Napoleon in Egypt

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‘Europe is but a molehill, all the great reputations have come from Asia’

For every generation since the classical historian Herodotus, Egypt and the Orient have enthralled Europe’s elite. The greatest leaders of antiquity, Caesar and Alexander, had acted on this fascination and campaigned in the land of the Pharaohs. Two millennia after these titans had stormed down the Nile, their self-proclaimed heir, Napoleon Bonaparte, wished to tread in the footsteps they had left in the desert sands of Egypt.

The concept of a French invasion of Egypt first arose in 1671, when German philosopher Leibniz approached Louis XIV with a detailed plan for conquest. Though the Sun King had rejected Leibniz’s proposal, saying that “since the days of St Louis, such expeditions have gone out of fashion”, the seed had been sown. Napoleon first came across this notion when contemplating alternatives to an invasion of Britain. Whilst commanding l’armée de l’Angleterre based at Brest, he concluded that an invasion across the Channel would be hazardous without naval supremacy. In order to try and overcome the Royal Navy, Napoleon suggested to the Directory that they undertake an eastern expedition, to both menace British trade with India and the East Indies and deal a blow to British influence in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Directory gave Napoleon carte blanche for a full-scale invasion of Egypt. It was in the Directors’ interest for Napoleon to campaign in a distant land: if he succeeded France would be strengthened, if he failed his reputation would be suitably tarnished to blemish his political ambitions. Napoleon’s primary aim was not only to damage British trade in the area, but also to stretch the Royal Navy by forcing it to protect the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean simultaneously. Yet his ultimate goal (or fantasy) can be gauged by his demand for English maps of Bengal and the Ganges. Napoleon would have far rather emulated Alexander than Charlemagne. Having gathered the Army of the Mediterranean at Toulon, Napoleon’s armada left on 19 May 1798. Consisting of 334 ships with a total of about 40,000 men, it was the largest invasion fleet the western world had seen – almost double the size of its predecessor the Spanish Armada. 

On route to Egypt, Napoleon and his fleet took Malta, which commanded the entrance to the Eastern Mediterranean. The Knights of Malta, an ancient crusading order, had ruled the island for over 250 years. But fearing a brutal sacking, they surrendered the island and its formidable fortress at Valetta. Napoleon disbanded the island’s medieval administration and established a revolutionary style government, abolishing slavery, feudalism and titles of nobility. On the rest of the journey, Napoleon’s armada had many close calls with their British counterparts, under Horatio Nelson. The fleets were only 20 miles apart during the night of the 22-23 June, but neither saw the other. Having received intelligence that Napoleon was headed towards Alexandria, Nelson pursued. Taking different routes, Nelson’s smaller fleet overtook Napoleon and eventually arrived in Alexandria on 28 June, but left on 29 June just as Napoleon arrived on 30 June. Next time Napoleon would not be so lucky.

The Egyptian expedition was remarkable for its unprecedented scientific and cultural aspects. For the trip to Alexandria, Napoleon took 125 books of history, geography, philosophy and other erudite studies, including the Bible, Koran and the Vedas. Napoleon intended that this would be an intellectual expedition, not merely a war of conquest. He took 167 savants (scholars and scientists) trained in engineering, astronomy, biology, topography, linguistics and many other academic disciplines. They were successful beyond anyone’s expectations, discovering the great temple at Luxor and the tomb networks at the Valley of the Kings. A vast number of antiquities were collected for the Louvre and later the British Museum, most famously the Rosetta stone. This would spur an Egyptomania which gripped Europe and America for the rest of the 19th Century.

On 1 July, Napoleon landed on the beach eight miles away from Alexandria, which he captured by storm the next morning with relative ease, losing only forty men. After overseeing the disembarkation of his army, Napoleon set up a press release in Arabic – the first of many. After a week, he set out on the 150 mile long desert march to Cairo. During the march, Napoleon first encountered the Mamelukes. 

Egypt had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire since 1517, but was now effectively, although not technically, an independent state under the Mamelukes. These were the descendants of the slave armies of Arab Caliphates, who had gradually gained power and eventually formed an aristocracy to rule Egypt. Mamelukes and Bedoin Arab tribesmen rode on the flanks of Napoleon’s army, ready to kill any French stragglers. In Egypt, the heat was excruciating and supplies ran low, and Marshal Berthier recalled that during the march water was so valuable for Napoleon’s men that it was worth its weight in gold. Morale suffered badly, but with stirring songs like La Marseillaise the army kept going. Finally they arrived within sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

When he approached Cairo, Napoleon’s scouts reported that the Mameluke army was entrenched before the city. On the morning of 21 July, Napoleon made his famous address declaring: “From the top of those Pyramids, forty centuries are looking down on you.” The story that Napoleon shot the nose off the Sphinx is nothing more than a myth; his respect for the ancients was far too great. The French forces numbered about 20,000 compared to 6,000 Mamelukes on horseback and 54,000 Arab irregulars. The Mameluke cavalry began the battle when they charged at the French, who had formed into five defensive division squares. These held strong, and eventually drove the Mamelukes back, trapping them between the Nile and French Forces. The Battle of the Pyramids was over in two hours. The French had lost 300 men, while the Mamelukes lost at least 3000 of their prized cavalry, and innumerable irregulars. After the battle, many French soldiers went searching for the bodies of fallen Mamelukes, as it was their custom to carry their life savings with them to battle.

Yet within ten days, the high of the military success of the Battle of the Pyramids was crushed with news of a devastating naval defeat at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson had been combing the eastern Mediterranean in search of the armada. On the morning of the 1 August, two of Nelson’s ships, sent ahead, appeared off Alexandria and spotted the French tricolours flying from the towers. Seeing much of the fleet’s crew was ashore gathering supplies, Nelson attempted an exceptionally daring attack. His fleet enveloped the anchored French ships with a bold move to try and fit between the French fleet and the shoreline. His gambit paid off and he pummelled the French vanguard from two sides. Only four of the seventeen French ships managed to escape. The strategic implications of this defeat were immense. Not only were the French left stranded in Egypt, but now Russia joined the Second Coalition against France. The Russians had already been outraged by Napoleon’s conquest of Malta, as Tsar Paul I had proclaimed himself the protector of the defeated Order, and now the British triumph at Aboukir Bay finally inspired them to action.

Meanwhile, Napoleon did what he could to win hearts and minds in Egypt. He made it clear that he would tolerate no disobedience, by burning rebellious towns, but his harshness was tempered with respect. At one point he discovered that the imams of Cairo and other towns were not intending to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday that year because of a lack of funds. Napoleon insisted that France would pay for everything – despite having lost much of his treasury at the Battle of the Nile. The celebrations lasted for three days and, at the final feast, Napoleon was declared a son-in-law of the Prophet with the name Ali-Bonaparte. In Egypt, Napoleon also toyed with converting to Islam, though had he done so he would have demanded an exemption to drink alcohol. During his time in Cairo, Napoleon inaugurated the Institut d’Égypte. It was located just outside of Cairo, in a former palace which was large enough to house the Institut’s library, laboratories, workshops, menagerie and halls for seminars. Napoleon declared himself vice-president of the Institut, which met every five days and covered everything from local geology and topography to studies of Egyptian flora and fauna.

On the night of 20 October, minarets across Cairo rang out with calls for an uprising against Napoleon in Egypt. Once Napoleon had put down this violent rebellion in Cairo, during which he had to put fifteen cannonballs into the Grand Mosque, he focused on the remaining Mameluke forces that had been routed at the Battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon decided to embark on what was called his Syrian Campaign because the pasha of Acre, Ahmed Jezzar, had supported the retreating Mamelukes and declared that he would liberate Egypt from the French. Napoleon told the Directory on the day he left Cairo that he also hoped to deny the Royal Navy the use of Levantine ports such as Acre, Haifa and Jaffa, raise the Lebanese and Syrian Christians in revolt against the Ottomans and potentially march on to Constantinople or India. Napoleon left for his second march across a desert on 10 February 1799. On the way, he took the fort of El-Arish and the city of Gaza. After defeating the former, he allowed the surviving troops to keep their weapons so long as they swore upon the Koran that “neither they nor their troops will ever serve in Jezzar’s army.” The next target on the route was the city of Jaffa. On 3 March, he lay siege to the well-defended city walls. Not long after, Napoleon wrote the governor of Jaffa a polite letter, advising him to surrender. The governor stupidly replied by displaying the head of Napoleon’s messenger on the walls. That evening, thousands of angry French soldiers breached the walls and looted the city. Sixty Frenchmen were killed; while the number of deceased defenders is unknown.

What happened next was one of the blackest marks on Napoleon’s incredible career. Many of the prisoners were taken down to the beach about a mile south of Jaffa and massacred. Some, though not all, had been the men who had given their word at El-Arish, and it was the custom in the Levant at that time to execute oath breakers. Contemporary sources estimate between 2,200 and 3,500 were killed. Higher figures exist but these come from politically motivated anti-Bonaparte sources. For the men from El-Arish, they had betrayed their word and would do it again; as for the rest, Napoleon might have felt the need to seem equally as ruthless as his enemy Ahmed Jezzar, who that year had had 400 Christians sewn into sacks and drowned. In an example of poetic justice, the French caught the plague of the inhabitants of Jaffa. This was the same bubonic plague that had ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Of all the diseases in Levant at that time, this was the worst, with a 92% mortality rate. Quarantine stations were implemented in places like monasteries and mosques. Napoleon, defying doctors’ advice, visited and comforted the ill and boosted morale. This was immortalized in 1804, with Antoine-Jean Gros’s painting of Napoleon visiting the sick. Incidents like this show clearly how Napoleon was able to relentlessly drive his troops to achieve what often seemed impossible.

Napoleon left Jaffa for Acre on 14 March and arrived five days later to set up a siege before the formidable walls of the city. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s ships carrying his artillery and equipment were captured by the British and most of it was then taken into Acre and turned against him, whilst two Royal Navy frigates aided the defence of the city. Napoleon began his assault by surrounding the city with fortifications and trenches, and over the next nine weeks launched no fewer than nine major and three minor attempts at taking Acre. All the while, Turkish reinforcements attempted to assist Acre, while denying Napoleon a battle. After weeks of this skirmishing, he finally came up against the bulk of the Ottoman force. The battle of Mount Tabor showed the efficiency of the French forces even against overwhelming numerical superiority. The original plan was for French General Kléber’s division to set out with 2,500 men at night and strike the Turkish and Mameluke army of 25,000 by surprise. However, this failed as Kléber did not cross the valley in time and his opponents saw him at dawn. Without the element of surprise and outnumbered ten to one, Kléber strategically formed two squares to defend against enemy cavalry. The French forces had been fighting for six hours when reinforcements under Napoleon arrived and outmanoeuvred the Turks and Mamelukes to trap them between both French divisions. The most incredible feat is that Kléber reported only having 2 fatalities compared to 6,000 Arab fatalities. The Ottoman army was left in the dust, and with it the Sultan’s dreams of swiftly retaking Egypt.

Napoleon returned to Acre and continued the siege for another month, in vain. The city received supplies from the British by sea, while the combination of Ottoman reinforcements and a resurgence in outbreaks of bubonic plague amongst the French divisions meant it was no longer feasible for Napoleon to take Acre. With a heavy heart, he began the return journey home. Napoleon had suffered the first significant reverse in his career and had to abandon any dreams of becoming another Alexander in Asia. On his retreat through Jaffa, Napoleon would be faced with a terrible dilemma regarding those infected with the plague. He had to choose what to do with those who were too ill to make the trip back to Cairo. Faced with the choice of either falling into the hands of the enemy and being tortured violently before being executed or being euthanised, many chose the latter. Napoleon defended these mercy-killings at Jaffa, saying his men had not: “hesitated to prefer dying a few hours sooner, than to expire under the tortures of those barbarians.”

Napoleon embarked on the final march through the desert back to Cairo. The thirst was terrible, the desert harsh and the heat excruciating, with temperatures reaching 47oC. Morale fell to new depths. Napoleon re-entered Cairo on 14 June with a miserable army, as around 4,000 men had been lost in the Syrian segment of Napoleon’s expedition. Napoleon’s final battle in Egypt saw him comfortably defeat an Ottoman invasion force of about 7,000 men just outside of Alexandria – bringing his expedition full circle back to where it started.

With all immediate threats to Egypt destroyed, Napoleon decided to return as soon as possible to France, so he could fight against the Second Coalition led by Britain, Austria and Russia. Traditionally, he has been accused of abandoning his army in Egypt, but it would have been absurd for France’s best general to remain abroad in the Orient whilst France was under threat of invasion. At the same time, he showed little remorse in leaving the quagmire. Napoleon returned to France on 9 October 1799, while the French army would valiantly fight on until 1801, when they were permitted by the British to return to France.

Napoleon’s odyssey to the Orient lasted almost a year and five months and, though it had been extremely successful, secured few lasting strategic gains. Ironically for a man whose life had been shaped by war, the greatest achievements of Napoleon in Egypt were not military or strategic, but instead intellectual, cultural and artistic. A young linguist named Jean-François Champollion had accompanied him and years later, using the Rosetta Stone, he would crack the code of hieroglyphics. In doing so, he shed light upon Egypt as a behemoth of the ancient world, and began unmasking three millennia of history previously lost. Napoleon’s footprint – left in the deserts of Egypt and Levant – may not be as visible as Alexander’s and Caesar’s, but he led to the discovery of far older traces in the sands.

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Strathern. P., 2008. Napoleon in Egypt. Vintage