by Nina Burleigh
Over two centuries ago, the land of Egypt was almost completely unknown to the nations of Europe. Sure, they knew of Egypt – it's in the Bible, and all over classical literature – but the modern nation was completely foreign, and the historical Egypt a legendary land of magic and myth. Napoleon Bonaparte sought to capture this jewel of the Middle East for the glory of France, and set out in 1798 with his troops to wrest it from the Mamluks. Unusually, he also took a team of civilians with him – over 150 scientists, engineers, and artists – to document any and all discoveries made in the land of pharaohs. Disliked by the army, and abandoned by the general when his military campaign didn't work out as planned, Napoleon's civilians – nicknamed his “savants” or “living encyclopedias” - struggled to continue their research while fighting off hunger, plague and the dangers of war. Their heroic effort to persevere when they had no certainty that they'd ever see France again led to the birth of Egyptology and the rediscovery of the pyramids and Egyptian temples long lost to time, but their greatest contribution to future generations may have been the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which scholars to eventually decipher the written Egyptian language.
Author Nina Burleigh profiles several of the men who made this incredible voyage with Napoleon, and their contributions to European understanding of the country. For the men in Egypt, it was the doctors and civil engineers who made life bearable by providing treatment for rampant plague and helping bring water and supplies to the troops. But for the folks back home in France, the real innovators were the naturalists and artists who eventually produced a beautiful, comprehensive series of books, Description de l'Égypte. During the trip, lifelong friendships and rivalries were formed between the civilians, many of whom went on to become extremely influential in their homeland.
While the stories Burleigh tells are fascinating to fans of Egyptology or science during the Enlightenment, the book quickly becomes quite repetitive and cluttered. Each chapter profiles a member of the expedition who became especially prominent in his field, so each essay jumps around in time and repeats situations and information presented in previous chapters. At times, it would get confusing to keep track of all the different French names and just who each man was.
I listened to an audio version of this book, and I would not recommend it. I think that the thread of the narrative would be much easier to pick up and follow in print form. The reader for the audio, Cassandra Campbell, had a very monotone voice that was sometimes difficult to follow. She almost sounded like one of those computer-generated voices.
As I said in another book review, I'm not terribly familiar with Napoleon's life, so I enjoyed learning more about his unusual campaign in Egypt. Once again, he's not portrayed in the greatest light; when the battle turns sour, Napoleon flees back to France, abandoning both troops and civilians to Egypt. But I can't help but admire the hard work of the scientists even as I'm appalled by the audacity of Napoleon's failed campaign. I'm glad that this book took the chance to highlight the civilian contributions to the campaign, and not just the military accomplishments and defeats.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Lost Voices by Sarah Porter
2010: Books into Library Furniture
2009: The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
2008: Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Blogger Interviews