Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 14

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XIX, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIX, 15

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIX, chapter 14
Malta – The Battle of the Pyramids – Cairo – Napoleon inside the Great Pyramid – Suez.

Toulon, 19th May 1798.


You are one flank of the Army against England.

You have made war in the mountains, in the plains, you have conducted sieges; it only remains for you to make war at sea.

The Roman legions you have often imitated but not yet equalled fought Carthage time after time over this same sea, and on the plain of Zama. Victory never forsook them, because they were continually brave, patient in withstanding fatigue, disciplined and united.

Soldiers, Europe is watching you! You have a great destiny to fulfil, battles to wage, danger and weariness to vanquish; you will achieve more than you already have for your country’s prosperity, the benefit of men and your own glory.’

After this memorable proclamation, Napoleon embarked: as in Homer one might say, or like the hero who kept Maeonides’ songs in a golden casket. This man never trod softly: scarcely had he left Italy behind than he appeared in Egypt; an episode from fiction with which he embellished real life. Like Charlemagne he brought epic to history. In the library he carried with him were to be found Ossian, Werther, La Nouvelle Héloïse and the Old Testament: an indication of the chaos inside Napoleon’s head. He mingled together positive ideas with sentimental novels, systems with chimeras, serious studies with transports of the imagination, wisdom with folly. With these incoherent products of the century he took an Empire; an immense dream, but as transient as the disorder of the night that bore him.

Entering Toulon on the 9th of May 1798, Napoleon halted at the Hôtel de la Marine; ten days later he boarded the flagship L’Orient; on the 19th of May he set sail; he left from the port where he had first shed blood, French blood: the massacres at Toulon had prepared him for the massacres at Jaffa. He took with him the first generals born of his glory: Berthier, Caffarelli, Kléber, Desaix, Lannes, Murat, and Menou. Thirteen ships of the line, fourteen frigates, and four hundred transport vessels accompanied him.

Nelson allowed him to escape from port and lost him among the waves, though at one point our fleet was less than six leagues distant from the English ships. From Sicilian waters, Napoleon saw the summit of the Apennines; he said: ‘I cannot view Italian soil without emotion; there is the East; I am on my way there.’ On seeing Mount Ida, there followed an outburst of admiration regarding Minos and ancient wisdom. During the crossing, Bonaparte delighted in gathering the savants together and provoking disputes among them; he was usually won over to the most absurd or most audacious viewpoint; he questioned whether the planets were inhabited, when they would be destroyed by water or fire, as if he had been charged with inspecting a celestial army.

He landed at Malta, and winkled out the old chivalry that had withdrawn into a hole in a rock by the sea; then he descended on the ruins of Alexander’s city. At the break of day he saw that same Pompey’s Pillar that I caught sight of from my ship on leaving Libya. From the foot of the monument, immortalised by a great and sorrowful name, he made a dash forward; he climbed the walls behind which was once found the storehouse of medicines for the soul, and Cleopatra’s Needles, now lying on the ground among the skinny dogs. The port of Rosetta was forced; our troops rushed towards the two harbours and the lighthouse. There was a terrible cutting of throats! The adjutant-general Boyer wrote to his relatives: ‘The Turks, driven back on all sides, took refuge in their god and their prophet; they filled the mosques; men, women, old, young, children, all were massacred.’

Bonaparte had said to the Bishop of Malta: ‘You can assure your diocese that the Catholic religion, apostolic and Roman, will not only be respected, but its ministers will be given special protection.’ He said, on arrival in Egypt: ‘People of Egypt, I respect God, his Prophet, and the Koran more than the Mamelukes do. The French are friends of the Muslims. Previously they have marched on Rome and overthrown the rule of a Pope who embittered Christians against those who profess Islam; soon afterwards they set course towards Malta, and have driven from there the unbelievers who thought to call on God to make war against Muslims….if Egypt is leased to the Mamelukes, let them show us the lease God has given them.’

Napoleon marched to the Pyramids; he announced to his soldiers: ‘Soldiers, from the heights of these monuments forty centuries are gazing down upon you.’ He entered Cairo; his fleet was blown to the sky at Aboukir; the Army of the East was cut off from Europe. Jullien (de Paris), son of the Jullien (de la Drôme) who was a Member of the Convention, witness to the disaster, noted it minute by minute:

‘It was seven in the evening; night fell and the firing redoubled. At a few minutes past nine the ship blew up. At ten the firing died down and the moon rose to the right of the place the explosion had come from.’

In Cairo Bonaparte declares to the chief justice that he will be the restorer of mosques; he broadcasts his name through Arabia, Ethiopia, and India. Cairo rebels; he bombards it in the midst of a storm; the inspired one speaks to the believers: ‘I could demand that each of you make an account of the most secret feelings of his heart, since I know all, even those things you have told to no one.’

The high Sherif of Mecca names him, in a letter, the protector of the Ka’aba; the Pope, in a missive, calls him my very dear son.

Through a weakness of character, Bonaparte often preferred to address his petty rather than his grand side. The game he could win with a blow failed to amuse him. The hand which shattered the world enjoyed playing with tumblers; assured, when it exerted its powers, of compensating for this waste, his genius mended the defects of his nature. Did he not present himself above all as the heir of the crusaders? Through his twofold status, he was, in the eyes of the Muslim masses, both a false Christian and a false Mahometan. To admire the impieties of a belief is to fail to understand what is wretched about it, and to be wretchedly in error: one must weep when a giant is reduced to making grimaces. The infidels offered Saint Louis, in chains, the crown of Egypt, because he remained, say the historians, the finest Christian they had ever seen.

When I visited Cairo, the city still retained traces of the French: a public garden, an undertaking of ours, was planted with palm-trees; restaurant owners’ establishments had long ago surrounded it. Unfortunately, like the ancient Egyptians, our soldiers promenaded a coffin at their feasts.

What a memorable scene, if one could believe in it! Bonaparte seated inside the Pyramid of Cheops, on a Pharaoh’s sarcophagus from which the mummified remains had vanished, talking to the muftis and imams! However, let us treat the tale in the Moniteur as a work of the Muse. If it is not a true tale of Napoleon, it is the tale of his intellect; that makes it still worth the trouble of reading. In the depths of the sepulchre let us listen to that voice that all the centuries will hear.

(Moniteur, 27th November 1798.)
‘Today, the 25th Thermidor of Year VI of the one and indivisible French Republic (12th of August 1798), corresponding to the 28th day of the moon of Muharram, in the Year of the Hegira 1213, the Commander-in-Chief accompanied by several army staff officers and members of the National Institute was taken to the Great Pyramid, said to be that of Cheops, in the interior of which he was attended by several muftis and imams, charged with showing him the internal construction.
The final room which the Commander-in-Chief came to is flat-roofed, thirty-two feet long by sixteen wide and nineteen high. There was nothing inside it but a granite box about eight feet long by four wide, which contained a Pharaoh’s mummy. He sat down on the granite block, making the muftis and imams, Suleiman, Ibrahim and Muhamed sit at his feet, and in the presence of his entourage had the following conversation with them:
Bonaparte: ‘God is great and his works are wonderful. Here is a great work from the hand of man! What was the purpose of whoever had this Pyramid constructed?’
Suleiman: ‘It was a powerful king of Egypt, whose name is believed to have been Cheops. He wished to prevent any sacrilege being committed that might disturb his ashes.’
Bonaparte: ‘The great Cyrus had himself interred in the open air, so that his body might return to the elements: do you not think that better? Do you not think so?’
Suleiman (Bowing): ‘Glory to God, to whom all glory is due!’
Bonaparte: ‘Glory to Allah! There is no other God but God; Mohammed is his prophet, and I am one of his friends.’
Ibrahim: ‘May the angels of victory sweep the dust from your robe and cover you with their wings! The Mamelukes deserve death.’
Bonaparte: ‘They have been delivered over to the dark angels Munkar and Nakir.’
Suleiman: ‘They extend their rapacious hands over the land, the harvest, and the horses of Egypt.’
Bonaparte: ‘The wealth, industry and friendship of the Franks will be your portion, until you mount to the seventh heaven and sit beside the black-eyed houris, ever-young and ever-virgin, and rest in the shade of the Tuba, whose branches offer of themselves to true Muslims whatever they might desire.’

Such a spectacle does nothing to alter the gravity of the Pyramids:

‘For twenty centuries, lost in eternal night,
There, without motion, without sound or light.’

Bonaparte, replacing Cheops, in the age-old crypt, would have increased its immensity; but he was never even dragged as far as the vestibule of the dead.

‘During the rest of our navigation of the Nile,’ as I say in the Itinerary, ‘I stayed on the bridge to contemplate the tombs……Great monuments are an essential part of the glory of all human society: they carry the memory of a people beyond its own existence, and make it contemporary with the generations who chance to establish themselves on those deserted fields.’

Let us thank Bonaparte, at the Pyramids, for having represented us so well, all we petty Statesmen marred by poetry, who prowl among the ruins with our wretched lies.

After Bonaparte’s proclamations, orders of the day, speeches, it is evident that he saw himself as a messenger of the heavens, following Alexander’s example. Callisthenes, upon whom the Macedonian later inflicted such cruel treatment, surely in punishment for the philosopher’s flattery of him, was charged with proving that Philip’s son was the son of Jupiter; that is what one reads in a fragment of Callisthenes preserved by Strabo. The Conversations with Alexander, by Pasquier, is a dialogue of the dead between Alexander and Rabelais the great satirist: ‘Run your eye,’ says Alexander to Rabelais, ‘over all those lands you can see down there, and you won’t find anyone of note who, in order to enforce his opinions, won’t want it given out that he is related to the gods.’ Rabelais replies: ‘Alexander, to tell you the truth, I never found it amusing to share any of your little peculiarities, any more than ones involving wine. What benefit do you gain from your greatness now? Are you any different to me? The regret you feel ought to cause you such anger, that it would have been better for you to have lost your memory with your body.’

And yet, in occupying himself with Alexander, Bonaparte was mistaken concerning himself, his epoch of the world, and religion: today, one cannot hope to pass for a god. As for Napoleon’s exploits in the Levant, they were not equivalent as yet to his conquest of Europe; they failed to achieve great enough results to impress the Islamic masses, though they did name him the Sultan of Fire. ‘Alexander, at the age of thirty,’ says Montaigne, ‘had conquered all the known world, and, in half a lifetime, had achieved all that human effort is capable of. More kings and princes have written about his exploits, than any other historians have written concerning any other king.’

From Cairo, Bonaparte passed to Suez: he saw the sea which opened for Moses, and closed again over Pharaoh. He recognised the traces of a canal begun by Sesostris, widened by the Persians, and continued by Ptolemy II, which the Sultans had recommenced with the aim of transporting the commerce of the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. He planned to extend an arm of the Nile into the Arabian Gulf: far along the Gulf his imagination traced out a site for a new Ophir, where a permanent market could be held for the sellers of perfumes, spices and silken stuffs, all the precious objects from Muscat, China, Ceylon, Sumatra, the Philippines, and India. The coenobites would descend from Sinai, and beg him to inscribe his name next to that of Saladin, in the book of their guarantors.

Returning from Cairo, Bonaparte celebrated the annual feast of the founding of the Republic, while addressing these words to his soldiers: ‘Five years ago the freedom of the French people was threatened; but you took Toulon: that presaged the ruin of your enemies. A year later you beat the Austrians at Dego; the following year, you were at the summit of the Alps; you fought at Mantua, two years ago, and brought me the celebrated victory of San Giorgio; last year, you were at the sources of the Drava and Isonzo, on your way back from Germany. Who would have thought then that today you would be on the banks of the Nile, at the heart of an ancient continent?’