Description de l'Egypte (Description of Egypt)

La Description de l'Egypte was the outcome of the collaboration of more than 150 prominent scholars and scientists who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, and some 2000 talented artists and technicians.

For over 20 years, they systematically examined almost every aspect of contemporary and ancient Egyptian civilization, producing 20 volumes of text and plates of unmatched accuracy and detail. Historically these engravings became the most comprehensive record and inventory of Egypt's land and monuments.

La Description de l'Egypte was the outcome of a 20-year process, dependent on the talents and industry of some 2000 mechanics, draftsmen, cartographers, typographers and engravers.

Nothing similar had ever been attempted before. Not only did it give an illustrated account of Egypt's historic, cultural, artistic and religious treasures; it also described the topography and provided a detailed description of the flora, fauna and mineralogy of the country.

Every aspect of Egyptian life known during that period was precisely and accurately described.

In 1802, Bonaparte ordered the Imperial Press to begin publishing the visual record. The monumental work was published, in parts, between 1809 and 1822, in 20 volumes, known as the Imperial edition.

It included over 900 plates hand-colored copperplate-engravings and some 8,000 illustrations representing an exhaustive record of Egyptian history, architecture, antiquity, geography, natural history, botany and the humanities.

It is found in various editions of varying numbers of volumes: often at least 10 volumes of text, and 13 volumes of plates. The 13 volumes of plates have been recorded in three sections: Antiquities, the Modern State and Natural History. Hundreds of artists participated to produce more than 3,000 illustrations in a large size approximately 52x71cm format, edited by the best minds.

The illustrations cover wide-ranging themes such as historical constructions, flora and fauna, landscapes, customs of the inhabitants, industries, commerce, agriculture, tools and goods for daily use.

Initially, the work was published in instalments between 1809 and 1829. Four hundred copper engravers worked for 20 years on the 'Description'. They gathered information sufficient to produce what was the largest publication in the world at that time. Most of Egypt's heritage known at the time was systematically catalogued, mapped, and meticulously drawn, from the obelisks to the vast statues on the banks of the Nile, as well as the country's flora and fauna.

La Description de l'Egypte is a compilation of the work of some 160 civilians who accompanied Bonaparte, known to the soldiers as "the scientists", the members of the Commission of Science and the Arts and of the Egyptian Institute. It presents the results of an in-depth geographical, scientific, economic and even ethnological survey, carried out in a country which fascinated them. They drew up a precious map of Egypt, on the scale of 1/100,000°, which covered 47 sheets. They made countless plans and drawings of the most magnificent monuments of ancient and modern Egypt, notes, delicate watercolours on the trades and crafts of Cairo, files on Egypt's resources, industry and trade; they put together collections of antiquities and natural history specimens.

All this material, arranged in three sections: Antiquities, The Modern State, Natural History, plus a geographical Atlas, make up the bulk of the huge work which was begun in 1802 and published in installments up until 1829, spanning more than a quarter-century. The text of La Description de l'Egypte, printed in a thousand copies, filled 96 in-folio volumes, to which were added a Preface and a Notice in grand atlas format (70 x 54 cm). A total of nearly 7,000 pages, 157 entries written by 43 authors. The illustration of the volumes, 836 plates, of which about 60 in colour, etched or engraved in formats never used before (the largest covering a square metre) required the construction of new moulds and vats to make the paper and justified Nicolas Conté's invention of a machine designed to lighten than the engraver's task. New presses had to be built to print the huge images.

Some of them required two years' work. Nearly 200 engravers reproduced on copper plates the works of 62 draughtsmen, 46 of whom had participated in the expedition. The Arches paper mills supplied about 2,200,000 sheets of paper for the printing of the plates alone.

An outstanding testimony to an extraordinary adventure, scientific as much as military, La Description de l'Egypte is also a monument to French publishing. Napoleon, whose name stands alone at the head of the work, wanted it to be magnificent and magnificent it is. The Emperor followed the progress of the enterprise closely and decreed that the first volumes of La Description de l'Egypte would come out in 1809, for the tenth anniversary of his accession to power. In fact, distribution to subscribers could not begin until 1810 but the first title pages were post-dated to 1809 and so it is indeed a bicentenary that is celebrated in 2009.