Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 17

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIX, chapter 17
Return to Egypt – The Conquest of Upper Egypt



‘He left; he has arrived; he has scattered the storms; his return has made them vanish into the desert.’ So sang the conqueror repulsed, in his own praise, on re-entering Cairo: he carried the world with hymns.

During his absence, Desaix had achieved Upper Egypt’s surrender. In ascending the Nile one encounters ruins to which the language of Bossuet concedes all their grandeur and augments it. ‘They discovered,’ says the author of the Universal History,’ at Saïd, temples and palaces almost completely untouched, with innumerable columns and statues. There they particularly admired a palace whose remains seem only to have survived to efface the glory of all the greatest works. Four avenues, stretching as far as the eye can see, and bordered on either side by sphinxes of a material as rare as their grandeur is remarkable, serve to arrive at four porticoes whose height astonishes the eye. What a magnificent expanse! Those who described this prodigious edifice for us have still not had long enough to make a complete tour of it, and are not even certain of having seen the larger part of it; but all those who have seen it are astonished. One room, which apparently constituted the centre of this superb palace, was supported on six and twenty columns of six arm-lengths around, tall in proportion, and intermingled with obelisks that the many centuries have not been able to fell. Even the colours, that is to say those things which soonest reveal the power of time, still survive among the ruins of that admirable edifice, and retain their vivacity: Egypt knew how to give such immortal character to all her works! Now that the name of King Louis XIV penetrates to the least known regions of the world, would it not be a worthy object of his noble curiosity to discover the beauties that the Thebaid conceals in its deserts? What beauties might one not find if one could reach the royal city, given one can discover such marvellous things so far from it! The Roman Empire, despairing of equalling the Egyptians, thought it enough for its grandeur to borrow their royal monuments.’

Napoleon charged himself with executing the advice Bossuet gave Louis XIV. ‘Thebes,’ says Monsieur Denon, who accompanied Desaix’s expedition, ‘that abandoned city which the imagination only glimpses through the mists of time, was nevertheless so gigantic a phantom that the soldiers halted on seeing it, of their own accord, and clapped their hands. Amongst the obliging enthusiasm of the soldiers, I found knees to serve me for a table, and bodies to give me shade….At the cataracts of the Nile, our soldiers, continually fighting the beys and undergoing incredible hardships, amused themselves, by establishing in the village of Syene fixed price tailor’s shops, goldsmiths, barbers, and caterers. Beneath a regimented alley of trees, they set up a military column with the inscription: Road to Paris…Descending the Nile once more, the army often had dealings with the Meccans. The Arab entrenchments were set on fire: they lacked water; they beat out the fire with their feet and hands; they stifled it with their bodies. They were seen, black and naked, running through the flames: a likeness of devils in Hell. I never saw it without a feeling of horror and admiration. There were moments of silence in which some voice could be heard; it was responded to by sacred chants and battle cries.’

Those Arabs sang and danced like the Spanish soldiers and monks set alight at Saragossa; while the Russians burned Moscow; the kind of sublime madness that agitated Bonaparte, he communicated to his victims.