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French savants huddled together at the top of a column, while a band of Bedouin Arabs set fire to it below; exaggerating the troubled experience of the 'Commission des Sciences et des Arts' during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Coloured etching by J. Gillray, 1799.

  • Gillray, James, 1756-1815.
6 March 1799
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The French army which invaded Egypt in 1798 under the command of General Bonaparte was accompanied by a party of 165 savants, the Commission des Arts et des Sciences, including artists, naturalists, medical officers, surveyors, engineers, etc., led by the mathematician Gaspard Monge and the chemist Claude Louis Berthollet. Their activities included surveys of ancient monuments, studies of medical conditions (published by R. Desgenettes, 'Histoire médicale de l'armée en orient', Paris 1802) and collections of natural history specimens. The difficult working conditions of the savants, aggravated by a hostile native population, were revealed in letters which were intercepted by the British fleet and published in London in 1798-1800. Gillray, in this etching purportedly derived "from the original intercepted drawing", shows members of the Commission being harrassed by Bedouins and Mamluks while attempting to survey 'Pompey's column' in Alexandria, near where the French army disembarked on 2 July 1798. "Humour facile, qu'excuse la passion éveillée par la guerre. Plus tard, les Anglais porteront sur l'oeuvre civile de Bonaparte en Égypte une attention plus sérieuse et plus équitable" (F. Charles Roux, p. 100) Some of the savants, however, shared Gillray's view of their circumstances


London (27 St. James's Street) : H. Humphrey, 6 March 1799.

Physical description

1 print : etching, with watercolour ; image 49.8 x 40.8 cm


Siege de la colonne de Pompée. Science in the pillory. Etched by Js. Gillray, from the original intercepted drawing ...

References note

British Museum, Catalogue of political and personal satires, vol. VII, no. 9352
F. Charles-Roux, Bonaparte gouverneur d'Egypte, Paris 1935

Lettering note

Lettering continues: It appears by an intercepted letter from General Kleber, dated "Alexandria, 5 Frimaire, 7th year of the Republic", that, when his garrison was obliged to retire into the New Town at the approach of the Turkish army under the Pacha of Rhodes, a party of the Scavans, who had ascended Pompey's pillar for scientific purposes, was cut off by a band of Bedouin Arabs, who having made a large pile of straw and dry reeds at the foot of the pillar, set fire to it, and rendered unavailing the gallant defence of the learned garrison, of whose catastrophe the above design is intended to convey an idea. To study Alexandria's store/ Of science, Amru deem'd a bore;/ And briefly, set it burning./ The man was ignorant, 'tis true,/ So sought one comprehensive view/ Of the light shed by learning./ Your modern arabs grown more wise,/ French vagrant science duly prize;/ They've fairly bit the biters./ They've learnt the style of Hebert's jokes;/ Amru to books confined his hoax;/ These bedouins roast the writers. [On the column, the central furious figure holds a piece of paper saying:] Vive Mahomet qui protegoit les sciences. [By terrified man in red coat:] Projet pour bruler la mecque. [Thin man left of centre holds bottles labelled:] Tone. Louvet opium. [In his belt are weapons inscribed:] Romme. Roland [By man hanging from column:] Projet pour rendre les hommes immortels. [On punctured balloon:] La diligence d'Abissynie. [Falling books on left, from top to bottom:] Le ciel revolutionne ou les constellations sans-culottisées. Ebauche d'un systeme de legislation pour un colonie d'anthropophages. Traité sur la guillotine par un theophilanthrope. Sur la reedification de la tour de Babel. Encyclopédie. Edit: de Paris. Vol LX. Tables de logarithms. Projet de fraternisation avec les Bedouins. Le contrat social. [Falling books on right hand, top to bottom:] Les ruines par le cit. Volney. Traité sur la velocité des corps descendants. Theorie de l'aerostation


Wellcome Library no. 18129i



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