cover image Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt

Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt

Nina Burleigh, . . Harper, $25.95 (286pp) ISBN 978-0-06-059767-2

When 28-year-old Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his band of 50,000 soldiers and sailors was accompanied by 151 Parisian scientists and artists, who laid the groundwork for what became Egyptology. Ten of these remarkable men are the focus of Burleigh’s narrative. Among them, three of the most prominent were the lowborn, “pugnacious” mathematician Gaspard Monge, a dedicated revolutionary who invented descriptive geometry; the painfully shy chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, who invented new ways to make gunpowder and steel; and the witty artist and diplomat Dominique-Vivant Denon, who produced 200 architecturally precise sketches of Egyptian ruins and a bestselling travelogue; later he became Napoleon’s first director of the Louvre Museum. The survivors of the team brought home a vast body of knowledge, but surrendered their greatest discovery, the Rosetta Stone, to conquering British troops. The result of the savants’ work was the 24-volume Description of Egypt, magnificently illustrated with engravings and maps, which helped launch Egyptomania and the “rape of the Nile,” though Burleigh’s discussion of this is scanty. Still, Burleigh (A Very Private Woman) offers an absorbing glimpse of Napoleon’s thwarted bid for a grand French empire and its intellectual fruits. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.)