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The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science

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The Dendera zodiac--an ancient bas-relief temple ceiling adorned with mysterious symbols of the stars and planets--was first discovered by the French during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, and quickly provoked a controversy between scientists and theologians. Brought to Paris in 1821 and ultimately installed in the Louvre, where it can still be seen today, the zodiac appeared to depict the nighttime sky from a time predating the Biblical creation, and therefore cast doubt on religious truth. "The Zodiac of Paris" tells the story of this incredible archeological find and its unlikely role in the fierce disputes over science and faith in Napoleonic and Restoration France.

The book unfolds against the turbulence of the French Revolution, Napoleon's breathtaking rise and fall, and the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne. Drawing on newspapers, journals, diaries, pamphlets, and other documentary evidence, Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz show how scientists and intellectuals seized upon the zodiac to discredit Christianity, and how this drew furious responses from conservatives and sparked debates about the merits of scientific calculation as a source of knowledge about the past. The ideological battles would rage until the thoroughly antireligious Jean-Francois Champollion unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs--and of the zodiac itself. Champollion would prove the religious reactionaries right, but for all the wrong reasons.

"The Zodiac of Paris" brings Napoleonic and Restoration France vividly to life, revealing the lengths to which scientists, intellectuals, theologians, and conservatives went to use the ancient past for modern purposes.

440 pages, Hardcover

First published May 5, 2010

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Jed Z. Buchwald

19 books12 followers

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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
July 21, 2010
A fascinating and scholarly study of the discovery of an ancient artifact and its impact on contemporary science and politics.

During Napoleon's expedition to conquer Egypt, French scholars discovered several depictions of the zodiac in Egyptian temples, most notably at Dendera. These were intriguing, of course, because they were old. How old, though, were they? Reasoning from hints in the arrangement of the zodiacs, scholars suggested that they could be dated from the precession of the equinoxes -- and that if this were correct, the zodiacs had been created (or copied from older zodiacs that themselves had been created) well before the earliest dating for the Biblical Flood.

The cast of scientists involved in the subsequent controvery is remarkable. There's Conté (inventor of the crayon), and Laplace, and Fourier. Indeed, Fourier was at this time more respected for hus Egyptology than for his work on the diffusion of heat!

Lively portraits of scientists, scholars, adventurers, and politicians enliven the complex history of thinking about these inscriptions from their discovery through endless controversies that mirror the complexities of the Revolution and Restoration. In the end, the solution awaits Champollion and the decipherment of hieroglyphics -- but not without one last, hilarious joke of fate.
233 reviews4 followers
July 2, 2014
I found THE ZODIAC OF PARIS a fascinating read if a bit dry at times. They have taken a moment in history, the bringing to Paris of a pair of stones found in Egypt by Napoleon’s forces, and brought a magnifying glass to inspect the ramifications of this seemingly simple action.
The stones, which now can be seen in the Louvre, sparked a debate between the Catholic Church and leading intellectuals of the time. The stones display a Zodiac, a depiction of the nighttime skies, but according to the alignment of the stars, the sky shown depicted a time well before 6000 B.C., the date of creation according to Bible scholars.
The authors have managed to take what is now a display of a pair of rocks in a museum and brought to life the swirling debates and controversies, fights and arguments and theological ponderings which accompanied their translation from Hieroglyphs to modern language. This book makes us think and question not only what we know for certain, but more importantly, how it is that we know it.
Certainly this book will be of great importance to scholars of 19th century European history, although those who deal with theology may shy away, so much the pity.
I won this thought provoking volume through Goodreads.
282 reviews3 followers
October 3, 2011
Excellent tale of an Egyptian zodiac found by the savants of Napoleon. The display of this object created a philosophical, scientific and religious fire-storm as it appeared to show the heavens at a time prior to the beginning of the creation (6000 b.c.). The tie-in with Champollion is especially enlightening. The particle and wave theories of light, optics and the intrision of the reign of terror are all involved. Although the scholar may find some of the exposition a little excessive the writing flows firmly to the main points. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lisa.
76 reviews
June 15, 2014
Wow! This book is well researched and came alive to me. I've only put it down only to go online to learn more about points made and to learn even more about the history of both Egypt and France. I love history of both of these countries and have been in my bliss state reading this great book! I'm now wanting to get learning more in depth about astronomy and astrology now!

This book is not for those that ant a light read. It's more for those that want depth in their reads. If only I didn't have all those interruptions of work...I'd have been able to focus more on this great book!
Profile Image for Laura.
11 reviews
July 30, 2014
I got this book as a goodreads giveaway. It was amazingly detailed and well-researched, and gave me insight into the scientific and philosophical world during a time period (during and following the French Revolution) that I'm not very familiar with. I did have some difficulty understanding some of the astronomical theories, but I really enjoyed learning about the political and religious biases that influenced the attempts to date the zodiac.
Profile Image for Claudia.
1,200 reviews35 followers
June 2, 2019
I have to admit that this was a very difficult book to read. I started it with the thought it was about the zodiacs carved into stone at the temple in Dendara - which it was.

But it read like a doctoral dissertation or advanced textbook for the decades just before the French Revolution through the Terror, Napoleon and the Restoration. How religion was eliminated in the early years and the philosophy of nature and science ruled. Comparing good and evil with 'natural' appetites verses greed. The return of the Catholic Church with Napoleon's rise which became more fanatical in returning France to the embrace of Mother Church. Once the King was restored along with the aristocracy, they focused on bringing back the utopian perfection before the Revolution.

Into this fanatical situation, the actual Dendara zodiac arrived in Marseilles in 1821 (and page 237) - because, of course, the Egyptians did not value the history that surrounded them - which simply meant the disagreements about when it was constructed could continue with the actual artifact to be referenced. This was the time when the world was created in 4004 B.C. so anything beforehand didn't exist according to the Catholic Church. The scientists, astronomers and historians in turn disagreed on what rising of the constellation meant - how far above the horizon: the first stars? Half the constellation or even the whole. So different options fought with the religious ultra-conservatives. And so on. . . .

To make things even more confusing, some preachers would dispute the scientists' claims on one page of their rebuttal and use the exact same reasoning to support their words a dozen pages later.

In the end, I was more likely scanning rather than reading in depth since it seemed - like I said earlier - more like a book on French society at that time. The zodiac seemed to be just a convenient ploy to generate interest.

NOW, I will not say that is what the author was attempting in any way. The amount of research and detail included in his work is incredible. I would just say that it is not for general consumption. Maybe if I was fascinated by the time period and some of the people - and once he mentioned someone new, he relayed his entire history up to that point - it would have held more of my interest.

The 'book' actually ends on page 342. Pages 343-378 were explanatory notes. Pages 379-411 was the bibliography with the balance being the index. So it really isn't as long as the page count would indicate.

The two-star grade I gave is not for the detail or information given. That would make it probably a four-star. But it just didn't hold my interest.

January 14, 2018
This was a very interesting presentation of a small snippet of history and the interactions of people, politics, and religion. That the theft of the roof of a temple in Egypt during Napoleon's occupation could involve the king, emperor, and pope, but also people I only knew from science: Ampere, Fourier, Fresnel, Carnot, and others, was surprising and entertaining.
Profile Image for Norman S.
50 reviews
August 9, 2018
This was a really interesting exploration, a bit of a tough read, but worth it for the ideas within.
Profile Image for Eugenia Hall.
7 reviews3 followers
January 4, 2015
Full disclosure - I got this book for free from a Goodreads giveaway, however all opinions are my own.

This book is a bit dry perhaps for the average reader, its a very scholarly tome that requires a certain quantity of historical knowledge to full take in. That being said, its an incredible story for people who love history, archaeology and the like. A certain interest in Egyptian history and French Culture helps because of the piece in question and its role in various stages of French history including the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. If your default tv channel is the History Channel, then you'll appreciate this book and enjoy the time it will take to read it.
Profile Image for Joseph Toth.
21 reviews3 followers
September 2, 2014
A truly fascinating and informative book, well worth a read! In compliance with FTC guidelines, I received the book for free through Goodreads First Reads.
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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