Prisse d’Avennes: British by blood, French by birth, Muslim by choice, scholar by avocation


Emile Prisse d’Avennes (1807–1879), a French Orientalist, author and artist, was one of the greatest pre-20th century Egyptologists. An ardent admirer of the superb skills of Egyptian and Oriental artisans, he was enamored of Arabic art. As a youth he dreamed of exploring the Orient, and at 19 began travelling to Greece and Palestine. Over the next 40 years he explored Syria, Arabia, Persia, and resided in Egypt and Algeria. Converting to Islam, he travelled Egypt disguised as an Arab, using the name Edris Effendi. A student of ancient Egyptian and Islamic cultures, he later wrote: “We shall discuss all the arts, all the industries cultivated by Orientals with so much taste, brilliance, and fantasy. We will present splendid reproductions of the monuments, objects of art and luxury, which provide evidence of an advanced civilization, the influence of which has been felt even in Europe.”  – text from TASCHEN

 He was, in many ways, a  paradox. An artist of consummate skill, he was also a writer, scientist, scholar, engineer and linguist, a genius who spent much of his life among the illiterate. French to the bone, he was of British blood; a European, he embraced Islam and took the name Edris-Effendi. By nature contentious, he alienated colleagues, yet succored the sick and the poor. Of the hundreds of 19th-century Orientalists – those Western artists, scholars and writers who gravitated to the Islamic world following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 -few possessed so prodigious an intellect, such a trove of talents, so insatiable a curiosity or so passionate a commitment to record the historical and artistic patrimony of ancient Egypt and medieval Islam. He succeeded brilliantly, yet he failed to achieve the stature to which his successes entitled him, both during his lifetime and in the 111 years since his death. He remains, as arts writer Briony Llewellyn calls him, “a shadowy figure in the history both of Egyptology and of European response to Islamic art.”

Detail of dome decoration in the 14th-century Takiyah al-Shaykh llusain Sadaqah

Detail of dome decoration in the 14th-century Takiyah al-Shaykh llusain Sadaqah

Achille-Constant-Theodore Emile Prisse d’Avennes was born in Avesnes-sur-Helpe, France, on January Q 27,1807, descendant of a noble English family, Price of Aven, a branch of which had emigrated to France and gallicized its name to Prisse d’Avennes. With a family tradition of excellence in administrative affairs, the boy was marked for a legal career, but his talents and interests soon dictated otherwise and he transferred to the Ecole des arts et metiers at Chalons, where he acquired drafting and engineering skills that were to be vital in his life’s work.

A large 18th century carpet, pictured in Prisse's L Art Arabe

A large 18th century carpet, pictured in Prisse’s L Art Arabe

As a youth, Prisse dreamed of exploring the Orient, and several months after graduation, while yet 19, he traveled to Greece to join that country’s war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. That expedition completed, he pushed on to India, briefly becoming secretary to the governor-general before returning to the Mediterranean – first to Palestine, and then to Egypt. There he entered the service of Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha to work on civil and hydrological projects. Over time, his exposure to ancient Egypt awakened him to the perishability of human inventions and led him to a more profound purpose, later extended to Islamic culture: to reproduce the finest examples of arts and architecture and to set them, through the study of original documents, in their historical, social and religious context.

With the science of Egyptology still in its infancy and much of Arab or Islamic art history still hidden, these were formidable tasks. For more than 40 years, Prisse’s mission – indeed, his obsession – would drain his resources, discomfit his family and inflict on him a restless and impatient search for the means to simultaneously meet his goals, earn a living and answer the demands arising from his growing authority in ever-broader fields.

During his early years in Egypt, wherever his work took him, the insatiably curious young man eagerly tramped through ruins, drew maps and plans, sketched and wrote descriptive accounts of ancient cities and modern villages. For a time, he taught topography at the Djihad-Abad Military Academy; when it closed, he became a lecturer in fortifications at the School of Infantry at Damietta. His ingenious proposals for managing Egypt’s water resources – dikes in place of a dam, a canal from Cairo to Alexandria, drainage and cultivation techniques for the lakes of northern Egypt- were met by bureaucratic indifference or, worse, the view that he was simply too young to design and implement such projects.

By 1836, frustrated by futile efforts and following a quarrel with the commanding general of the School of Infantry, he resigned to devote himself entirely to archeological research.

With Luxor as his base, Prisse embarked on grueling travels for the next seven years, encompassing Nubia and Abyssinia, Syria, Palestine, Persia, Turkey and Arabia, where he visited the holy cities of Makkah and Madina. Stoic in privation, fluent in local dialects, dressed in local clothing and Muslim in his manner, he was able to move unobtrusively, studying and recording the archeology and sketching from life the astonishing sights that swirled around him.

In Egypt, between journeys, he earned a reputation for erudition enhanced by his detailed explorations throughout Lower and Upper Egypt and by his acquisition of tongues that ultimately included Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Coptic, Amharic, Latin, English, Italian and Spanish. His study of hieroglyphics was hampered by the limited knowledge then extant in Egypt, but later, in France, he became, according to his biographer-son, Emile, the equal of Jean-Frangois Champollion, a central figure in the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphic text some two decades earlier.

Prisse was a member of numerous learned societies and co-founded, with Dr. Henry Abbott of New York, the Literary Society of Cairo. Nominated as the person best qualified for the proposed post of curator of ancient monuments in the viceregal government, he saw the honor slip away as Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad ‘Ali, lost interest in the idea.

In 1843, Prisse settled down among the ruins of Karnak at ancient Thebes, and began to sketch and take papier-mache impressions from the thousands of inscriptions and bas-reliefs adorning some half-million square meters (140 acres) of temples, palaces and tombs. Although steeped in Arab life, Prisse sprang to action whenever he felt the honor of France was at risk.

On one occasion, as a construction crew attempted to remove a mound sheltering the remains of eight Napoleonic soldiers, Prisse angrily protested and, when his demands failed, he chased the men away, planted the tricolor, and threatened to shoot any who returned. That incident was witnessed by British travelers who apparently interpreted it as pro-Western rather than pro-French, for it soon produced an invitation to Prisse from Her Britannic Majesty’s government to become consular representative at Thebes, a post his patriotism and other commitments ruled out.

In the course of his excavations, Prisse grew increasingly indignant at the demolition of precious monuments, by government order, to obtain stone for the building of factories. In 1941, George Glidden, the former United States consul at Cairo, had published an urgent appeal to antiquarians abroad to help halt the wanton destruction that was rapidly transforming the magnificent tombs and temples into shapeless ruins. “One solitary consolation,” he wrote, “may be derived from the overthrow of these Propyleia, which is… the opportunity afforded to Monsieur E. Prisse, a gentleman in every way qualified to take advantage of the sculptures that previously lay hidden… to record names and legends that, but for him, would have been lost to history and science.”

Glidden was referring to a particular temple in Thebes, but Prisse justifiably feared that a similar fate might await the Hall of Ancestors of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC) in the Temple of Amon at Karnak; it contained an incomparable historical and genealogical table of that ruler’s principal predecessors, ranked in dynastic order. Despite the severe penalties attached to such an illegal action, Prisse resolved to remove and transport to France some 60 sculptured portraits from what came to be known in the West as the Chamber of the Kings.

Through superhuman exertions, with virtually no resources save a few men and fewer tools, and working mainly under cover of darkness, Prisse succeeded in extracting not only the bas-reliefs but several stelae, one with domestic scenes dating from 4000 BC. Also included were several papyri; one, discovered in the necropolis at Thebes and dating from 3300 BC, came to be known as the “Prisse Papyrus.” Later, Prisse made a facsimile of the original, said by Egyptologists to be the oldest manuscript or book in the world.

Ingenuity, audacity, subterfuge, bribery – all played a part in making way for the 27 large packing boxes which finally set sail downstream for Cairo. Prisse implored the French vice-consul to place the cargo under his diplomatic protection but the official instead admonished him – then added, “You have succeeded so well up to the present in an operation I would have considered impossible that you cannot fail at the port.” Following further vicissitudes, the crates were finally secured aboard ship at Alexandria and on May 15, 1844, a full year after first setting to work, Prisse embarked to escort the priceless cargo to France.

Later that year, the Revue Archeologyae took note of his gift to the nation. “We are indebted to M. E. Prisse for having saved the Chamber of the Kings from vandalism.. .and from being removed by the Prussian Commission, which is exploring Egypt at the present time, and, above all, for having refused to sell it to England, where the famous Table of Abydos has unfortunately gone.”

For this service among others, Prisse was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1845, but when asked at the presentation ceremony to swear obedience and loyalty to King Louis-Philippe, he replied, “I will keep my liberty; I will not swear an oath to any man. If I deserve the distinction, give it to me; if not, keep it.” The award was granted, but Prisse never rose above the order’s lowest rank.

That same year, he published a detailed account of the Chamber of the Kings in Revue Archeologique and later wrote on the Egyptian antiquities in the Cairo and British Museums, while simultaneously working on Les Monuments Egyptiens, published in Paris in 1847 under the auspices of the Minister of Public Instruction, and on Oriental Album, published in London by James Madden and Co. in 1848.

With Monuments Egyptiens, Prisse hoped to supplement Champollion’s Monuments de I’Egypte et de la Nubie (1835-1845) by presenting 100 chromolithographs of drawings he had made during his last years in Egypt. But his plan for the arrangement of plates and descriptive notes was ruined by the drastic cuts imposed by his sponsors, causing him, in his introduction, to apologize to readers for the “mutilation” of the work they were about to take up, and to promise that, one day, the record would be complete. Thirty years later, with the appearance in final form of L’Histoire de I’Art Egyptian -its full title continued d’apres les monuments depuis les temps les plus recules jusqu’a la domination romaine – the promise was kept.

Oriental Album, a collection of chromolithographs and woodcuts “From designs taken on the spot by E. Prisse,” illustrated the people, costumes and way of life of the Nile Valley, with a commentary in English by the noted Orientalist James Augustus St. John. It was dedicated to the memory of botanist George Lloyd, who had excavated with Prisse and who died at Thebes when his rifle accidentally discharged. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris was selected to house the Chamber of the Kings, to be reconstructed according to plans drawn up by Prisse. The work met with obstacles but was nearing completion when disaster struck. Prisse had prepared a colorless shellac to revive the colors on the bas-reliefs and combat the effects of the damp climate of Paris – he had even left instructions for its use – but in his absence a hot, bituminous varnish had been applied, effacing the paint which adorned the sculptures. His biographer would later lament, “An object which 35 centuries had left unharmed has been destroyed by indifference and ignorance.”

Insult followed injury as Prisse was nominated to become conservator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre and when they passed over in favour of a man who considered Champollion a charlatan. When the chair of Egyptian archeology became vacant at the College de France, Prisse, Weary of intrigues, asked not to be considered;

An ardent admirer of the superb technical skills of ancient Egyptian artisans, Prisse nonetheless fell lyrically in love with Arab art, the brilliant offspring of a Hellenistic West and Sassanian East united under Islam. Dazzled by its symmetry, its complex, exquisitely-wrought patterns, its unity within diversity and its opulence, he longed to initiate his compatriots in the West. To that end, he sought to launch Miroir de l’Orient, a compendium of arts to be issued in installments, by subscription, arid with distinguished Orientalists as contributors. “It is almost a new world we are going to present,” he wrote. “We shall discuss all arts, all the industries cultivated by Orientals with so much taste, brilliancy and fantasy … We will give splendid reproductions of the monuments, objects of art and of luxury which give evidence of an advanced civilization, the influence of which has been felt even in Europe,” Unfortunately, disagreements among the contributors led to the pulication’s early demise, but the concept flowered again years later in Prisse’s L’Art Arabe d’apres les monuments du Kaire depuis le VIIe siecle jusqu’a la fin du XVIIIe.

Other projects loomed and lapsed. When a series of missions abroad failed to materialize, including one to buy for France the finest Arabian horses from Central Najd, Prisse took up engineering work again, leaving Paris to oversee the operation of marble quarries in Algeria. Two years later, however, in 1852, he founded, edited and wrote for Revue Orientale et Algerienne, a journal similarly dedicated to introducing aspects of Oriental culture in France.

In 1858, Prisse returned to Egypt to conduct scientific, fine arts and commercial missions for France, a stroke that enabled him to study in depth the country’s unbroken line of Arab monuments dating from the seventh to the 18th centuries-a series attributable in part to the Mamluks’ defeat of Mongol invaders at ‘Ain Jalut in 1260. As enthusiastic patrons of art, the Marnluks had excelled in the building of resplendent mosques and palaces, hospitals and mausoleums, and had also presided over one of the finest flowerings of Islamic decorative arts, especially in metalwork, glasswork, woodwork and manuscripts. By the mid-19th century, however, many mosques and other edifices were in varying states of decay, while others were threatened by the forces of change. With passionate intensity; Prisse gathered relevant historical documents, while his piercing eye” and perfect hand sketched the architectural and ornamental detail of the fine old buildings and the sumptuous furnishings that lay hidden within them.

Read the rest of the article by Mary Norton here:


An amateur archaeology enthusiast

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