''White supremacy caused Napoleon to blow the nose off the Sphinx because it reminded [him] too much of the black man's majesty.''
-- Louis Farrakhan, October 16
ON THE 19th of May, 1798, a young French general nameNapoleon Bonaparte set off in his flagship L'Orient for the conquest of Egypt. The Mediterranean crossing was calm, Napoleon's officers found time to read, and several chose popular romantic novels of the day: Goethe's ''Sorrows of Young Werther,'' Bernardin de St. Pierre's ''Paul and Virginia.'' Needless to say, the serious-minded general did not approve of these frivolous works.
''Give them history,'' he told his librarian. ''Men should read nothing else.'' This is a suggestion that Louis Farrakhan and other Afrocentric scholars would do well to heed. Mr. Farrakhan's long speech at the Million Man March was peppered with historical half-truths, attacks on Western civilization and inaccuracies, but I will confine myself to exploding just one: that Napoleon Bonaparte blew the nose off the Great Sphinx at Giza. It's simply not true.
For the historic record, General Bonaparte, future emperor of the French, had nothing to do with the mutilation of the Sphinx during the Egyptian campaign. It was the Ottoman Mamelukes, despotic Islamic overlords of Egypt, who shot the nose off this enigmatic monument long before Napoleon and his men landed in the moonlight at Marabut, eight miles down the beach from Alexandria.
''His lion's mane has been demolished,'' archaeologist C. W. Ceram writes of the sad and noble Sphinx in ''Gods, Graves and Scholars,'' ''his eyes and nose are nothing but holes, for the Mamelukes used his head as a target when they practiced shooting their cannon.''
In truth, the Sphinx and many other important Egyptian antiquities were much damaged over the centuries by Arab conquerors as well as Mamelukes. Art historian Cyril Aldred takes the long view in ''The Egyptians'':
''The cleavage of Egypt from its ancient heritage was completed in A.D. 693 when Amr, at the head of an Arab army, captured the country for the Caliph Omar and converted it to an Islamic state. The Muslims had no interest in Ancient Egypt except to eviscerate some of its standing monuments in the hope of unearthing the fabulous treasures they were thought to conceal. Antiquities were regarded askance as the work of infidels, to be shown indifference or hostility; witness the action of Sheikh Mohammed who mutilated the Great Sphinx at Giza because he thought it would please God.''
Mr. Farrakhan's fabrication about Napoleon and the Sphinx has been gaining currency in Afrocentric circles. The poet Amiri Baraka, for example, espoused it at a rally at a Washington, D.C., high school the day before the march. According to his theory, Napoleon blew the nose off the Sphinx because it was a ''black'' nose; because the general's ''sick,'' racist mind could not accept the visual evidence that black Africans had constructed the monument, and thus the complex ancient civilization of the Nile Valley, centuries before.
But history is more complicated than white against black, and Napoleon is a man who defies easy categories. When the general led his army of 55,000 men into Egypt, he was also accompanied by a smaller army of 167 scholars -- including 21 mathematicians, three astronomers, 17 engineers, 13 naturalists, four architects, eight draftsmen, 10 men of letters and 22 printers who were equipped with Latin, Greek and Arabic characters.
Napoleon's purpose in invading Egypt was twofold: to overthrow the Mamelukes and establish a French protectorate in their place; and to unearth and catalog the remains of Egypt's ancient civilization before it was entirely lost to the ravages of time and neglect.
'40 centuries look down''
The general's reverent attitude toward Egypt's past is exemplified by his famous exhortation to his troops before the battle of the pyramids; ''Soldiers! From the height of these pyramids, 40 centuries look down upon you!'' Like Louis Farrakhan, Napoleon saw Egyptian civilization as ''the cradle of the science and art of all humanity,'' and in July 1798 he founded the famous Egyptian Institute, whose mission it was to dig that cradle out of the sands where it had lain hidden for thousands of years.
The results of the institute's work, the ''Description de l'Egypte,'' published in 10 massive folio volumes and two anthologies, is an exhaustive record of Egyptian antiquities that effectively began the science of Egyptology. Its 337 engravings and 3,000 illustrations took 400 artists 20 years to complete. Far from blowing the nose off the Sphinx with one of his legendary 12-pounders, Napoleon ordered the monument dug out of sand that covered it to the neck and set his scholars to measure and record its exact dimensions.
One of the great attributes of Western civilization has been its desire to know about other cultures. When Louis Farrakhan condemns the West, he condemns the drives that led Napoleon Bonaparte to undertake the investigation of Egyptian culture, then languishing in the dust and lost to the world. He condemns the impulse that led to the ''Description de l'Egypte,'' to the decipherment of hieroglyphics, to everything that Mr. Farrakhan himself knows about ancient Egyptian civilization.
Without Napoleon and his restless curiosity about other people and places, the noseless Sphinx would now lie completely buried beneath the shifting sands at Giza.
Robert Girardi is the author of the novel ''Madeleine's Ghost.'' This article is reprinted from The New Republic.