Problems on hold
In my editorial of last week, which centred on the opening of the Suez Canal for navigation 150 years ago, I focused on the history of the Canal and its connection to Napoleon’s Military Campaign against Egypt in 1798 – 1801, commonly termed by Egyptians “The French Campaign”. The idea of digging a canal to join the Mediterranean and the Red Sea is historically attributed to members of the French Campaign; also many other ideas or achievements that reflect a French passion for Egypt.
While planning his military campaign against Egypt and the Levant, which were then parts of the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon was keen to include among his ranks a large number of scholars specialised in various fields, in addition to technicians and artists. Their task was to record and document everything they saw or encountered in Egypt, from the everyday life of Egyptians to the history and geography of the land. They charted the first accurate map of Egypt, and made many astounding discoveries that unveiled mysteries of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. Topping these was Champollion’s deciphering of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone, which unlocked the secret of hieroglyphs and led to an understanding of the ancient Egyptian language, opening thus the door for reading the texts and inscriptions on the walls of Egypt’s temples and monuments. This fanned French and European passion for Egypt and her antiquities.
All of which brings me to the seemingly unending controversy: can the French Campaign be viewed today in a colonial light, or in an enlightenment perspective? I am well aware that the French Campaign started off as a colonial military attack which Egyptians resisted with all their power during the three years that it lasted, until Napoleon had to retract his troops due to political unrest back in France. However, when he departed from Egypt, he left behind all the scholars whom he had brought into Egypt. The achievements and discoveries of these scholars were so numerous, varied, and impactful that, as time passed, the colonial aspect of the French Campaign faded before the bright cultural enlightenment that it generated.
A look into some of the significant ways the French Campaign impacted Egypt yields a variety of facts.
The Campaign paved the road for replacement of the outdated Ottoman administrative system in Egypt by a modern, efficient one. Egyptians were introduced to French civil administration that included such procedures as keeping records of births and deaths. French tribunal and judicial systems found their way into Egypt; many Egyptian laws derive from the French, and the entire Egyptian judicial system is modelled after the French.
In 1798, by order of Napoleon, the French scholars founded the Institut d’Égypte based on the Institut de France, to carry out extensive studies on Egypt. The institute, which lives on to this day, included departments of Mathematics, Physics, Natural History, Economy, Politics, Literature and the Arts, and conducted unprecedented research activity. Although the institute ran through periods during which its activity was halted, it always sprang back to life. The Institut d’Égypte can be said to represent the memory of Egypt, and has been her historical archive throughout 221 years (1798 – 2019).
It was the French Campaign that introduced Egypt to her first printing press, leading to the printing and publishing of many writings, documents, drawings and maps that recorded the history, geography, and daily activity of Egyptians. These were documented in the gem of an encyclopaedic tome Déscription de l’Égypte, to this day among the greatest and most valuable references on Egypt.
The French Campaign established the Egyptian Archaeological Authority to regulate Egypt’s archaeological activity, care for ancient sites and document them. The Egyptian Archaeological Authority was also responsible for collecting ancient artefacts and displaying them in museums to safeguard and exhibit them to Egyptians and the entire world as the invaluable heritage that they are.
It must be acknowledged that the French Campaign worked a huge cultural shock in Egypt and the world by manifesting the great civilisational gap that existed then between the East and West. The West was introduced to palpable examples of the great ancient Egypt civilisation, refuelling the passion of the French for Egypt. Egyptians, for their part, were awakened to modern western civilisation and progress. This ignited the first spark of cultural and scientific exchange between Egypt and France, opening the door for countless Egyptian students to go to France for study, and return home bearing torches of enlightenment. This was especially important during the time of Muhammad Ali who started his reign as ruler of Egypt in 1805, and the times that followed.
There can be no two opinions that the French Campaign in Egypt yelled far beyond the military aspect into the enlightenment sphere. Through the French contribution on so many cultural fronts, Egypt could at long last shake off the centuries-long Ottoman dust that had settled on her, and step into a new era of her great civilisation. Egypt woke up to the gap that separated her from western progress, and was able to bridge that gap to work a renaissance and catch up on modernity.
The depth and warmth of present-day Egyptian French relations, on the official and non-official fronts, may be safely said to have its roots in the enlightenment carried to Egypt by the French Campaign of 1798 -1801. Today this great legacy has been honoured by naming 2019 as the Egyptian – French Year.
21 November 2019