November 2008

Napoleon’s Middle Eastern strategy

By Paul Strathern
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Mark Twain observed that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Readers will certainly find much familiar in the history that Paul Strathern chronicles in Napoleon in Egypt. A great Western power, angered by the behavior of a Middle Eastern regime, sends an army to set things right and bring good government to the downtrodden masses. The resulting occupation is marred by atrocities and cultural misunderstanding, incites a rebellion and starts a larger war. The invaders are ultimately defeated by attrition and mismanagement.

But as a mirror of modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte's doomed 1798 venture into the Nile valley and the Levant is imperfect. Napoleon, as Strathern admirably proves, viewed Egypt as merely the first step on his journey to personal glory. He planned an overland invasion of south Asia and India, thereby repeating the accomplishment of his hero, Alexander the Great. The revolutionary government in France had no control over Napoleon during his three years in the Middle East – thanks largely to a British naval blockade – making him not just a military governor, but de facto Sultan of Egypt and ruler of all he surveyed. Napoleon tried to introduce reforms to the suspicious, xenophobic population. But even the presence of a contingent of French savants – intellectuals from all branches of science and the arts – seemed aimed more at burnishing Napoleon's ego than improving Egypt. That the savants made real contributions to science during the occupation is now a footnote in any field except Egyptology, which was founded during those difficult years.

Ultimately, Napoleon's invasion brought him the glory he desired, but in an unintended way. The broader war it started allowed him to seize control of France and most of Europe. Strathern, a prize – winning novelist as well as a historian, has probed Napoleon's complex personality, both the megalomania for which he is vilified and the military prowess for which he is admired, and has in the process created a highly readable lesson in the rhymes of history.

Chris Scott writes from Nashville.

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Napoleon in Egypt

Napoleon in Egypt

By Paul Strathern
ISBN 9780553806786

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