Napoleon Didn’t Really Shoot Cannons at Egypt’s Pyramids

As Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” opens for Thanksgiving holiday viewing, scenes from the film’s trailers are making waves. That was especially true of a sensational depiction of French troops led by Joaquin Phoenix as the French emperor firing cannons at the pyramids of Giza.

“I don’t know if he did that,” Mr. Scott told The Times of London. “But it was a fast way of saying he took Egypt.”

There is no evidence that French invaders launched artillery at the pyramids, or that Napoleon’s troops shot the nose off the Sphinx, another piece of popular apocrypha (evidence suggests that the nose was chiseled off centuries before Napoleon’s time).

“From what we know, Napoleon held the Sphinx and the pyramids in high esteem and used them as a means of urging his troops to greater glory,” said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. “He definitely did not take pot shots at them.”

While creative license is expected in Hollywood biopics, Mr. Scott’s cinematic choices prompted memes, discussion and lighthearted dunking, including riffs about Napoleon battling mummies.

Some historians have criticized Mr. Scott, but many hope “Napoleon” will generate interest in the events that inspired the film. And while Napoleon didn’t literally hurl projectiles at the pyramids, his invasion of Egypt had a profound effect on Egyptian cultural heritage and how the world understands it today.

“Ultimately, the campaign is a defeat — the French lose and get kicked out,” said Alexander Mikaberidze, a professor at Louisiana State University in Shreveport who specializes in Napoleonic history. But Napoleon’s invasion also resulted in a complex scientific and cultural legacy, he added: “the beginning of Egyptology, the beginning of this fascination with Egypt and the desire to explore Egyptian history and Egyptian culture.”

The French campaign in Egypt from 1798 to 1801 was driven by Napoleon’s colonial ambitions and a desire to stymie British influence. But in addition to amassing an army of some 50,000 men, Napoleon made the unusual decision to invite more than 160 scholars — in fields like botany, geology, the humanities and others — to accompany the invasion.

The scholars documented the cultural and natural landscapes of Egypt, which they eventually compiled into a seminal 1809 publication that contained detailed entries about the Giza pyramid complex. This is one reason historians know that Napoleon visited the pyramids, as shown in Mr. Scott’s film, though it is unlikely he regarded the structures as military targets.

“There was a real interest on the part of the scholars and, I think by extension, a real interest by Napoleon to be able to understand these things that Europeans hadn’t really had unfettered access to since the classical period,” said Andrew Bednarski, a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo who specializes in Egyptology and 19th-century history.

In their effort to document Egypt’s vast archaeological heritage, the French scholars seized many important artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone, a rock inscribed with three languages that proved instrumental in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone and many other spoils ended up in British hands after the French hold on Egypt collapsed in 1801. By then, Napoleon had returned to France.

Following the failed campaign, word of Egypt’s cultural wonders spread across Europe and powered a new wave of global Egyptomania. This insatiable appetite for Egyptian antiquities has resulted in centuries of exploration, excavation and exploitation of the region’s vast material culture. Since Napoleon’s invasion, countless artifacts have been removed from Egypt by prospectors and traders, many through clandestine and outright criminal channels.

As a result, many of Egypt’s greatest treasures, including the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, are in museums and private collections far from home. Egypt’s antiquities community has been working for years to repatriate as many artifacts as possible, with some success, while also developing new strategies to protect its cultural legacy within the nation’s borders.

“There are more site management plans, an increase in museums and an upsurge in media coverage of antiquities, which is geared not only to attract tourists but also to fostering national pride and educating the general Egyptian public as to the significance of their heritage,” Dr. Ikram said.

Egypt has also been confronting a resurgence of looting in recent years as a result of domestic instabilities. The Antiquities Coalition, a U.S.-based nonprofit, estimated that following the 2011 revolution, about $3 billion worth of relics had been illegally smuggled out of Egypt. The Institute of Egypt, a research center that Napoleon established in Cairo during his invasion, burned down in 2011 during the tumult of the Arab Spring. Erosive forces such as pollution and the effects of climate change, including extreme weather, pose another threat to Egypt’s monuments and artifacts.

Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign ignited the modern demand for Egyptian antiquities that still rages today. Mr. Scott’s vision of Napoleon shooting cannons at the pyramids of Giza is just a continuation of this longstanding impulse to co-opt Egyptian symbols and market them to a new audience. Many experts have decried the inaccuracies in the film — prompting an expletive-laden response from Mr. Scott. But some see in “Napoleon” the opportunity to revisit the polarizing French emperor’s lasting effects on the world.

“Anything that might spark people’s interest in the history of Egyptology, the effects of colonialism around the world, the Enlightenment — any of those things — I think is only positive,” Dr. Bednarski said.

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