This sense of cultural difference could be taken in a broadly tourist sense, but more often in Egypt at least it carried with it negative connotation of cultural superiority. Pierre Millet for instance noted that the size and population of Cairo were greater than any French city but that
“its streets are narrow, incommodious and there were no promenades”. Similar statements as to both the impressive size of the city as well as to the narrow, dusty, dirty streets, and the incessant boisterous street-life were repeated by most of the soldiers. Often these observations were accompanied with qualifications about the “now obscured splendour” (of Cairo) or that “Alexandria presented a mere shadow of its former glory”. Perhaps the most eloquent of these was Thurman’s “what a visual contrast between this African city and our European towns... Alexandria, once so powerful, now so decayed”. While for men who in many cases hailed from rural France, their attitude to villages and the peasantry often took on a similarly superior tone. In Malta, Bricard remarked upon how most were “no more than savages who lived in very rustic homes”, while in rural Egypt he claimed that “the inhabitants live like animals, most of their houses are underground”. Similarly, Bonnefons maintained that Qatyeh (Qatya) was no more than “a scattering of miserable huts” and the more sympathetic Thurman, while describing an “impoverished Arab village” tells us that “the houses were like all those inhabited by Fellahs; real pigeon huts”, elsewhere describing them as “disgusting cabins pulsating with vermin”.
Architecture, judgment and the colonial ‘self’ and ‘other’
Such judgments were bound up in the sense of national superiority and Oriental decline that informed and was used to justify future colonial endeavours. This is most starkly illustrated when they praise the Frankish quarters, of the Cairo, Alexandria and Rosetta, as the most attractive, cleanest, best built and best maintained. Thereby intimating the sort of attitude that would lead future generations of colonial invaders and administrators to justify their domination and attempted subjugation of foreign cultures, traditions and ways of life. Because whatever about the flashes of admiration for a beautiful mosque, a stunning ruin or impressive palaces, the implication of even the ‘tourist gaze’, especially when turned on Egypt, was that ‘this place, these people need us to bring prosperity, to restore their former glories and to drag them into the world as we see fit to shape it’. The world encountered by these French soldiers as they passed through Italy and Egypt became more and more alien the farther they went, reinforcing their sense, first of their regional, then of their French identity and by the time they had crossed the Mediterranean, their sense of what was European. These militarised cultural encounters, with buildings and places, but also the people, their languages, customs and ways of life, helped to develop and strengthen their sense of difference, identity and superiority.
- M. Agulhon, Marianne into battle: Republican imagery and symbolism in France, 1789- 1880 (trans. J. Lloyd, Cambridge, 1981)
- M. Broers, The Napoleonic Empire in Italy, 1796-1814: Cultural imperialism in a European context? (Basingstoke, 2005)
- J. Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle-East (Basingstoke, 2007)
- *A. Fierro, Bibliographie critique des Mémoires sur la Révolution écrits ou traduits en Francais (Paris, 1988) – Full references to all the soldiers’ mentioned in the post can be found in this work.
- A. Forrest, Napoleon's men; the soldiers of the Revolution and Empire (London, 2002)
- A. Forrest, K. Hagemann and J. Rendall, eds. Soldiers, citizens and civilians: experiences and perceptions of the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1790-1820 (Basingstoke, 2009)
- A. Forrest, K. Hagemann, E. François, eds. War memories: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in modern European culture (War Culture and Society, 1750-1850) (Basingstoke, 2013)
- M. Jasanoff, Edge of Empire: Conquest and collecting in the east, 1750-1850 (London, 2006)
- H. Laurens, L'Expédition d'Egypte, 1798-1801 (Paris, 1989)
- M. L .Pratt, Imperial eyes: Studies in travel writing and transculturation (London, 1992)
- P. Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt; the greatest glory (London, 2007)
- J. Urry and J. Larsen, The tourist gaze 3.0 (New York, 2011)
- S. Woolf, 'French civilization and ethnicity in the Napoleonic Empire' in Past and Present no. 124, (1989)
Robson, Fergus: French Soldiers encounter European and Arabic Architecture (2015), URL: http://www.mwme.eu/essays/index.html