Only two short years before Napoleon brought one hundred of his savants to study all that could be known about Egypt and draw up the monumental imperial opus, Description de l'Égypte, two French physicians were sent over to the region to undertake a naturalist’s version of scientific information gathering. Guillaume-Antoine Olivier, a dedicated entomologist, and Jean Guillaume Bruguière, a renowned specialist of mollusks, were dispatched by members of the Directoire in the tumultuous post-Revolution years to study the natural history of the Ottoman lands, including its provinces: Egypt and Syria. Before their trip, Olivier and Bruguière had already collaborated on numerous zoological projects, especially regarding early evolutionary theories with their colleague Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. The duo’s scientific partnership came to a hiatus when Bruguière died in Corfu on their return journey.
No one had gone deeper than Bruguière into the class so difficult, so numerous, and so diversified of worms, mollusca, and conchylia, Olivier would eulogize.
It was “citizen” Olivier, who then penned a multivolume memoir of their six-year journey, dating each day, month, and year according to the French Republican calendar. During the trip, Olivier’s guidebook was the relatively recent publication titled Travels through Egypt and Syria in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785, which was penned by the erstwhile Egyptologist and self-made figure of the enlightenment Comte de Volney (born Constantin François de Chassebœuf). The “citizen-physician” Olivier narrates his travels with an empiricist’s drive while willfully suppressing the period’s romantic impulse towards the sublime:
The sight of a deserted field, covered with myrtles, or a garden confusedly planted with date and orange trees could never inflame my imagination; and I have frequently surveyed, without astonishment, truncated capitals and scattered columns. He made his botanical observations with an eye for trade such as the cup of a velani oak (used in tanning and dyeing), the hairy-cupped oak (sourced for ship and home construction), and the Aleppo gall (from Quercus infectoria for medicinal purposes). Jacques Martin Cels, who had survived the guillotine as a duty collector and recreated himself as the proprietor of a botanical garden in Paris, was the sole-recipient of Olivier’s plant specimen, while the shell collection is still in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris.
Twice during their arduous journey, when their safety was jeopardized and they needed transportation aid first from a local ruler and later from a janissary, their skills as physicians came in handy in curing the former’s presumed terminal illness and the latter’s venereal disease. Their journey also coincided with the overhaul of the French imperial consul in the Ottoman territories. Therefore, halfway through their trip, the naturalists found themselves having to play the part of diplomats, and were rerouted to Tehran to revitalize the Franco-Persian trade against Russia’s budding imperial ambitions in the region. The numerous maps attached to these memoirs are topographic feats that signal the impending French plans over the region.
This text was generously prepared by Deniz Turker Cerda, Dumbarton Oaks Tyler Fellow, 2013–2015.