Frenchmen and Egyptians

Technical  issues kept me from opening with Steve Martin’s “King Tut” clip from Saturday Night Live.  In addition to just their amusement, I wanted them to recognize the continuing interest in ancient Egypt that began with Napoleon’s scientists.  Actually, it had begun before their arrival, so that French soldiers had a clear idea of what “Egypt” would be like.  What they found, they believed, showed more than ever that local people needed “liberation” from the Mamluks who had caused the country to fall into such ill repair.  (Juan Cole’s blog has wonderful primary sources).

I began instead with the question of knowledge and power, describing the role played by French scholars in formulating and translating Napoleon’s speech into Arabic for distribution among local elites.  What were the goals of the scientists accompanying Napoleon?  What is the role of scholars in the foreign policies of their countries?  When one of the students asked me directly about my own view, I found myself wishing I could quote the medieval Muslim scholars  who generally agreed that scholars and rulers should not be spending their time together.

I returned to the question of what the French found when they arrived, describing the varieties in the lives of the population and the ways in which the Mamluks had influenced local life.  I focused on pilgrimage as a way to understand the intersection of faith and government, and as a vehicle for introducing some of the most basic of Muslim institutions.  Pilgrimage was, after all, hugely important as a way of legitimizing the ruler, and Napoleon’s efforts to be patron of the pilgrimage to Mecca infuriated some of the local people.

This was the logical transition to one of our course’s central issues, contacts between the region and outsiders.  Some had asked for “slides with facts,” so I offered them a set of dates.  After briefly asking what they could understand from the list of dates with battles, we set out to interpret them.  These “facts,” I emphasized, meant nothing without an interpretation that gave them meaning.

I explained, for example, that, although only 24 days had elapsed between the landing at Alexandria and taking Cairo, the French had lost huge numbers of troops.  Some died as a result of the tremendous heat and the lack of water–poor logistical planning.  But in addition, local people refused to sell or provide food and water.  They often took everything with them when they fled–to deny the invaders access.  And any troops who separated from the main body were killed.  This wasn’t a welcoming population!

And with the destruction of the French fleet days later, and French realization that they could not leave, the French began to act like Mamluks, exacting large sums and demanding mansions in order to make life tolerable in the absence of any assistance from abroad.  The French were stuck and their response made the resistance even worse.  Napoleon’s efforts to claim local loyalty were unrequited, and he absconded to France, leaving his troops behind.

What, then, were the consequences of Napoleon’s invasion?  A continually-growing European fascination with ancient Egypt, a solid base of scholarship that meant historians for generations focused on the history of Egypt (instead of elsewhere in the region), a legacy of resistance to invasion, and the coming to power of one Muhammad Ali.

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