Audiobook Review: Napoleon’s Egypt

Napoleon’s Egypt:  Invading The Middle East, by Juan Cole, read by Grover Gardner

I found this book greatly disappointing.  As someone interested in military history and more than a little bit fond of reading about the Middle East [1], I wanted to read a military history of the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon’s army.  Not only did I want this, but I expected it as well.  Alas, my expectations were not met, not by a long shot.  So, instead of listening to a well-crafted military history about an interesting time where Napoleon and the French Directory threw away centuries of alliance with the Ottoman Empire in order to engage in an abortive invasion of Egypt and Syria as an imperial possession to help with the conquest of India from Great Britain, this book tediously and repetitively discusses matters of anti-imperialist rhetoric and the sexual and religious interests of Frenchmen and Egyptians and Ottoman notables and so on.  This is not a worthless or useless book, but it is definitely a frustrating book if one does not share the mindlessly hostile anti-imperialist view of the author, who appears to view any sort of empire as an evil, and any sort of move by Western nations to seek their own interests as illegitimate by definition.   Needless to say, I take issue with that.

In terms of its contents, the book takes a generally chronological view of Napoleon’s excursion in Egypt, from the conception of the invasion to its execution and closing with Napoleon’s surprising escape and the return of French troops in a state of some disgrace.  The book spends surprisingly little time talking about Napoleon’s invasion of Syria, despite its importance, and does not spend a great deal of time talking about the efforts of the French to conquer Upper Egypt.  What instead happens is a lot of discussion about the different willingness of various groups to make peace and work with the French, often based on confessional grounds.  Throughout the book, for example, the author shows the Coptic Christians of Egypt as well as Greeks as being more friendly to the French than many of the local Muslims, showing that Ottoman Egypt was by no means the tolerant realm to Christians that it is often argued at by contemporary Muslim apologists.  It is the author’s strange obsession with odalisques and public women (i.e. prostitutes) and their relations with French soldiers and the way that women were judged as suitable mistresses that marks much of the content of this book, and while that is likely to improve the book’s sales it makes the book no more edifying or historically worthwhile.

If you enjoy books that make fun of the hypocrisy of imperial rhetoric and that show Napoleon in a less than flattering light, there are ways that you may enjoy this particular book.  If you want to read large amounts of material from the diaries and letters of soldiers and Muslim clerics that show the uneasy accommodations and playing both ends against the middle that took place and the way that women served as unwilling pawns and go-betweens and currency in the exchanges of the time, there is much here that shows this book to meet the contemporary interest in war and society.  If you are looking for an account that shows the finding of and translation of the Rosetta Stone, or that shows the military operations of Napoleon and his subordinates and enemies in great detail, this book will likely be somewhat of a disappointment as it was to me.  More so than most books, a book like this one is likely to require the proper set of expectations in order to be fully enjoyed.  Many contemporary histories like this one simply lack an interest in the historical questions that many readers and listeners are most interested in, and that leads to a great disconnect between the two, as people study what others simply do not greatly care about and that is indeed offensive and partisan in its approach.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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