would escape France ”.

Image Analysis

Portrait of a great scientist and administrator

Official photographer of French political and cultural luminaries (of the Presidency of the Republic, of the Institut de France ...) and a pioneer of cinema, Eugène Pirou also shoots the portraits of a large number of celebrities of the IIIe Republic. He has a predilection for shots where the character appears full-on, centered and somewhat truncated.

His portrayal of Maspero, appearing modest and serious in his understated attire, matches the image of a professor of the IIIe Republic and would make us forget that this brilliant Egyptologist had become at only 23 years old a teacher at the young Practical School of Higher Studies and at 27 years old professor at the College of France.

Born in Paris to Italian parents, Maspero is a staunch republican who naturalized French after having fought as a French mobile guard against the Germans around Paris in 1870.


Mariette and the French Institute of Oriental Archeology in Cairo

Having doubtless planned, like the Charmes brothers - Gabriel (1850-1886), journalist, and Auguste (1849-1919), academician -, to create in the 1870s a permanent French mission in Egypt, Maspero (through Gabriel Charmes) accepts in November 1880 to write a plan for an establishment for the Ministry of Public Instruction, alarmed by Mariette's poor state of health.

Without further ado, Minister Jules Ferry signed on December 28 following the decree establishing "a permanent mission, under the name of the French School of Cairo". From January 5, Maspero and the Arabizing architect Bourgeois were in Cairo, where Mariette died on the 21st.

From Egypt, Maspero drew up the organization plan for the mission. Responsible for reporting to the ministry, the eminent orientalist Auguste Renan supports this scientific "great khan" who will work in Cairo, "the center of the most fruitful branch of oriental archeology".

However, the institution decrees were not published until 1898 and 1913. Having become the “French Institute of Oriental Archeology in Cairo” (IFAO), the institution “aims to promote all studies, explorations and excavations relating to civilizations which followed one another in Egypt and in the neighboring regions ”. It houses young scientists in boarding school and orientalist artists.

Deprived of real status, lacking in personnel and funding, the I.F.A.O. had a difficult start. The instability of the country forbids excavation, but the study of epigraphy is flourishing - Maspero discovers moreover in 1880 the texts of the pyramids, the oldest known funeral accounts -, for the publication of which is created in the School the first orientalist printing press.

In 1881, Maspero succeeded in succeeding Mariette as head of the Antiquities Department, which he gave a real administration. During his career, he carried out extensive excavations at Saqqara and Deir el-Bahari (where a hiding place of royal mummies was discovered) and directed the excavation of the Sphinx of Giza and the temple of Luxor. He also undertakes the study of Nubia.

Following Mariette's curator of the Boulaq Egyptian Archaeological Museum in Cairo, he carried out his predecessor's plan to build a larger museum in the center of the capital, which he inaugurated in 1903.

In 1886, Maspero returned to France, but in 1899, faced with the possible English control of the Antiquities Service of Egypt, he became its director again until 1914. He was then replaced by the French Pierre Lacau (1873- 1963), who had headed the IFAO since 1912 The supremacy of France in Egypt is for a time assured.

  • Egypt
  • Mariette (Augustus)
  • Maspero (Gaston)
  • Ferry (Jules)
  • France secondary school


Jean VERCOUTTER (dir.), Centenary book: 1880-1980 / French Institute of Oriental Archeology in Cairo, Cairo, I.F.A.O., 1980. Élisabeth DAVID, Gaston Maspero 1846-1916. The Gentleman Egyptologist, Paris, Pygmalion, 1999. Gaston MASPERO, Letters from Egypt. Correspondence with Louise Maspero [1883-1914], Paris, Le Seuil, 2003.

To cite this article

Guillaume NICOUD, "Maspero and the creation of the French School of Cairo"

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