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COSTUME AND PORTRAIT OF A COPTIC SCRIBE FROM THE DESCRIPTION DE L’ÉGYPTE

June 8, 2012

Figure 1: Figure 28 of Planche K shows a Copt scribe (écrivain Copte).

The Description de l’Égypte has included other works on Copts. We have reproduced already some.[i] Now we reproduce another piece of art by the French artist Alexandre Marcel, which was engraved by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux and Pierre Audoin, and published as Planche K in Vol. 2 (État modern) of the Imperial Edition under the title Costumes et portraits.[ii] Planche K contains thirty figures from different backgrounds (Fig. 2). Figure 28 shows a Copt scribe (écrivain Copte), in an elaborate costume, complete with a fanciful headgear, and carrying a pen in his right hand, and an inkwell tucked into his waist belt. We zoom into this figure, and publish a magnified image of him (Fig. 1). I think the costume of the Copt, and indeed his clean-shaven appearance, reveal a possibly European influence.

Figure 2: Planche K (costumes et portraits); Description de l’Égypte. Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1828. État moderne, Vol. 2.

In 2004 the Louisiana State University’s School of Art mounted an exhibition under the title The Twilight of Napoleon’s Egyptian-Campaign: Scenes from the Description de l’Égypte. Natalie Mault, one of the contributors, wrote an interesting comment under Planche K, which I simply quote here:

THE MANY COSTUMES worn in Egypt at the time of the French occupation captivated the fantasy of the Western observers. The variety of dress and costume exemplified Egypt’s cultural richness. Garments were apparently selected for this plate based on what they revealed about the various racial types and indigenous groups.

Military costumes, such as those in figures 1, 2, 4 and 11, illustrate the distinctions across rank, title, and status among Egyptian soldiers. Another soldier is depicted in figure 3, yet this man’s dress is distinctly different from that of the previous group because he is a Janizary, or Turkish soldier. Beys, leaders of the warrior-caste that ruled in Egypt, are shown elaborately dressed with elongated swords, in figures 5 and 8. In figures 7 and 17, the slave-soldiers, or Mamelukes, wear full trousers and three-quarter-length cloaks; and in figures 12 and 15, Arab warriors dress in simpler cloaks and feature closely wrapped turbans. The properly draped and veiled female dancer in figure 13 contrasts with the exotically dressed dancer in figure 14. Women of the harem are illustrated in figures 25 and 27, adorned with elaborate garments, jewels, headdresses, and elevated shoes. Another group of women in figure 26 is shown wearing religiously prescribed protective veils and full-length robes. Costumes of the sheikhs, holy men or Arabic chiefs, are shown in figures 16, 18, 20, and 21. In figure 28, a Copt scribe, member of an ethnic group believed to have been a direct descendant of the ancient Egyptians, is portrayed as a scholar identified by his pen and inkwell. The remaining figures (6, 9, 10, 19, 22, 23, 24, 29, and 30) portray diverse costumes from various groups, adding further evidence for the variety of cultures and races in Cairo at the time of French occupation. Figures 6 and 22 are identified as Jews; 9, 29, and 30 are court officials; 23 is a Greek Orthodox priest; and 10 is a warrior on a camel.

Although the French scholars encountered a wide diversity of peoples during their exploration of Egypt, and hoped to portray each group as distinct and unique in its own ways, most of the illustrations they recorded only underscored stereotypical views of “the Oriental” by portraying each figure with cliché attributes, dress, or manner.


[i] Dioscorus Boles (7 June 2012), COSTUMES AND PORTRAITS OF COPTIC MEN FROM THE DESCRIPTION DE L’ÉGYPTE, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/costumes-and-portraits-of-coptic-from-the-description-de-legypte/

[ii] Description de l’Égypte. Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1828. État moderne, Vol. 2, Plate K (1817).

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