The Napoleonic Expeditions

The French were among the earliest modern explorers to "discover" the monuments of ancient Egypt. In 1672, King Louis XIV commissioned an expedition to Egypt for the express purpose of obtaining antiquities. The initial forays into the Nile Valley met with little success, although they did lay the groundwork for future exploration. The most notable, ambitious, and productive of the early expeditions to Egypt was undertaken by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon arrived in Egypt on July 1, 1798, accompanied by 4000 soldiers and 139 scholars, scientists, and artists. The goals of the expedition were to expand the French empire to the east, to secure a route to India, and to collect information about ancient and modern Egypt.

One week after the expedition reached Cairo, the British destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile, stranding Napoleon and his company in Egypt. The only option was to head up the Nile as planned, a journey that would last for three years and claim the lives of a third of the scholars involved. The most significant discovery made by Napoleon's forces was the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering the enigmatic hieroglyphic script. Uncovered in July 1799 by engineers constructing defense works near Rosetta, the stone was inscribed with three versions of a royal decree issued in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V. The versions were written in Greek and two forms of Egyptian, hieroglyphic and demotic. Comparison of the three texts ultimately resulted in the translation of the Egyptian scripts by the brilliant French linguist, Jean Franois Champollion, in the 1820s.

Despite its inauspicious beginning, the Napoleonic expedition would forever change the study of ancient Egypt, providing the first accurate, in-depth examination of the country and its monuments. The drawings and paintings executed by the expedition's artists sparked tremendous interest in ancient Egypt throughout Europe. Perhaps the most noteworthy product of the expedition was the Description de l'ƒgypte, a massive nineteen volume account published in installments and containing tomb plans, maps, and representations of many previously unknown monuments.

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