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The Devil is in the Details
on March 10, 2009
It's the careless statements about collateral details which cast doubt on the accuracy of the main narrative. For example:
page 7: Alexander's "body was brought back to Alexandria to be buried in a magnificent tomb, made of gold and glass". Not the tomb. The original coffin was made of gold and later replaced by Ptolemy X about 89 BC with one of glass (or, more likely, translucent calcite).
page 79: "Dolomieu ... discovered a seven-ton stone sarcophagus covered in hieroglyphs which he took to be the long-lost tomb of Alexander the Great. ... Several decades later this sarcophagus would be identified as that of Nectanebo I". Actually Nectanebo II. (The author might have given us the sequel: that is, the rumour that Napoleon had wanted to be buried in the sarcophagus of his hero, Alexander, and so had it sent off to France in 1801. But the ship was captured by the British and the sarcophagus ended up in the British Museum.)
page 56: "Nelson ... was a battle-scared veteran, having lost his right eye leading his men ashore at Corsica". Not quite. He lost the "sight" of his right eye not the eyeball. (He never wore an eye-patch.)
page 136: Cairo's police chief, Barthelemy, is described as being "habitually dressed in a large white turban". This is unlikely as he was "a Greek Christian". In the Ottoman Empire, only Moslems were allowed to wear white turbans. Greeks had to wear blue and Jews yellow turbans.
page 160: "Nelson watched from the "Vanguard" as the sun sank behind the fort at the end of the Aboukir peninsula..." and the author then goes on to describe a great deal of the "Battle of the Nile" until "around eight p.m." as if the conflict had taken place in the dark. In fact, at Alexandria on August 1, sunset does not occur until 19:56 and twilight lasts until 20:22. The author could have found this out by simply consulting a nautical almanac or a web site. "Just before ten p.m." the French flagship "L'Orient" blew up (at just an hour-and-a-half into the night).
page 166 footnote: "the American poet Felicia Hemans". She was born in Liverpool, lived in Wales and England, and died in Dublin. She never set foot in America. As well as "Casabianca" ("The boy stood on the burning deck ...") she wrote the equally lackluster (and erroneous) poem "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England" which was drummed into American school children until the 1950s. Perhaps that's why the author thinks she was "American".
page 185: "Desaix and his division began heading south down the Nile." Rather, "up the Nile" as it flows from south to north. (The same disorientation on pages 278, 286.)
page 389: "This black basalt slab... known as the Rosetta Stone." Actually "granite".
page 411: The author tells us that both Kléber and Desaix were killed "on the very same day". But two dates are given: 18 June for Desaix at Marengo in Italy (on page 408) and 24 June for Kléber in Cairo (on page 411). Both dates are wrong. The two generals died on 14 June 1800.
page 425: The Napoleonic bee emblem "was copied directly from the hieroglyph of an ancient Egyptian temple" and designed by Denon according to the author. No source is given for this intriguing bit of Egyptomania. The Napoleonic bee emblem looks nothing like the Egyptian bee hieroglyph and is generally thought to have been derived from Charlemagne's recreated regalia used for Napoleon's coronation.
page 429 note 1: "Different sources give Napoleon's height as anything between five foot two and five foot eight." The author forgets to tell us that there were English feet and French feet in use at the time. The French foot (pied du roi) was bigger than the English foot. Thus, 5' 2" in French measurements is about 5' 7" in English measurements. Both measurements equal about 1.7 metres.
I read a library copy of the British Jonathan Cape 2007 hardcover edition (ISBN 978-0224076814) which has the worst sort of glued binding (where the pages just fall out). The dust cover has a reproduction of Jean-Léon Gérôme's fanciful 1867 painting called "Napoleon and his General Staff in Egypt".
I found "Bonaparte in Egypt" by J. Christopher Herold, first published in 1962 and reprinted as a paperback in 2005 (ISBN 978-1844152858), to be a better alternative.