Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was a military disaster,* but the Army of the Orient wasn’t the only army that Napoleon brought with him to Egypt.
A commission of some 160 savants–scientists, artists, engineers, and scholars–accompanied the invading army, bringing with them virtually every book on Egypt available, dozens of crates of scientific instruments and a printing press “borrowed” from the Vatican. Their job was to record and analyze every aspect of Egypt’s antiquities, culture, geography, and history. Unlike the military invasion, the scholarly invasion was a roaring success.
Napoleon’s scholars made topographical maps. They collected minerals, plants, animals and artifacts.** They made plaster casts of things that couldn’t be easily collected. They measured anything that could be measured. They recorded the sites of ancient Egypt in exquisite detail.
When the French army surrendered at Alexandria in September, 1801, the scholars were forced to turn over their collection of antiquities, but were able to keep their copies, drawings and notes. Back in France, they organized their materials for publication. The commission’s publications ranged from a popular travel account by artist Baron Vivant Denan to the official 23-volume Description of Egypt, published between 1809 and 1813.
In the short run, Napoleon’s army of scholars triggered a fashion for things made in the Egyptian style (loosely defined). In the long run, the meticulously recorded details of Egyptian antiquities provided the raw material for serious study.