Skip to content


June 7, 2012

Figure 1: Planche I (Tome II, Description de l’Égypte): Costumes et portraits. 1.4.5. Coptes; 2. Homme de la grande oasis; Cheykhs et gens de loi du Kaire et de Constantinople; 6.7. Batéliers de Damiette; 8. Mamlouks; 11.13. Santon nègre; 14. Marchand d’Alexandrie.


Figure 2: First Coptic man’s costume and portrait (Description de l’Égypte; Tome II; Planche I).


Figure 3: Second Coptic man’s costume and portrait (Description de l’Égypte; Tome II; Planche I).

Figure 4: Third Coptic man’s costume and portrait (Description de l’Égypte; Tome II; Planche I).

The Description de l’Égypte (The Description of Egypt) was published in 23 volumes between 1809 and 1829. This monumental work is the lasting legacy of the French Expedition in Egypt (1798-1801). Nearly 160 French scholars accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt, and formed part of the Institut d’Egypte. There they extensively studied and described Egypt; its geography, nature, history, archaeology, inhabitants, etc. They accompanied their scientific research with artistic work, in which they sketched ancient and modern Egypt as no one before, or since, has done. After they returned to France, nearly 2000 technicians and artists, including engravers, helped them to compile the full work, which was published under the title: Description de l’Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française.[i]


The French who classified the Egyptians into rulers and subjects, and then classified the subjects into two main groups, Copts and Arabs, were much interested in the study of the physiognomy of races and different peoples. There is no doubt that the French concluded that the Copts were the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians and Pharaohs. However, they realised that the Copts had descended into a degraded state due to the long oppression they had been exposed to. Many savants wrote about the Copts, their culture, their form of Christianity, their churches and monasteries, and their Pharaonic roots. The Description de l’Égypte has many sections and drawings related to Coptic subjects and themes. I choose to introduce my readers today to three drawings of Coptic men. The drawings were published in Volume II of the Imperial Edition (Imprimerie Impériale) of the great book, which appeared in 1817, and were part of Planche (Plate) I titled Costumes et portraits. Coptes. Homme de la Grande Oasis. Cheykhs et gens de loi du Kaire et de Constantinople. Batéliers de Damiette. Mamlouks. Santon nègre. Marchand d’Alexandrie.  From the commentary attached to Planche I we know it was designed by the French artist André Dutertre (1753 – 1842) who had accompanied Bonaparte in Egypt, and was a member of the literature and arts section of the Institut d’Egypte; while it was engraved by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1747 – 1819), a famous French engraver of the time, who had shared in the French Revolution. Planche I, which is 71 x 53.5 cm in dimension, includes 17 engravings, three of them Copts; while the rest are non-Copts: a man from the Great Oasis,[ii] seven sheikhs and lawyers from Cairo and Constantinople, two boatmen from Damietta, a group of seven Mamluks, two Negros,[iii] and a merchant from Alexandria. It is drawings number 1, 4 and 5 which we are concerned of here: all the three Copts are men in their middle age, with moustaches and beards as was the custom then, and wearing jala’biyya and im’ma (turban). Their costumes are white and decorated, similar more or less to the attire of Muslim individuals in the Planche; signifying the religious equality that the French had brought to Egypt with them.[iv]


Figure 5: Volume 1 of Description de l’Égypte (1809).

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (7 June 2012), COSTUMES AND PORTRAITS OF COPTIC MEN FROM THE DESCRIPTION DE L’ÉGYPTE,

[i] Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which was made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army.

[ii] I suspect the authors meant by the Great Oasis El Khargeh Oasis. For that read: Visit to the great oasis of the Libyan desert; with an account of the oasis of Amun, and the other oases now under the dominion of the pasha of Egypt by George Alexander Hoskins (London; 1837).

[iii] I apologise for the use of this word, which comes in the book as “santon nègre”. I am not sure what the authors meant by ‘santon’ here.

[iv] According to Islamic law non-Muslims must be distinguished in dress from Muslims by wearing cheap, plain, dark attire, as a matter of humiliation, and to publically single them out for insults and discrimination by Muslims. This matter of making non-Muslims distinguishable by their looks and dress is called in Islamic literature, ghi’yar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: