French victory in Egypt that ended Mameluke control of the country and allowed General Napoleon Bonaparte to take Cairo. Disembarking at Marabout Bay (1 July 1798), Bonaparte quickly took Alexandria (2 July) before striking toward Cairo the next day. General Louis Desaix made a demoralizing march across the desert, reaching Damanhour on 6 July, where fresh water was found.
On 13 July the first clash between the French and the Mamelukes occurred at Shubra Khit. Apart from minor attacks against the French divisions formed in squares to protect them from the Mameluke cavalry, the fighting was largely confined to action between the rival armies’ flotillas on the Nile.
Having gauged the strength of the French army, the Mamelukes decided to offer battle in front of Cairo on the left bank of the Nile. Murad Bey supplemented his 6,000 cavalry with an entrenched line of 40 guns in front of the village of Embabeh, covered by gunboats on the river. On the right bank of the Nile, lbrahim Bey’s fellahin (peasant levies) comprised at least 18,000 men. Against this, Bonaparte had 25,000 men in five divisions. Realizing the Mamelukes’ superiority in cavalry, Napoleon formed each division into a single square, with the cavalry and baggage train protected inside and with artillery strengthening the angles of each square.
Around 4:00 P.M. on 21 July the Mameluke cavalry, elaborately dressed and armed in medieval fashion with lances, jeweled scimitars, and archaic pistols, charged the squares of Desaix and Jean Reynier on the French right. Although surprised by the swiftness of the attack, the French squares opened up on the horsemen with heavy fire. On the left, the French formed a column and made a frontal attack against Murad Bey’s artillery. On the right, Desaix and Reynier’s divisions began to advance and outflank Embabeh, cutting off the defenders’ line of retreat. After two hours of combat, the French troops converged on the entrenchments and drove the remaining defenders into the Nile, where many were drowned. Leaving several thousand casualties on the field against just 300 French losses,Murad Bey made his escape in the direction of Giza, pursued by Desaix. Ibrahim Bey, whose troops took no part in the battle, also fled, this time toward the Syrian frontier, leaving Cairo open.
Bonaparte entered Cairo on 24 July and took control of the city. However spectacular the Battle of the Pyramids might have appeared, it was eclipsed by the disaster that befell the French fleet on 1 August in Aboukir Bay at the Battle of the Nile. Although Bonaparte had seized the Egyptian capital, he was now cut off from France, with two renegade Mameluke warlords still at large. Although the French had unquestionably proved the superiority of European tactics in set battle, they would now have to adapt to meet unpredictable guerrilla tactics and bouts of civil unrest.
References and further reading
Berthier, Alexandre. 1827. Campagne d’Egypte. 1re partie,Mémoires du maréchal Berthier. Paris: Baudoin.
Chandler, David G. 1995. The Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Crowdy, Terry. 2003. French Soldier in Egypt. Oxford: Osprey.
Herold, J. Christopher. 2005. Bonaparte in Egypt. London: Leo Cooper.
Moiret, Captain Joseph-Marie. 2001. Memoirs of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, 1798–1801. Trans. Rosemary Brindle. London: Greenhill.