[This post, which appeared originally in January 2010, follows up on the previous repeat, and takes us time traveling to unchilly Egypt.]
While Pierre-Joseph Redouté was painting the flowers
in Josephine Buonaparte’s garden at Chateau de Malmaison, his artist
brother Henri-Joseph was in Egypt enduring plague, pestilence, and
Henri-Joseph Redouté was one of the
company of “savants”--astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists,
physicists, doctors, chemists, engineers, botanists, artists, a writer
and a musicologist—who followed Napoleon to Egypt in 1798. The median
age of this group was 25. Of the 151 civilians, 31 died in Egypt or
shortly thereafter; all the survivors were scarred, physically and/or
psychically. Egypt in those days was not for sissies.
Europeans, it was only marginally more familiar than the moon. The
knowledge they had as they set out was based on the Greek writer Herodotus
and tales told by the few Europeans who’d visited. Both sources
offered an interesting mixture of a little fact & a lot of fiction.
savants’ troubles started when the boat containing all their
instruments went down in a storm. Things went downhill from there.
Napoleon failed to provide food and water for his soldiers. Desperate,
the men guzzled murky water that turned out to be infested with
leeches. When all they found to eat was watermelon, they overdid it,
and developed dysentery.
fleas, tiny gnats, and vicious flies “swarmed into all cavities.”
Nearly every one on the expedition endured a painful eye infection
called opthalmia, which left them temporarily blind.
“During the French occupation, the bubonic plague epidemic in Egypt was
a killer of biblical stature, a germ that caused men to die hideously,
rotting from the inside out, sometimes within 48 hours.”
This was in addition to bronchial infections and bites by snakes, scorpions, and rabid camels.
on the water, the English Navy was sinking their ships and in the
desert, irate Bedouins were shooting at the scientists surveying the
It’s amazing, yes, that anybody survived. Even more amazing was that they produced a 23 volume encyclopedia of Egypt, La Description de l’Egypte.
The online source is my favorite for studying the pictures, but there
there are smaller (the original was huge) single-book versions, like the
little Taschen Description of Egypt and a larger version, The Monuments of Ancient Egypt.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.