RUINS AND PROPHECY:

On Napoleon's

Description de l'Egypt


The volumes in the Description de l'Egypt compiled the research of the Commission of Arts and Sciences established by Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign at the beginning of the nineteenth-century.

The commission had 165 members, experts in a wide variety of fields. Their goal was to catalogue all of Egyptian society past and present. They drew and analyzed the ancient Egyptian monuments, presenting them both as they appeared in the present and as the French experts imagined they once looked. They even recorded their processes of recording and cataloguing---many of the landscapes feature French artists drawing the scene.

Modern Egyptian crafts and dwellings and artifacts and facial types and social strata were not neglected either: scenes represent all of the prominent aspects of nineteenth-century Egyptian life and work; their are pages cataloguing tools and facial types. In general, the project was to be an application of the methods of the Enlightenment philosophe's Encylopedia to Egypt, not to knowledge but to a specific culture, time, and society.

It is as if the project of the French philosophes, which emphasized universals, had been crossed with the project of Herder, an Enlightenment renegade who argued that the particularities of time and place and cultural history were important for the particularities, the specific ways in which they were marked by history. These particularities were incommensurable with universals. If so, the Description project is also Herder crossed with Hegel, for the overall agenda of the French commission is to assigned Egypt a place in the hierarchies of world culture, to contrast Egypt's more primitive craft-based economies with the "modern" economies of French culture and its world empire.

The sharpest example of this contrast of course appears in the depictions of the Egyptian monuments that open the Description de l'Egypt. Magnificent as they are, they are now ruins, and the French volumes suggest that contemporary Egyptian society is unable to care for them or even to understand them. For that, an advanced civilization is needed, one armed with science. The Description brims with France's faith that it is producing a description which is also a history, not just a catalogue but an analysis of the inner workings of Egypt's history, the ways this civilization's rise and decline exactly parallels the erection and decay of its monuments.

Illustrations in these and related pages are from the original volumes in the Description.

Further reading on Napoleon's approach to ruins and prophecy in Description de l'Egypt: