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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.
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… Prisse, a gentleman in every way qualified to take advantage of the sculptures that previously lay hidden…
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.
Prisse was a member of numerous learned societies and co-founded, with Dr.
Henry Abbott of New York, the Literary Society of Cairo.
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.” 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.