Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Le voile se lève: epistemological trends and perceptions of pre-Napoleonic Egypt

Je suis tout ce qui a été et qui sera ; nul mortel ne pourra lever mon voile. [I am everything that has been and will be; no mortal shall be able to raise my veil]—Voltaire[i]

In the minds of the writers of the famous Description de l’Egypte published after the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt in the early 1800’s, the destinies of France and Egypt had long been interlinked. Had not, after all, the conquest of the nation been proposed from the time of the Crusades to that of Louis XIV?[ii] France had united all of its best efforts for the conquest of Egypt and all of its best artistic efforts for the description of it, which the writers now stated had at last produced a precise knowledge.[iii] Yet in this post factum approach to the epistemological revolution of sorts, much has been obscured and misconstrued about how this fusion of knowledge and conquest came to pass.

Some such as Maya Jasanoff have made the argument that France’s entrance into Egypt was driven by a desire primarily by imperialist competition with Britain and that consequently the birth of Egyptology was largely driven by imperialism. While I do not contest the validity of this argument as a narrative for these historical phenomena, here I will trace another narrative of knowledge about Egypt over the course of the century prior to the Napoleonic conquest and how this knowledge shaped and altered French conceptions and biases about Egypt ultimately ending in conquest.

While it is true that the first manifestation of the idea of conquering Egypt made its appearance more than one hundred years before the Napoleonic conquest to Louis XIV, we should not forget that this idea was not a French one. In fact, the proposal for the conquest of Egypt was presented to Louis by none other than the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who acting in the interests of his country sought to divert French ambitions from Holland and the Holy Roman Empire and focus them instead on a military venture far away from Europe in Egypt. To this end, he applied all of his cunning in drafting the proposal to play upon Louis XIV’s ambition and Catholicism. In conquering Egypt, Leibniz said, Louis would be following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great creating an empire of the East, while at the same time winning a great victory for Christendom as a neo-Crusader.[iv]

While Louis may have been flattered by this proposal, he recognized it for what it was: a contrived plan of conquest whose author had no first hand knowledge of Egypt and used ancient and modern travel sources to discuss rather preposterously things such as the fortifications of Egypt.[v] Louis’s reply was diplomatic: Crusades had been ‘out of fashion’ since Louis IX (1226-1270).[vi] With that, the proposal passed out of knowledge until it was rediscovered and sent to Napoleon after the conquest of Egypt was well under way in September 1798.[vii]

Yet, the lack of first hand knowledge behind this proposal is precisely what is most interesting about it because it characterizes the state of knowledge about Egypt, or rather the dearth of it. For a long time, Egypt seems to have remained quite an obscure topic for individuals seeking to learn more about this mysterious, eastern land. In France, there had only been a precious few travelers’ accounts and remarks to be gleaned from classical texts, when Benoît de Maillet first sat down to write his memoires which would later become his Description de l’Égypte in 1735.[viii] For him, many questions remained unanswered on the origins of the Nile, the nature of the Nile, the country’s climate, the country’s productions, the country’s mores, the country’s religion, the nature of the ancient monuments, and finally the secrets that the country’s monuments held.[ix] It was a strange paradox that so little was known about a country which had such rich commerce and could control the Red Sea route to India.[x]

Yet, this lack of knowledge and interest in Egypt were soon to change. De Maillet’s original publication seems to have had quite the salutary effect of propagating the study of Egypt as his description was later republished five years later in 1740. Some years later, another writer Pierre d’Origny took up de Maillet’s mantel and went on to publish a history of Ancient Egypt where he continued to lament the dearth of sources and knowledge about Egypt, while simultaneously attempting to establish a chronology of the Pharaohs.[xi] Again, though, the problem endemic to his studies was a need for d’Origny to make history of Egypt better known and relevant to his readers.[xii]

Yet, the man who perhaps had an even greater impact on the growing interest in Egypt in light of future events was none other than Voltaire whose Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations appearing in 1756 attempted to sum up knowledge known on Egypt and answer several of the questions posed by his predecessors. Egypt was still a mysterious place religiously, geographically, linguistically etc. Perhaps, the best image of this mystery that Voltaire presents and the one that gained currency afterwards was a statue of Isis, which he reports quoting Plutarch as bearing the following inscription, “I am everything that has been and will be; no mortal shall be able to raise my veil.”[xiii] While the French philosopher does commit several schoolboy howlers in his translation of Plutarch’s Greek translating veil for πέπλος (peplos, a Greek full body garment with a hood) where the correct word for veil would have been κάλυμμα, what is more interesting is that he does. [xiv]

The image of Isis, who as the best known Ancient Egyptian god to Westerners at this time metonymically speaks for Egypt in the inscription, is subtly altered by this mistranslation. Where raising the peplos of the goddess would have revealed her nude body and the secrets of the Isis cult, raising the veil of the goddess makes her essentially an image of the Orient, whose women are hidden jealously by their husbands in the eyes of the West from antiquity onwards.[xv] Egypt, as grammatically feminine in the French language (l’Égypte), was soon naturally conceived as a feminine country masked beneath a veil imposed by its tyrannical government in French minds from this time onwards. This veil soon became a French trope for talking about Westerners’ lack of knowledge about Egypt and also the tyranny of its masters, as it will be clearer later on.

For Voltaire, interested in how the development of the human spirit, the Egyptians dominated by such tyranny were hardly an appealing people. They had once perhaps been great and built great monuments, but those monuments were the product of slavery, despotism, and vanity.[xvi] They were also a weak and easily conquerable people. As he writes, “Never in known history were the Egyptians strong; never did an enemy enter their land and not subjugate them.”[xvii] In this negative portrayal of the Egyptians, Voltaire further created the notion of the inferiority of the Egyptians, whom he elsewhere labels ‘the most cowardly of peoples.’[xviii]

These notions of Egyptian inferiority stuck and were only reinforced by the descriptions brought back by travelers in the next couple of decades. As excitement for Egypt grew, the search for knowledge on the country and also ideas of its vulnerability and value were inextricably linked. About fifteen years prior to the Napoleonic invasion in 1798, Frenchman Claude Savary traveled to the Orient where he spent several years exploring and learning about Egypt and the Orient even learning to speak Arabic fluently. His series of letters to a friend back home were subsequently published under the royal seal of approval in a work entitled Lettres sur l’Égypte. In this work, he explored all sorts of topics about Egypt seeking to fill the void and raise the veil of mystery all the while discussing the riches of the country.[xix] Savary’s work soon met with success at home with the public, who began clamoring to learn more on Egypt via more letters.[xx]

Yet the picture that Savary paints of Egypt is like Voltaire’s before him quite bleak. The Egyptian government is tyrannical. The women of Egypt, to whom Savary pays special attention, unlike their free Western counterparts are masked beneath veils and the tyranny of their husband.[xxi] Especially troubling for Savary is what he views as a backward land is the superstition, mistrust, and ignorance of the Egyptians.[xxii] For Egyptians, Westerners are magicians and thieves as Savary writes citing an incident that befell a Westerner trying to explore and draw an ancient monument:

“Don’t light up your censer”, said gravely the Arab who was guiding him, “for fear that we might be caught immediately and something bad happen to us.”

“What do you mean? I don’t have a censer, fire, or incense.”

“Are you being funny? A foreigner like you does not come here out of pure curiosity.”

“Why’s that?”

“I know that you know by your science the place where is hidden the large chest full of gold that our fathers left us. If people see your censer, they’ll think that you’ve come here to open our casket by virtue of your magic spells and steal our treasure.”[xxiii]

The Egyptians then for Savary are an ignorant, superstitious people who fear Westerners are sorcerers and try to obstruct them in their quest for knowledge about the antiquities and monuments of Egypt.[xxiv] At another point in his letters, Savary further bemoans the situation of knowledge in Egypt in connection with antiquities. Confronted by a great labyrinth buried beneath the sands, Savary wishes that perhaps one day when Europe will give Egypt the sciences it received from it, the sands will be cleared away to reveal precious antiquities.[xxv] The past then in Egypt is neglected by the Egyptians, who know no better. They lack a proper education and hence it is the role of Europe to return to the East what the East gave to the West, though Savary does not say precisely how Europe would go about educating Egypt.

Similarly, Savary’s fellow travel writer, Constantin Volney had little good to say about the Egyptians publishing his narrative shortly after Savary in 1786. As a fellow traveler who adapted to the people and learned the language, Volney exposed the terrible state of political affairs in Egypt and paid particular attention to the state of the army in Egypt. The army of Egypt according to Volney knew nothing of modern military formations and was completely without order. The kind of war it waged was little more than brigandage.[xxvi]

Back in France, for readers of Savary and Volney along with Voltaire, Egypt must have seemed like a far off backward land that was undoubtedly inferior to Westerners militarily, governmentally, educationally, etc. hidden beneath a veil of uncertainty. However, it was art that first put into words the idea of conquest and colonialism, which came to later be espoused by the French Republic. In 1790, the Royal Academy of Music staged an opera entitled Louis IX en Égypte to public acclaim winning the Prix 12 Sols. While opera is not traditionally known for being historically accurate, this opera has only the slimmest pretence of it, expressing in harmonies and arias a story of French moral dominance over Egypt with another story of Louis XVI’s ancestor and namesake’s accomplishments.

The story begins with the Soudan (sultan) of Egypt who has just concluded a peace treaty with Louis IX and is treacherously plotting to kill Louis. But the sultan’s wife, the sultana, who believes her husband has killed their son, has fallen in love with Louis’s irresistible virtue and vows to thwart her husband’s plan. Yet, Louis’s virtue and care for his people is unparalleled. He is a good king, who stands in sharp contrast to the tyrannical sultan in the eyes of even his soldiers. Singing in harmony, the Mameluke troops expound their loyalty to the French king:[xxvii]

The King (to his French troops) //The Mamelukes

Your love is my recompense. //What kindness! What clemency!

Oh my children! Oh my friends! //What! His subjects are his friends!

Ah! For the good of France! //And us, slaves since childhood,

May the people and their king always be united! //Under the yoke of a Tyrant we grovel enslaved.

Everyone in Unison

Long live the King! Long live our father!

We will follow him to the end of the earth!

He can count on our loyalty!

Long live the King! Long live the King!

In the end of this opera, Louis wins over the men sent to kill him and the Mamelukes kill the sultan. Louis then sets Almodan, the sultan’s lost son miraculously reappearing, on the throne and marries him to his daughter. Louis then gives Almodan some precious counsel on how to rule.[xxviii]

The King

May your happiness be the measure of the public’s

Sultan, may this day be cited with joy;

your subjects enfranchised from the yoke of slavery

Give liberty to all immediately.

The opera ends with the Sultan giving liberty to all of his slaves and to the women in his court. While this opera undoubtedly carried with it the ideas of liberty inherent to the French Revolution, the stage was nevertheless set for new ways of thinking about Egypt. Egypt in this opera becomes a land in which France has an almost colonialist role playing the role of civilizer, bringer of liberties, and institutor of good government in the backward lands of Egypt.

This rhetoric is not unfamiliar because it would find its place in the justifications and proposals put forth by the Minister of the Exterior, Charles Talleyrand, when justifying the Egyptian campaign. It was to be a venture not only to strike the English and seize an important trade route to India, but also a colonial venture for the French Republic.[xxix] The stage was now set for Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.

Of this invasion, I will say little because it has already been amply detailed elsewhere except for where the ideas of conquest pertain to French knowledge of Egypt. Napoleon, it should not go unnoticed, was well steeped in the ideas expounded by his predecessors about Egypt having met Savary earlier in his life and even traveled to Egypt with a copy of Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations in his personal library.[xxx]

When the situation in Egypt was falling apart and he needed a way to distract his people from how bad the situation was, the researches and explorations of the savants were an ideal solution with Napoleon going so far as to even found the National Institute of Egypt comprised of his savants and even himself.[xxxi] The research of the savants then in Egypt was inextricably tied to the political and ideological needs of the French occupation with, for example, Napoleon’s research questions posed to the Institute seeking means to make bread or produce gunpowder.[xxxii] While most of Napoleon’s questions were preoccupied with establishing and searching for knowledge related to the welfare of the army and understanding the political state of Egypt, the rhetoric of the savants about Egypt morphed to fit into this colonial paradigm with the Institute being seen by some as a means through which the ignorance of Egyptians could be amended by the French.[xxxiii]

Egypt, the savants might have thought was well underway being studied and the veil that had long hidden it from the Western view had been removed until political forces forced the evacuation of the French from Egypt. In the eyes of one prominent savant, Vivant Denon, who published an account of his travels to Egypt in 1802 after the withdrawal, the door had swung shut again on Egypt and the country was veiled again from Western eyes.[xxxiv]

However, Egypt did not retreat again under a veil, as Denon thought it would. The Description de l’Égypte—perhaps named in tribute after de Maillet’s own work—published by his fellow savants as well as the subsequent decipherment of hieroglyphs instead opened up Egypt more than ever to the West. New issues were to emerge in subsequent years, but many of the original themes first raised by travelers and savants of the time prior to the Napoleonic conquest such as antiquities and the epistemological superiority of the French over the Egyptians continued to remain prevalent into the 1800’s. The story of the development of French knowledge about Egypt then is history of how an original lack of knowledge and a quest for information on this mysterious land developed and shaped early conceptions and biases about Egypt, which stuck and influenced conceptions of that mysterious veiled land.

[i] Voltaire. Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations. p. 100

[ii] Description de l’Égypte. p. iii

[iii] ibidem. Prefatory Letter

[iv] Oeuvres de Leibniz p. 315, 319

[v] ibidem p. 81

[vi] ibidem p. 359: Je ne vous dis rien sur les projets d’une guerre sainte: mais vous savez qu’ils ont cessé d’être à la mode depuis saint Louis.

[vii] ibidem. p. xv

[viii] de Maillet p. iii

[ix] de Maillet p. iv-v

[x] de Maillet p. 187*

[xi] d’Origny p. xii

[xii] d’Origny p. xiv

[xiii] Voltaire. Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations. p. 100

[xiv] Plutarch De Iside et Osiride p. 354C: τὸ δ’ ἐν Σάι τῆς Ἀθηνᾶς, [] ἣν καὶ Ἶσιν νομίζουσιν, ἕδος ἐπιγραφὴν εἶχε τοιαύτην ἐγώ εἰμι πᾶν τὸ γεγονὸς καὶ ὂν καὶ ἐσόμενον καὶ τὸν ἐμὸν πέπλον οὐδείς πω θνητὸς ἀπεκάλυψεν. [The seated statue in Sai of Athena, which they believe to be Isis, has the following inscription, ‘I am everything that was and will be, and no mortal has ever lifted up my peplos.]

[xv] For the first perceptions of women behind the veil as a Western trope of women in the Orient, there is Plutarch’s remarks on barbarous nations in Plutarch Themistocles 26: τοῦ βαρβαρικοῦ γένους τὸ πολὺ καὶ μάλιστα τὸ Περσικὸν εἰς ζηλοτυπίαν τὴν περὶ τὰς γυναῖκας ἄγριον φύσει καὶ χαλεπόν ἐστιν. οὐ γὰρ μόνον τὰς γαμετάς, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰς ἀργυρωνήτους καὶ παλλακευομένας ἰσχυρῶς παραφυλάττουσιν, ὡς ὑπὸ μηδενὸς ὁρᾶσθαι τῶν ἐκτός, ἀλλ’ οἴκοι μὲν διαιτᾶσθαι κατακεκλειμένας, ἐν δὲ ταῖς ὁδοιπορίαις ὑπὸ σκηναῖς κύκλῳ περιπεφραγμένας ἐπὶ τῶν ἁρμαμαξῶν ὀχεῖσθαι. [The barbarous nations, and amongst them the Persians especially, are extremely jealous, severe, and suspicious about their women, not only their wives, but also their bought slaves and concubines, whom they keep so strictly that no one ever sees them abroad; they spend their lives shut up within doors, and, when they take a journey, are carried in close tents, curtained in on all sides, and set upon a wagon.]

[xvi] Voltaire p. 97

[xvii] Voltaire p. 92

[xviii] Voltaire p. 93

[xix] Savary vol. I p. iv

[xx] Savary vol II. p. i

[xxi] Savary I p. 116

[xxii] Savary II p. 114-5

[xxiii] Savary II p. 71: “N’allume pas ton ensensoir, lui dit gravement l’Arabe qui le conduisoit, de peur que nous ne soyons surpris sur le fait, et qu’il nous arrive malheur.—Que veux-tu dire? Je n’ai ni ensensoir, ni feu, ni encens.-- Tu te moques; un étranger comme toi ne vient point ici par pure curiosité.—Et pourquoi donc?—Je sais que tu connois par ta science l’endroit où est cache le grand coffre plein d’or que nos pères nous ont laissé. Si l’on voyait ton encensoir, l’on croirait bientôt que tu serois venu ici pour ouvrir notre coffer par la vertu de tes paroles magiques, et enlever notre trésor.”

[xxiv] Savary II p. 71

[xxv] Savary II p. 29

[xxvi] Volney p. 130, 163

[xxvii] Louis IX en Égypte p. 22

[xxviii] ibidem p. 31

[xxix] Allonville pp. 109-112

[xxx] Bonaparte. Correspondance IV p. 27-8 n. 4

[xxxi] idem. Mémoires p. 24; idem. Correspondance IV p. 383

[xxxii] idem. Correspondance IV p. 390

[xxxiii] Herbin de Halle p. 182; Denon ‘Rapport’ p. 132

[xxxiv] Denon. Voyages. p. viii

Works Cited

Allonville, Armand François. Mémoires tirés d’un homme d’État. vol. 2. Brussels: 1839

Bonaparte, Napoleon I. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier. 30 vol. Paris: (1858-1870)

-----------------------. Mémoires de Napoléon Bonaparte. Paris: 1821

Champollion, Jean François. L’Égypte sous les Pharaons. Grenoble: 1811

Denon, Vivant. “Rapport au nom d’une commission charge d’examiner un monument près du grand aqueduct du Caire.’ in Mémoires sur l’Égypte publiés pendants les campagnes du général Bonaparte. vol I (1799)

---------------. Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte. 2 vol. London: 1807

Description de l’Égypte. 2nd ed. vol I. Paris: 1821

Guillard, François and Andrieux, Jean. Louis IX en Égypte. Avignon: 1790

Herbin de Halle, P.E. Conquêtes des Français en Égypte. Paris : 1799

Leibniz, Gottfried. Œuvres de Leibniz. ed. A. Foucher de Careil. vol. 5. Paris: 1864

de Maillot, Benoît. Description de l’Égypte. Paris : 1735

d’Origny, Pierre. L’Égypte Ancienne. 2 vol. Paris : 1762

Savary, Claude. Lettres sur l’Égypte. 2 vol. Paris: 1785-6

Volney, Constantin. Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte. 2nd Ed. 2 vol. Paris : 1787

Voltaire, Hilaire. Œuvres completes de Voltaire. vol. 16. Paris : 1784