An early 19th century treasure digitised

You may have read in December last year of a clash in Cairo in which the Egyptian Scientific Institute burned, along with many rare and precious books and manuscripts.

The Institute has a long history in Egypt. Sennari House, or Beit Al-Sennari, was the original location, established by Napoleon Bonaparte’s French expedition to Egypt in 1798 as a counterpart to the French Scientific Institute in Paris.

Under the supervision of Comte Gaspard Monge, who led the institute at the time, scientists and historians worked to monitor the country’s ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic history, as well as its contemporary life and geographical, industrial and agricultural aspects. Using this huge mass of data, they wrote and published the famous 24 volume Description de l’Egypte in 1809 – 1829.

Following the expedition’s departure, some French scientists remained in Egypt to revive the institute, which was relocated in 1859 to Alexandria where it gained its current name. In 1880, the institute returned to Cairo and was housed in the Qasr Al-Aini building, which was placed on Egypt’s Islamic heritage list in 1995.

The Egyptian Scientific Institute housed about 40,000 rare books and manuscripts that predated the French expedition, including 1,635 books and maps. It held drawings of bridges, aqueducts and dams; the Déscription published in 24 volumes; and 18th-century periodicals published by organisations that no longer exist. Among the invaluable items are an atlas of ancient Indian arts, a German atlas of Egypt and Ethiopia published in 1842 and Egypt: Mother of the World, written in 1753. It was known to be the richest and rarest library in Egypt.

Sadly, one of the treasures lost in the fire was an original edition (fortunately not the only one) of the multi-volume Description de L’Egypte.

Painting of Egypt's treasures that is the frontispiece of Description de L'Egypte

Frontispiece to The Description of Egypt, a book in the public domain for some time and published by the French government from 1809-1823.

Description de L’Egypte was the outcome of the collaboration of the scholars and scientists, popularly known as the savants, and some 2000 talented artists and technicians who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt in 1798. For over 20 years they systematically examined all aspects of contemporary and ancient Egyptian civilisation. The vision of a single comprehensive publication amalgamating all that the French discovered in Egypt was conceived already in November 1798, when Joseph Fourier was entrusted with the task of uniting the reports from the various disciplines for later publication. When the French army left Egypt in 1801, the savants took with them a large quantities of unpublished notes, drawings, and various collections of smaller artifacts that they could smuggle unnoticed past the British. All this material was used in producing over 20 volumes of text and plates of unmatched detail and accuracy. Historically these engravings became the most comprehensive record and inventory of Egypt’s land, monuments and society.

The typographical quality of the texts, the beauty of engravings, and the unusual formats (the Mammutfolio is 1m x .81m) makes Description de l’Égypte an exceptional work.

A panorama of Alexandria drawn for the Description de L'Egypte

Description de l'Egypte, Etat Moderne II, Plate 97, Panoramic view across the Great Harbour and Kom el-Dikka from the parade ground, drawn c.1798, published in the Panckoucke edition of 1821-9

With the efforts of the Bibliotecha Alexandria’s International School of Information Science (ISIS), the preservation of this incredible collection has been made possible. The 11 plate volumes owned by the Bibliotecha and the 9 text volumes that were owned by l’Institut d’Egypte have been fully digitised and made available online.

The site allows you to browse and read or to search for specific keyword and locate them either in the text or plates.

Website: http://descegy.bibalex.org/

If you have any interest in the history of Egypt this is well worth a browse for the plates alone – magnificent illustrations and the most complete early record of Egypt’s antiquities.

Plate 8 of the Description de L'Egypte showing the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx

Plate 8 of the Description de L'Egypte showing the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx

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