Installment four of A First History for Adults, Ancient history. begins October 8th. In preparation for this exciting course–and, of course, to entice you to register—I’ll be posting a number of pieces related to its themes.
Among the stories concerning the uncovering of the distant past, none is more fascinating than that of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798. It is at once a watershed moment in the unfolding of modern Middle Eastern history and in the origin of the study of the ancient world.
Since I have addressed the significance of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt for Middle Eastern history at length in my newsletter, I’ll merely summarize it here. In essence, Napoleon’s actions punctuated the West’s military, political, and cultural ascendancy over the Muslim world. A visible trend had begun in 1683, when the Ottoman Turks were repelled from Vienna by European powers and forced to accept major territorial losses. Soon Russia was making advances into Ottoman and Persian territory. Then France’s prodigal son demonstrated in turn that the West was ascendant by soundly defeating the vaunted Mameluk warrior aristocracy of Egypt and taking control of the region, which was then a province within the vast Ottoman Empire.
Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau’ s depiction of the Battle of the Pyramids
Napoleon was eventually expelled from Egypt. Ironically, however, his defeat only reinforced the fact that the West had taken a great leap forward. It wasn’t the Mameluks, or their Ottoman overlords who ejected the French from Egypt; it was the British. The lessons of the West’s successes was not entirely lost on either the Turks or the new regional leader of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (the Pasha, not the boxer!), and a concerted effort–already underway in some areas–was made to match Europe’s progress by mimicking its institutions. This led to the Tanzimat reforms in Turkey, and to a host of similar projects throughout the region. (The partial success of these reforms, combined with the West’s continued ascendancy, lies at the heart of the modern dilemna I have termed The Islamist Entanglement.)
Napoleon thus changed history, as he was soon to do in still other ways. But he also changed our understanding of history. Along with large army of soldiers, Napoleon brought a small army of scientists and artists to Egypt. Their aim was to push the boundaries of knowledge about the mysterious land of Egypt. They traveled the exotic domain of long-dead Pharaohs in the wake of Napoleon’s army, sketching, recording, seeking, and uncovering.
Arrival at Abu Simbel, by David Roberts
The first windfall of these efforts was the gargantuan Description de l’Égypte, published originally as a 23-volume edition, and later expanded to 37 volumes! The “Description,” as the name suggests however, was merely the observations by scholars of Egypt as it was then. The country’s distant past remained a mystery.
The great obstacle to uncovering Egypt’s history was straightforward in nature, if impossibly complex in its particulars. The source material from which history is constructed is written records. Although Egypt had plenty to offer, they were indecipherable. The famous hieroglyphic writing which blanketed Egyptian temples was inaccessible, as were the other forms of Egyptian writing. Until the linguistic code of the Ancient Egyptians could be cracked, the true nature of their culture would remain unknown.
There was hope, however. In 1799, Napoleon’s soldiers had uncovered a stele near the town of Rosetta on the Nile river delta. Whereas the soldiers might well have ignored the stone in other circumstances, they had orders from Napoleon to preserve anything of interest. Surely this artifact qualified. It seemed to have three different kinds of writing on it.
French scholars examined the stone, and found that one of the languages was Ancient Greek, which they could read. The other two languages–hieroglyphics and demotic–were not readable yet, but with a key such as this one, comparisons between the three parallel versions could provide an all-important opening for linguists.
The Rosetta Stone, found by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799
The task was torturous. It took scholars 15 years to decipher the demotic–a later Egyptian cursive script. The hieroglyphics remained indecipherable for a further eight years. The problem was that the script contained a combination of phonetic and pictorial symbols. Finally, French scholar Jean-François Champolleon cracked the code.
Work could now begin on the rediscovery of Egypt’s story. King lists and annals, religious papyri, funerary engravings on temple walls–all began to be translated, collected, compared, and ultimately integrated into narrative form.
Nearly 200 years later our understanding of Egyptian history is incomparably greater than that of any people before us–including the Ancient Egyptians themselves! An entire science–Egyptology–thrives in academic centers around the world. Through the lens of scientific history, we can see further back and with greater clarity than anyone could have previously imagined.
And all of it stems from the unusual actions of one of history’s most brutal destroyers of life.
As far as Napoleon is concerned, many would rather dismiss his contribution. Some interpret the scholarly dimension of his expedition as nothing more than a ploy to sway public opinion or a device for gaining political advantage. But history is not primarily concerned with moral judgment. Historical value-jugdment is an act of weighing the importance–not the goodness—of an individual or group’s contribution to the fate of mankind. In this regard, one must attribute to Napoleon a unique place as a conqueror, lawgiver, transmitter of ideas–and irreplaceable contributor to a vast expansion of human knowledge.
In the first four lectures of my 20-lecture Ancient history program for adults we’ll examine the results. I hope you’ll join us, starting October 8th! Registration is now open, for those of you who’ve been waiting. For more information on the course, stay tuned for the opening of the Ancient History program page–coming soon!