Napoleon’s Expedition to Egypt Part II




The French army landed at Alexandria on 2 July 1798 and easily overwhelmed the Mameluke cavalry, which was still essentially a medieval fighting force. After capturing Alexandria, Bonaparte engaged the Mamelukes under Murad Bey at Shubra Khit on 13 July and then routed the main Mameluke army in the famous Battle of the Pyramids near the village of Embabeh, just across the Nile River from Cairo, on 21 July. Bonaparte entered Cairo on the twenty-fourth and dispatched General Louis Desaix to pursue the Mamelukes, who had fled into Upper Egypt.

However, the French successes on land were countered by a decisive British triumph at sea. On 1 August, Nelson located the French fleet anchored in line in the shallows of Aboukir Bay near Alexandria. In the ensuing engagement, known as the Battle of the Nile, eleven French ships of the line and most of the frigates were captured or sunk; the French army was stranded in Egypt and the British fleet had thus reasserted its control of the Mediterranean.

Notwithstanding his predicament, Bonaparte set about reorganizing Egyptian society; he revolutionized Egyptian institutions, introducing French-style administrative and judicial systems. Among his many reforms, he abolished feudalism and serfdom and proclaimed freedom of religion and equality before the law. Of great importance was the establishment of the Institute of Egypt in Cairo, which both propagated European culture and ideas in the East and undertoook research in Egyptian culture and history, vastly expanding European knowledge of the East. Bonaparte also discussed with Muslim clerics the possibility of converting his army to Islam, but this and other efforts to garner popular support failed to achieve their goal.

Following the Battle of the Nile, Bonaparte found himself in a perilous situation. Although he had defeated the Mamelukes, he had not destroyed them; Ibrahim Bey had withdrawn across the Sinai Peninsula to Palestine, while Murad Bey had retreated southward to Upper Egypt, where he tied down French troops under Desaix. On 9 September the Ottoman Empire declared war on France and began preparing two large armies for the invasion of Egypt. The French also had trouble controlling Cairo, where a revolt against the occupation broke out on 21 October but was brutally suppressed, with approximately 300 French killed and 2,000 Egyptians. In this precarious situation, Bonaparte made a new plan: To defeat the Turks, and force the sultan to make peace and assist him in his march to India, he decided to march on Acre (at the time in the Ottoman province of Syria, now in Israel), where the Turks were raising an army under Djezzar Pasha. He even wrote a letter to Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam in India offering to cooperate against the British.

In late 1798 Bonaparte organized an expeditionary force for the invasion of Syria (not to be confused with modern Syria, which is now farther north), and left Cairo on 10 February 1799. On the twentieth he seized El Arish, where he captured several hundred Turks and Mamelukes, who were later freed on parole. As he continued his advance, Bonaparte entered Gaza on 25 February and stormed Jaffa on 7 March. There followed one of the most repugnant incidents in Bonaparte’s career. At Jaffa some 2,500 Turks, many of them former prisoners from El Arish, surrendered on the understanding that their lives would be spared. Bonaparte, believing he could spare neither troops to escort the prisoners to Egypt nor rations to feed them, ordered the massacre of the captives.

While in Jaffa many French troops had contracted bubonic plague, and Bonaparte visited the plague hospital on 11 March, an incident later commemorated in Gros’s famous painting. On 17 March Bonaparte reached Haifa and began besieging the stronghold of Acre just across the bay. The odds were against the French, who lacked heavy artillery and many of whom suffered from the plague. A British squadron under Commodore Sir Sidney Smith supported the Turkish garrison under Djezzar, while French émigré officers directed the Turkish artillery.

As the siege of Acre dragged on for weeks, the French faced another danger. The Turkish pasha of Damascus dispatched a large army to attack the French from the rear. Between 8 and 15 April the French defeated the Turkish detachments near Nazareth, Canaan, and on the Jordan River north of Lake Tiberias. On 16 April General Jean- Baptiste Kléber’s 2,000 men engaged a superior Turkish army of 25,000 men at Mount Tabor and resisted for 10 hours, until Bonaparte arrived with reinforcements to rout the Turks. During the next three weeks, the French made repeated assaults on Acre but were repulsed each time. In mid-May, Bonaparte finally decided to abandon the siege and return to Egypt.

The retreat began on 20 May, and the demoralized French forces reached Cairo on 14 June. One month later, another Turkish army of some 20,000 men arrived on the Egyptian coast. The Turks landed near Aboukir on 25 July but were routed by Bonaparte’s troops, who drove them into the sea.

Despite his victories, Bonaparte knew that there was little chance he could succeed on this doomed expedition. The British controlled the Mediterranean, preventing the Directory from sending any reinforcements to Egypt. Furthermore, Bonaparte soon learned from European newspapers (sent to him by Sidney Smith) that France was on the defensive against the Second Coalition and had lost virtually all of Italy. He became convinced that he should return to France to save the country. On 22 August with only the handful selected to accompany him, Bonaparte boarded a frigate and abandoned the army in Kléber’s hands. After an uneventful voyage of forty-seven days, he landed at St. Raphael in France on 9 October and was given a hero’s welcome by French citizens anxious for a turn in their country’s fortunes.

Back in Egypt, Kléber, feeling betrayed by Bonaparte, had to negotiate with the British and Turks and agreed to evacuate Egypt by the Convention of El Arish of 24 January 1800. However, after the French surrendered several key fortresses, the British vice admiral Viscount Keith, renounced the convention and the Turkish army seized Cairo. In response, Kléber destroyed Ottoman forces at Heliopolis on 29 March and recaptured Cairo; yet a Muslim zealot assassinated him on 14 June. Kléber was succeeded by General Jacques-François, baron Menou, who was both less capable and unpopular with the troops.

In early 1801 the British prepared an expeditionary force, under Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Abercromby, which landed successfully on the Egyptian coast on 8 March despite fierce French resistance. The British proceeded to inflict a serious blow on their opponents at Alexandria on 20-21 March. The two-day engagement claimed up to 3,000 French and 1,400 British casualties, including Abercromby himself. Their defeat left the French severely demoralized, and disagreements between Menou and his generals only exacerbated the situation. French troops were isolated from each other and confined to the major cities of Alexandria and Cairo. After months of resistance, General Auguste Belliard surrendered Cairo on 28 July; and Menou, defending Alexandria, followed suit on 2 September. By the terms of capitulation, the British promised to provide the French safe passage home; the survivors of Bonaparte’s expedition to the Middle East finally reached France in 1802.

Thus, militarily, the French expedition to Egypt proved to be a failure. Although the French won virtually all the battles, the campaign ultimately ended in disaster. Politically, the expedition was another example of the Directory’s aggressive foreign policy and facilitated the formation of the Second Coalition in late 1798. Bonaparte’s expedition not only highlighted how aggressive the French government had become; it directly threatened British interests in the region. Moreover, with Bonaparte out of Europe, the Allies could fight without the prospect of having to confront the best commander and the most experienced troops available to France. The expedition showcased Bonaparte’s military skills, and the victories at the Pyramids, Mount Tabor, and Aboukir added luster to his name. However, the campaign also revealed Bonaparte’s sinister character in the massacre of prisoners at Jaffa, the heavy-handed suppression of the uprising in Cairo, and finally his abandonment of the entire army in Egypt.

The campaign in the Middle East prepared the way for the modernization of Egypt. The Mameluke hold on Egypt was broken and, within a decade, Muhammed Ali Pasha would completely destroy them, laying the foundation for a modernized and strong Egypt that would play an important role in later Middle Eastern history.

Much more important were the lasting cultural and scientific effects of the expedition. The campaign led to a revival of Egyptian motifs in European decorative art styles and architecture. The Institute of Egypt gathered a wealth of documentation on the geography, natural history, contemporary culture, and antiquities of Egypt. The official product of this exploration was the masterful Description de l’Egypte, published between 1809 and 1828. With its fourteen large folio volumes of illustrations and ten volumes of text, it attained a new standard of publication and laid the foundation for modern Egyptology. Among the greatest discoveries was the famous Rosetta Stone, which the French scholar Jean-François Champollion used as a key for the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822.


A pause in the wars (the war against the First Coalition had drawn to an unstable close in 1797) gave the French some breathing space to establish a well-organized fighting force. At its core was a veteran army hardened by six years of campaigning. Under Jourdan’s 1798 Conscription Law, 200,000 men were called up over 1798-99, but the results were disappointing. Despite the introduction of a new standard uniform in 1798, and continued use of the Charleville musket, the Directory’s inability to feed and clothe its troops worsened during 1798; arrears of pay only accelerated the resultant desertions. The government realized that most of the army would have to be supported on foreign ground and paid from the financial spoils of war.

Napoleon would help to turn matters around. In 1797-98, Napoleon’s star had begun to rise in earnest. His Middle Eastern expedition brought some impressive early victories, and against the threatening backdrop of the war of the Second Coalition (1799- 1802) he took power in France in 1799. Now he could truly transform the French military along the lines he saw fit.

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