Savants/Rosetta Stone

Savants/Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone

On his 1798 expedition to conquer Egypt, Napoleon also took along 167 savants, or French intellectuals. Some had been eager to join the expedition, but others had to be persuaded to join. A few of the savants traveled on the same ship with Napoleon, who insisted that at dinner they participate in debates on topics he personally selected.

In Egypt, the savants were involved in governmental procedure that directly benefited the French occupying forces and the indigenous population; they worked on surveys and historical research, and they published a variety of printed material. The latter had particular merit, for this was the first publishing to be done in Egypt with a modern printing press, which Napoleon had brought along.

The savants also traveled all over Egypt from the pyramids to Luxor to study and record the flora, fauna, local customs, and geography of the country. Dominique Vivant Denon was particularly enthusiastic about recording and measuring the ancient monuments.

These studies laid the foundation for the field of Egyptology. Along with many other artifacts, many of them stolen and cut out of monuments, the savants also acquired the Rosetta Stone, which, with the same inscription in three languages, became the key for deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

After their return to France in 1801, the savants began to publish numerous memoirs, diaries, and scholarly accounts of their journey and findings. The multi volume Description de l’Égypte contained a complete history of Egypt to modern times, a full census of cities, tribes, cultural habits, geography, music, astronomy, and technical reports.

French technicians had also studied the feasibility of building the Suez Canal. Although based on an incorrect survey, they had concluded it would be possible. These findings gave further impetus for the future construction of a canal to join the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. These publications created a passion for all things Egyptian among Europeans.

Egypt was added to the Grand Tour itinerary, and a major tourist industry evolved in Egypt. The expedition and the publications by the savants also drew the attention of European governments to the potential importance of Egypt and other parts of the region in terms of imperial holdings.