A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Two hundred years ago Napoleon Bonaparte was in Egypt and was not enjoying his tour. His fleet had been sunk at Aboukir Bay, he had suffered his first defeat on land at Acre, and his men were dying of the plague. Amid this disaster, one of his entourage, Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, wrote home,
Here I once again find men who think of nothing but science; I live at the center of a flaming core of reason.... We busy ourselves enthusiastically with all the questions that are of concern to the government and with the sciences to which we have devoted ourselves freely.
St.-Hilaire, a 26-year-old naturalist, was unconcerned that he was in the middle of a war 2,000 miles from home. He was doing what he liked to do best--studying exotic animals. St.-Hilaire had followed Bonaparte to Egypt, which the 29-year-old general hoped to conquer for France, striking a fatal blow to England's economy by seizing control of the land trade route to India.
Bonaparte had plans for his own career; he would be a new Alexander the Great:
Europe presents no field for glorious exploits; no great empires or revolutions are to be found, but in the East where there are six hundred million men.... My glory is declining. This little corner of Europe is too small to supply it. We must go East. All the great men of the world have there acquired their celebrity.
But there was far more to the young general than military ambition. Yes, he would colonize Egypt, but he would also reveal to Europe the hidden Orient. He would study and record every aspect of Egypt. To this end, he brought with him more than 500 civilians, including about 150 biologists, mineralogists, linguists, mathematicians, chemists, and other scholars. Nothing like it had ever been done before. The results of their labors would appear in the monumental 20-volume Description de l'Égypte, completed in 1828, and in the course of their research Egyptology was born.
Bob Brier is a professor of philosophy at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.