A breathless account of the French invasion of Egypt in 1798.
Napoleon was attempting to get a head start in Europe’s frantic imperial scramble to carve up the rest of the world, writes Burleigh (The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian, 2003, etc.). But he tried to lend France’s military bid a certain moral authority by bringing with him scientists and artists to help administer the new empire. They were there not just to conquer, but to civilize. Napoleon’s scholars unearthed hugely important antiquities, most famously the Rosetta Stone. Engineers created maps and explored Egyptian waterways. Doctors tried to keep French soldiers healthy and wrote condescending reports about Egyptian “folk medicine.” Magazine writer Burleigh intriguingly comments on the cultural impact that the “discovery” of Egypt had on French decorative arts and fashion, for example the creation in 1804 of a porcelain dinner service decorated with pyramids and Sphinxes. She doffs her hat at “Orientalism,” but her discussion of the colonial fantasies that animated it is shallow and her analysis overly simplistic. “When the French arrived, various European-style vendors [of tobacco and wine] suddenly appeared,” she writes, not bothering to consider the history of economic negotiation and cultural exchange that might well account for such speedy commercial enterprise. She drops intriguing hints about French attitudes toward “disposable” Egyptian women—after an outbreak of plague, for example, officials in Cairo ordered the drowning of all prostitutes “found having relations with a Frenchman” as a means of protecting the Europeans—but here too fails to fully explore the stories her sources prompt her to tell.
Timely, but disappointingly superficial.