Napoleonic Conquest of Egypt

Napoleonic Conquest of Egypt
Napoleonic Conquest of Egypt

Napoleon I’s 1798 expedition to Egypt aimed to increase French imperial holdings and to prevent British overland communications with Asia. The Directory agreed to the mission because the conquest of Egypt would be a victory for France, while Napoleon’s possible defeat would prevent him from further meddling in French politics.

Consequently, a large armed force led by Napoleon set sail for Egypt in the spring of 1798 and took Malta on the way. The English navy under Nelson gave chase but failed to capture the French fleet. The French landed in Egypt in July; in spite of the summer heat, Napoleon had his troops immediately march toward Cairo, where they defeated the local Mamluk forces at the Battle of the Pyramids.

Styling himself as a “friend of Islam and Egypt,” Napoleon entered Cairo to establish French control. He established a local diwan, or council, with a few elite Egyptian members to act in a purely advisory capacity. Napoleon had also brought along a number of savants, or French scholars, to provide assistance to the occupation and to collect as much information as possible on all aspects of Egypt.

However, rather than have it cruise in the open sea, Napoleon had instructed the French navy to lay anchor outside Alexandria, where it was soundly defeated by the English at Battle of Aboukir Bay. This left Napoleon’s troops at a distinct disadvantage in terms of reinforcements and supplies. They also faced a major insurrection in Cairo in the fall.

The insurrection took the French by surprise and threatened their occupation of the city; however, within days the French had successfully crushed the rebellion.

Seemingly undaunted by these setbacks, Napoleon continued his plans for the conquest of Greater Syria in 1799. He easily took the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, and Jaffa, but stalled in northern Palestine at Acre. The city was staunchly defended by Jazzar Pasha and the French troops were ill with malaria and other diseases brought on by the summer heat and lack of clean water and other provisions.

With the loss of military momentum and hearing of troubles back in Paris, Napoleon abandoned his troops, most of whom died on the battlefield or on the retreat back to Egypt. Escaping capture by the British navy, Napoleon returned to France as a military hero and following a coup d’état became first consul of the French government.

General Kléber replaced Napoleon as commander in chief and under the Convention of El-Arish with the English in 1800, the French agreed to evacuate Egypt as soon as possible. But Kléber was assassinated in the summer of 1800 by an Egyptian nationalist, Sulayman al-Halaby, who was then executed for the crime.

General Menou, who had married an Egyptian woman, then took command, but he was highly unpopular with French troops. Menou then entered into protracted negotiations with the English regarding the terms of the French withdrawal.

Negotiations dragged on as the two sides argued over possession of the many antiquities that the savants had taken from Egypt. Ultimately almost of these artifacts, including the famous Rosetta Stone, were taken by the British and placed in the British Museum in London, where they remain today. The French troops and the savants returned to France by 1801.

In 1801 the English temporarily occupied Egypt. At the time, they saw Egypt only as a way station for their more important holdings in the Indian subcontinent. Under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 the British withdrew from Egypt. The Ottoman sultan promptly sent a new contingent of Janissary troops to reestablish his sovereignty over Egypt, but for a short period the Mamluks continued to remain an important political force as well.

Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition had long-lasting effects in Europe. Largely owing to the popular publications by the savants, European society became acquainted with ancient Egyptian history and a new field, Egyptology, or the study of ancient Egypt, developed. Europeans added Egypt to their itineraries for the Grand Tour, and a new tourist industry, including package tours, developed in Egypt.

The expedition also increased the awareness of European governments regarding the geostrategic importance of Egypt and the region, thereby contributing to western imperial designs for control of the area. Although Napoleon’s expedition influenced a very small number of urban Egyptians, the modernization of Egypt began several decades later under the rule of Muhammad Ali.