Come on Boney, light my fire
A new exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris, "Bonaparte and Egypt... Fire and Light", highlights a very important episode in Franco- Egyptian relations, says Nevine El-Aref
The 1798 Egyptian campaign led by Napoleon Bonaparte was undoubtedly a military failure, but the battalion of 160 scientists -- and certain brilliant officers -- added up to a force that generated a celebrated episode in history.
Focussing on the French expedition, the theme of Paris's new exhibition "Bonaparte and Egypt... Fire and Light" covers a century of relations between Egypt and France. The symbolic outline of this period is measured by two dates: the birth in 1769 of Bonaparte and Mohamed Ali Pasha -- Egypt's first modern sovereign, who advanced the country to a new era -- and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
With the naissance of Egyptology, the unique style, the publication of La Description de L'Égypte, and the expansion of Orientalism: the influence of Egypt in France was preponderant in this period even though the role of France was determined to give Egypt access to modernity.
To set up the exhibition, the Arab World Institute (IMA) assigned a Franco-Egyptian scientific committee that explored the largest museums in Egypt, America and Europe and carefully selected some 400 artefacts that bore witness to the époque for display and could be loaned for the next six months.
The exhibition suggests a new view of the rapport between France and Egypt in the 19th century, especially in the era that followed Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt between 1798 and 1801. This point of historic departure will provide the opportunity for cross observation of the artistic exchanges between both countries.
The chronological limits were fixed between 1770 and 1870 until the end of the 19th century through representations of the Egyptian campaign by French artists. The confrontation of Bonaparte's troops with the Egyptian civilisation, more antique than modern, were a real cultural shock. Chronological events also confounded the French and Egyptian vision of a strong moment in the history of the two countries, one that envisaged rich cultural, political and economic mutual growth.
In fact it was the paucity of Egyptian iconographic representations that permitted the creation of that iconic French collection of illustrations that became La Description de L'Égypte, which will now serve as a parallel guide through the IMA exhibition while the Egyptian texts will constitute the main current. The exhibition begins with the mutual culture shock felt by both civilisations by demonstrating, in preamble, the vision that the French might have on Egypt. This will be shown through a display of maps and memoires of such travellers as Pococke, Lucas, Norden, Savary and Volney, whose information was sometimes beyond fantasy but impregnated of the rays of ideology that fed the imaginations of Frenchmen such as Bonaparte. From here, the first aspects of Egyptian fashion in France will be created with edifices, engravings and representations featuring Egypt through these myths and truths -- truths that are sometimes distorted.
We then see Egypt as a province of the Ottoman Empire at the time when the French come to explore it. The country itself is presented complete with its geography, architecture, residential buildings and landmarks. Views of Cairo, its houses, its architectural style and the display of everyday 18th-century tools and instruments illustrate this starting point.
The next section features political, social and economic aspects of Egypt, focussing on the Mameluke era and particularly the incumbent Sultan Selim III, the government and Egypt's diverse population, as well as glimpses of its first direct exchanges between Egypt and France.
Bonaparte's departure for Alexandria with his military and scientific expeditions, representing the elite in all disciplines: mathematicians, chemists, astronomers, naturalists, engineers, geographers, architects, sculptors, painters, writers, men of letters and interpreters, are then displayed. After a small briefing on the campaign, the exhibition presents the Mamelukes, the core Egyptian army which met the French troops. The French army is readily evoked though some distinguished personalities such as generals Kléber and Menou. Tableaux, engravings and paintings representing the historic details of the campaign and its landmark bathes of the Pyramids and the Nile, as well as the Cairo revolt, are shown along with some English and German caricatures giving quite another vision of the Bonaparte expedition.
The core of the exhibition is its scientific aspect and the mission of the savants to explore the riches of Egypt. This scholarship enabled the creation of L'Institut d'Egypte and the arrival of the first printing house in Egypt.
In parallel, the exhibition displays masterpieces of Pharaonic art reproduced in La Description de L'Égypte or brought to France by members of the expedition. The figure of the Egyptologist Champollion, who completed the deciphering of the hieroglyphic codes, is also represented.
Everything Egyptian became fashionable in France at the beginning of the 19th century, and Egyptian Orientalism touched upon every aspect of art. The IMA exhibition recreates an ideal Egyptian interior featuring the époque of the empire with its rich and varied edifices.
Paris itself was also overwhelmed by Egyptian inspiration; the arrival of the first giraffe and the erection of the Luxor obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, both gifts of Mohamed Ali to France that embodied the firm diplomatic ties between the two nations. At the same time studies of the Arabic language and eastern sciences developed with the publications of Sylvestre de Sacy and the paintings of Prisse d'Avennes and Pascal Cotes, who presented the Islamic patrimony as shown by painters Marilhat and Dauzats.
The legend that grew up around the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt fed artists' imagination during the 19th century, and medallions, statuettes and historic paintings interpreting such events are also represented.
Following the departure of the French, emblematic figures emerged to make their mark on Egypt's history. Foremost among them was Mohamed Ali Pasha and his son Ibrahim Pasha. who led the country to modernity. An Egyptian mission led by Refaa El-Tahtawi went to France in 1826, and in the early 1830s the utopia of Saint-Simoniens found in Egypt a place of exercise. Suleiman Pasha El-Faransawi, Clot Beg, Jomard and Auguste Mariette helped in the progression of their respective fields of the military, health, the Egyptian institute and the ancient Egyptian heritage. With their help Egypt took part in the Paris exhibition of 1867, where the country was represented as a grand independent nation wishing to be linked with the nations of the West. The climax on the entente was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The exhibition ends with the artistic extent of this France- Egypt dialogue and its influence of Islamic objets d'art and the French industrial arts.
The exhibition was opened on Monday by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and his French counterpart, Christine Albanel, in the presence of Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), Dominique Baudis, president of the IMA, Egypt's ambassador to France Nasser Kamil and the general commissar of the exhibition, Badrul Din Arodaki.
Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly that the exhibition fell within the framework of the strong relations of friendship between Egypt and France, as well as the re-emergence of the fusion of the Egyptian civilisation with France's cultural life.
"Despite the fact that the Bonaparte campaign was a military expedition to Egypt, the brighter side is that it was an early means of Egypt's renaissance before the reign of Mohamed Ali, which witnessed the rebirth of culture and science and a sensation of Egypt's heritage which flourished during the campaign." Hosni added: "The inauguration of this exhibition is not so much to celebrate the expedition but to look at and focus on its cultural side.
"The first-ever printing house entered Egypt with this expedition, and its scientists were responsible for exploring Egypt's heritage, archaeological sites and monuments. They were also the first to decipher hieroglyphs and enable the whole world to learn more about the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Hawass said Egypt had loaned 74 objects selected from five museums in Egypt to the exhibition. These included 31 wooden items inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Islamic Museum, nine burners and tea containers from the Manila Palace, 10 from the Gayer Anderson House, four from the Coptic Museum and 11 pieces from the collection of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum. Among these are 10 letters from the Napoleonic printing house.
Gihan Zaki, a member of the Franco-Egyptian committee that organised the exhibition, said that with the Mameluke era that preceded the Bonaparte expedition, with its distinguished style of architecture, weaponry, costume and manuscripts, appealed to the French, but that most Egyptian collections on display lacked items from this period.
Arodaki saw the 974 paintings on show as representing several sagas of Egyptian civilisation, as do the 47 maps which are among the most attractive items and give a true picture of Egypt during this 100-year-long period of history.