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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Out of Egypt: a Napoleonic Study of the Ibis

Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis, plate no. 1
Thanks to the keen eye of Dr. Storrs Olson, a rare book was spotted in a reprint file in the Division of Birds in the Museum of Natural History and transferred to a more suitable habitat, the Cullman Library for cataloging and preservation. It is Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis, by Jules-César Savigny (1771-1851). Published in Paris in 1805, the work explores both the zoology and the mythology of the Sacred Ibis and the Glossy Ibis in Egypt (QL696.C585 S38 1805). This copy once belonged to Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978), the Sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian who was a distinguished ornithologist; his signature is on the front paper cover.

Hand-colored plate from Description de l’Égypte (Typ 815.09.3210, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
The author, Savigny, had been one of the 151 members of the Institut d’Égypte, a scientific organization created by Napoleon to accompany his disastrous campaign with 55,000 troops in Egypt from 1798-1801. The ambitious goal set for the Institut was an encyclopedic survey of the ancient and modern country of Egypt. The “Savants”—the carefully assembled naturalists, geologists, mineralogists, mathematicians, architects, engineers, cartographers, artists, one musicologist—were left in Cairo after the British Navy under the command of Lord Nelson sunk the French fleet. When the formal surrender was made in September 1801, the British military demanded as spoils of war the Savants’ notes, drawings, plans, artifacts, and specimens, all collected under trying circumstances (to say the least), and the French, wanting to be done with the whole fiasco, agreed. However, zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire took an immovable stand, refusing to give up their work and threatening to destroy it all. The British eventually settled for a few trophies, including the Rosetta Stone.  

Plate from Description de l’Égypte (Typ 815.09.3210, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
With the gathered materials finally sent back to Paris, the veteran Savants published Description de l’Égypte from 1809 to 1828—which has now become a headache for librarians and conservators everywhere. It is a major undertaking both to catalog and shelve because the publication, spanning such a long period, is variously bound (up to thirty-five volumes), with four different issues of the first edition, and it is not easy to determine a complete set. It is also a backache. The outsize Carte Topographique measures about three and a half feet and the plates are in several formats, some unfolding over four feet, and quite heavy. Various copies have now been scanned so today it is easy to browse through the images.

Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis, plate 4
Savigny, despite being a trained botanist, was in charge of the invertebrate and ornithological portion of the Description de l’Égypte. His treatise on the long-legged and curved billed bird, Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis, was printed before any of the published volumes of the Description de l’Égypte appeared but can be viewed as reflecting the whole of the encyclopedia. It is a detailed examination of both the biology and mythology surrounding the bird in ancient and modern Egypt. Naturalists of the campaign were fascinated that the ibis was not only portrayed so frequently in the tombs, on monuments and in sculpture but also mummified by the thousands. Savigny’s work contains six plates of engravings, some anatomical, others of the hieroglyphics with images of the ibis. The artists of the illustrations were Henri-Joseph Redouté (1766-1852), brother of the better known botanical painter, Pierre-Joseph, and Jacques Barraband (1767-1809); the engraver, Louis Bouquet.

It is an uncommon book. Sadly, the Sacred Ibis is extinct in modern Egypt.  

Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis
The African Sacred Ibis in Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa (photo by Hein Waschefort, June 2010, Wikimedia Commons)
Ibis Statuette, from Tuna El-Gebel (Hermapolis Magna (no. 209497, donated by President Eisenhower; National Museum of Natural History)
Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis, plate no. 3
A copy of Histoire Naturelle et Mythologique de l’Ibis in Oxford University has been digitized by the Internet Archive (the Cullman Library copy lacks the half title)

Burleigh, Nina. Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt (New York, 2007). 

Funerary Urn of Earthenware containing Ibis Mummy, 332-30 B.C.E. (Abydos, Upper Egypt, National Museum of Natural History; no. 055827)
African Sacred Ibis flying at Durban Botanic Gardens, South Africa (photo by Johan Wessels, September 2009, Wikimedia Commons)
Julia Blakely
Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries

Mosaic Plaque depicting an Ibis, 305-30 B.C.E. (Egypt; Freer Gallery of Art, F1908.66)

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