Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern

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Paul Strathern’s Napoleon in Egypt recounts the tale of revolutionary France’s attempt to conquer Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century. Napoleon set sail with his army from the port of Toulon on May 19th, 1797, and in mid-1798, French soldiers made their arrival a few miles west of the Egyptian city of Alexandria. This was to be the beginning of what was soon to be a three-year campaign into the Middle East. In seizing Egypt, France planned to control the access route to India via the Gulf of the Suez, furthering their own commercial interests, while also impeding British forces. In Napoleon in Egypt, Paul appears to concentrate more on Napoleon himself, and the dreams of creating an Asiatic empire, otherwise known as Bonaparte’s “Oriental Complex” (Pg 18).

Although Napoleon in Egypt includes the subtitle “The Greatest Glory”, Paul Strathern expresses within his ambitious work, that this was in fact a defeat of enormous proportions. The occupation by the French was marred by atrocities and cultural misunderstanding, which incited a rebellion and started an even larger war. Strathern implemented French memoirs to highlight the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was once known as the “Liberator of Italy”, and the general’s vows to liberate Egypt and further jump-start French colonial expansion.

Napoleon in Egypt begins by illustrating France’s long-time interest in Egypt, which began in the thirteenth century with the Seventh Crusade. Throughout the first few chapters, the author describes the beginning of Napoleon’s boundless ambition, his victories throughout Italy, and the first few stages of organization for the Egyptian campaign. Chapters 5 through 7 detail the Battle of the Pyramids and the seize of Cairo, highlighting not only the military prowess of the French, but also Napoleon’s attempt at political influence.

Chapters 8 through 10 describe Napoleon’s attempts to “civilize Egypt” with the creation and establishment of hospitals and city bakeries. Furthermore, Strathern paints a portrait of Napoleon’s humiliation over his wife Josephine’s infidelities, which marked a “physical and an emotional turning point in Napoleon’s life” (pg 148). After the news of Josephine, the Battle of the Nile occurred off the coast of Alexandria, resulting in the French fleet being destroyed by Admiral Nelson.

Over the next few chapters, Strathern details the progression of French administration, multiple rebellions and then celebrations throughout Cairo, and the creation of the Institute of Egypt—which was to be modeled upon the Institute of France in Paris. Chapters 14 through 17 began with Napoleon’s efforts at diplomacy and the creation of a general divan, consisting of delegates from all the provinces in Egypt then under French rule. Moreover, this attempt at diplomacy led to the creation of tax reforms and the eventual insurrection of the Egyptian people.

Throughout the next few chapters, the author details the French’s discovery of the Suez Canal, a pursuit of Mameluke organizers into Upper Egypt, and the exploration of ruins from the long-lost civilization of Egypt. Chapter 21 began with the Syrian campaign, led by Napoleon himself, followed by the Battle of Mount Tabor, and eventually, Napoleon’s “loss of destiny” with the crushing defeat of his campaign in Syria by Ottoman/British forces. Shortly thereafter, the saga came to a close with Napoleon’s quick departure from Egypt, abandoning his outnumbered army to British control, while he swiftly returned to “rescue” France from foreign powers.

Paul Strahern’s background is in Philosophy, rather than history, and thus, he is not a trained historian. However, he is a successful academic of philosophy and a who has authored several works of nonfiction ranging from philosophy to science, which illustrates his book’s greatest strength: his accessible stylistic writing that captivates a reader’s attention and offers a strongly detailed narrative in quick-fashioned pace.

Napoleon in Egypt demonstrates a large number of primary and secondary sources in both English and French, as well as a few more commonly used Arabic sources in translation. The author appeared to rely more heavily upon the French memoirs, since the Arabic sources were very few and far between, but the addition of the Egyptian chronicler, Abd Rahman al-Jabarti, was pivotal at moments within the text. Strathern’s work is also inspired by the many “fantastical” elements of Napoleon’s ambitions amidst Egypt, and details the military, political and social aspects of the French occupation.

The author accomplished a solid re-creation of Napoleon’s “dream of an Oriental Empire” with a vivid illustration of the megalomania that drove him. As the title suggests, Paul Strathern places a spotlight on the role of Napoleon Bonaparte within the expedition, with explanations as to why Bonaparte undertook the invasion, his thinking as he commanded it, and its impact on his subsequent military and political career.

If Napoleon in Egypt had a weakness, it lies in the portrayal of the major protagonist, as well as the minor misinterpretations of important sources and interpretative information. Moreover, the narrative of the invasion and occupation focuses heavily upon French military and political operations, with minimal accounts of cultural exchange or development of the scientific aspect of the French conquest. Strathern appears to judge Napoleon’s motives from his readings of Napoleon’s own documentation of the campaign, which Strathern admits in his notes that some of these sources can be less than totally reliable—even though, he uses these sources as primary evidence in his analytical approach to Napoleon’s decisions and overall psychological mindset.

Such questionable use of sources brought the author to conclude that “this [campaign] was merely the fantasy of a man intoxicated by ambition” (pg 3) and the foundation for Napoleon’s “oriental fantasy” (pg 3). Strathern’s conclusion which appears documented as early as the prologue, seeks to presume that Napoleon was in fact the victim of an advanced case of megalomania that ultimately drove him to conquer Europe, only to fall by overreaching in the Middle East. Strathern could have benefitted from more peer-reviews, as he also makes a small error in the identity of an important Arabic source, Nicolas Turc (or otherwise referenced Nakoula el-Turk), as a Greek poet, when in fact, he was a Syrian Druze (pg 61).


Cite this paper

Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern. (2021, May 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/napoleon-in-egypt-by-paul-strathern/



What did Napoleon say about Egypt?
Napoleon once said, "Egypt is a machine that we must learn how to use." He also said that Egypt was "an empire without a head."
What did Napoleon soldiers discover in Egypt?
Napoleon's soldiers discovered that Egypt was a land full of ancient wonders and treasures.
What was Napoleon doing in Egypt?
He was trying to expand his empire and get more resources.
Who sent Napoleon to Egypt?
Health is a state of being free from illness or injury. Illness is a state of being unhealthy or unwell.
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