Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt

( 4 )

Overview

On July 1, at four in the afternoon, first one, then another, then a chorus of voices from three hundred ships called: "Land!" The first glimpse of Egypt filled each man with joy, expectation, and dread. Men clamored for the telescopes, seeking a glimpse of the ancient capital of classical learning and luxury. They squinted into the lenses. The afternoon sun glittered on the water, blinding them at first, confusing their eyes. Was it possible that, for their first sight of Egypt, the fabled origin of ...
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Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt

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Overview

On July 1, at four in the afternoon, first one, then another, then a chorus of voices from three hundred ships called: "Land!" The first glimpse of Egypt filled each man with joy, expectation, and dread. Men clamored for the telescopes, seeking a glimpse of the ancient capital of classical learning and luxury. They squinted into the lenses. The afternoon sun glittered on the water, blinding them at first, confusing their eyes. Was it possible that, for their first sight of Egypt, the fabled origin of civilization, this was all? Water. Sand. And a desiccated town set against a great white void. The French didn't have time to indulge their disillusionment, because they were in mortal danger.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

When 28-year-old Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his band of 50,000 soldiers and sailors was accompanied by 151 Parisian scientists and artists, who laid the groundwork for what became Egyptology. Ten of these remarkable men are the focus of Burleigh's narrative. Among them, three of the most prominent were the lowborn, "pugnacious" mathematician Gaspard Monge, a dedicated revolutionary who invented descriptive geometry; the painfully shy chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, who invented new ways to make gunpowder and steel; and the witty artist and diplomat Dominique-Vivant Denon, who produced 200 architecturally precise sketches of Egyptian ruins and a bestselling travelogue; later he became Napoleon's first director of the Louvre Museum. The survivors of the team brought home a vast body of knowledge, but surrendered their greatest discovery, the Rosetta Stone, to conquering British troops. The result of the savants' work was the 24-volume Description of Egypt, magnificently illustrated with engravings and maps, which helped launch Egyptomania and the "rape of the Nile," though Burleigh's discussion of this is scanty. Still, Burleigh (A Very Private Woman) offers an absorbing glimpse of Napoleon's thwarted bid for a grand French empire and its intellectual fruits. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

If you enjoy delving into small crevices of the past looking for little-considered gems of history, then Burleigh's (The Stranger and the Statesman) latest is for you. Focusing on Napoléon's expedition to Egypt in 1798-1801 and particularly on the scientists who accompanied the military forces, Burleigh illuminates an unfamiliar moment in the history of science. It is well known that Napoléon's expedition uncovered the Rosetta stone, but the 151 scholars who accompanied the expedition also described for the first time the physics of a mirage, developed descriptive geometry, and laid the foundation of modern scientific archaeology. They did all this while learning to live with sand storms, leech-infested water, sometimes hostile Egyptians, and the plague. Burleigh's storytelling ability is mesmerizing; she skillfully fills in the backstory of the region in artfully crafted paragraphs, summing up thousands of years of history without slowing the flow of the narrative. This is not an in-depth study of the subject, but it would fit well in the popular science section of a public library.
—Ann Forister

School Library Journal

When 28-year-old Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his band of 50,000 soldiers and sailors was accompanied by 151 Parisian scientists and artists, who laid the groundwork for what became Egyptology. Ten of these remarkable men are the focus of Burleigh's narrative. Among them, three of the most prominent were the lowborn, "pugnacious" mathematician Gaspard Monge, a dedicated revolutionary who invented descriptive geometry; the painfully shy chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, who invented new ways to make gunpowder and steel; and the witty artist and diplomat Dominique-Vivant Denon, who produced 200 architecturally precise sketches of Egyptian ruins and a bestselling travelogue; later he became Napoleon's first director of the Louvre Museum. The survivors of the team brought home a vast body of knowledge, but surrendered their greatest discovery, the Rosetta Stone, to conquering British troops. The result of the savants' work was the 24-volume Description of Egypt, magnificently illustrated with engravings and maps, which helped launch Egyptomania and the "rape of the Nile," though Burleigh's discussion of this is scanty. Still, Burleigh (A Very Private Woman) offers an absorbing glimpse of Napoleon's thwarted bid for a grand French empire and its intellectual fruits. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
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-buthere too fails to fully explore the stories her sources prompt her to tell. Timely, but disappointingly superficial.
Associated Press
“With an easy style and an eye for striking detail, Burleigh concentrates on 151 French scientists, scholars and students who joined the expedition, tempted by hero worship of Napoleon and the prospect of scientific adventure.”
People
“Burleigh spotlights the Indiana Jones-esque scientists who joined Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion during the late 18th century.”
Associated Press Staff
“With an easy style and an eye for striking detail, Burleigh concentrates on 151 French scientists, scholars and students who joined the expedition, tempted by hero worship of Napoleon and the prospect of scientific adventure.”
People Magazine
"Burleigh spotlights the Indiana Jones-esque scientists who joined Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion during the late 18th century."
People
“Burleigh spotlights the Indiana Jones-esque scientists who joined Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion during the late 18th century.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060597672
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/27/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,349,566
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Nina Burleigh is the author of four books. She is a noted journalist whose articles have appeared in Time, the Washington Post, New York magazine, Elle, and many other publications. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Mirage
Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt

Chapter One

The General

Europe is but a mole-hill. There never have existed mighty empires, save in the East, the cradle of all religions, the birthplace of all metaphysics.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

There was nothing more surprising and marvelous than Napoleon's salon for company: it was like something to lodge a king.
—François Bernoyer

Mediterranean Sea, May-June 1798

Departure day dawned warm and sweet, a merry late-May morning on the shores of the Mediterranean. Sunlight winked on the water, the wind was brisk. A military band played martial music, and booming cannon warned stragglers to board without delay. The bay was black with three hundred ships—a sight unlike any the seedy port town of Toulon had ever seen. Vessels were packed so tightly that hulls screeched and sawed against each other maneuvering for open water. Wives, family, friends, and the plain curious milled about on land, sobbing, laughing, waving, struggling to witness this massive, unprecedented embarkation.

The lace-cuffed artist and diplomat Dominique-Vivant Denon surveyed the scene from the deck of one of the ships, and mused in his journal: "Thousands of men leaving their country, their fortunes, their friends, their children, and their wives, almost all of whom knew nothing of the course they were about to steer, nor indeed of anything that concerned their voyage, except that Bonaparte was the leader."

On board the ships, the scene was colorful, chaotic, profane. The infantry wore blue,the hussars (fighting horsemen) sported yellow and red, the dragoons (mounted infantry who fought mainly on foot) draped themselves in scarlet, pink, or orange, depending upon their unit. Horses whinnied and stamped down in the holds, livestock to be butchered in the course of the voyage lowed and grunted from rank pens.

Scattered among the 34,000 land troops and 16,000 sailors and marines crammed into every nook and cranny of this massive fleet, 151 scholars and artists tried to stow their books, instruments, and baggage without disturbing the rough men around them, still busy tying down bulky equipment and hurling oaths as the footing beneath them began to roll. Unlike the soldiers, these civilians had actually volunteered for this mad expedition to a secret destination, but like them, they were assigned to ships and berths according to their age and rank and prominence in their respective fields. Professors, inventors, and famous artists like the elegant Denon sailed in relative luxury with officers, while students and young engineers squeezed into fetid holds together with a hundred or more men.

From the start, down in the holds, the youngest scientists—thirty-six students—had the worst of it. As the ships lurched into the rolling open sea, the students clutched hammocks hanging next to, over, and under rows of soldiers. Hemmed in on all sides by human flesh, teenagers who had, a few months before, fought to join the mystery expedition were quickly disabused of their adventure fantasies. Within hours of embarkation—just before dinner, in fact—the rough seas drove most men to their knees with sickness. The soldiers were from the land army, not seafaring men themselves, and they got as seasick as the scientists. Men who weren't subject to le mal de mer were soon sickened by the inescapable odor of vomit. Even Napoleon, who had his shipboard bed mounted on wheels to try to alleviate the effects of the swells, spent much of the trip seasick.

It was a queasy and inauspicious start to a voyage the civilians had anticipated with nervous impatience for many days. They had left the comforts of Paris weeks before, and had waited in the port town of Toulon for days. Horses and war matériel clogged the thoroughfares—the streets were filthy, lodging and food were nearly impossible to find. Men slept in stables and on the floors of public buildings. Night and day, tens of thousands of battle-hardened soldiers, returned from the two fronts in France's recent European war, clashed with one another as well as with the scientists. These dirty, rugged, uneducated men would be the scientists' protectors and tormentors for the next three years. They jostled in the fishy streets, drinking and brawling, simultaneously impatient for the sea voyage to begin and annoyed at the impenetrable mystery of the destination. They ridiculed or sneered at the civilian scientists in their frock coats—if they noticed them at all.

The animating spirit behind the enterprise didn't arrive until the night before the expedition was scheduled to sail. On the evening of May 18, Toulon blazed with celebratory lights. The greatest military leader in France, at five-foot-four, a lithe little man who moved like a human panther—"that sulphur-headed Scaramouche," to his royalist detractors—had finally arrived, with his wife, Joséphine. He was twenty-eight years old. A curious combination of romantic and cold-blooded tactician, the young warrior was, at this point in his life, deeply in love with the comparatively more worldly and sexually experienced Creole whom he had married. Leaving Toulon, Napoleon didn't know that before he saw his wife again she would break his heart. With her silk-draped presence nearby, he loped onto a hastily constructed platform and, to roars from the crowd, addressed his soldiers, promising to those who returned from this mystery destination a grant of six acres of land each.

As he spoke, the crowd crackled with a sense of history-making and adventure. The general never had a problem raising massive armies. The French People's Armies had numbered between half and three-quarters of a million men in the preceding years. Before his reign ended, Napoleon would muster a million-man army. François Bernoyer, a tailor and chief of supplies to the army, who would become a prolific chronicler of the expedition, was in the audience. "Everyone was excited by the mystery. Never had so many masts been seen on the sea, nor so many horses and war tools filled the beach. Thus, on the faith of a single man, the elite of the French savants and warriors prepared to leave."

Mirage
Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt
. Copyright © by Nina Burleigh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents


Introduction     ix
The General     1
The Geometer and the Chemist     19
The Inventor     41
The Institute     59
The Engineers     89
The Doctors     115
The Mathematician     139
The Artist     167
The Naturalist     185
The Zoologist     195
The Stone     209
The Book     219
Epilogue: From Egyptomania to Egyptology     241
Notes     249
Bibliography     261
Index     271
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 9, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    For first time readers unfamiliar about the academics who accompanied the army to Egypt.

    I did wonder many times while reading if the author did use and translate primary source materials. The writing style is that of a now seemingly popular "journalist human factor" type where competent commentary of the science is lacking. I would gift give the book for non-scholarly reading and nothing more.

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    Posted December 19, 2012

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    Posted May 17, 2012

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