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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.
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.
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.
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.