The World's First Scientific Study of Egypt

The World's First Scientific Study of Egypt

Sotheby's upcoming sale, Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History on 12 November, features one of the most influential works on Egypt ever created.
Sotheby's upcoming sale, Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History on 12 November, features one of the most influential works on Egypt ever created.

T he Description de l'Égypte was the first scientific survey of all Egypt, from its antiquities to its agriculture including language, music, costume, and natural history, and it concludes with a detailed and accurate map of the region. The numerous plates depicting the antiquities provide a comprehensive record of the richness of ancient Egyptian culture.

At the time of publication, the Description de l'Égypte was the largest printed work ever produced. Its influence was enormous, establishing Egyptology as an intellectual discipline and nurturing a passion for Egyptian art throughout the Western World. Edited by some of the leading intellectual figures in France, the Description also includes contributions from celebrated artists such as Jacques Barraband, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, Jules-César Savigny and others.

The material for the Description de L’Egypte was gathered during the French campaign in Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801. It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in the Ottoman territories, with the purpose of defending French trade, creating alliances, weaken Britain’s strength and to conduct scientific research.

The combined work of several dozen scholars, this "living archive" of Napoleon's expedition took over twenty years to complete. The huge undertaking was co-ordinated by the Institut de l'Egypte, founded by Napoleon and with Gaspar Monge, the mathematician, as its president. Monge and the chemist Berthollet recruited leading academic figures to join the expedition, including Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, Savigny, Méchain, Quesnot Nouet, René Desgenettes and the surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey. Of their many achievements, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone must rank amongst the most important. The stone was discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-François Bouchard during the campaign, and was the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times. It became immensely popular with its potential to decipher the previously untranslated hieroglyphic script. In 1801 the British defeated the French and took the stone to London under the Capitulation of Alexandria.

The volumes are housed a folio gilt-bronze mahogany cabinet. The furniture is inspired by the work of the nineteenth-century Parisian cabinet maker Charles Morel, who produced several folio cabinet for other copies of this monumental work. Morel supplied cabinets to the King, Senate and Parliament. He was heavily inspired by the designs of Edme-Francois Jomard,a French archaeologist who edited the Description de L’Egypte.

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