A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A VL Classic, originally posted October 2008
While we are all aware of Napoleon’s energetic attempts to conquer the world, Nina Burleigh splendidly tells of his disastrous Egyptian campaign, which is less well known. And instead of the military tactics, she focuses on the civilian participants, a group of scientists and their students who accompanied the expedition with much more successful results. It makes for fascinating reading.
The book is loosely grouped into chapters focusing on the types of scientists that went, not only the expected doctors and engineers, but also astronomers, naturalists and and an opera singer. And what a banquet of discoveries awaited them. They were the first to make maps of the area, to document plants and animals and to diagram ancient ruins. They found the Sphinx up to its chin in sand and only the tops of columns of the Temple of Thebes standing above the desert floor. “Napoleon appreciated the emotional power of the ancient pyramids, obelisks and temples, though without taking much interest in their real historical meaning.”
The scientists were in constant conflict with the troops who guarded them.Anthropologists and others saw the Egyptians as a source of local information that could be helpful and some even learned the language.Bored by inaction, the soldiers vented their frustration on the natives, stealing and killing livestock, assaulting women and kidnapping children to sell into slavery. The troops became so paranoid about what the scientists were doing, that as the intellectuals prepared for home after 4 years, soldiers busted into the collection trunks, looking for riches and jewels, but finding rocks and specimen jars instead.
Everyone on the expedition faced terrible hardships. Since Napoleon had not supplied adequate provisions, the thirst and heat on marches tormented some soldiers to the point where they blew their brains out to escape their misery. There was also insects, leeches and diseases such as ophthalmia, an eye inflammation that blinded the victim for weeks. And the Plague, which swept through cities and villages, wiping out large numbers of the French, as well as the residents.
Between all of this, plus repeated defeats by the Mamelukes, troop mutinies and the English creeping ever closer, Napoleon himself fled after less than a year in Egypt, his ship sneaking away on a moonless night, leaving the civilians to fend for themselves. An English blockade and bureaucratic red tape continually prevented the rest of the French from leaving the war torn country. Once the British took over the country they tried to force the intellectuals to hand over their notes and specimens as ransom to return home. After a lengthy standoff, the scientists were finally allowed to leave with most of their possessions, except for some of the larger discoveries, such as the Rosetta Stone.
Soon after returning home, all of the findings of the expedition was gathered into the monumental The Description of Egypt, covering 24 volumes printed on large sheets of linen paper that could be stored in a specially designed mahogany chest. The volumes were published over a span of 26 years and contained work from nearly everyone involved, including those who had died in Egypt. Burleigh’s book contains an assortment of plates of the engravings from the original and they are stunning to behold. If they can fascinate a modern reader, such as myself, who has seen many pictures and films of Egypt, imagine the impact they must’ve had on people who had never seen such things before. That is the final chapter of the book; how “Egyptian fever” swept Europe and America influencing fashion, literature, home décor and more. It’s a unique twist to an absolutely riveting book that certainly deserves high praise.
Harper Collins 2007 286 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-059767-2
Jackie also reviewed a book about the influence of Egypt on popular culture over the centuries in Egyptomania.