I have been travelling a lot during 2011, and that has given me time to read some good books.
I find that it is only when one has a limited choice of things to do, that one can concentrate on reading a book and enjoy it fully, and there is a limited choice of things to do on a airplane.
The best book I read in 2011 was “Napoleon in Egypt” by Paul Strathern.
It is about the invasion, in 1798, of an Egypt that was then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, by an army of Revolutionary France, led by General Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon brought with him a large number of French academics and scientists, and his plan was to bring the benefits of the European enlightenment to this part of the world and, in his own mind at least, he intended to use Egypt as a jumping off point for an invasion of India, and the eventual establishment of a global empire. He modelled himself on Alexander the Great.
Napoleon was an atheist, in the French revolutionary tradition, but he put himself forward to the Egyptians as a friend of Islam. He wanted to make the invasion acceptable to the locals, some of whom initially welcomed the overthrow of the previous Mameluke military regime.
He told them that the “French are true Moslems”. But, as time wore on, the main local support for the French came from the Christian and Jewish minorities, who suffered most when the expedition eventually failed. As is the case today, there was a wide divergence of values between French secularists and devout Muslims, and for all his efforts Napoleon never bridged that gap.
The Mamelukes, who Napoleon initially defeated, were a military caste who had been created by the Ottomans from among people they enslaved in European parts of their Empire. The Mameluke system of administration had been corrupt and unpredictable. Napoleon tried to modernise it, and, to assist in the process, he brought the first ever printing press to Egypt. The French also opened first shops in Egypt where prices were fixed , rather than to be bargained.
Napoleon’s soldiers were the first Europeans to travel to the upper reaches of the Nile, and to see some of the glories of ancient Egypt, like Luxor and Thebes. The French also discovered the Rosetta Stone, which eventually explained the ancient Egyptian language. They assiduously mapped the plant and animal life of Egypt.
Militarily, the expedition was doomed, when Nelson defeated the French navy at the battle of the Nile and thereby cut Napoleon off from supplies from home. His communications with France were haphazard after that, and most of his reports back to Paris were captured by the British Navy.
In an attempt to break out of this situation, Napoleon invaded Palestine and Syria in the hope of getting back to Europe by fighting his way through Turkey to the Balkans. But, as in Russia in 1812, he overextended himself and lost many soldiers from exposure to harsh weather conditions. While in Palestine, he issued a proclamation describing the Jews as the “rightful heirs of Palestine”. It is not recorded what the locals living there at the time thought of that. He certainly felt he could remake the world without too much concern for the views of local inhabitants. Napoleon eventually abandoned his army in Egypt to return to France, and insert himself successfully into French politics. About 15,000 Frenchmen were killed or died of disease during the two year occupation.
I read “Earthly Powers” by Michael Burleigh. It deals with the clash of religion and politics from the French Revolution to the Great War.
The French Revolution was strongly opposed to Christianity. By 1794, masses were only being celebrated in 150 of France’ s 40,000 pre Revolutionary parishes , and monasteries had all been broken up. In the suppression of the Catholic anti Revolutionary risings in western Franc e, up to a third of the population in some areas were put to death. I saw a monument to some of these people on a visit to Angers during 2011.
The Revolution’s rejection of religion removed restraints on human behaviour, and contributed to disorder. One of Napoleons first initiatives to restore order when getting power was to negotiate a Concordat with the Catholic Church . Under it the Concordat, a new episcopacy was formed, some of whom included bishops who had cooperated with the Revolution and some bishops who had remained loyal to the Pope. Clergy were obliged not to marry couples without a prior civil ceremony, something that remains the case in France this day.
Burleigh argues that the Concordat reduced the pre existing role of the laity in the French church, a role that they had been forced take on while the church was being actively persecuted by the Revolutionary authorities.
In Britain, socialism and Christianity were frequently allied, whereas on the continent Christianity was more frequently allied with conservatism, perhaps in reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. In working class areas of London in 1900, 15% of the population still went to church on Sundays, whereas only 1% did so in similar areas of Berlin.
I found the subject fascinating, but the book to be a bit too long, and diffuse.
I read “China, the Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009” by Jonathan Fenby. I strongly recommend it to anyone visiting China, as I did during 2011. When one reads of the chaotic conditions that existed for much of China’s recent history, one comes reluctantly to understand why authoritarianism has a certain appeal.
“The Quants ,” by Scott Patterson who shows how some of the financial innovators, who devised the innovative financial products that helped bring about the 2008 crash, had stated their lives as mathematicians applying Maths to professional gambling in Las Vegas.
In fiction , I enjoyed two books that explore human relationships and keep the readers interest right to the last page, by Irish author , Deirdre Madden, “One by one in the Darkness”, and “Molly Fox’s Birthday”. I also greatly enjoyed “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett.