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July 14, 2012

Figure 1: “Homme et femme Coptes habitants du Caire en Egypte” (Coptic male and female inhabitants of Cairo in Egypt).


Figure 2: “Homme et femme Coptes habitants du Caire en Egypte” (Coptic male and female inhabitants of Cairo in Egypt) [inset].


Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur (1757-1810) was a French writer and diplomat who was born in Montreal but moved to Paris in1764 to study. He then followed a diplomatic career which had been followed by his father and brother.[i] Having spent ten years as vice-consul to the commission under the orders of his father, he became vice-consul in Hungary, then consul in Cairo. He was a prolific artist and writer and published several books from adventure novels through to ethnographic records of the costumes, cultures and habits of the people of the world. Many of his books were illustrated by him and others, including Encyclopédie des voyages (1795-96) and Voyage pittoresque dans les autres parties du monde (1806).

The last book, whose full title is Voyages pittoresques dans les quatre parties du monde ou Troisième édition de l’encyclopédie des voyages, contenant les costumes des principaux peuples de l’Europe, de l’Asie, de l’Afrique, de l’Amérique, et des sauvages de la mer du sud ; gravés et coloriés avec soin. Accompagnés de six cartes géographiques ; suivis d’un précis historique sur les moeurs de chaque people (translates into: Scenic trips in the four parts of the world or Third edition of the encyclopedia of travel, containing the costumes of the principal nations of Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and the south wild sea, engraved and colored with care. Accompanied by six maps, followed by a detailed history on the customs of each people),[ii] was written by him, and illustrated in cooperation with a French engraver, Félix Mixelle (1763-1837). The book describes all peoples known at that time, and was in four volumes: volume 1 describes peoples of Europe (and has 80 plates); volume 2, those of Africa (18 plates); volume 3, those of Asia (36 plates); volume 4, those of the Americas (22 plates). In Volume 2 (Afrique), which is dedicated to peoples of the African continent, we find a planche (plate) titled “Homme et femme Coptes habitants du Caire en Egypte” (Coptic male and female inhabitants of Cairo in Egypt), and measures 15×21 cm (sheet size) and 11×16 cm (print size). This illustration is known to have been made from an engraving in 1801 by Félix Mixelle.

I regret that the images are of poor quality, and hope that I upload better quality ones soon. The Coptic man and woman, who are standing beside a pyramid, wear colourful costumes. The woman’s face is not veiled and it is interesting that both are pictured together having a conversation, which was not the custom followed by Muslims. I could not find the exact date de Saint-Sauveur worked in Egypt as consul, but I suspect that was sometime shortly before the French Revolution which occurred in 1789. It is doubtful that the Copts of Egypt during that time were allowed to wear colourful costumes by the Muslim authorities. All non-Muslims were demanded by Sharia to wear cheap, plain and dark costumes (called in Sharia, ‘ghi’yar’) to humiliate and single them out for more discrimination. Any Copt in Islamic Egypt wearing clothes that were not in keeping with the Sharia imposed dress code would risk being attacked and lynched by Muslim mobs. I tend, therefore, to think that the costumes of the Coptic man and woman in Félix Mixelle’s engraving reflect Coptic costumes during the short period of the French Expedition in Egypt (1798 – 1801), which brought to Egypt social freedom that allowed the Copts to wear rich and colourful attires.



[i] His brother, André Grasset de Saint-Sauveur (1758-1792), who was a priest and diplomat, was considered martyr and saint by the Catholic Church, together with 191 others who died in the French Revolution. They were massacred by the mob on 2 September 1792. They had been put in prison by the Legislative Assembly for refusing to take the oath to support the civil constitution of the clergy, which placed priests under the control of the state, and was therefore condemned by the Vatican.

[ii] Published in Paris by veuve Hocquart, 1806.

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