Napoleon in Egypt

An insightful look at Napoleon's 'other army' – the Savants who stormed Egypt.

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On May 19 1798, Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte sailed from Italy with an army of nearly 40,000 men – along with another, smaller army of scientists, engineers, artists, and linguists, the so-called “Savants” – to conquer Egypt.

First stop, however, was Malta. There, Napoleon ousted the traditional rulers, the Knights of St. John, established Malta as a French satellite, and looted millions of francs of gold, silver, and gems from the nation’s treasury. (Someone had to pay for his fantasy of becoming the new Alexander the Great.)

The French arrived in Egypt on July 1 and by August they had taken Alexandria and marched across the desert to defeat the Mameluke army at the Battle of the Pyramids and at Cairo. Then, in a bout of indomitable energy and attention to detail, Napoleon established a new Egyptian government with himself as titular head.

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Yet on August 24, 1799, one year and several major battles later – bankrupt, having lost most of his troops and many of the Savants, his Navy destroyed by the British under Admiral Nelson – Napoleon abandoned his Egyptian dream and the remnants of his army, and  hightailed it back to France, where he proclaimed the whole a glorious victory.

Napoleon in Egypt is novelist and philosopher Paul Strathern’s account of this disastrous Middle Eastern sojourn.

In some ways, the Egyptian enterprise was little more than a costly diversion from or side-show to Napoleon’s European wars – wars that would topple countless legitimate governments, cost between 5 million and 7 million lives, and immerse the Continent in more than a decade of total war.

Still, it was in Egypt that Napoleon truly developed his taste for absolute power. It was here, for the first time, that his psychopathic contempt for his troops, his devious lying, as well as his megalomania, were given full rein – with awful consequences.

“Napoleon in Egypt” suffers from some unfortunate flaws.

Perhaps most significant is Strathern’s tendancy to play down the more unpalatable aspects of Napoleon’s character, clinging instead to the Napoleonic myth of heroism and glory. He omits, minimizes, or attempts to explain away the French atrocities – such as the sacking of the Al Azhar in Cairo and the slaughter of Ottoman prisoners following the siege of Jaffa.

He credits Napoleon’s proclamations of religious toleration. He relies on the inflated enemy casualty numbers given by Napoleon himself and fails to note that French casualty lists of the period recorded neither desertions nor suicides – both of which occurred frequently.

Also, by confining his research to this single campaign, Strathern does not give readers a wider context within which to understand the events and personalities involved or the impact of the pervading ideologies of Romanticism and French nationalism.

At the same time, perilous forays into psychological analyses misinterpret Napoleon’s background, mores, and prejudices.

Nor does Strathern include mention of the latest published research on Napoleon’s wars or the recent archaeological findings at battle sites that are at odds with official accounts of the age.

Yet, desipte these shortcoming, “Napoleon in Egypt” is undoubtedly the finest account of the Savants and their contribution to the fields of archaeology, ancient history, and botany to date.

Among the detritus of Napoleon’s overweening hubris, Strathern has woven an illuminating account of the long-neglected scientists and artists who accompanied him.

Their work and adventures – their drawings of the ruins at Thebes unseen by Western eyes for more than a millennium, their meticulous studies of Egyptian flora and fauna, their discovery of the hieroglyphs and their excavation of the tombs – transformed our understanding of the ancient world, created the field of Egyptology, and ushered in huge advances in the biological sciences.

The field of Napoleonic studies is dominated by titans – historians such as David A. Bell, Charles Esdaile, Paul Kennedy, and Colin White  – whose encyclopaedic knowledge and grasp of detail is nothing short of colossal.

While Strathern’s efforts do not elevate him to such heights, the breadth of his findings on the secondary characters in this empirical venture do make “Napoleon in Egypt” a necessary addition to any Napoleonic shelf.

M.M. Bennetts is a freelance writer living in Hampshire, England.

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