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In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte changed history.  In 1868, Jean-Leon Gerome showed us why.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome

Few figures in history are more controversial than Napoleon.  In his scholarly work “Napoleon: For and Against”, Pieter Geyl, a highly regarded academic historian, characterizes the litany of debates concerning this key figure over the past two centuries as an “argument without end.”

Was he a destroyer of liberty or promoter of the rule of law? Was he a conqueror or liberator? Was he conservative or liberal, pragmatic or enlightened? To come to a proper evaluation of Napoleon one must develop a proper understanding of the manifold contradictions that have long mired European civilization, and especially the period which gave rise to his imperium: the French Revolution. Few individuals with such a historical footprint embody both the trend and the exception, both the tide of culture and the piercing shock of the individual, and both must be brought to account.

For the record, let me say that I find Napoleon to be a malevolent and hateful man, despite (in some cases) positive intentions and (in some cases) positive results deriving from his actions. For all the good that was done to promote the dissolution of the decrepit order of European feudalism through his conquests (and through subsequent reaction to his conquests), no excuse can be made for the cataclysmic means employed, especially when they were used to promote a rotten code which blatantly evaded the only truly salutary principles so proudly hailed across the Atlantic.

Whatever may be said morally about Napoleon, there can be no question, however, that he commands our attention. All of subsequent world history has been irrevocably conditioned by his presence in the time line, and it is in this regard that those of us who wish to change the world for the better should examine him.

What was it about Napoleon that was exceptional, not mundane? What made him (in certain aspects) a world-changer, as opposed to a mere cipher of history? The root of the answer is provided in the deceptively simple painting: Bonaparte before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome.

In a barren landscape, in what appears to be a barren composition, a soldier–Bonaparte, of course–confronts the colossal remnant of a distant past.

The man appears to be alone, but for the shadows of his aides, who remain sufficiently far back not to intrude on this moment of reflection.

Slightly hunched, support himself by placing his hands on his thighs, Bonaparte sits in contemplation.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (detail)

It is important that we call him by his real name, Bonaparte.  He is not yet “Napoleon.”

The year is 1798, and Bonaparte is leading an expedition to conquer Egypt.  His army is seen in the background, moving across a vast plain.

What was Bonaparte doing in Egypt? France’s leaders at the time were as perplexed as many have been since.

Egypt itself was not Napoleon’s goal.  The ultimate target in Napoleon’s mind was India. But to reach India despite the seemingly insuperable power of the British Navy, France would have to secure a land route. An alliance with Russia would have to be arranged. Also, the Ottomans and Persians would either have to be bullied or co-opted. But Bonaparte was the kind of individual who could project such a complex line of developments and take the steps necessary to bring it to fruition. In light of his subsequent failure due to the heroics of Admiral Nelson’s navy at the Battle of the Nile, historians have tended to downplay Napoleon’s concept, but as his later conquests would show, his ambition was usually matched by perceptiveness, intellectual penetration, and an ability to carry through the most complex plans.

In addition, Jean-Leon Gerome proposes that Napoleon possessed yet another virtue: historical-mindedness.

In the painting, Gerome portrays the still young Bonaparte–whose plans to change history have yet to unfold–pondering the ruins of a once great artifact.

The particular juxtaposition of the larger-than-life Sphinx and the soon-to-be world-altering Frenchman on horseback has led some to find humor in the painting.  The man undoubtedly is smaller than the sculpture, and by making him look small, one may suppose that it makes him seem insignificant, even comically so.  However, had Gerome intended such a mood, he could easily have dwarfed the general by changing the perspective and including the Pyramids as well. Bonaparte is smaller, obviously, than the Sphinx. But this is fitting within the composition since he hasn’t yet earned a larger place in history.

That Bonaparte is not yet a great historical figure but that he must already have dreamed of conquering the world by this point in his career is what matters.  It is this individual who is juxtaposed with the mysterious deity, which once held sway over civilization but now is no more.

Thus the painting depicts a man who wishes to become important pondering something which was once important but is no longer.

“Will it matter,” wonders Bonaparte?  What does matter in history?  Who or what has a lasting effect through time?

Napoleon surely wished for a legacy.  But the Sphinx’s legacy, no matter how great it once was, had long been extinguished.

The painting invites us to consider the theme of historical significance, and proposes in a subtle manner that no matter how great something is, it is eventually discarded and forgotten.  And yet, Napoleon’s presence in history, viewed from Gerome’s vantage point, and still from our own, defies this idea.

That Napoleon did not accept this notion is a part of the reason why he occupies his unique place in story of mankind. Nobody who strives to change the world can accept that what they do doesn’t matter.  And nobody who does truly change the world in a significant way ever is lost to history.  The Sphinx also, despite lying in ruins and partially covered, still remains. Even if only as neglected ruin, it calls out through time for us to solve its mystery.

As far as history is concerned, we can enjoy Gerome’s deceptively simple painting for its ability to conjure this manifold context of thoughts.  On a personal level, we can also derive an important benefit.  We can contemplate the question of the importance of things–of the every day toils we engage in to reach a great goal, of the problems that get blown out of proportion in the moment, but then fade away.  Some things are important, and we should pay them the attention they deserve.  Others are not, and we can let them go.

Like Napoleon before the Sphinx, we have to consider the question, if we are to know the difference and act to make real changes.

To help you on your own journey towards historical-mindedness, consider joining my 20-lecture history course on Ancient History, starting October 8th.  Learn more here.  Register here. (More information to come on this blog.)

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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 registerI’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 goodnessof 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!

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According to this AFP Google news story, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party recently won 92% of the votes in the country’s municipal elections. Of course, the results were never in doubt as the NDP was able to “disqualify” opponents, resulting in a boycott by still others.

Who cares? Well, consider that the British installed a puppet monarchy in Iraq in 1921, and held a bogus referendum showing that the new king had the overwhelming support of the people. Then, in a slowly building crescendo, Iraqis scratched and clawed their way to the point where they overthrew this illegitimate government in 1958. This, by the way, set the stage for the eventual takeover of Iraq by the Ba’ath Party, and the takeover of the country by Saddam Hussein.

One important difference between the gradual shift taking place in Egyptian culture today and that of Iraq after 1921 is that it is being being driven not by nationalists working to displace a monarchy that collaborates with the West, but by Islamists working to displace a dictatorship that collaborates with the West.

Even more ominous though is that Egypt is definitely due for a revolution. It’s coming soon. It took Iraqis about 50 years to develop the political and institutional awareness during Ottoman constitutional rule and subsequent British control to the point where they could take over the government. Egypt’s Islamists have had to endure a secular dictatorship longer than that, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been in operation since 1928 — and has roots going back to the Urabist movement of the 1870s — meaning that is likely better positioned to take over the country than any Iraqi group would have been in 1958. What is more, the Mubarak regime allows Brotherhood members to hold office as “independents,” even though the party is banned.

The only reason Mubarak is still in power is his hold over the military, but one wonders how long that will last. I am convinced that Egypt will become one of the next Islamist theocracies, probably when Mubarak dies. (Here’s an interesting YouTube video from Al-Jazeera that shows the government’s intellectual bankruptcy, and gives you a flavor of the current political scene in Egypt.)

Readers interested in Egypt’s plight, may want to check out John Bradley’s Inside Egypt, which has been called “a blistering overview of what it’s like to live in this autocratic, hopelessly corrupt society.” (I’m currently reading Bradley’s book Saudi Arabia Exposed, and although I think he is too evenhanded in his presentation, the irony is that even when he’s trying to portray so-called dissidents in the The Kingdom in a positive light, to the astute observer he ends up condemning even that segment of the population. There is simply nothing redeeming about Saudi Arabia.) For my top reading recommendations on Egyptian and Middle Eastern history, be sure to join the Powell History mailing list. The next installment is coming this weekend.)

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Cut through the clutter in the news concerning developments in the Middle East. Find out what really matters. Tune in to Powell History Recommends Middle East Watch. Each week, I’ll be monitoring the news for historically significant events in the region’s major countries, and passing them on to you, with brief commentary about why these events deserve your attention.

Noted Reformist Cleric Jailed in Iran (Associated Press)

Much attention continues to be focused on Iran’s influence over the Iraqi insurgency and to its posturing over its nuclear program. Certainly these deserve attention, but any treatment of these topics has to be informed by a proper assessment of what Iran is. It is an oppressive Islamist theocracy that continually violates the rights of its own citizens by denying a fundamental principle of moral civilizations: the separation of church and state.

Turkey Court Takes Politically Explosive Case (NY Times)

PHR will be following developments in Turkey closely in the months to come, because Turkey’s supreme court has accepted a case that could lead to a ban on the ruling party. The AKP party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though democratically elected, has a platform that contradicts the secularist tenets of Turkey’s constitution. If it isn’t stopped by the court, another military coup is likely to occur.

Egypt: Elections and Future of the Muslim Brotherhood (RightSideNews)

This article runs down the current political situation in Egypt, and points to problems that are likely to occur when Mubarak kicks the bucket. Egypt’s biggest problem is that Nasserism was ideologically vacuous. The country’s run-of-the-mill state socialism is economically destructive and may very well produce the kind of widespread discontent that Truman era thinkers worried would lead to world communism. In this case, however, it’s Islamism that will profit.

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In my recent “roundup” of bloggers tackling history, I missed one who shouldn’t be missed.  He’s one of my keenest and ablest students, “SB”, over at One Reality.

His recent post Digging for Artifacts relates to Egypt’s backward looking culture and a theme I discussed in my fourth lecture of the Islamist Entanglement: Egypt’s “sense of nationhood.”

Ayn Rand coined the term “sense of life.”  By that term she meant “a pre-conceptual equivalent to a metaphysics,” or an implicit sense of one’s place in reality.  In my research on Egypt I’ve become convinced that Egypt exhibits a cultural-historical analog: a “sense of nationhood.”

Simply put, this sense of nationhood is the view that Egyptians are a great historical nation. It is an implicit premise embedded in Egyptian thinking that extends back to its “glorious” pharaonic past, of which the ever present pyramids and temples provide a constant reminder.  This self-identification also involves a 2400 year history of foreign occupation that began with an invasion by the Persians c.600 BC , and lasted through to Ottoman Rule, which ended in 1798.  Egypt’s sense of nationhood is a kind of subconscious estimate of the value of the people and their past which has been a major factor directing them to where they are today.   

Mahmoud Moktar’s sculpture “Egypt’s Awakening” is an allegory of its sense of nationhood.

Interestingly, there is no real philosophy of nationalism in Egypt.  In his essay, “Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution,” Nasser explains and exemplifies this fact.  Nationalism — a European ideology — did find a receptive audience among Egypt’s intellectuals starting in the 1870s.  This movement, common to many Middle Eastern countries, culminated in the formation of the Wafd party, which tried to have Egypt’s case for nationhood heard at the peace confereences of Paris in 1919.  But Egypt’s sense of nationhood never took off as an ideology.  The basic reason is that Egypt’s nationalists failed to achieve independence.  They were stymied by a combination of British meddling and monarchical intrigue, and were politically discredited. 

In the wake of that failure, Egypt faced a desparate choice between two alternatives: Islamism and Nasserist military dictatorship.  Although it is true to say that Nasser was more politically astute then the Muslim Brethren of the time, and connived his way into power, I think it’s fair to say that if Egyptians hadn’t felt that he was the great upholder of their “sense of nationhood,” he would not have held on to power.  It was because of Egypt’s emotional baggage about its past that Nasser was able to develop himself as a cultural hero for Egyptians, and why, even after his terrible defeat to Israel in 1967, he had overwhelming popular support.  (Of course, Eisenhower gave Nasser an incalculable boost, by spanking the British over their Suez Crisis response.)

What is interesting about Egypt’s current position is the interplay between its sense of nationhood and Islam, the only explicit metaphysics and code of values its people widely accept. 

The two are incompatible and have been in constant tension since Nasser came to power.  Because the latter is an all-encompassing and explicit system of ideas, and it has no ideological rivals, it’s only a matter of time before it takes over.  In fact, I predict an Islamist takeover within a generation.  That does not mean, however, that Egypt will necessarily succumb to participating in some kind of new Caliphate, even though Islamism is on the rise throughout the Middle East.  Egypt’s sense of nationhood should continue to act on an emotional level to keep Egyptians apart from their fellow Muslims.

Learn more about this topic in my lecture on the emergence of modern Egypt.

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Cut through the clutter in the news concerning developments in the Middle East. Find out what really matters. Tune in to Powell History Recommends. Each week, I’ll be monitoring the news for historically significant events in the region’s major countries, and passing them on to you, with brief commentary about why these events deserve your attention.

 

Day of angry protest stuns Egypt (International Herald Tribune)

Despite the constant use of force by the Mubarak regime to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, that Islamist organization remains the only organized political opposition in Egypt. This matters because the country may be on the verge of economic collapse and widespread violence.  Interestingly, the United States holds joint military exercises with Egypt on a biannual basis.  This project is known as “Operation Bright Star.”  Which leaves me to wonder, will the US be asked to deploy its military in Egypt when the regime comes under serious threat?

 
Report to Senate: S. Arabia could get nukes (Haaretz)

A report submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicates that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, this would set off a chain reaction in the Middle East, pushing other states in the region to consider launching their own nuclear arms programs.

I agree that this is a possibility. In my view, the development of nuclear weapons by Iran will lead to the annihilation of Israel and a new Cold War. America will be forced to provide security and Marshall Plan type aid for Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, etc. In this situation the US will have a whole new containment scenario on its hands. It have to face the threat of Islamist expansion into Turkey and Egypt much like it did with the Communist threats in Korea and Vietnam, and it will have two equally disturbing options: commit American lives and money to save these countries (a “Truman Doctrine” approach), or let them protect themselves (a “Nixon Doctrine” approach).

 

Turkey and democracy; The American model (International Herald Tribume)

Democracy in Turkey is still not in good order. The Islamic sects and the civil and military bureaucracies still exert undue influence on the political process, and basic liberties are not secured. Why does the democratization process prove to be so slow and problematic? The answer lies in the history.

How true! Find out what that crucial story is by listening to listening to Lecture 3 from the The Islamist Entanglement, my course on the history of the Middle East (available as an individual lecture for only $20.)

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There so much clutter in the news concerning developments in the Middle East. How do you find out what really matters? Tune in to Powell History Recommends! Each week, I’ll be monitoring the news for historically significant events in the region’s major countries, and passing them on to you, with brief commentary about why these events deserve your attention. Here’s my first roundup:

Egypt: “A battle over female circumcision” (LA Times)

Islamists and conservative clerics are fighting proposed legislation in the Egyptian parliament that would criminalize female circumcision and raise the minimum age of when a girl can marry. The Islamists view the bill as an affront to Sharia law…(Full article here.)

Historical significance: Egypt is a society deeply divided. The debate over the issue of female circumcision — imposed on as many as 70% of Egyptian girls — is indicative of the divide. The Muslim population is alienated from the Mubarak regime and its partly Westernized elite. And Mubarak hasn’t got long to live. When he’s gone, Egypt will become an Islamist regime within a generation. (Find out more by hearing my upcoming lecture on Egypt, as part of the Islamist Entanglement. Individual lectures in the series are available for only $20.)

Turkey: “Turkish Leaders Face Court Case” (BBC News)

Turkey’s constitutional court has decided unanimously that it can hear a case aimed at closing down the country’s governing AK Party. The chief prosecutor earlier filed a petition calling for the party to be banned for “anti-secular activities” (Full article here.)

Historical significance: As reported here on PHR, Turkey — the Middle East’s most secular country — is in serious jeopardy of reverting to Islamism. After decades of benevolent secular dictatorship, initiated by Mustafa Kemal, Turkey has gradually become more democratic. However, because most of the population remains deeply Muslim, secularism is constantly under threat. (Learn more, by hearing my lecture on modern Turkey, available separately or as part of the Islamist Entanglement series.)

Iraq: Nothing Defining

Although President Bush claimed that the Iraqi government’s latest attempt to crack down on violence in Basra was a “defining moment,” nothing of significance happened in Iraq this week. In other words, nothing happened this week that tells us anything new about the Iraq situation, nor indicates that its primary actors are going to do anything to prevent Iraq from disintegrating into civil war when the US leaves. The militias in Basra will continue to operate and continue to receive support from Iran. US forces will continue to try to help the Iraqi government stand on its own, but they won’t attack Iran — the known supplier of those same militias. As the French like to say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

Iran: “A puppeteer’s tribute to Iranian democracy” (International Herald Tribune)

It isn’t necessarily news, but it is an op-ed that clarifies important issues about how the Iranian “democracy” functions. Ahmedinejad may indeed be on the way out, but that won’t mean that Iran will be changing direction in terms of its regional aspirations.

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