“Europe is a molehill….”
Everything here is worn out…tiny Europe has not enough to offer.
We must set off for the Orient; that is where all the greatest glory is to be achieved.” —Napoleon
Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was the first Western attack in modern times on a Middle Eastern country. In this remarkably rich and eminently readable historical account, acclaimed author Paul Strathern reconstructs a mission of conquest inspired by glory, executed in haste, and bound for disaster.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, only twenty-eight, mounted the most audacious military campaign of his already spectacular career. With 335 ships, 40,000 soldiers, and a collection of scholars, artists, scientists, and inventors, he set sail for Egypt to establish an Eastern empire in emulation of Alexander the Great. Like everything Napoleon ever attempted, it was a plan marked by unquenchable ambition, heroic romanticism, and not a little madness.
Napoleon saw himself as a liberator, freeing the Egyptians from the oppression of their Mameluke overlords. But while Napoleon thought his army would be welcomed as heroes, he tragically misunderstood Muslim culture and grossly overestimated the “gratitude” he could expect from those he’d come to save. Instead Napoleon and his men would face a grim war of attrition against an ad hoc army of Muslims led by the feared Murad Bey. Marching across seemingly endless deserts in the shadow of the pyramids, suffering extremes of heat and thirst, and pushed to the limits of human endurance, they would be plagued by mirages, suicides, and the constant threat of ambush. A crusade begun in honor and intended for glory would degenerate toward chaos and atrocity.
But Napoleon’s grand failure in Egypt also yielded vast treasures of knowledge about a culture largely lost to the West, and through the recovery of artifacts like the Rosetta Stone, it prepared the way for the translation of hieroglyphics and modern Egyptology. And it tempered the complex leader who believed it his destiny to conquer the world.
A story of war, adventure, politics, and a clash of cultures, Paul Strathern’s Napoleon in Egypt is history at once relevant and impossible to put down.
In 1797, eight years after the French Revolution, an obscure general, Napoleon Bonaparte, became a national hero after a brilliant campaign in Italy. Equally impressed with his own genius, he formed the idea of conquering Egypt and, like his idol, Alexander, marching on to India. Nonfiction author and award-winning novelist Strathern (Big Idea: Scientists Who Changed the World) turns up plenty of surprises in an enthralling history of the first of Napoleon's world-class debacles. With extraordinary logistical skill and luck, Napoleon led 40,000 men and hundreds of ships across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in 1798. Defeating local armies and occupying the capital, Cairo, proved easy, but difficulties arose despite genuine efforts to replace a corrupt government with French ideals of freedom and justice. A nasty insurgency developed; Admiral Nelson destroyed Napoleon's fleet; and the British also frustrated his invasion of Palestine. Abandoning his tattered army after a year under brutal desert conditions, Napoleon returned to France, pronouncing the invasion an unqualified success. Stories of powerful men making disastrous decisions have an endless fascination, and Strathern makes the most of it in this entertaining account. Illus., maps.