on December 18, 2008
This book was difficult to rate. Where it was good, it was very good. Where it was bad, it was very bad. So, I compromised at three stars.
At first I almost didn't buy it. The topic was intriguing because I have an interest in the Napoleonic wars. But I looked on the back cover and found five intellectually bankrupt quotes from academic reviewers who were, directly or indirectly, trying to draw parallels between Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Only a politically fevered college sophomore, or an academic desperate to be a star at their next wine and cheese party, could make such an equivalency, moral or otherwise. So, I feared for what might be in the book. I bought it anyway, and was pleasantly surprised by most of it.
Cole does an excellent job of taking you through (part of) Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Using accounts drawn from contemporary journals, he weaves together numerous tales of adventure and misadventure into an interesting whole. At the same time, he provides genuine insight into the complex clash of two very different cultures. That's the good part.
The bad part comes at the end of the book.
Try to imagine yourself listening to a detailed account of a football game; then, when the commentator gets to the fourth quarter, he says: "Then they ran a bunch of plays and everyone went home." That is basically what Cole does to the reader.
The siege of El Arish, the capture and sack of Jaffa and of Gaza, are handled in THREE SENTENCES! The siege of Acre gets a whole paragraph; but the two-month battle, in which a British Naval officer defeated Napoleon on land (!), is reduced to "[Cezzar Pasha] enjoyed naval backing from the British."
And that doesn't even get us to Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Acre (one sentence), the British landing and battle at Abuqir Bay (two sentences), the dramatic deaths of Murad Bey and of General Kleber (one sentence each), and so on.
If three quarters of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign story is all you're interested in, this book is for you. It's excellent. But if you want to hear the fourth quarter of the game as well, you'll need to try another commentator.
on August 15, 2007
I'm a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz (History of the Islamic World '05), and I've completed additional course work in Arabic at the University of Jordan in Amman. As a somewhat informed reader, Juan Cole's new book appears to me to be a refreshing synthesis of modern historiographical trends, with a classic writing style. When I pre-ordered the book in July, I had only been familiar with Cole's writing in his blog Informed Comment (a staple in my morning reading). While I love his commentary and analysis in the blog format, I felt compelled to write and comment on how wonderfully surprised I was by his historical writing, as exemplified by this book. The research and the narrative style compliment each other quite nicely, and it's a pleasure to read. Perhaps it's time for me to purchase Sacred Space and Holy War?
on July 7, 2008
I recently finished this book. I liked it a lot. I would recommend it to anyone seeking a longer view on relations and their consequences between Europe and the Middle East. Professor Cole's has done a great job of capturing the essence of this story which rings frightfully true today - a self absorbed megalomaniacal leader, telling fibs to his troops about the noble reasons for going, making major blunders along the way (Nelson burned and sank the French fleet - oops), presiding over the degradation of his own troops, and then total bewilderment as to why these "Mohammedans" just don't "get it", in spite of lavish French (occupier) spectacle followed with mostly vain attempts to co-opt other portions of the local population, ending with a rapid personal withdrawal from the whole affair leaving it to others to clean up the mess left behind. Sound familiar? In any case, the book is well written and documented thoroughly with source material. If I was to improve the book I would have added an epilogue as to the consequences of this campaign to Napoleon's imminent ascension in French life.
on August 27, 2007
Napoleon had the most advanced, highly trained, effective and best armed army in his known universe. He was, in a way, the leader of an economic and military superpower. Then he invaded and occupied Egypt. In almost every battle, his superior forces won. In almost every deliberate move, his forces persevered and succeeded. Except for one pesky problem. He was stuck in the muddle east, where no invader is safe, no matter how much larger, richer and more superior their tactics and weapons were.
Sounds familiar? It should About 10 pages into the book you get this sense that the same description, the same arguments, the same approach was used by Team Bush. Yet, clearly, such a comparison was not Prof. Cole's purpose or intent.
I had little interest in reading about Napoleon's Little Egyptian invasion. In fact, what little I knew about it bored me. Then, I read this book. It is an eye opener. It is a serious, informative, and enjoyable read, while never lecturing or sounding like a college text.
Cole has a nice touch, and treats every subject he writes on with respect and a scholar's vision. This book is no different.
Whether you are interested in current affairs, and the IraqNam fiasco, or whether you love history, or even if you simply want a good read, I strongly recommend this book.
on September 23, 2007
Both a military and a cultural history, and for good reason. After Napoleon's infantry squares and artillery techniques prove absolutely lethal to fast and courageous Ottoman cavalry, the war becomes an occupation, and the occupation will not be decided by military might alone. It is a joy to watch the gifted and ruthless Napoleon gamely struggling to master occupation politics in a cultural setting of which he has only the dimmest grasp, and to watch his opponents outwit him using time-tested strategies of resistance while making up a few of their own.
Unforgettable moments range from the ridiculous to the macabre. Napoleon lets word get out that he might convert to Islam and bring his army with him, in an attempt to curry favor among Muslim clerics, but his army quickly nixes the idea, as the French were unwilling to endure circumcision and give up wine. French officers discover the pleasures and perils of harems. And in a remote desert fortification, one third of Napoleon's soldiers contract a local disease that causes their eyelids to flip inside out and they go blind. An attack comes, and the blind soldiers are pushed to the front by their comrades and told not to fire until the enemy closes to 75 yards.
Juan Cole is a mideast expert and knows Arabic, so he well understands the Egyptian context and can show how locals perceived the French as well as the reverse. He enjoys the occasional victories of the Egyptian underdogs while at the same time retaining empathy for the French as they try to adapt to what becomes a terrible predicament.
Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East by Juan Cole should surely be considered "must reading" for anyone interested in today's foreign policy issues as they relate to this part of the world. It might appear a bit extreme to say it, but after reading this relatively short but deeply researched volume, one is likely to come to the conclusion that it is difficult to understand today's Middle East wihtout it. It is a piece of history often ignored and left unexplored, but is arguably one of the critical "keys" to understanding today's events in the region.
Cole's book details Napoleon's invasion of the nation of Egypt in 1798, just a few years after the French Revolution transformed French society, and specifically covers the unfolding of the event from 1798 to 1801. This is, of course, before Napoleon coronated himself Emperor in 1804, and therefore, as one reads the text, it must be remembered that this is Napoleonic "pre-history;" at least, "pre-history" to what is more commonly known about Napoleon's career.
The book describes in extensive detail virtually every major military and civilian event of the invasion, including battles, uprisings, police actions, civil ceremonies, attempts at integration, populace control, and political tactics. But the book covers substantially greater than these alone, bringing to life the feelings of local tribes and individuals who sought to come to grips with the invasion in any way they could. It is a dispassionate account, but the accuracy and insight offered by the narrative cannot but help to swell the emotions, and the text offers a view of the event in such a manner that we are forced to rethink what we thought we knew about this period in history.
The similarities of this historical event with today's Iraq War are frighteningly similar. So similar, in fact, that some of the reviewers of the text have, like myself, tagged the work as a "must read" for anyone wishing to understand today's Middle East political realities. When we read towards the very end of the book the reasons why Napoleon himself decided that torture was ineffective and should be banned (Napoleon said that those under torture would say anything to be relieved, and most likely would say exactly what they knew the torturer wanted to hear most, regardless of its truthfulness), we cannot help but wonder why today's leaders can't come to the same conclusion. And the story has many more eerie parallels -- unilateral invasion, occupation tactics, propaganda techniques, religious appeals - that make it appear to be the "prequel" of the Iraq War. By reading this in a somewhat removed, historical setting, we are able to more clearly see the issues raised by such military events, and can develop conclusions that are not always as easy to see when the event is in progress. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read for any modern reader.
Cole does a good job of communicating the details of the invasion, including generals, important local personalities and leaders, troop movements, bouts of sickness, civilian control techniques, and so on, without making the text overwhelming. The names and number of specific individuals, however, towards the end of the book can become difficult to follow. Nevertheless the book is excellently written, with an eye toward historical scholarship, thoroughly documented and judiciously annotated when needed. The book is based mainly on eyewitness testimonials and recorded memoirs from first-hand witnesses, as the topic has been largely avoided by historians of the past two centuries, making these source documents the key materials available on the subject. There is a short section at the end of the text for additional reading for both French and English readers.
A highly recommended text for the history reader, political scientist, or anyone wishing to make further sense of the Middle East as it is known today. Five stars.
on October 7, 2014
This was a well done book that was very even handed. All the other books about Napoleon in Egypt that I have read have been very pro-French. This one showed that the Egyptians, the Berbers in particular, used much of the same tactics in fighting the French that George Washington and the Continental Army used in fighting the British. Hit and Runs, fight and retreat and fight head on when the odds were favorable. What is missing in this (and the other books) is truly the 'why' Napoleon chose to fight and invade his only ally at a time when all of Europe wanted to destroy the new France. There was not any advanced diplomacy with the Ottoman Sultan. There was no agreement, no nod and no desire to have the French in Egypt. Well done. Glad I read this.
on June 30, 2015
This book is a good account of an episode of history that seems to not get much attention from historians relative to other events taking place in continental Europe at the time. Cole has taken steps to correct this and has done an admirable job, and he draws on an extensive array of primary sources to make his case. From Bonaparte himself to common soldiers to Ottoman Egyptian clerics and elites, we get an excellent picture of what happened.
Cole argues quite convincingly that despite French pretenses to the contrary, the invasion of Egypt by the Army of the Orient was little more than a colonial enterprise. And that the French acted little differently than the Ottoman Egyptian vassals they replaced. Indeed, as one reads through the book, it is hard to see much practical difference between the policies of the French and the Mamluks they supplanted.
Cole doesn't just give an account of the military campaigns. He also discusses the cultural and political context in which the invasion and occupation took place. Particularly interesting to me were his discussion of Napoleon's views of Islam and his desire to use the Islamic clergy to legitimize his rule in Egypt. Cole argues that, despite Napoleon's anticlerical views, he was more than willing to appease Egyptian Muslims if it meant consolidating his power, even going as far as trying to hint that he might convert to Islam (though he was not sincere in this offer). This shows Napoleon's wily pragmatism.
I think one of the major flaws in the book is that Cole seems to dismiss French arguments that the Mamluks who ruled Egypt as Ottoman vassals brought a great deal of harm to Egypt. He says that this was just used as a pretext to justify their colonialism, and perhaps that is so, but after he proceeded to discuss the way the Mamluks ran Egypt in the decades leading up to the invasion, it's hard not to agree with the French assessment, even if French rule was little better.
I am also inclined to agree with another reviewer in saying that the end of the French adventure in the Middle East gets short thrift from Cole. The French invasion of Syria and their subsequent defeat by a joint Anglo-Ottoman force gets just a few paragraphs of attention, compared to the extensive detail that other parts of the campaign were given. I think Cole could at least have had another chapter or two on this. Certainly the secret flight of Napoleon from Egypt back to France and the British allowing the French army to evacuate on ships provided by the Royal Navy could have made for great reading.
Overall though this is a solid book, rich with analysis and full of insights about an interesting episode in history.
on November 18, 2008
I love Napoleonic History but just could not drag myself through this book. It gets terribly repetitive and what is immeasurably worse, lets its agenda totally obscure its point. Frankly the author sooo wants to draw an infinity of parallels between the current situation in Iraq and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. The problem is that the analogies are either forced or come across as a blinding flash of the obvious. A "timely" book should not need to call attention to the obvious parallels to modern times. To do so is similar to having to explain the punchline of a joke. Either the joke is not funny and thus needs the explanation or the explanation is not necessary. Finally, it is hard to trust a historian so transparently out to make a point.
The narrative style was not good enough to save the book either.
It is a point of pride for me to finish a book once I start it. I consider it the author's due. That said, I only got about 2/3 through this book before putting it down and never finishing it. I must admit that I am hesitant to review a book that I have not finished, as it is possible that the conclusion of the book redeems the rest of the painful slog that was the first few hundred pages. Though this is unlikely especially since the author spends so much time forcing parallels between Napoleon's expedition and 2003 that his conclusion is fairly obvious.
Pick a different book, one written by a historian more interested in the events of 1798 than in those of 2003.
on September 23, 2007
Juan Cole is a true American treasure. Mr. Cole's outstanding analyses of American bungling during the Bush administration's farcical "War on Terror" should be required reading for the citizenry. This latest tome by Mr. Cole highlights the earlier (late 18th century) bungling by another megalomaniac--albeit a brilliant military tactician, Napoleon Bonaparte--when he tried to force Egypt to submit to his arrogant will. As in 21st century Iraq, the bravado of insurgency destroyed the imperial dream of France, and should have taught us a lesson for all time. But, alas, as Henry Ford once stated: "history is bunk". Unfortunately, Mr. Ford's words continue to haunt this nation whose present leader is determined to render history as obsolete and worthy of only a naif's attention, while he jousts with Gog and Magog (see Ezekiel in the O.T.). Thank you professor. Hopefully, more than a handful of Americans will study your valuable insight into Mideast folly, today and yesterday.