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Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the…

Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt

by Nina Burleigh

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Interesting non-fiction book about Napoleon's expedition in Egypt. It really lowered my opinion of Napoleon, but I found the lives of the scientists interesting. And to think that I always believed that the Rosetta stone was discovered by the British... ( )
  jmoncton | Jun 3, 2013 |
Over two centuries ago, the land of Egypt was almost completely unknown to the nations of Europe. Sure, they knew of Egypt – it's in the Bible, and all over classical literature – but the modern nation was completely foreign, and the historical Egypt a legendary land of magic and myth. Napoleon Bonaparte sought to capture this jewel of the Middle East for the glory of France, and set out in 1798 with his troops to wrest it from the Mamluks. Unusually, he also took a team of civilians with him – over 150 scientists, engineers, and artists – to document any and all discoveries made in the land of pharaohs. Disliked by the army, and abandoned by the general when his military campaign didn't work out as planned, Napoleon's civilians – nicknamed his “savants” or “living encyclopedias” - struggled to continue their research while fighting off hunger, plague and the dangers of war. Their heroic effort to persevere when they had no certainty that they'd ever see France again led to the birth of Egyptology and the rediscovery of the pyramids and Egyptian temples long lost to time, but their greatest contribution to future generations may have been the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which scholars to eventually decipher the written Egyptian language.

Author Nina Burleigh profiles several of the men who made this incredible voyage with Napoleon, and their contributions to European understanding of the country. For the men in Egypt, it was the doctors and civil engineers who made life bearable by providing treatment for rampant plague and helping bring water and supplies to the troops. But for the folks back home in France, the real innovators were the naturalists and artists who eventually produced a beautiful, comprehensive series of books, Description de l'Égypte. During the trip, lifelong friendships and rivalries were formed between the civilians, many of whom went on to become extremely influential in their homeland.

While the stories Burleigh tells are fascinating to fans of Egyptology or science during the Enlightenment, the book quickly becomes quite repetitive and cluttered. Each chapter profiles a member of the expedition who became especially prominent in his field, so each essay jumps around in time and repeats situations and information presented in previous chapters. At times, it would get confusing to keep track of all the different French names and just who each man was.

I listened to an audio version of this book, and I would not recommend it. I think that the thread of the narrative would be much easier to pick up and follow in print form. The reader for the audio, Cassandra Campbell, had a very monotone voice that was sometimes difficult to follow. She almost sounded like one of those computer-generated voices.

As I said in another book review, I'm not terribly familiar with Napoleon's life, so I enjoyed learning more about his unusual campaign in Egypt. Once again, he's not portrayed in the greatest light; when the battle turns sour, Napoleon flees back to France, abandoning both troops and civilians to Egypt. But I can't help but admire the hard work of the scientists even as I'm appalled by the audacity of Napoleon's failed campaign. I'm glad that this book took the chance to highlight the civilian contributions to the campaign, and not just the military accomplishments and defeats. ( )
  makaiju | Sep 20, 2012 |
The story of Napoleon's mismanaged invasion of Egypt in 1798 as told by the journalist Nina Burleigh. He led over 50,000 soldiers and sailors and 151 French scholars and artists into an adventure for which they were ill-equipped and unprepared. The destruction of their fleet soon after arrival left many of the sailors dead and most of their supplies at the bottom of the bay at Alexandria. A lucky few among the savants had packed their instruments with their personal baggage but most were lost, leaving them scrambling to find tools, even paper and pens, to carry out their investigations. Complicating their work was the contempt, resentment, and even mistreatment by the military. Despite the difficulties, during the years they were stuck in Egypt, the scientists, artists, and engineers explored the land, measuring, drawing, and collecting specimens and artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone. The book (in 24 volumes) written after they returned to France was the first comprehensive view of Egyptian culture, both ancient and contemporary, that had ever appeared in Western Europe.

I enjoyed the book and found it very interesting although, in places, Burleigh seemed to wander around a bit. But, of course, the characters she was following were wandering about as well. She covered, not only their discoveries, but their reactions to an unfamiliar culture and their reactions (from letters and journals) to the military misadventures they witnessed. Jim, however, didn't enjoy it as much as I did since he was hoping for more about the way they carried out their experiments and measurements and their discoveries of the temples, tombs, etc.

For those interested in Napoleon and Egyptian history.
  hailelib | Jan 24, 2012 |
Mirage tells the story of the men, scholars (or savants in French), who volunteered to accompany Napoleon on an unknown mission. They weren't paid. They didn't even receive rations as the soldiers and seamen did. They came because of love for France's general and a belief that where ever he was going, it was their duty to expand scientific knowledge. One has to admire them.

They were the best and brightest France had. Mathematicians, chemists, engineers, geologists, zoologists, artists. They ranged in age from their mid-fifties to 15. Many died in Egypt, many were maimed, almost all of them were damaged for life by the experience.
They accomplished miracles in the face of unbelievable hardship, starvation, deprivation and disease. Their own countrymen loathed them. In the end, they were used as bargaining chips in the desperate attempt of the abandoned French army (Napoleon had long since quit Egypt to return to Europe, leaving his army with no way to get home) to negotiate with the British for transport. Did you ever wonder how the Rosetta stone ended up in the BM? The French gave it to them to get home.

What the savants accomplished, and how the accomplished it, in the face of these odds is an extraordinary story. They started a rage for Egyptiana that still continues. From Aida down to The Mummy. Whether that was to Egypt's benefit is still being argued. Zahi Hawass will undoubtedly go to his deathbed clamoring for the return of the vast quantity of lost national treasures. Be that as it may, the book the savants finally produced, "Description de l’Égypte" is a phenomenal work of art. ( )
1 vote Philotera | Mar 28, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060597682, Paperback)

Two hundred years ago, only the most reckless or eccentric Europeans had dared to traverse the unmapped territory of the modern-day Middle East. But in 1798, more than 150 French engineers, artists, doctors, and scientists—even a poet and a musicologist—traveled to the Nile Valley under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte and his invading army. Hazarding hunger, hardship, uncertainty, and disease, Napoleon's "savants" risked their lives in pursuit of discovery. The first large-scale interaction between Europeans and Muslims in the modern era, the audacious expedition was both a triumph and a disaster, resulting in finds of immense historical and scientific importance (including the ruins of the colossal pyramids and the Rosetta Stone) and in countless tragic deaths through plague, privation, madness, or violence.

Acclaimed journalist Nina Burleigh brings readers back to the landmark adventure at the dawn of the modern era that ultimately revealed the deepest secrets of ancient Egypt to a curious continent.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:18 -0400)

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Two centuries ago, only the most reckless Europeans dared traverse the Middle East. Its history and peoples were the subject of myth and speculation--and no region aroused greater interest than Egypt. It was not until 1798, when an unlikely band of scientific explorers traveled from Paris to the Nile Valley, that Westerners received their first real glimpse of what lay beyond the Mediterranean. Under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, a small corps of Paris's brightest left the safety of their laboratories, studios, and classrooms to embark into the unknown--some never to see French shores again. Over 150 astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists, physicists, doctors, chemists, engineers, botanists, artists--even a poet and a musicologist--accompanied Napoleon's troops into Egypt. They approached the land not as colonizers, but as experts in their fields of scholarship, meticulously categorizing and collecting their finds, and secured their place in history as the world's earliest-known archaeologists.--From publisher description.… (more)

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