Napoleon Bonaparte and Egypt

Napoleon Bonaparte and Egypt

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  • The pyramids of Memphis, the Sphinx, at sunset.

    BALZAC Charles (1752 - 1820)

  • Shot of Esnah's portico.

    DENON Alive Dominique (1747 - 1825)

To close

Title: The pyramids of Memphis, the Sphinx, at sunset.

Author : BALZAC Charles (1752 - 1820)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 53.5 - Width 87.3

Technique and other indications: Watercolor, pencil, black ink, gouache, pen.

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot website

Picture reference: 91-005472 / RF34437

The pyramids of Memphis, the Sphinx, at sunset.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot

Shot of Esnah's portico.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: January 2010

Historical context

In April and July 1795, the Treaties of Basel put an end to the first coalition of European powers raised against revolutionary France. Moreover, the Directory is not sorry to dismiss this too popular general whose authority and ambition it has measured in Italy.

On May 19, 1798, an expeditionary force of 38,000 men left Toulon, leading a Commission of Sciences and Arts made up of more than 150 scientists and artists. On June 28, Bonaparte finally revealed the purpose of this maritime outfit, and on July 1, the expedition reached Alexandria. Military successes (Battle of the Pyramids, July 21) and setbacks (destruction of the fleet by the English at Aboukir, August 2) followed one another to lead to the French capitulation in 1801. Civil and military engineers trained in the grandes écoles (Polytechnic School, School of Bridges and Roads), architects, designers, all were very young and worked in extremely difficult conditions: heat, illness, insecurity, lack of time and material. However, they gathered precious, precise and abundant information, then gathered in a monumental work: Description of Egypt, or Collection of observations and research that were carried out in Egypt during the French expedition. In addition to the desire to finally conquer England, Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt is significant of the attraction exerted by the East in Europe at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, and of the importance of history in the romantic imagination.

Image Analysis

Writer, architect and designer, Charles Louis Balzac (1752-1820) was an eminent member of the Commission for Sciences and Arts created on March 16, 1798. During the expedition to Egypt, he was notably part of the Cortaz Commission, in charge of to complete the methodical exploration of Upper Egypt. Writer, he is the author of the libretto for two operas by Rigel - Les Deux Meuniers and Valère in Italy -, represented in the auditorium inaugurated in Cairo on December 31, 1800. Architect and designer, he carried out measurements and surveys of the ancient hippodrome of Alexandria. The work presented here is a watercolor version of a drawing of part of the Memphis necropolis, probably made on December 16, 1799. To the right, the monumental Sphinx carved in the image of the pharaoh. Behind him, the pyramid of Khafre, which has retained part of its outer covering. In the center stands the massive pyramid of Cheops. The initial drawing appears in the Description of Egypt.

Better known than Charles Louis Balzac, Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825) was the oldest of Bonaparte’s companions during the Egyptian campaign. Diplomat, writer, architect, draftsman, he then made himself a reporter in a country where he endeavored to faithfully reproduce the monuments and to note the slightest customs. A member of the Upper Egypt Exploration Mission, he arrived in Esnah - at that time the capital of Egypt's southernmost province - in July 1799. The temple was buried in rubble and filth. Only the majestic portico is still visible, supported by twenty-four columns nearly twelve meters high. Denon takes the plan and draws the hexastyle facade with columns surmounted by capitals carved with lotus and palm leaves. This etching appears in the Description of Egypt and in the Travel to Upper and Lower Egypt that Dominique Vivant Denon wrote on his return to France and published in the fall of 1802.


From the end of the 18th century, European scientists left their amateur cabinets and laboratories to discover the world. However, Egypt is not a completely unknown country: the last travelers to have crossed the Nile delta at the end of the Ancien Régime are Claude Étienne Savary (1750-1788) and, above all, the Earl of Volney ( 1757-1820), whose Travel to Syria and Egypt already gives an accurate picture of the country at the end of the 18th century. Under the Revolution, the possibility of intervention in Egypt - mentioned many times since the end of Louis XV's reign - resurfaced, with an additional objective: to defeat England by ruining her trade with India. Bonaparte wanted to accompany the military conquest with a learned expedition to get to know ancient and modern Egypt better, but also to "bring the Enlightenment" there. If the campaign is a military failure, it is undoubtedly a scientific success.

The Institute of Egypt, created in Cairo on August 22, 1798, is an encyclopedic society which pursues both pure science research and scientific investigation in the field. Scholars contribute to the tasks of administration and development of Egypt. Periodicals are published: an information journal, the Courier from Egypt, and a scholarly journal, The Egyptian Decade. Geographic engineers undertake a monumental work of cartography. Zoologists and naturalists inventory the flora and fauna. But it is especially the ancient monuments of Upper and Lower Egypt that arouse the admiration of scholars and artists, and that are the subject of countless drawings and archaeological records. This multidisciplinary collection leads to the development of an encyclopedic work - the Description of Egypt in 9 volumes of texts, 10 volumes of plates and an atlas -, published between 1809 and 1828, an irreplaceable documentary source even today.

  • archeology
  • Egypt
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • East
  • Alive Denon (Dominica)
  • overseas


Marie-Noëlle BOURGUET, "Scientists to conquer Egypt? Science, travel and politics at the time of the Egyptian expedition ", in The Egyptian Expedition, an Enlightenment Company, 1798-1801, proceedings of the colloquium of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres and the Académie des sciences, Paris, 8-10 June 1999, Paris, Technique et documentation, 1999 Étienne Geoffroy SAINT-HILAIRE, The Egyptian Expedition, Paris, Paléo, 2000.Yves LAISSUS, Egypt, a learned adventure, 1798-1801, Paris, Arthème Fayard, 1998.Yves LAISSUS (dir.), 200 years ago, scholars in Egypt, catalog of the exhibition of the National Museum of Natural History, March 11-July 6, 1998, Paris, Nathan, 1998.Henry LAURENS, The Egyptian Expedition, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "Points Histoire", 1997.Anna PIUSI, "The golden handcuffs of Napoleonic patronage: the frontispiece of the Description of Egypt. Homage to Dutertre, Balzac and Cécile ”, in The Egyptian expedition, an Enlightenment enterprise, 1798-1801, proceedings of the colloquium of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Académie des Sciences, Paris, 8-10 June 1999, Paris, Technique et documentation, 1999. Jean TULARD, Shadows and Lights of the Egyptian Campaign, Paris, Association for the Safeguarding of Old Books from the Library of the Cour de Cassation, 1995.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "Napoleon Bonaparte and Egypt"

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