Sunday, November 09, 2008

Napoleon's Egypt Invasion Sparked Art Craze, Gave Paris Its Own


The mission was to bring freedom and regime change to the Arabs. It ended in disaster.

I'm referring, of course, to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, which eventually led to the French army's surrender to the British. No sooner had they pulled out, than France was gripped by Egyptian fever. Sphinxes, hieroglyphs, and lotus leaves proliferated on furniture, jewelry and china. Classical scholars watched in dismay as Egyptology became the preferred discipline in the scientific community.

A show at Paris's Institut du Monde Arabe displays the many cultural fruits of the Egyptian invasion. ``Bonaparte et l'Egypte -- Feu et Lumieres (1769-1869)'' spans the century that began with Napoleon's birth (and that of Muhammad Ali, founder of the dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952,) and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal.

Some 350 objects are displayed in more or less chronological order, starting with the fantastic ideas that 18th-century France entertained about the land of the pharaohs. The freemasons, for instance, copied what they believed were pharaonic rituals.

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