If you have been following the numerous blogs on this website you are aware that the Brooklyn Museum has organized an exhibition of Egyptian objects entitled To Live Forever which is now on tour. Among the objects in the show is a very special treasure from the Wilbour Library of Egyptology, a volume from the series entitled the “Description de l’Egypte”. Published in the early 19th century, these volumes are the product of Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to Egypt (1798-1801). The purpose of this monumental work, published between 1809 and 1822, was to describe and illustrate antiquities, plants, animals and contemporary life found in Egypt and the resulting volumes are an exquisite snapshot of life in Egypt in the nineteenth century. Here are two images from volume 2 of the folios focused on antiquities which illustrate specific objects as well as sites:
Thebes, Hypogees plate 56
Thebes, Qournah plate 43
It is fitting that a volume of the “Description” is part of an exhibition that reflects the eternal aspect of Egyptian life and certainly the ongoing interest in Egyptology. Throughout the text Egypt is repeatedly described as the birthplace of art and science. In the eyes of the French, successive periods of foreign domination had robbed Egyptian society of its former glory. Napoleon feared that soon nothing would be left and the “Description” was seen as a way of preserving, at least on paper, what could be found in Egypt when he and his troops were there. Although some monuments so beautifully described in the “Description” have not survived, many more have been preserved and restored no small part due to the interest in Egypt generated by the “Description” and similar publications that followed it.