Napoleon’s Expedition to Egypt Part I




Egypt proved a difficult province for the Ottomans to control. During the period of Ottoman rule in Egypt (1517-1805), it remained dominated by the Mamelukes (originally slaves from the Ottoman Empire) until it was conquered by the French in 1798. Egypt was divided into twenty-four districts. Each one had its own Mameluke bey (provincial governor), who received orders directly from a pasha named by the sultan in Constantinople each year. Besides the beys, the pasha had five cavalry and two infantry units under his direct orders. He was responsible for keeping order in the country and collecting taxes. The pasha had to pay tribute to the sultan in Constantinople, but over time the Mamelukes grew tired of this practice and decided to govern Egypt by themselves. After the death of Mohamed Bey in 1778, a ten-year war took place between the beys and their Ottoman overlords for control of Egypt. Eventually Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey emerged triumphant and ruled Egypt jointly. The last attempt of the Ottomans to maintain direct control of Egypt took place in 1786 with the dispatch of an expedition to the province. Murad Bey attempted to resist but was easily defeated, and together with Ibrahim Bey decided to settle in Upper Egypt. The Turkish commander entered Cairo and instituted violent measures to restore order in the country. Ismail Bey was made a sheikh again, and a new pasha was installed as governor. In 1791 an epidemic broke out in Egypt, Ismail Bey becoming one of its victims. Owing to the need for competent rulers, Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey were reinstalled in order to resume their dual government. They were still in office in 1798 when Bonaparte conquered Egypt.

After the French invasion, the Ottoman army remained in Egypt, hoping to continue in power and to replace Mameluke rule after the expulsion of the occupiers. The Ottomans appointed Khusraw Pasha as viceroy. An internal struggle for power between the two parties (the Ottomans and the Mamelukes) took place in the absence of the French, and by 1803 a third party in Egyptian politics had come to the fore: the Albanian contingent of the Ottoman forces. From their ranks emerged Muhammad Ali, who had arrived in Egypt in 1801 to fight the French. Initially a junior commander, after two years he became a commandant, and by 1805 had become the Ottoman viceroy. By 1811 he exercised complete power in Egypt after having defeated the Mamelukes and their beys in Upper Egypt.



The French campaign in Egypt and Syria (now present-day Israel).

Following his victorious campaigns in Italy in 1796-1797, General Bonaparte had been assigned to command an invasion of England. An inspection of the invasion forces led him to conclude, however, that the French could not properly secure the English Channel, and so the descent had no chance of success. Bonaparte reported his findings to the Directory and looked for other methods of attacking British interests. He soon proposed a grand project of invading Egypt, establishing a French base there and proceeding overland to India, where, in conjunction with the Sultan of Mysore, they would attack British possessions.

The idea of conquering Egypt and the Levant had been circulating in French strategic thinking since the time of Louis XIV. These Ottoman provinces, actually controlled by the Mamelukes, appeared easy to take. Bonaparte, with the help of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the foreign minister, persuaded the Directory to cancel the planned invasion of England and let him lead an army into Egypt. The Directory seized upon the Egyptian expedition partly as a way to remove Bonaparte, an extremely popular general, from France. Finally, owing to the embellishments of contemporary travel writers, Egypt had acquired a certain mystical allure that appealed to Bonaparte. In April 1798 the (French) Army of England was officially renamed the Army of the Orient, with Bonaparte appointed as its commander in chief.

With remarkable speed and secrecy, Bonaparte threw himself into the preparations for the expedition. The entire Army of Egypt was ready to depart in two and a half months. Bonaparte had at his disposal a force of some 35,000 men, the majority of them veteran soldiers of the (French) Army of Italy. The fleet gathered to transport the army was equally large: some 10,000 sailors on 400 ships, including 13 ships of the line under the command of Admiral François Paul, comte de Brueys. Several ports of embarkation- Toulon, Marseilles, Genoa, Ajaccio, and Civita Vecchia-were to be employed for such an enormous operation. A unique feature of this campaign was the large contingent of savants, whom Bonaparte invited to accompany the expedition. Among these scientists were famous French mathematician Gaspard Monge, chemists Jacques Conte and Claude Berthollet, and Mathieu de Lesseps, who would later tell his son Ferdinand about Bonaparte’s project of building a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

French activity at Toulon had caught the attention of the British, whose naval squadron under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson was deployed in the western Mediterranean. It was a stroke of luck for the French that a strong gale had scattered and damaged the British ships in mid- May. By the time they recovered, the French had already departed for Egypt on 19 May. Bonaparte’s first objective was Malta, a strategically located island just south of Sicily that was essential for the French presence in the Mediterranean.

Bonaparte arrived at Malta on 9 June and secured the island without facing resistance from the Knights of St. John, who had ruled the island since 1530. Bonaparte reorganized the local government, turned the holdings of the Knights into national lands, abolished slavery and all remnants of feudalism, and established new education and taxation systems; the French also seized the enormous treasury of the Knights, which helped to pay for the costs of the expedition. After resting his troops, Bonaparte sailed for Alexandria on 18 June, narrowly missing interception by Nelson’s pursuing ships on the night of 22-23 June. On 1 July, after six weeks at sea, the Army of the Orient arrived off the Egyptian coast and began disembarking a few miles west of Alexandria.

By the late eighteenth century, Egypt had been ruled by the Mamelukes for more than 500 years. They were a warrior caste created from non-Muslim boys who had been kidnapped at an early age, sold at slave markets, converted to Islam, and trained as mounted warriors. The Mamelukes rose to power after overthrowing the Ayyubid dynasty in 1250 and, over the next five centuries, two dynasties ruled Egypt: the Bahriyya
(Bahri) Mamelukes (1250-1382), mostly of Turkish origin, and Burji (Burgite) Mamelukes (1382-1517, though they retained a great deal of influence until 1811), mostly Georgians and Circassians.

Although nominal vassals of the Ottoman Empire after 1517, the Mamelukes took advantage of the Ottoman decline in the mid-eighteenth century. After 1769 they achieved a considerable degree of autonomy under the leadership of the provincial governor Ali Bey. Actual power rested with the divan, a council of seven Mameluke beys (governors), which had the power to veto decisions of the Turkish pasha. Executive (and real) power rested in the hands of two Mameluke beys, the Amir al-Bilad (commander of the land), who was responsible for civil order and police powers, and the Amir al-Hajj (commander of the pilgrimage to Mecca), who acted as a political and military counterweight to the Amir al-Bilad. At the time of the French invasion, the Amir al-Bilad was Murad Bey and the Amir al-Hajj was Ibrahim Bey, both from Georgia.


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