Photo from Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte, courtesy of the George Peabody Library of the Johns Hopkins University

In September 1798, Napoleon’s retinue visited Giza for the first time. Here, Denon captures himself measuring the Sphinx’s dimensions by dropping a plumb line from the top of its head. The artist’s reaction to these ancient monuments reflected his initial Eurocentrism: “It is hard to decide what is more astonishing, the tyrannical dementia that dared order their building, or the stupid obedience of the people who agreed to help build such things.” In the following weeks and months, however, his skepticism turned to unabashed respect for the ancient Egyptians’ architectural genius: “I no longer have any doubts about one thing: the Greeks invented nothing, nor have they produced anything of greater value.”