Drawing the ruins of Antinoupolis in 1778, while pursued by bandits! The account of C. S. Sonnini de Manoncourt.

Travelling in Egypt could be dangerous, as one French visitor discovered. The natives did not always like to see people drawing the ruins!

Our next early visitor to Antinoupolis was C.S. Sonnini de Manoncourt, a French Engineer sent out by the ancien regime in France in 1777, but published in “year 7” of the French Revolution, i.e. 1799.[1]  Thankfully an English translation exists.[2]

Only one illustration is given, of a column next to a gatehouse; the artist had to run for it before he had finished.  This, rather than the strange image given by Lucas, is the correct appearance of these square pillars.

A pillar of Antinoe. C. S. Sonnini de Manoncourt, vol. 3, 1807.

In chapter 40, we read this account of his visit to Antinoupolis, beginning on p.40.  The footnotes are Sonnini’s.  The sneery tone towards Christians, and especially to monks, is perhaps a reflection of the bigotry of the revolutionary government, and the malice and energy of its informers, rather than a personal opinion.

    *    *    *    *

The same gusts of north wind continued to pursue us still on the 4th [of April, 1778], and carried us with a dangerous velocity to Scheick Abade, a resort of pirates, to the east of the Nile. Immense ruins, and a long succession of rubbish, announce that a great city existed there in ancient times. This was the fruit of a disgraceful passion, which poorly disguised the appearance of gratitude affected by Adrian in founding it. It is well known to what a degree this prince, renowned for his political and warlike talents, was, at the same time; despicable, on account of his passion for Antinous, the perfection of whose form is evinced by one of the most beautiful statues of antiquity, still in preservation. Adrian, during the time that he was in Egypt with his court and army, consulted the soothsayers, whose response struck his imagination. The oracle declared that the greatest danger threatened him, unless a person dear to him, and by whom likewise he was beloved, should sacrifice himself for his preservation; and the dastardly Emperor had the cruelty to accept of the sacrifice. The beautiful and generous Antinous precipitated himself from the summit of a rock into the Nile; and the vile despot thought to efface his disgrace and his ingratitude, by building, in honour of his favourite, whom he looked upon also as his deliverer, a city which, under the name of Antinoë, perpetuated his barbarous credulity and his criminal affection. He embellished it with all that art can imagine the most precious. The statues of Antinous were there considered as sacred representations; he built temples for him; he instituted games and sacrifices, and he himself regulated the worship by which he was to be venerated.

Antinoë had filled the place of the ancient Egyptian city of Abidus, in which a divinity who bore the name of Busa was worshipped. This god delivered oracles, and his. celebrity long supported itself. The ancient city of Abidus and that of Antinoë, are now equally ruinous. What remains of this last excites regret for its destruction. You behold not in these ruins the unwieldy and gigantic monuments, those enormous masses of stone, which the Egyptians raised rather to astonish than to charm the eye. Everything there was in just proportion, all possessed those delicate contours, and those elegant forms of the beautiful architecture of the Greeks and of the Romans.

My reis made many difficulties about approaching the shore which covers the ruins of Antinoë. It is peopled by the worst tribe of Egyptians, and the most determined robbers. They attacked Mr. Bruce, when, on crossing the Said, he intended to stop at this place.*[3] I observed all the precautions which prudence suggested, and I landed with my draughtsman. The extensive site, strewed with the most beautiful fragments, overwhelmed me with astonishment and admiration. It must have occupied a considerable time to travel over them all. The night approached, and it was impossible either to pass it on that dangerous coast, or, to stray very far from the boat.

The ferocious men, who dwell around the ruins of the city of Adrian, employ themselves in pulling down those parts of the edifices which still remained, and in glutting their savage disposition by the habitual commission of destruction. In the time of Vansleb*[4], and of Paul Lucas, there were many more pieces of architecture existing entire, than I myself beheld. The greater part of the buildings were constructed of large bricks, and their red colour was still in perfect preservation. That which appeared to me the most remarkable, was a triumphal arch, or magnificent gateway, supported by fluted pillars. The front is fifty feet in length. A very bad representation of this is to be seen in the Travels of Paul Lucas +[5]. The capitals of the pillars in particular are very badly represented. A more clear idea of it may be formed from plate XXVIII. It is evident that the intention was to have taken a complete delineation of this triumphal arch, which, to all appearance, served as the gate of the city; but while the designer was employed in this work, and I, on my part, was examining some other portions of the ruins, the noise of a gun fired off by one of our companions, who was placed as a sentinel, gave us notice of the approach of a gang of robbers. We had only time to escape to the boat, which was immediately pushed off shore, and we got clear, with only the menaces and bullying of those barbarians.

You observe also, on each side of the gate, holes cut for the hinges which sustained the folding-doors. The country people say that these doors are at Cairo, and that they were transported thither by a devil. Paul Lucas saw them there covered with plates of iron, and serving to close up an arch which is near the palace of the grand provost*[6], without doubt the Ouali, the officer who at Cairo is intrusted with the affairs of the police. A considerable number of pillars were still standing at the other extremity of the city of Antinoë, towards the mountains. All the remainder presents nothing but a confused mass of pieces of architecture, broken and overthrown.

On the opposite side of the mountain, which terminates, towards the west, the ancient enclosure of Antinoë, you distinguish a considerable number of openings dug in the rock. These caverns were undoubtedly places of sepulture, the catacombs. There are places such as these all over Thebais, principally in the environs of great cities, along those two chains of mountains with which the Nile is bordered, and sometimes straitened. The inhabitants, too grossly ignorant to comprehend those means with which the arts supplied their ancestors, ascribe these excavations to demons. Superstition produces similar effects upon the most opposite characters; for the missionary Vansleb appeared to agree in opinion with the then natives of Egypt; it seemed equally impossible to him that human beings could dig such cavities: but he subjoins to his opinion this pious mollification, that the devils were forced to become such good workmen by means of exorcisms*[7]. On the other band, the Christian legend beholds in that immense number of grottoes in the mountains of Thebais only the solitary retreats of holy hermits, whose indolence was but poorly disguised under the mask of contemplation; a fine-sounding word, but totally devoid of meaning, when it is applied to the life led by beings of this sort.

The mosque of the village in the neighbourhood of Antinoë, and whose aspect and population form so striking a contrast with the superb buildings and the urbanity of the ancient city built by Adrian, contains the tomb and the relics of a saint who has given to this place his name of Sheick Abade. But, what is truly diverting, while the Mahometans regard this saint as a zealous partizan of the Alcoran, the Christians claim and venerate him as one of their bishops who received the mournful honours of martyrdom at Insine*[8]. But enough has been said respecting those absurd chimeras, of which the men of all ages and of all nations have been the may-game.

We quitted the shores, formerly flourishing, but now desolate, of the city of Antinous. We came to anchor opposite to Mellavoui, three leagues from Scheick Abade. Mellavoui is a little city, of a very beautiful appearance, situated at about half a league from the western banks of the Nile. ….

Update (18 August 2023): Comparing this to the Pococke drawing and the drawing of the theatre portico in pl. 56 and 57 of the Description de l’Egypte, especially zooming in on the upper storey – the lower may have been buried by sand earlier – I wonder if this “gatehouse” is in fact the theatre portico?  The triangular part of the facade is distinctive, I think.


  1. [1]SONNINI DE MANONCOURT, Charles Nicolas Sigisbert. Voyage dans la Haute et Basse Égypte… Collection de Planches, Paris, F. Buisson, An VII [=1799].  Plate XXVIII, to be inserted in Tome III, p.48.  See a copy of this image here.
  2. [2]C. S. Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, undertaken by order of the old government of France, translated by Henry Hunter, London (1807), vol.2.  Online at Heidelberg here. The picture is the frontespiece.
  3. [3]* Travels to the Sources of the Nile.
  4. [4]* Nouvelle Relation d’Egypte, page 386 et suiv.
  5. [5]+ Voyage fait en 1714, tome ii.
  6. [6]* Nouvelle Relation d’Egypte, page 384.
  7. [7]* Nouvelle Relation d’Egypte, page 384.
  8. [8]* Vansleb, Nouv. Relation d’Egypte, p. 387.

3 thoughts on “Drawing the ruins of Antinoupolis in 1778, while pursued by bandits! The account of C. S. Sonnini de Manoncourt.

  1. Thank you – very interesting! “The sneery tone towards Christians, and especially to monks, is perhaps a reflection of the bigotry of the revolutionary government, and the malice and energy of its informers, rather than a personal opinion.” Also very interesting – might someone have affected that tone in 1777 with impunity? I don’t have enough of a sense of the times! Things were changing in the course of 1799, but I can imagine this might be a safe way to express oneself, heartily or with unspoken reservations. What of 1807 England, from the translator and publisher’s point of view?

  2. Nobody was at all likely to be upset in England in 1807. In France in 1777, I expect that it was the daring thing to do. The ancient regime was officially Roman Catholic, but it was a long-standing policy, not an innovation introduced by force and upheld with all the ardour of a witch-hunt.

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