Tomb Raider: Napoleon's Fascination with Egypt
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Europe in general and England in particular went through a craze for all things Egyptian. Regency drawing rooms featured crocodile-legged settees and lotus blossom wallpaper, while drawing room hostesses sported jewelry that imitated the geometrical designs worn by ancient Egyptian women.
Along with his military forces, Napoleon included nearly two hundred scientists and explorers, who were tasked with cataloguing the ancient monuments and in particular, the Pharaohs’ tombs that had so captivated the public. Among other achievements, this expedition is credited with discovering the western valley in the Valley of the Kings and the famous Rosetta Stone, the key that facilitated translation of the ancient hieroglyphics. Over the next dozen years, Napoleon’s expedition created a catalog of meticulous drawings and descriptions of the monuments, tombs, and treasures—the most ambitious one to date. As a result, Egyptian fashions became all the rage.
During his time in Egypt, Napoleon took every opportunity to cement his image as a great military leader; Alexander the Great was said to have spent time alone in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramids, and therefore Napoleon did, also. Before the Battle of the Pyramids, when the French defeated the native Egyptian forces, Napoleon is said to have exhorted his troops to remember that forty centuries of history looked down upon them.
Napoleon’s plans came crashing down when his navy was defeated by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, and once he realized he didn’t have the forces to conquer the area, he quietly withdrew back to France, to stir up trouble there. The legacy of his ambitions remained, though, and the ultimate irony was that most of the French-catalogued artifacts ended up in the British Museum, after the British established control in Egypt. Unfortunately for the rest of Europe, the undaunted French general then went on to other successes to offset his Egyptian setback, and the rest, as they say, is history.
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Anne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar. She writes a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard as well as a historical fiction series set in the Regency period. A member of Mystery Writers of America and the Historical Novel Society, she lives in California and has four children. Her website is www.annecleeland.com.
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