Bonaparte and Egypt
I recently saw Bonaparte et l’Egypte: Feu et Lumières (“Bonaparte and Egypt: Fire and Enlightenment”) at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Ambitious title, and my expectations for this exhibition were high, but the show fell flat.
So what was missing? For one thing the rooms were small, stifling the epic feeling the subject begged for. For instance Gros’s gigantic, iconic painting, Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de jaffa (“Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa”) was absent, and presented only on tiny television screens. The show also frequently lapsed into cheap orientalism, with a hodgepodge of objects of limited artistic or historical interest.
What a shame, because the Egypt campaign is a fascinating subject. The expedition, planned as early as 1797, wasn’t decided by Bonaparte himself, who was a mere general, but by the Directoire, the late-revolutionary government then in power.
The military outcome seemed dubious from the beginning. Despite early French victories on land, such as the Battle of the Pyramids, the French navy was soundly defeated by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. The country was niw open to the French armies, but the British consolidated their maritime control of the Mediterranean.
Later Bonaparte would face a religious and nationalistic uprising in a country torn by intractable ethnic and political rivalries (any similarities… etc.) Always the micromanager, he became involved in the minutest regulation of the lives of the Egyptians. The exhibition displays, for instance, his rulings on minor disputes between peasants.
But the great achievement of the Egypt expedition was the first scientific exploration, study and cataloguing of the country’s natural and archeological wonders, which had been until then the stuff of legend and fancy. Of course, the more than famous Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum (only a cast is on display in this show) was discovered during French excavations. La Nouvelle Description de l’Egypte, with its stunning illustrations, was published by the scientists who accompanied the expedition. It was just reedited for the first time in two centuries for this exhibition.
But Bonaparte had more pressing concerns than the fate of the Egypt expedition, such as forwarding his political career in Paris. During the summer of 1799 he left – some say abandoned – his troops in Egypt in the hands of his second-in-command, General Kléber (who would be assassinated the following year) to sail back to France. A few months later Bonaparte would indeed seize power in a bloodless coup and appoint himself First Consul, effectively putting an end to the Revolution.
Soon the Egypt expedition would turn into a military disaster. Yet Bonaparte, a master propagandist, would transform it into a glorious, exotic epic for the benefit of French public opinion. In Paris everything Egyptian was the height of fashion. My favorite artifact in the entire exhibition is a gorgeous, colorful Egyptian-themed French wallpaper from the very early 1800s. A new decorative style, called retour d’Egypte (“return from Egypt”) was born.
There is a lesson to be learned, however, from this ill-fated adventure: where military force failed, diplomacy and “soft power” succeeded. French scientists and physicians remained behind after the departure of the soldiers. A close relationship ensued between Egypt and France, highlighted in the 19th century by the gift of the Louxor Obelisk (now on the Place de la Concorde in Paris) and the building of the Suez Canal.
Also French fascination for Egypt survived well beyond the retour d’Egypte decorative fad. Young linguist Jean-François Champollion, who was not even ten at the time of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, dedicated his life to the study of hieroglyphics, which he would decipher in the 1820s. How did Champollion do it? By following two intuitions: that modern Coptic was the successor language to ancient Egyptian, and that hieroglyphics, like Hebrew and Arabic scripts, mostly eschewed vowels. But that’s another story, and one that is not told by this exhibition.
At the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris until March 20, 2009.