Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition to Egypt

An exhibition of the Description de l’Egypte (1809-1828) and other rare books documenting the French Expedition to Egypt.

Savigny and the Sacred Ibis

Jules-César Savigny. Image source: Reybaud, Louis, et al. Histoire scientifique et militaire de l’expédition française en Égypte.... Vol. 8, Paris: A.-J. Dénain et Delamare, 1830-1836, pp. 418-419.

View Source »

The natural historians of the Institute of Egypt studied all of the native birds, but they took a keen interest in the ibis, which seemed to have a special place in Egyptian culture. Ibis appeared frequently on tomb paintings, and the French found their mummified remains by the hundreds. Herodotus, the Greek historian, related a story told to him about the supposed annual invasion of Egypt by flying snakes, which was controlled by flocks of ibis flying out to meet and devour them. And the French found that, typically, the mummified remains of ibis specimens did have snakes in their stomach cavities. However, Jules-César Savigny, who investigated the habits of the ibis, discovered that the ibis eats shellfish, not snakes, and he noted that the embalmers had apparently been serving “truths deeper than mere facts of natural history.” 

Savigny’s treatise on the Natural and Mythological History of the Ibis was published in 1805, before any volumes of the Description had appeared, and so it was one of the first publications to appear in print that was based on research in Egypt during the Napoleonic campaign. With his precise methods of dissection and observation, combined with his knowledge of classical Greek and Latin authors, Savigny cleared up questions about both the history and zoology of the ibis. Savigny was twenty-eight years old when he finished writing his book on the ibis. He had been recruited to join the scientific contingent of the expedition to Egypt when he was only twenty-one, and he had been trained as a botanist, not a zoologist. The zoologist Georges Cuvier had declined to go with Napoleon, but he had recommended Savigny in his place, thinking highly enough of the young scientist to discount his lack of zoological training. He could learn the science, Cuvier said of Savigny. 

An ibis hieroglyph. Image source: Savigny, Jules-César. Histoire naturelle et mythologique de l’ibis. Paris: Allais, 1805, pl. 5.

View Source »

Cuvier was right. Savigny was responsible, along with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, for the zoology sections of the Description de l’Égypte. The plates were engraved between 1805 and 1814, and Savigny contributed all of the ornithology sections and supplemented other sections on vertebrates. The invertebrates are represented on 105 plates with thousands of drawings, all of them from Savigny’s research. 

Savigny’s birds, particularly, are noted for their elegant presentation and detailed precision. He worked closely with the artists to supervise preparation of the plates. But Savigny was unable to write annotations for the plates. A neurological disorder struck him in the 1820s and made it impossible for him to work, or even be spoken to about work. Although he did not go blind and could read for short periods, he could not tolerate light and had to wear a veil of black netting. A young naturalist, Victor Audouin, who had not been a member of the Egyptian scientific contingent and was not allowed to speak to Savigny, was asked to identify and describe Savigny’s illustrations based on secondary sources and the evidence of the drawings themselves. Savigny was not supposed to be told of this arrangement, but somehow he learned of it. His own copy of the Description de l’Égypte, which has been preserved, is annotated with his many objections and corrections to Audouin’s frequent mistakes. 

Cuvier, who had sent Savigny to Egypt in his stead, took a great interest in the ibis mummies, for the ancient remains were absolutely identical to the skeletons of the modern ibis. This seemed to be evidence for the fixity of species, and against the evolutionary ideas of his compatriot, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Cuvier included discussions of the ibis and its fixed skeletal type in the introduction to his Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles (1812), which was subsequently published separately in many editions as the Discourse sur les Revolutions de la Surface du Globe.  

Black ibis and sared (white) ibis. Image source: Napoleon I, (Edme-François) Jomard, and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier. Description de l’Egypte.... Histoire naturelle planches, vol. 1, A Paris: De L’Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1828, Zoologie, Oiseaux, pl. 7.

View Source »

Ibis mummies. Image source: Napoleon I, (Edme-François) Jomard, and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier. Description de l’Egypte.... Antiquités planches, vol. 2, A Paris: De L’Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1828, pl. 53.

View Source »