Ridley Scott's new film contains plenty of historical inaccuracies to spice up the conqueror's life, but none of them are crazier than fact.
In Ridley Scott's historical epic Napoleon, the French conqueror, played by Johaquin Phoenix, marches into the Egyptian desert and orders his soldiers to point their cannons at the pyramids. This whole scene is pure fiction, a fiction that Scott, who also directed the sensational Gladiator, also played by Phoenix, was immediately denounced by historians. But if Napoleon had damaged these wonders of the world, it would not have been the strange thing that happened during his conquests in Asia Minor.
The French Imperial Army invaded Egypt in 1798 after seizing the Mediterranean port of Malta, with two objectives: to sever trade routes between India and England and to establish French rule in the Middle East. Ultimately, the greatest obstacle for Napoleon was not the Egyptians themselves, but their love of hashish – a love that extended to his own soldiers and which he eventually decided to ban, throwing thus the basis of Western Europe's approach to cannabis.
Rather than imposing their own customs on the Egyptians, Napoleon urged his administrators to adopt local cultures. French forces, including scholars and scientists, established libraries and research centers to feed their genuine interest in the many traditions and inventions of the Islamic world. No longer having access to French wines and liqueurs, they learned about hashish and quickly began to frequent cafes, markets and salons where this substance could generally be found.
Legend has it that Napoleon banned hashish because his soldiers were too high to fight, but that idea is as false as Ridley's film. In truth, hashish only became illegal after the campaign ended; the ban itself was not implemented by Napoleon, but by one of his generals; and its goal was not to protect French citizens against the “corrosive influence” of drugs, but to exercise control over Egypt and Syria by pitting its own citizens against each other.
As explained Ryan Stoa in his article A Brief Global History of the War on Cannabis, written for The MIT Press Reader, hashish in Egypt was “associated with Sufi mystics and despised by the Sunni elite.” The general that Napoleon had left in charge of Egypt, Jacques-François Menou, saw in the ban on hashish an opportunity to “kill two birds with one stone”. Besides improving a public health problem, the general, married to a Sunni elite, also hoped to gain the respect of his in-laws.
Issued in 1800, Menou's mandate is often considered the first law of prohibition drugs of the modern world. It is also one of the most intransigent, since it suddenly prohibits the cultivation, sale and consumption of cannabis. Egyptians were not allowed to smoke cannabis itself, nor to mix it with their liquor. “Those who are accustomed to drinking this liquor and smoking this seed lose their reason and fall into a violent delirium which often leads them to commit excesses of all kinds.
The ban, like many other idealistic goals pursued by the Napoleonic administration, did not work. According to Stoa, hashish continued to be cultivated, traded and used throughout Egypt – a practice that, according to archaeological findings, dates back to 3000 BC. Not only did French soldiers fail to stop Egyptians from smoking hashish, but they ended up introducing the substance into Western Europe, much like some American veterans returning from Vietnam.
The French have not been more successful in banning cannabis at home and abroad. In Paris, the open-minded writers and painters who made up the Romantic movement, which rejected the cold rationality of the Enlightenment in favor of emotion and spirituality, tolerated and sometimes celebrated the drugs their government was trying to eradicate. . They proudly designated their intellectual circle under the name of Hachichins Club, the “Hash-Eaters’ Club” in English.
Despite pressure from its own government, the Egyptian city of Cairo has become one of the world's largest hashish markets. Competed only by Istanbul, Turkey, Cairo's cannabis industry survived until the late 1800s, when a growing list of bans, sanctions and repressive measures left its organizers searching a new base of operations. Migrating along the coast of North Africa, they eventually settled in Morocco, where they have remained until today.
Hashish is not the only cannabis product to play an unlikely role in the Napoleonic Wars. The hemp plant itself was even more important, as it could be made into sacks, ropes, ropes, sails, and other materials essential to fighting a victorious war. The thriving trade between England and Russia, Europe's largest hemp producers, was a major concern for Napoleon as he marched his forces into the Russian heartland on the road to Moscow.
Just as the French emperor had sought to regulate the consumption of hashish, he attempted to take control of hemp production. In the Peace Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807, before France invaded Russia, Napoleon demanded that the Russian Tsar, Alexander I, stop doing business with Britain. No longer trading with Britain meant less hemp, less hemp meant a weaker army, a weaker army meant a greater chance of victory.
Perhaps if the emperor had accepted these conditions, Napoleon would have reached Moscow, after all why not.