Ancient History & Civilisation



The Empires of Egypt

Soldiers! Forty centuries gaze down upon you!


They who built with granite, who set a hall inside their pyramid, and wrought beauty with their fine work … their altar stones also are empty as are those of the weary ones, the ones who die upon the embankment leaving no mourners.

—Ancient Egyptian Saying

O Mother Nut! Spread your winds above me like the imperishable stars!

—Inscription on the coffin of Tutankhamen


Napoleon I and Vivant Denon dominate the very beginning of the archæological discovery of Egypt. Emperor and baron, general and artist—for a short distance they traveled together and knew each other well, though by nature they had nothing in common. For the one the pen was useful only in writing down commands, decrees, and legal codes; the other used the pen to write facile, immoral—indeed, pornographic—novelle and to make drawings that today belong among the most curious of erotica.

On October 17, 1797, the Peace of Campo Formio was signed, ending the Italian campaign and allowing Napoleon to return to Paris. “Napoleon’s heroic days are over!” said Stendhal. He was wrong. Actually the Corsican’s heroic phase was only about to commence. But before he swept across Europe he embraced “a mad chimera, sprung from a sick brain.” Restlessly pacing back and forth in a narrow room, consumed by ambition, inwardly comparing himself with Alexander, despairing of the vast works yet to be accomplished, Napoleon wrote: “Paris weighs me down like a cloak of lead!—This Europe of ours is a molehill. Only in the East, where six hundred million human beings live, is it possible to found great empires and realize great revolutions.”

On May 19, 1798 Napoleon sailed from Toulon with a fleet of three hundred and twenty-eight vessels, carrying 38,000 men on board, almost as large a force as Alexander had commanded when he embarked on his Eastern campaign. The goal was Egypt.

The French plan was worthy of Alexander. Napoleon’s seeking gaze traveled far beyond the valley of the Nile to the immense peninsula of India. The purpose of this initial overseas campaign was to strike a deathblow at one of the main appendages of Britain, imponderable in the European balance. Nelson, commander of the English fleet, for a month vainly scoured the Mediterranean, but failed to trap Napoleon’s force, though on two occasions French vessels were almost within sighting distance.

On July 2 Napoleon stepped onto Egyptian soil. After horrible desert marches the soldiers bathed in the Nile. On July 21 Cairo took shape before French eyes, a vision from The Thousand and One Nights, with its four hundred minarets and the great cupola of Jami-el-Azhar, central mosque of the city. In powerful contrast to this abundance of filigreed ornament lightly traced against the pearly morning sky, there rose, out of the arid desert wastes, silhouetted against the violet-gray slopes of the Jebel Mokattam, the profiles of enormous structures of stone, cold, massive, and forbidding. These weer the Pyramids of Gizeh, geometry petrified, silent eternity, symbols of a world already long dead before Islam was born.

The soldiers had no time for gaping. Round about them lay the enormous relics of a dead past, but Cairo, symbol of an enchanting future, beckoned. Between them and their glittering goal stood the army of the Mameluke sultans. This colorful force was made up of ten thousand horsemen, brilliantly drilled, armed with glittering yataghans, mounted on prancing steeds of noble stock. The commander was the ruler of Egypt himself, Maurad. Accompanied by twenty-three of his beys, he rode at the head of his swarm on a swan-white horse, his green turban glistening with precious stones. Napoleon pointed to the pyramids. He exhorted his men, as a general, a master of mass psychology, and as a European face to face with world history. “Soldiers,” he said, “forty centuries are looking down upon you!”

The collision was frightful. The elan of the Mamelukes could not hope to prevail against European bayonets. The battle became a bloody rout. On July 25 Bonaparte entered Cairo, and half the great trek to India seemed to have been safely accomplished.

But on August 7 came the sea battle of Abukir. Nelson had finally located the French fleet and descended on it like an avenging angel. Napoleon was in a trap. Abukir put a quietus on the Egyptian adventure, though actually it dragged on for another year. During this interval General Desaix overran Upper Egypt, and Napoleon won a land victory at the same Abukir where his fleet had been cut to pieces. Despite these successes, misery, hunger, and pestilence dogged the French. Great numbers of soldiers were blinded by the Egyptian eye disease. The malady became such a prominent feature of the expedition that it was called “ophthalmia militaris.”

On August 19, 1799 Bonaparte fled from his army. On August 25, from the frigate Muiron, he watched the coast of the land of the Pharaohs sink into the sea behind him.

Napoleon’s expedition, ill-advised as it was from the military standpoint, had the long-range effect of politically awakening Egypt; also of setting in motion a scientific examination of its antiquities that continues to this day. For Napoleon had taken one hundred and seventy-five “learned civilians” to Egypt. The soldiers and sailors called this brain trust “the donkeys.” The intellectual contingent brought along a large library, containing practically every book on the land of the Nile available in France, and also dozens of crates of scientific apparatus and measuring instruments.

Napoleon first gave notice of his cultural interest in Egypt at a meeting of scientists held, in the spring of 1798, in the big assembly hall of the Institut de France. While explaining the duties of science in the Egyptian project, for emphasis he occasionally rapped with the knuckle of his forefinger on the leather back of a copy of Niebuhr’s Arabian Journey that he held in his hand. A few days later the astronomers, geometers, chemists, mineralogists, Orientalists, technicians, painters, and poets went aboard ship with him at Toulon. And among them was an extraordinary man whom the gallant Josephine had recommended as an illustrator.

Dominique Vivant Denon was his full name. Under Louis XV he had been supervisor of a collection of antique gems, and he had the reputation of being one of Pompadour’s favorites. In St. Petersburg he had filled the post of embassy secretary, and had been much liked by Catherine. A man of the world, fond of women, a dilettante in all the arts, his conversation sparkling with malice, banter, and wit, Denon somehow managed to keep on good terms with the whole world. As a diplomat assigned to the Swiss Confederation he had often been Voltaire’s guest, and had painted the famous Breakfast at Ferney. For a drawing called Adoration of the Shepherds, done in the manner of Rembrandt, he had been made a member of the Academy. News of the outbreak of the French Revolution came to him while he was living in Florence, where he was a familiar figure in the art-saturated salons of the city. He rushed to Paris. From the rich and independent life of a diplomat and “gentilhomme ordinaire,” he found himself suddenly reduced to the emigrant list. He saw his realestate and financial holdings confiscated.

Poor, forsaken, betrayed on all sides, he vegetated in the slums of Paris, eking out a bare existence by the sale of his drawings. He wandered about the markets, saw many heads roll in the Place de Grève, including some of his friends’, until at last he found an unexpected patron in Jacques Louis David, the great painter of the Revolution. He was given work engraving David’s costume sketches, which were intended to revolutionize French dress. His labors won him the goodwill of the “incorruptible one.” Scarcely was he once more treading familiar parquet floors, having splashed on foot through the mud of Montmartre to scenes of splendor, when he unfolded his tested diplomatic abilities to public view under conditions where they would do the most good. Shortly his properties were restored to him by order of Robespierre, and his name was removed from the list of the banished. He got to know the beauteous Josephine Beauharnais, made an impression on Napoleon, and in due course was taken on the Egyptian expedition.

He returned from the land of the Nile a proved and highly honored man, and was made director-general of all museums. As Napoleon proceeded to demonstrate his power on the battlefields of Europe, Denon held fast to the bull’s tail. He filched works of art in the name of collecting, and he persisted until the first few nondescript pieces had grown into one of France’s most noble ornaments. Remembering how successfully he had dabbled at painting and drawing, he thought he might do the same in literary fields. At a social gathering the point was argued that it was impossible to write a love story realistically without the use of obscenity. Denon made a bet that he could do it. Twenty-four hours later he had finished Le Point de lendemain. This long short story earned him a niche in literature. Connoisseurs pronounced it one of the most delicate examples of its genre. Balzac later judged it to be “an education for married men, and for young people an excellent picture of the customs of the last century.”

Denon also produced the Œuvre priapique, which appeared in 1793. This collection of etchings, as the title suggests, was brazenly phallic in concept. In this regard it is interesting to note that archæologists who have written about Denon seem to be quite unaware of this pornographic side of his activities. On the other hand, even such a knowledgeable historian of culture as Eduard Fuchs, who in his History of Morals devoted a whole section to pornography, apparently had no idea that Denon played an important role in the early days of Egyptology.

This many-sided and in some respects astonishing man unquestionably deserves remembrance by posterity for one unique acomplishment. Napoleon conquered Egypt with bayonets, and held it for one short year. But Denon conquered the land of the Pharaohs with his crayon, and held it permanently. It was through the power of his trained eye and hand that Egypt again came to life in the modern consciousness.

From the moment he first felt the hot breath of the desert, Denon, effete creature of the salons, was lifted up by a rapturous enthusiasm for all things Egyptian. As he wandered from ruin to ruin, this enthusiasm never waned.

He was attached to the army of Desaix, and with this general went off in reckless pursuit of Murad Bey, the escaped Mameluke leader, through the wastes of Upper Egypt. At this time Denon was fifty-one years old, old enough to be Desaix’s father. The general was fond of Denon, who was also popular among the ranks. The soldiers marveled at his indifference to the rigors of the climate. One day he would spur his old nag on far ahead of the van of the army, the next straggle at the rear. He was out of his tent by dawn, he made drawings on the march and during the nightly bivouac. Even while he ate his scanty meals his sketch pad was beside him. Once, amid bugled alarms, he discovered he had run squarely into a skirmish. As the soldiers returned the enemy’s fire, Denon encouraged them to the fray by waving his drawing-paper. Then, realizing that a paintable scene was spread before his eye, he forgot the bullets and began to sketch.

Eventually he came upon the hieroglyphics. He knew nothing at all about them, and no one in Desaix’s army was able to satisfy his curiosity. Regardless, he drew what he saw. And immediately his acute, if untutored, gaze distinguished three different hieroglyphic modes. The hieroglyphics, he saw, were either deeply engraved, done in low relief, or en creux, hollowed out. In Sakkara he sketched the Step Pyramid (see Plate VI), and in Dendera the gigantic remains of the late Egyptian period. Tirelessly he rushed hither and thither among the extensive ruins of Thebes of the hundred gates, and was in despair when orders came to break camp before he had caught everything with his crayon. Cursing angrily, he summoned some soldiers from their packing and had them scrape encrusted dirt off the head of a statue that had caught his attention. He continued to sketch while the van of the camp was already on the move.

Desaix’s adventurous campaign took him as far as Aswan and the first cataract of the Nile. At Elephantine, Denon drew the charming, pillared chapel of Amenophis III. His excellent sketch is the only picture of it extant, for in 1822 the structure was torn down. When the troop column turned homeward, after the victorious battle at Sediman had been fought and Murad Bey annihilated, Baron Dominique Vivant Denon, with his innumerable sheets of drawings, brought back to France a richer booty than did the soldiers who had despoiled the Mameluke army. His sensibilities might have been inflamed by Egypt’s strangeness, but this excitement had not affected the precision of his draftsmanship. His drawing was as realistic as that of the old etchers who lavished infinite care on detail, ignoring both impressionism and expressionism, and blissfully unaware of derogatory connotations in the word craftsman. Denon’s drawings became an invaluable source of material for the archæology of the times. They were to provide the basis of a fine work on Egyptology, the first of its kind, the famous Description de l’Égypte, in which the science blossomed out as a systematic intellectual endeavor.

Meanwhile in Cairo the Egyptian Institute was started. While Denon was busy drawing, the other artists and scientists of the Napoleonic party were measuring, counting, investigating, and collecting whatever the surface of Egypt had to offer. And only the surface, for so abundant was the material open to casual view that there was no incentive to excavate. Besides plaster models, masses of memoranda of all kinds, transcripts, drawings, and collections of animal, plant, and mineral specimens, Napoleon’s brain trust brought home with them several sarcophagi and twenty-seven pieces of carved stone, mostly fragments of statuary. Included in these findings was a stele of polished black basalt, bearing an inscription in three different forms of writing. The heavy plaque became famous as the Rosetta Stone, key to the mysteries of Egypt.

But in September 1801, upon the capitulation of Alexandria, France had to hand over to the English the conquered regions of Upper Egypt, and with them the expedition’s collection of Pharaonic antiquities. General Hutchinson undertook their transport to England. By the instructions of George III the pieces, at that time rarities of the first order, were housed in the British Museum. A whole year of effort by the French appeared to have gone for naught, a year in which several scholarly adventurers had lost their eyesight in the cause. Then it was realized that notwithstanding the loss of original pieces to the English, every single thing in the vast collection had been faithfully copied. Enough material would reach Paris to occupy the minds of a whole generation of scholars.

The first member of the expedition to make use of its findings was Denon. In 1802 he published his interesting Voyage dans la Haute et la Basse Égypte. Simultaneously François Jomard began to edit his great work, basing it upon the material collected by the scientific commission, and particularly upon Denon’s voluminous drawings. This work, a unique event in archæological history, at one stroke impressed on the modern world’s attention a culture hitherto known but to a few travelers, a culture as remote and mysterious, if not so completely hidden from view, as that of Troy.

One of the first products of Egyptian art, the so-called “Narmer palette,” shown front and back. It is about 5,000 years old, and possibly shows the great Menes himself, founder of the first dynasty, after his victory over enemies from Lower Egypt.

Jomard’s Description de l’Égypte was published through the four years between 1809 and 1813. The interest evoked by the publication of these twenty-four volumes can be compared only to that occasioned, at a later date, by Botta’s first work on Nineveh and Schliemann’s book on Troy.

In this age of the rotary press it is not easy to appreciate the significance of Jomard’s choice and comprehensive compilation, with its many engravings, a number of them colored, and its costly bindings. The books were accessible only to the rich, but by them were preserved as a treasure of knowledge. Today, when every scientific discovery of importance is almost immediately disseminated all over the globe, multiplied a millionfold in effect by its being chronicled in pictures, film, word, and sound, the excitement of great discoveries has been very much diluted. One publication follows on the heels of the next, always competing for attention, contributing to a process whereby everybody knows a little about something, but nothing in particular. And so it is not easy for moderns to understand how Jomard’s first readers felt when they picked up the Description. They saw in it things never seen before, they read of absolute novelties, they became aware of a mode of life the existence of which had previously not even been suspected. Having more capacity for reverence than ourselves, these first readers must have experienced a shuddering sensation as they were carried back thousands of years.

For Egypt was old, older than any other culture known at the time. It was already old when the political policy of the future Roman Empire was being framed in the first meetings on the Capitoline Hill. It was already old and blighted when the Germans and Celts of the north European forest were still hunting bears. When the First Dynasty came into power, about five thousand years ago, so fixing Egyptian history in calendrical time, marvelous cultural forms had already been evolved in the land of the Nile. And when the Twenty-sixth Dynasty died out, still five hundred years separated Egyptian history from our era. The Libyans ruled the land, then the Ethiopians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans—all before the star shone over the stable at Bethlehem.

Of course, the stone marvels of the Nile had been known to some, but knowledge of them was more or less legendary. Only a very few Egyptian monuments had been carried away to museums in foreign lands and were accessible to public view. In the Napoleonic period the tourist in Rome could gape at the lions, since gone, on the steps of the Capitol. He could also see the statues of some of the Ptolemaic kings—that is, very late works, finished during a period when the splendor of ancient Egypt had been replaced by the new glories of Alexandrian Hellenism. Among the monuments truly representative of ancient Egyptian times still in Rome were twelve obelisks, in addition to some reliefs in the gardens of the cardinals. More common were Egyptian scarabs, representations of the dung beetle held sacred by the people of the Nile. These scarabs were at one time used throughout Europe as amulets, later as ornaments and ring seals. That was all.

And little, too, that could be called genuinely informative scholarly material was to be found in the bookshops of Paris; but an excellent translation in five volumes of Strabo’s works appeared in 1805, thus making more generally available the observations of an authority hitherto known only to scholars. Strabo traveled through Egypt in the time of Augustus. More information of value was contained in the second book of Herodotus, that most wonderful traveler of antiquity. But who read Herodotus? And how many were acquainted with the handful of even more esoteric and scattered references to Egypt found in the ancient writers?

“Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment,” says the Psalmist. Early in the morning the sun rises up into a steely blue sky, and pursues its course, yellow and glaring, kiln-hot, reflected from brown, ocherous, and whitish sands. The shadows are sharply etched, poured over the sand like ink in silhouettes of the original. And toward this eternally sunny waste, which knows no weather, no rain, snow, fog, or hail, which seldom hears the rumble of thunder or sees the flash of lightning—toward this desert which makes the air bonedry, seedless, where the ground is unfruitful, granulated, frangible, its clods all crumbly, rolls the mighty Nile, the father of rivers, the “All-Father Nile.” The river rises in the country’s remote depths and is nourished by the lakes and tropical rains of the distant Sudan. In flood it overflows its banks, spills out over the sand, swallows up the wasteland, and spits out mud, fertile July muck. This it has done for thousands of years, each year rising fifty-two feet. On this account sixteen children, one for each ell of flood, play about the river god in the symbolic marble group in the Vatican. When the Nile sinks back into its bed, it has saturated the dry earth and burning sands. Where its brown waters have stood, green things germinate. Shoots of grain appear, to bear double and quadruple fruit and bring “fat years” to nourish the people during the “lean years.” Each year a new Egypt arises, “the present from the Nile,” as Herodotus described the event 2,500 years ago, the breadbasket of antiquity. Far away Rome either hungered or ate in a glut, depending on the Nile’s bounty.

In minareted cities rising out of sun-blistered landscapes people of divers races and colors—Nubians, Berbers, Copts, Bedouins, Negroes—crowd through the narrow streets, shrilling in a babel of tongues, saluting a world of ruined temples, columned halls, and tombs.

In the shadowless wastes the pyramids lift their heads. Sixty-seven of them stand in the open land about Cairo, lined up about the “Drill Ground of the Sun,” monstrous tombs for kings. One of them alone required for its construction two and a half million blocks of stone, carried into place by more than a hundred thousand slaves working steadily for twenty years.

There crouches the Sphinx of Gizeh, greatest of its species, half man, half animal. His lion’s mane has been demolished, his eyes and nose are nothing but holes, for the Mamelukes used his head as a target when they practiced shooting their cannon. But there he has rested for thousands of years, broadly reclining as he waits out eternity, so mighty in mass that Thotmes, dreaming to gain the throne, found space for a large stele between his paws.

There, too, the obelisks stand out in the crystalline air, needle-sharp, guardians of the temple gates, honoring gods and kings. Some of these fine stone fingers point ninety-one feet into the sky. There are also rock tombs and mastabas, statues of “village magistrates” and of the Pharaohs, sarcophagi, columns and pylons, sculptured reliefs and paintings. The people who once ruled the ancient kingdom march in endless procession across the friezes, stiffly posed, breathing greatness in every gesture, always shown in profile and directed toward some goal. “The life of the Egyptian,” it has been said, “was a journey toward death.” The teleological principle is so strongly emphasized in Egyptian wall reliefs that a modern cultural philosopher designated “the way” as Egypt’s most fundamental symbol, on a par in depth of significance with European “space” and Greek “body.”

Practically every object in this vast graveyard of the past was covered with hieroglyphs. These hieroglyphs consisted of signs, pictures, outlines, hints, all manner of secretive and mysterious forms. The symbolism of this strange system of communication drew inspiration from human beings, animals, plants, fruits, mechanical apparatus, pieces of clothing, wickerwork, weapons, geometrical figures, undulant lines and flames. There were hieroglyphs on the walls of temple and burial chamber, on memorial plaques, coffins, stelæ, on statues of gods and mortals, on boxes and clay vessels. Even inkstands and canes bore hieroglyphic signs. The Egyptians seem to have been fonder of writing than any other ancient people. “If someone set about copying the inscriptions on the temple at Edfu and wrote from morning till night, he would not be done in twenty years!”

Jomard opened up this magnificent world to a Europe swiftly awakening to the wonders of science and the wonders of the past. Thanks to Caroline, Napoleon’s sister, the excavations at Pompeii were being pressed with renewed zeal. Through Winckelmann, scholars were learning the rudiments of archæological method and were eager to try their hand at deciphering the mysteries of antiquity.

Though the Description indubitably contained a wealth of drawings, copies, and descriptions, the authors could not explain them, for this was beyond their power. When, occasionally, they attempted interpretation, it was wrong. For the relics chronicled in the book themselves were silent, and remained so obdurately. Whatever order was imposed on them had to be purely intuitive, for no one had any notion how to make empiric, concrete explanations. The hieroglyphs were simply unreadable, as were their hieratic and demotic or simplified scripts.1 The written language was utterly strange to European eyes. The Description introduced an entirely new world, which, in respect to its inner relationships, its natural order and significance, was a complete riddle.

Façade of the temple of Edfu.

What would one not give, it was felt in Jomard’s day, to be able to solve the puzzle of the hieroglyphs! But was this possible? De Sacy, the great Parisian Orientalist, said that “the problem is too complicated, scientifically insoluble.” On the other hand there was no denying that a little German schoolteacher by the name of Grotefend, from Göttingen, had published a paper that correctly pointed the way to deciphering the cuneiform writing of Persepolis. Already his method was showing results. And whereas Grotefend had had extraordinarily little material to work with, now innumerable hieroglyphic inscriptions were available for examination. Furthermore, one of Napoleon’s soldiers by sheer good luck had found a remarkable slab of black basalt. Even the journalists who first reported this find realized that the Rosetta Stone was the key to the solution of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. But where was the man who knew how to make use of this tablet?

Shortly after the discovery of the famous stele an article about it appeared in the Courrier de l’Égypte, under a dateline that read, in Revolutionary style: “le 29 fructidor, VIIe année de la République” (“Fructidor 29, Year 7 of the Republic”). By the rarest coincidence this Egyptian newspaper turned up in the parental home of the man who, in a work of unparalleled genius, some twenty years later was actually to read the inscription on the black slab and so solve the riddle.

1 Demotic writing was a simplified or popular form of hieratic writing, which in turn was an abridged form of hieroglyphic writing that had assumed a cursive character. Hieratic was used for all literature, both secular and religious, until the demotic became prevalent, when hieratic was reserved for religious writing.—Ed.

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