‘…after Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, Europe came to know the Orient more scientifically, to live in it with greater authority and discipline than ever before.'
- Edward Said – Orientalism
Egypt Ruled'Great reputations are only made in the Orient; Europe is too small'.
- Napoleon to Talleyrand, 1798. Juan Cole – Napoleon’s Egypt
Napoleon must have himself following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great whose Greek general founded the Ptolemy Dynasty; and the Caesars whose invasion plans caused the death of the last Ptolemy, Cleopatra lead to 600 years of Roman/Byzantine rule.
In 1798 the time of Napoleon’s great ‘expedition’, Egypt was ruled by the Ottoman Empire having taken control of Cairo and Alexandria from the Mamluks in 1517 but the Mamluks never really disappeared and with the Bedouin posed a resistance to Napoleon’s forces. Originating from Georgia where in the early 13th century they were captured and trained by Genghis Khan, the Mamluks were sold as slave soldiers to the Caliphs of Egypt. The Arab Caliphs had ruled Egypt since A.D. 639 but the Mamluks reversed the tables creating a Mamluk Sultanate in 1250.
Britain and France
‘Napoleon’s interest in the Orient was contingent of his sense of the British role in India: all these Far Eastern interests directly influenced French interest in the Near East, Islam and the Arabs.’
- E. Said. Orientalism
France was aware that Britain’s income from her Indian Colony was fuelling the expansion of her navy and it was argued that taking the port of Alexandria could harm her trade links. It would seem that Napoleon’s idea was to use Egypt, while ‘civilising’ her, as some kind of Oriental springboard to assist his future campaign to take Europe for France.
His civilising force took the form of 167 savants who would record the art, architecture and natural history of Egypt while at the same time improving infrastructure in Cairo. The scientific knowledge gained and later published as ‘Description de L’Egypt’ would be for Europe, according Said, the more significant role played by Napoleon in Egypt. The discovery and subsequent deciphering of the Rosetta Stone allowed the translation of Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the ‘Description’ now published re-awakened Europe’s romantic interest in Egypt leading 19th century artists, writers and poets to engage with the imaginings of the Oriental sublime.
After two gruelling years of heat, disease, Mamluk attack, Arab and Ottoman resistance taking their toll on the French invasion force; Napoleon was forced to see the inevitable. He was recalled to Paris in 1800 but the French force stayed on in Egypt for another year and were eventually repatriated to France.
Though Egypt contains life-giving wadis in which palms and trees flourish and provide food and shelter; the vast expanse of Egypt is a desert filled with the nasty creatures that creep and crawl and attack the flesh. Even the life giving Nile that provides an environment for a myriad of fish and water birds also carries disease and large predators in the form of the Nile crocodile and hippopotamus.
The imagery for the foliage of the trees and palms on the upper section of the vase relates to fabric patterns; Arabian stripes, cords with tassels, Turkish printed cottons and twisted silks, Georgian woven Ikats and Indian printed cotton Chintz. They represent for the Napoleon character the image of the romantic abundance of Egypt that beckoned him. The reality was far different for his men with life and death scenarios played out daily in an effort to survive.
Many of the images on the lower part of the vase are taken from the engravings of the ‘Description de L’Egypt’ the monumental tome that was printed some years later. Many savants made natural history drawings but the important zoologist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is known to have completed many including that of the beautiful image of the mongoose.
The scarab beetles on the neck of the vase represent ancient Egypt and the blue prawn-like fronds and stylised lotus and papyrus flowers are rendered in the French style of Art Nouveau.
Painting of the vase was begun in Jingdezhen in China and completed in Marseilles, France.