The American Research Center in Eygpt

Frédéric Cailliaud: Pioneering French Scientist and Explorer

Frédéric Cailliaud: Pioneering French Scientist and Explorer

Frédéric Cailliaud: Pioneering French Scientist and Explorer
When long time ARCE member Dr. W. Benson Harer, Jr. entered The London International Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia, Washington, in 2005, and made his way around the stalls, he had no idea of the treasure he would find. Reading through the list of available titles from a bookseller called Sims Reed Ltd., one item in particular caught his attention - a manuscript allegedly written by one Frédéric Cailliaud, and containing volumes of text, masses of notes, and a dizzying assortment of drawn, published, and painted imagery. Dr. Harer bought it immediately. 

Fig 01 Cailliaud Small Copy

Cailliaud in 1819

Who was Frédéric Cailliaud, what does he mean to the study of ancient Egypt? Let’s take a step back about 200 years. The year: 1787. The place: Nantes, France. The moment: just before European interaction with ancient Egypt exploded. This was the year in which Frédéric Cailliaud was born. Slightly more than a decade later, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with a contingent of scholars; an invasion that ultimately opened the country to European inquiry in ways never before possible.

In 1809, a year before the first volume of Napoleon’s mighty Description de l’Egypte, the academic publication born from his invasion, Cailliaud traveled to Paris where he immersed himself in the study of mineralogy. Two years later Cailliaud left Paris to complete his training as a mineralogist. His wandering led to Constantinople where he worked for the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Mahmud II. In 1815 Cailliaud arrived in Egypt.

Over the course of two journeys to Egypt between 1815 and 1822, he worked as the government mineralogist to the Viceroy of Egypt, rediscovered the ancient emerald mines of Mount Zubarah, explored both the Eastern and Western Deserts, and traced unknown routes to the Red Sea. He also compiled an impressive number of antiquities, forming the most important archaeological and ethnographic collection to reach France from the time of Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion to the late 1800s. The French scholarly community was so impressed by his initial voyage that he received a government mandate and funding for his second trip to continue the academic work started by Napoleon’s scholars almost twenty years earlier.

During his second journey he accompanied an Egyptian military expedition into Sudan, penetrating as far as the present-day Ethiopian border. Though dangerous, the mission gave Cailliaud access to ancient Nubia, a remote place discussed by Classical authors but forgotten by the 1800s, and enabled him to correctly re-identify the famous ancient site of Meroe.

Upon returning to France in 1822,
Fig 09 Pl35 Small

Scenes from the lost tomb of Neferhotep

Cailliaud threw himself into publishing his findings. The work he contributed to Travels in the Oasis of Thebes and his own landmark Travels to Meroe were groundbreaking, with the latter providing the first serious survey of ancient Sudanese monuments. He was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1824 for his exploration, collections, and publications. Yet from the 1830s until his death, he struggled to produce a third work; a sort of synthesis of everything he had seen, and everything he had read about Nile civilizations. He called this work Research on the Arts and Crafts, and the Manners of Civic and Domestic Life, of the Ancient Peoples of Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia, Followed by Details on the Customs of the Modern Peoples of these Countries.

Fig 05 Pl41 Small

Women playing, from the tomb of Bakt III in Beni Hasan

Its publication, however, proved disastrous. Only 100 copies of the plates for this encyclopedic work were published and most of these were destroyed when the building in which they were stored collapsed. The surviving volumes of plates, which provided a stunning record of Egypt’s antiquities, some of which have since disappeared, were distributed widely though in small numbers. The accompanying text was similarly doomed as Cailliaud’s professional interests wandered further away from Egypt. Though he re-drafted the text several times, he ultimately failed to complete it and upon his death, his last great work fell into obscurity.

Fast forward to 2008 when ARCE Director Gerry Scott launched a multi-year project to publish the manuscript, entrusting Andrew Bednarski, Assistant to the Director for Special Projects, to translate and edit Cailliaud’s Research on the Arts and Crafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians. This publication will combine Cailliaud’s sensational visual corpus, documenting the world of the ancient and nineteenth-century Nile, with his never-before-seen text. This volume is expected to be published by AUC Press in late 2013 or early 2014.

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