Thursday, January 30, 2014

Return Engagement: And One Redouté went to Egypt

Thursday, January 30, 2014
Loretta reports:

[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 famine, literally.

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.

To 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.

Nina Burleigh’s Mirage:  Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, offers a fascinating account, but here are the main icky details:

The savants’ troubles started when the boat containing all their instruments went down in a storm.  Things went downhill from there.

Famine:  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.

Pestilence:  Mosquitoes, 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.

Plague:  “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.

Meanwhile, on the water, the English Navy was sinking their ships and in the desert, irate Bedouins were shooting at the scientists surveying the ancient monuments.

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.


Mike Rendell said...

The description of conditions at the time is fascianting - my favourite artist who painted Egyptian scenes (in the 1830's) was David Roberts. I visited Egypt a while back and it was fascianting to see how the scenes which he sketched had changed (or not, as the case may be). I had no idea that the conditions at the time he toured Egypt were as harsh as you mention.

Sarah said...

this gave me yet another plot bunny - French girl whose savant father dies tries to carry on his work and has to be rescued by a group of Arabs - by a British officer who is an amateur archaeologist who got permission to come ashore to do his own survey....

Drayton Bird said...

People forget what an utter shit Napoleon was. It is extraordinary how he managed to return to France and persuade everyone he was a hero.

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