March 4th, 2008

reading, activism, writing

Book #9: Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, by Nina Burleigh

When Napoleon slunk out of Egypt in August 1799, a year and a month after he arrived, he left behind a sick, desperate, and cruel army, about 150 scientists (known as savants), and France's grand dreams of colonial domination for the region. The journey began with a secret voyage. Riding high from his military triumphs in Italy, Napoleon pulled together 50,000 men, 300 ships, and a remarkable group of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, artists, students, and writers for a dangerous trip to "confront the British." Their real destination was Alexandria, Egypt, the ancient city named for Alexander the Great.

Part of the European colonial "leapfrog" game playing out in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas, Egypt was a much sought-after prize. Strategically placed, with a fertile valley and sparse population, Egypt was part of the weak Ottoman Empire.

Nina Burleigh concentrates her book on the trials and triumphs of the savants. Their struggle (movingly described in thousands of letters) to survive the hardships, deprivation, jealousy of the French troops, anger of the indigenous population, an unforgiving desert, dysentery, plague, blindness, sand storms, and Napoleon's desertion personalizes the story.

Ultimately the savants who lived through the experience created a huge book The Description of Egypt. It contained details about the colossal structures built by the ancient Egyptians and their slaves, as well as drawings and descriptions of everything the group encountered. Egyptomania, partly fueled by the book, gripped Europe and thus began the "Rape of Egypt." Antiquities, mummies, and even whole buildings were plundered and spread over the museums and drawing rooms of Britain, France, the US, and Germany.

For anyone with a Napoleon fascination (and I must admit that I have a touch of that illness), Mirage is a nice addition. Burleigh's perspective adds unexpected information that keeps the book balanced between the importance of the science, the cruelty of the invasion, and the subsequent history of the region.