Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern. Bantam Books, a division of Random House Inc. New York, 2008. 480 pps. $30.00.
On 19 May 1798, General 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 plundered the treasury’s five million francs of gold, one million of silver and one million in gems. (Someone had to pay for his fantasy of becoming the new Alexander the Great.)
Arriving in Egypt on 1st July, by August the French 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.
Yet twelve months 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–on August 24, 1799, Napoleon abandoned his Egyptian dream of empire along with the remnants of his army, to hightail it back to France, where he proclaimed the whole to have been 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 or side-show to Napoleon’s European wars which would topple countless legitimate governments, cost between five and seven million lives, and immerse the Continent in over 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 some measure of his megalomania were given full rein–with awful consequences.
Yet Strathern routinely plays down these unpalatable aspects of Napoleon’s character, clinging instead to the Napoleonic myth of heroism and glory.
He omits, minimises 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 highly inflated enemy casualty numbers given by Napoleon himself. Moreover, he seems unaware that French casualty lists of the period recorded neither desertions nor suicides, both of which occurred with terrible frequency during the long desert marches.
Confining his research to this single campaign has left Strathern dangerously unfamiliar with a wider contextual understanding of the events and personalities involved here or the pervading ideologies of Romanticism and French nationalism. This leads him to make sweeping generalisations which do not bear up under scrutiny, and perilous forays into talk-show style psychological analyses which misinterpret Napoleon’s background, mores and prejudices as well as the melodramatic blusterings of his vast personal correspondence. Nor has Strathern availed himself of the latest published research on Napoleon’s wars or the recent archaeological findings at battle sites which are at odds with official accounts of the age.
Written in the style of a child’s geography textbook, Napoleon in Egypt is simplistic, bland, and cliched. Strathern’s tepid prose saps the battle narratives of their courage, dynamism and drama. In his version, the derring-do just derring-doesn’t. More comprehensive and poignant accounts of the major battles–particularly the Battle of the Nile and the Siege at Acre–can be found in the Adkins’ The War for All the Oceans.
But, remarkably, this is undoubtedly the finest account of the Savants and their contribution to the fields of archaeology, ancient history, and botany to date. For amongst 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 over 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, historians whose encyclopaedic knowledge and grasp of detail is nothing short of colossal. Yet 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 and useful addition to any Napoleonic shelf.
(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)