A Brief History of Travelers to Egypt, Part III

A Brief History of Early Travelers to Egypt

Part Three

By Marie Parsons

In May of 1798 Napoleon sailed from Toulon, France with 328 ships and 38,000 men to Egypt to attempt to carve out a new empire in the East. While the French military were fighting the English and the Mamelukes, the corps of perhaps 175 scholarly civilians, including astronomers, botanists, geologists, chemists, mineralogists, painters, Orientalists, technicians and poets, along with a large library containing practically every book on the land of the Nile then available in France, and also dozens of crates of scientific apparatus and measuring instruments, surveyed and mapped the country and gathered whatever information they could.

One of these artists was a young man named Dominique Vivant Denon, who drew Karnak, the ruins of Thebes (modern Luxor), Denon sketched the Saqqara Step-Pyramid built by Djoser the gigantic remains of Dendera, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the temples at Philae, and the charming, pillared chapel of Amenhotep III, leaving the only extant picture of it, because in 1822 it was torn down. Their work was published as the 24-volume La Description de LEgypte. Denon wrote his own account in another book called With Napoleon in Egypt, and this work, its accompanying atlas, and the Description, give in many cases the only drawings and descriptions left of many buildings later plundered and outright demolished. The work of these scholars galvanized a hunger for all things Egyptian. Many native Egyptians and foreigners began to specialize as antiquities dealers, including Giovanni Anastasi, Bernadino Drovetti, and Henry Salt.. They assembled thousands of objects, conducted their own excavations and bought everything they thought to be of interest. Giovanni Battista Belzoni even managed to transport the upper section of a colossal statue of Ramesses II from western Thebes to London.

But the thirst for knowledge about the monuments and sites continued with the removal of artifacts and objects. In 1828, together with Ippolito Rossellini, Jean Francis Champollion, who would later accomplish the decipherment of hieroglyphics, traveled the length of Egypt as far as Abu Simbel, copying texts and translating them. These were published by Rossellini under the title I Monumenti dellEgitto e della Nubia. Champollion also discovered the Turin Museums Royal Papyrus that had fallen apart into numerous fragments. It contained a chronological table, a list of kings that expanded upon the tables of Abydos.

Karl Richard Lepsius was commissioned by the King of Prussia to record all the Egyptian and Nubian monuments. He traveled between 1842 and 1845 and his work was published in the twelve-volume edition called Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien. It contained no less than 894 color plates.

The first major excavations took place around this time as the drawings and records were being kept. Auguste Mariette came to Egypt in 1850 to acquire Coptic manuscripts. When he failed at that task he started excavating at Saqqara, uncovering the subterranean burial places of the sacred bulls of Apis, the Serapeum. He went on to dig in 1857 at Abydos, Thebes and Elephantine, and was named Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service the following year. He eventually led a total of seventeen major digs throughout Egypt, and was the first to take measures to protect the digs and their discoveries from intruders. He fenced off the sites and transported many smaller objects to Cairo.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was the first systematic excavator who also recorded the context of his excavations, influencing all subsequent work in Egypt.

Gustavus Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow opened up the area of linguistic research, establishing a headquarters for analysis of ancient texts. They published the Dictionary of the Egyptian language. They were followed by Kurt Sethe, Walter Ewing Crum, and Sir Alan H. Gardiner, among others.

Related Articles:

Part I

Part II


Egypt the World of the Pharaohs edited by Schulz and Seidel
Secrets of the Pharaohs by Ian MacMahan
The Search for Ancient Egypt by Jean Vercoutter
The World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson