Napoleon’s Egyptian Odyssey: Two Centuries Later

Napoleon’s Egyptian Odyssey: Two Centuries Later
Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, age 51, in a small, rat-infested house in St. Helena, a forlorn island in the middle of Atlantic Ocean. His death bicentenary was commemorated recently in numerous articles and commentaries that reexamined his legacy, character, and accomplishments. Various institutions in France have proclaimed  the year 2021 as the Year of Napoleon, and a grand exposition about him is scheduled to open this spring in Paris. Yet, he remains a highly contentious figure, and even the French feel conflicted about him and his impact on world history.

There are good reasons for this ambivalence. Napoleon has been described variously as one of the most brilliant and gifted military leaders, a secular ruler who promoted equality of all people in the eyes of law, established the Bank of France, framed the modern legal code and initiated an education system still in use in France and elsewhere. However, to his detractors he was an evil genius who kept Europe in turmoil for decades, needlessly invading and ravaging other countries, and was responsible for countless deaths.

Mohammad Dervish Khan, the ambassador of Tipu Sultan to France

One of the historic events in his early career was the French invasion of Egypt, the consequences of which reverberated across the centuries. Napoleon had been fascinated by Egypt since his childhood. Besides, in France, many were enamored of the idea that colonization of Egypt would compensate for the loss of French colonies in North America. England and France had been at logger heads in Europe and their rivalry extended to India where they were competing for supremacy. The East India Company had gained an upper hand, but Tipu Sultan of Mysore (1750-1799) was in the way of British takeover of the country.
Napoleon wrote, “Having occupied and fortified Egypt, we shall send a force of 15,000 men from Suez to India, to join the forces of Tipu Saheb and drive away the English”

The Sultan, realizing that he lacked the power to defeat the English, sought help from foreign countries, including the Ottoman Empire and France. In 1787, he sent an embassy to Paris to the court of the King Louis XVI, the last French king, seeking an alliance; however, before anything could materialize, the monarchy was overthrown in 1789 by the French revolution. When Napoleon gained ascendancy in the ruling hierarchy, contacts were revived with him.

Napoleon and French savants examine a mummy

Napoleon conceived a grand plan to colonize parts of Middle East and ultimately reach India and drive the English out. To persuade the Directors to agree, who would have preferred an invasion of England instead, he wrote, “Having occupied and fortified Egypt, we shall send a force of 15,000 men from Suez to India, to join the forces of Tipu-Saheb and drive away the English.” Resistance from the Directory faded. By the time Tipu’s  delegation arrived at Paris in April 1798, Napoleon was ready to embark on the Egyptian campaign with an army of 38,000 highly experienced soldiers, 16,000 sailors, and a 194-ship armada.

In addition to assembling a fine fighting machine, Napoleon made an exceedingly unusual move.  He recruited a consortium of France’s best intellectuals and scientists, a group comprising 150 mathematicians, physicists, geographers, astronomers, doctors, chemists, botanists, representing the entire spectrum of known sciences, equipped with a library of 300 volumes. They agreed to join him on the premise that they would have unparalleled  new research opportunities. However, no one was told the exact destination of the mission.

'Napoleon in Cairo' by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Egypt had been a semi-autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire since Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamluk Sultan Tuman Bey in 1517. From then on, Turkish Pashas had ruled Egypt, with varying degrees of autonomy. However, at the time of the French invasion nearly three centuries later, Egypt was again ruled by the Mamluks, with only nominal affiliation with the Ottoman Empire. Mamluks were originally slave soldiers, who had accumulated great power and had become rulers. They were fierce fighters and were the only Muslim power who had routed the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260, shattering the myth of Mongol invincibility. However, in the three centuries since, they had not learnt any new war tactics or the use of modern weapons.
He told an assembly of Ulema that “The French are also faithful Muslims. The truth is that they invaded Rome and have destroyed the throne of the Pope, who always incited the Christians to make war on the Muslims”

On May 19, 1798, Napoleon’s flotilla set sail for the Egyptian port of Alexandria. They successfully eluded the naval fleet of British Admiral Nelson, who had been looking for them in the Mediterranean Sea. The French arrived at Alexandria on July 1, surprised the defenders at night and after a brutal combat were able to overwhelm the defenders.

From there, Napoleon’s army marched through the pitiless desert in scorching heat toward Cairo, the ultimate prize. Many soldiers died of thirst and exhaustion. On July 21, they sighted the formidable Mamluk cavalry “attired in gleaming gold and silver and armed with carbines, pistols and sabers.” The pyramids were clearly visible from where Napoleon’s army was arrayed. Before the battle, Napoleon exhorted in a speech that has become a classic; “Forty centuries of history was gazing down on them from top of pyramids.” The Mamluks  fought bravely under Murad Bey, but were ill-equipped, ill-prepared and centuries behind in the battle technique. The outcome was a forgone conclusion. It was a massacre.

At age 29, Napoleon became the ruler of Egypt, styling himself as a Turkish Pasha, and liked to be titled as Sultan Kebir. To placate the local population, he declared his respect for Islam and his belief in the oneness of Allah. He told an assembly of Ulema that “The French are also faithful Muslims. The truth is that they invaded Rome and have destroyed the throne of the Pope, who always incited the Christians to make war on the Muslims.” On the Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday,  he organized a big celebration. In August 1798, he founded the Institut d’ Egypte, where French savants were housed.

While Napoleon was enjoying a luxurious life in Cairo, disaster struck. On August 1, 1798, British Admiral Nelson’s naval forces located and destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of Nile, blocking the return of the army to France. Besides, insurrections against the French erupted in Cairo. Napoleon, regardless, pushed ahead with his plan, with an attack on Syria and present-day Israel. The deteriorating situation in France, forced him to stealthily return to Paris in 1799, leaving his forces stranded behind.

The French occupation of Egypt was short-lived (two years); however, it had two enduring effects. First, it brought home to the Muslim world their backward status in science and technology, compared to Europe. Second, the team of scientists Napoleon had brought performed remarkable scientific work. Their findings were compiled into twenty-three volumes of the Encyclopedia of Egypt, which meticulously documented details about Egypt, spanning the ruins of the pyramids to the entomology of native insects and plants. Importantly, it opened a new vista of knowledge to the Europeans which they never had before.