Bonaparte and Egypt

Bonaparte Egypt

Bonaparte 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.

Cogniet - Bonaparte in Egypt

Cogniet – Bonaparte in Egypt

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21 Comments to “Bonaparte and Egypt”

  1. tifacil says:

    Good evening, thanks for the post? Is your blog a free theme or custom? I am interested by your blog. Is it feasible to include this post on one of my blogs?, i will of course link to this blog. regards

  2. Renita Larko says:

    this is great ive bookmarked this one hehe

  3. Thanks for this, keep up the great posts !

  4. Interesting,

    napoleon is famous for the battle at waterloo and being short, i never even new he had travelled to egyp, some real interesting reading in this article


  5. I disagree, Richard! Napoleon went to Egypt after Talleyrand promised to go to Turkey to ensure peace when the French troops arrived. Napoleon took 177 scientists and scholars much to the bemusement of the Directory in France. He was fascinated by the Orient. He had no wish to fight in Syria but Talleyrand never left Paris! Had he gone to Constantinople the French might not have had to fight even the Mamelukes in Egypt.

    In 1799 the British defeated Tippoo Sultan in India. Of course India was ‘British’ all along wasn’t it? All the Indians were crying out for white rule by a foreign imperialistic country n’est ce pas?

    In 1798 Nelson had Cariciollo and dozens of others murdered in Naples after they had surrendered earlier to Allied forces. Even the historian Holland Rose said this was a stain on British honour.

    Napoleon left the Army in Russia after Malet’s conspiracy in Paris. Read Sergeant Bourgogne’s Retreat from Russia (Folio books page 159) where he says: “the step he took was a perfectly natural one…his presence was necessary in France, not only for the administration, but to organize a new army.” All the senior officers agreed.

    Josephine was cheated on by Alexandre de Beauharnais her fist husband. Later, to prove to herself she was attractive she took many lovers. Napoleon really loved her, despite her past. She married him out of convenience and because she needed a protector. She cheated on him with Hippoloyte Charles a vapid pretty-boy. The British allowed French newspapers and letters to get to Egypt to inform Napoleon of this. He was utterly devastated – hence he turned to Pauline the wife of one of his officers!

    By the way, Pitt drank himself to death and died owing £40,000 while thousands of English people were starving due to very high bread prices. George III went mad and the Prince Regent owed £650,000 in 1795 – billions in today’s money. Yet in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, the unemployed poor were sabred by militia at a peaceful gathering in Manchester. And Canning was responsible for the mass murder of 2,000 innocent Danes with the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 – men, women and children were killed and Congreve rockets were used for the first time on civilians.

    Denmark was NEUTRAL at the time! The British Navy stole all her ships of the line and destroyed all her other shipping. And Wellington had a ‘great victory’ against local clog-wearing militia.

    Walter Runciman describes in The Tragedy of St. Helena how Napoleon was a far better man, ruler and human being than immoral dregs like Canning, Castlereagh, or Lord Liverpool, P.M. in 1815 who persecuted the British people as well as the defeated French allies of Napoleon.

    See the INS website and enjoy. :)

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Dear Jean-Marcel,

    Maybe if the object was to discuss the relationship of France and Egypt for an entire (and very important) century, the exhibition was too ambitious for its relatively modest size. As for the Pestiferes, I understand that it can’t leave the Louvre, but then a full size copy could have been displayed. This is not the kind of painting that shows to good effect on a small TV screen, or in a small room.

    I must say that I visited the exhibition with friends, and that we were all disappointed. This, of course, does not detract from its commercial success, on which I congratulate you.

    In any case, to refer to your elegant metaphor, I am aware of the fact that nothing I write here will prevent any caravan from walking on to Arras and other places, but this will not prevent this dog (bitch?) from barking.

  7. Jean-Marcel Humbert says:

    Hi Catherine, it’s me again !!!
    I didn’t see it before, but the first subtitle is not as you write it “Feu et Lumière”, but “Feu et Lumières” : that doesn’t mean “Fire and Light”, but “Fire and Enlightment”.
    A last point : the way Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs was well explained in the exhibition, including the coptic connection. Now that the exhibition is closed, you can read it again in a more detailed manner in the 400 pages catalogue I edited.
    Bye-bye now. Jean-Marcel.

  8. Jean-Marcel Humbert says:

    Hi Catherine,
    thank you so much for your kind appreciation of the exhibition “the show fell flat”. You just forgot to point out the subtitle “1769-1869” : the actual subject of the exhibition is not Bonaparte IN Egypt, but the connection between France and Egypt before and after the French military expedition. So, many subjects, among which Orientalism in art, are truly part of the heritage from this one Century period, and had to be shown even if one may dislike it.
    As far as the Pestifere painting is concerned, of course it will never leave the nearby Louvre (too large, too fragile etc.), that’s why it was not in the exhibition.
    Anyway, the exhibition was a great success in its category, with more than 200 000 visitors, and an excellent feedback level.
    Now, the show must go on, and can be seen in Arras (north of France) from June till October 2009 (as we say, the dogs bark, the caravan walks on…)
    Best wishes,
    Jean-Marcel Humbert
    Scientific curator of the exhibition

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Merci, Marie-Helene!

  10. Hi Catherine,
    Hope everything is going well,
    I found this remarquable electric book,
    About Champollion le jeune… egyptologie…
    Copy this Link bellow:

    Francophone Only.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Richard, and it is all too easy to fall from power. One of the lessons of this book.

  12. Richard says:

    When you have the power nothing seems out of reach.

    Alas for Josephine, she was manuevered into asing for the divorce.


  13. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Richard, the Bonapartes, in particular Joseph and Jerome, are connected to the US (other than by the Louisiana purchase.)

    For Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte:

    The validity of the annulment of the marriage between Napoleon and Josephine is likewise very questionable…

  14. Richard says:

    upon going to the bank the other day, I noticed the teller at the bank had an unusual name. Bonaparte! I asked her if she were related to the Ogre. She replied that her ancestor was one Miss Patterson of Baltimore, Maryland who married (against the spoken wishes of his brother Napoleon) married Jerome Bonaparte.

    Napoleon in his meglomniac mind refused to allow her to enter france and demandd that the Pope annul the marriage. The Pope reply that it was beyond the facility of the Church to annul a marriage, which in every way was correct and proper.

    In his hubris, Napoleon, the ci-disant “Emperor of the French” declared the marriage null and void. so Much for the Emperor, Jerome after 3 years of marriage and one issue was convinced toaccept the Emerial decree, was promoted to general, was made King of Westfalia. he was remarried to Catherine Frederica, Princess of Wurtemburg. (both Westfalia and Wurtemburg were created by Napoleon in the confederation of the Rhine).

    Elizabeth Patterson continued to retain her honor by remaining steadfast in her relation to her husband Jerome.


  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Very interesting indeed, Sheila. Thanks for the information.

  16. Sheila O'Connor says:

    You might be interested to know that Ben Weider who was responsible for the collecting of memorabilia of Napoleon over many years, was the co-founder of the Int. Federation of Body Builders.. a world wide phenomenon.. He died on Oct 17th 2008, 5 days before the opening of the Napoleon exhibit which he was eagerly waiting to attend… it is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum.

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks so much, Lucy! Indeed the Montreal exhibit sounds more impressive than this one.

  18. Lucy says:

    Hello Catherine, thank you once again for a very informative and interesting post. At the Musee des beaux-arts, here in Montreal, we have an ongoing exhibit on Napoleon which is most impressive. Here is the site,if you’re interested on browsing:

  19. Catherine Delors says:

    Richard – True, this wasn’t Bonaparte’s greatest moment.

    Carlyn – I don’t think either this was the same show as in Boston. As for the Rosetta Stone, I agree it is more impressive “in person.” I hesitated whether to post a larger photo of it, but that painting of Bonaparte gazing at the Sphinx was too tempting…

  20. Great post Catherine. I saw an exhibition on Napoleon’s artifacts that came to Boston, but I don’t think it was the same one as this. It was not just stuff from his Egyptian campaign.

    When I first saw it at the British Museum, I remember being amazed at how BIG the Rosetta Stone really is. For some reason, when you look at it in books, it does not look that impressive.

  21. Richard says:

    An unusual campaign. He must have known he would not have prevented the British from maintaining control of India. …And while he was successful on land, the Royal Navy destroyed any chance of resupply at the Battle of the Nile and his army was abandoned by him as he raced home. This feat of “bravery” would be repeated in the retreat from Russia. (What a morale booster!) His actions in Palestine were desperate to say the least. All in all he was a disaster for the French nation. A serial cheater in Egypt he became jealous of Josephine in France only to have her meet him as he travelled to kick her out of the “house”, and persuade him not to. (How?) I remember one phrase from his letter to her, “Ne laver pas, je viens…”. a sad commentary.

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