Mirage, Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, Nina Burleigh, Harper Perennial, 2008
“Napoleon Bonaparte was more than just a celebrated man, he was the nearest thing to a rock star the late eighteenth century would see.”
In 1798, just before Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the American West and their encounter with primordial, paleolithic humanity, Napoleon Bonaparte set off for Egypt and an encounter with primordial, ancient civilization. Ever the narcissist, Napoleon saw himself as the new Alexander the Great. He had conquered continental Europe, and now sought empire in the East to counter England, which he couldn’t oppose on the open sea. No European had been to the Middle East since the crusades. Ruthless and romantic, a dreamer both inspiring and callous to his followers, Napoleon blundered his way across Egypt and into Syria, finding an Ottoman world, magnificent ancient ruins, and the Rosetta Stone.
Like Apollo to the moon, Napoleon’s expedition not only explored, but made deliberate study of its destination. Napoleon brought scientists, 150 of the best scientists of France. They studied, travelled, catalogued, and made drawings of fantastic ancient ruins that were covered with the mysterious hieroglyphics, many of them filled with sand, used as garbage dumps by the local people. They spoke with Islamic followers about life diversity, and the origins of the world. They found, first hand, the temple of Isis on the island of Philae as the uppermost Nile reaches Nubia, now removed as the island is under the water from the Aswan dam. They discovered the colossi of Memnon statues at Thebes, which ‘moan’ as the sun rises. They found the intact Zodiac base relief ceiling at Dendara, made during the time of the Greeks, and the great temple of Hathor. They suffered the plague, and a near-blinding eye infection called ophthalmia. They created modern archeology.
“stuck dumb by the combination of silver moonlight on the desert, the black, whispering river, and the sudden, towering shadows of temples and columns”
They suffered most the self-centered whim, and reckless, impulsive leadership of Napoleon. He promptly lost his navy to the British, by surpise, in the Battle of Abukir Bay, while mooring at Alexandria. He led his army to needless defeat in the Syrian campaign. In the failed siege of Acre, he ordered euthanasia for the dying and retreating French soldiers. At Jaffa, he ordered the murder of 4000 Turkish prisoners. As news arrived of France in trouble and Italy lost, Napoleon slipped away with a small group back to France, leaving the others to fend for themselves. A shrewd publicist, he regaled his deeds in Egypt before the others could return. He eventually became Emperor.
Of 34000 land troops who sailed to Egypt with Napoleon, 21,500 returned alive. Among the survivors were 3,000 sick and maimed. Out of the expedition’s 16,000 sailors, only 1,866 – barely one in nine- are known to have returned to France.