EGYPT: Paris exhibit chronicles Napoleon’s encounter with the Pharaohs

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A brash young Western leader, fresh off a traumatic national crisis, invades a Middle East country, ostensibly to spread democratic ideals. Instead he winds up violently resented by the locals and strengthening his rivals, who immediately exploit his weaknesses.

No, we’re not talking about George W. Bush and his post-Sept. 11 war against Iraq, but Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general whose forces invaded and briefly occupied Egypt nine years after a cataclysmic revolution.

His late 18th century adventures in the land of the Pharaohs are chronicled and dissected at a fascinating and extensive exhibit of paintings, manuscripts and artifacts, ‘Bonaparte and Egypt’ at the gigantic Institut du Monde Arab along the Seine River in Paris.

Napoleon said he wanted to liberate Egyptians from the tyrannical rule of the Mamluk dynasty. But he also wanted to find another route to access to the east and undercut Britain’s near-monopoly on trade with India.


At first, the Egyptians welcomed Napoleon as a liberator when he and his forces arrived on July 1, 1798, easily defeating the Mamluk forces.

The commander, then only 29 years old, tried to rule by building alliances with local clerics. Their lovingly detailed oil-on-canvas portraits (above), on display at the Paris exhibit, adorned his Cairo quarters.

Alas, the romance between French troops and Egyptians faded quickly. Within four months of Napoleon’s arrival, Cairo residents rebelled against French troops. Bloody repression ensued. Less than a decade after the French had overthrown an oppressive monarchy in the name of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity,’ they were now the oppressors.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s overstretched forces became more vulnerable. The British navy, under the stewardship of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated Napoleon’s forces in the Battle of the Nile. The exhibit includes French and British political cartoons of the time, mocking each nations’ leaders.

Napoleon’s men also began suffering. Morale sagged as visions of glory withered in the hot Egyptian sun. The troops began to suffer from dysentery and plague. The Ottomans ultimately pushed France out on Sept. 2, 1801.

Napoleon’s trip wasn’t all cannons and gunfire. The paintings and artifacts in the exhibit also reveal how revolutionary France’s encounter with the Orient spurred in an interest in all things Egyptian, including architecture, rural life, costumes, rituals and traditional handicrafts.

The exhibit is filled with treasures plundered, er, um, taken from Egypt, including ancient Korans and illuminated manuscripts. The curators note that all the booty brought back from Egypt diverted public attention away from the expedition’s military debacles.

But it was the French after all, who discovered, studied and mostly unlocked the secrets of the Rosetta Stone, the famous tablet written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as ancient Greek. The tablet, later seized by the British, unraveled mysteries of ancient Egypt and the time of the Pharaohs.

The exhibit continues until March 29.

-- Borzou Daragahi in Paris

Top photo: ‘Bonaparte Before the Sphinx Year,’ (1867-1868) oil on canvas by Jean-Léon Gérôme, on display at the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris. Credit: Art Renewal Center.