Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of the Pyramids (1798)

Napoleon's ill-fated Middle Eastern campaign gets off to a very promising start.

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Before we get started please let me put in a plug for the wonderful “Age of Napoleon” podcast. If you’re interested in history, and especially the Napoleonic period, it is well worth your time. It’s one of the few history podcasts out there that I would liken to reading a very well done scholarly work, or taking a high quality university course, on its subject. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been on it a couple of times.

It is Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt to which we’re turning today, and specifically to one of the two major battles of that invasion, the July 21, 1798, Battle of the Pyramids. Here Napoleon’s forces almost annihilated a Mamluk army trying to defend Egypt and suddenly made France the new military power in the Middle East. That lasted for about a week and a half before the Battle of the Nile made Napoleon’s position in Egypt untenable. But one thing at a time.

I assume most of you are familiar with Napoleon and the French Revolutionary milieu whence he emerged, and if you’re not you should definitely check out Age of Napoleon because we’re not going to cover all that stuff here. Suffice to say that by 1798 Napoleon was already a pretty big deal, though it would be over a year before he toppled the Directorate and became First Consul/dictator. After a successful campaign in Italy that featured the end of the Republic of Venice after 1100 years of independence, Napoleon helped the Directorate purge itself of royalists in the Coup of 18 Fructidor and solidified his position as a major military and political figure in France. As it was clear France and Britain were going to keep fighting unless one side struck a decisive blow against the other, Napoleon then began planning an invasion of Britain.

It is probably a testament to Napoleon’s military genius that he realized after a short time that France wasn’t ready to invade Britain because the disparity in naval power between the two nations was simply too great. I mean, I guess we’ll never really know if France could’ve pulled it off anyway, but it seems unlikely. And the disparity in naval power really was pretty great. That disparity certainly wound up quashing Napoleon’s dreams of a Middle Eastern empire, but again we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In lieu of an immediate invasion, then, Napoleon started looking around for ways to bleed Britain and weaken its empire first. He set upon a plan to invade and colonize Egypt, an idea that had been kicking around Paris since before the revolution and was resurrected by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (yes, that Talleyrand) during his successful 1796-1797 campaign to become the Directorate’s foreign minister. Napoleon had long been a fan of the idea of conquering Egypt, and he returned to it independently of Talleyrand, but his renewed interest coincided with the latter’s rise to prominence.

Why Egypt? Location, location, location. Control of Egypt would give French ships a stronger position in the Mediterranean. They could use that position to expand and protect their commercial activity and, more importantly, to harass British commercial activity. And of course, as the name “Middle East” implies, Egypt sat right in the middle of the British Empire. An imperial power that controlled Egypt could weaken London’s grip on its most important colony, India. In Napoleon’s case, control of Egypt would enable France to establish regular contact with the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India, which was holding out against Britain and had already formed some diplomatic and military ties with Paris.

Also the usual mercantile colonial considerations applied—especially since Napoleon believed that France needed its own colonial empire, which at the time it didn’t really have, to compete with Britain. And, last but not least, we can’t discount Napoleon’s dreams of building his own empire to rival that of Alexander the Great. Alexander had conquered Egypt before marching east, so Napoleon decided to follow in his footsteps.

The cherry on top of the sundae from Napoleon’s perspective is that Egypt was ripe for the taking in the late 18th century. While it was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire and had been since the Ottomans conquered it from the Mamluks in their 1516-1517 war, Egypt by this time was a more or less autonomous entity that was once more under Mamluk control. The Ottomans never really tried to break apart or even significantly change the structure of Mamluk Egyptian society—they just put an Ottoman governor at the top of the hierarchy. Since the Mamluks retained most of the other positions of prominence in Egypt as well as most of the same economic perks they’d had when they were ruling the place, they quickly reestablished their power and influence and by the end of the 17th century Mamluk leaders were more powerful in practical terms than the Ottoman governors.

But here’s the thing: nobody in Egypt really liked the Mamluks very much except for the Mamluks themselves, and they didn’t really much like each other. The nature of the Mamluk system meant they were constantly organizing themselves into violent cliques that fought one another, often messily, in the streets of Cairo and sometimes beyond as they jockeyed for power. Egyptians had been tiring of this whole thing in 1517, when the Ottomans took over, so they were surely tired of it by the 1790s, and if anything the Mamluks were more exploitative, more arbitrary, more violent under the fig leaf of Ottoman control than they’d been back when they were really responsible for running the place. At least then Mamluk sultans had sometimes been able to exert some semblance of control. Now, with the Ottoman governorship reduced to an afterthought, those cliques mostly ran roughshod over Egypt and its people.

So Napoleon had some reason to think that his soldiers would be greeted as liberators. This worked out about as well for him as it did for George W. Bush. Padding out the justification for his invasion even further, he claimed that his invasion was meant to break the power of the Mamluks and restore Ottoman authority in Egypt. This was transparently bullshit, but Napoleon did have designs on negotiating an alliance with the Ottomans once his conquests in the Middle East were concluded. That didn’t pay off either, but again that’s a story for another time. It’s unclear how much of this grandiose vision the Directorate shared, but if nothing else there were several members of the Directorate who were happy to be rid of the overly ambitious Napoleon, so they probably would’ve approved just about any foreign excursion the good general had in mind.

Napoleon assembled an army of around 40,000 men and a fleet of around 10,000 sailors, along with a group of scientists, engineers, and other important intellectual types, put them on hundreds of ships, and set sail from Toulon in late May 1798. Their first stop was Malta, to pick up supplies for the rest of the journey to Alexandria. When Maltese officials gave Napoleon a bit of a run around in terms of the speed with which they could resupply his vessels, Napoleon simply conquered Malta on June 11. That’s one way to get around a problem. The fleet subsequently arrived in Alexandria on July 1.

Before we get to the battle, we should say a word about the immediate effect that the French presence had on Egypt. Napoleon brought with him two things that would change Egypt and the Middle East forever: the printing press and French scholars. The former wasn’t much help to Napoleon, but it would drive massive changes in the Arabic-speaking world and throughout the Ottoman Empire in the decades to come. There were printing presses in the Ottoman Empire, but they were in Constantinople, and were nowhere near as efficient as the ones (one Arabic, one French, and one Greek) that Napoleon brought with him, which were the first printing presses that Egypt had ever encountered. They printed Arabic script well enough, and fast enough, to overcome many of the technical problems and cultural concerns that had limited Arabic printing in the past.

Napoleon mostly used his Arabic press to print up pamphlets that declared to the Egyptian people that the French army was here to free them from the Mamluk yoke and restore true Ottoman control. They further explained that Napoleon was actually a huge fan of this whole Islam thing, and Muhammad was definitely somebody whose work was being recognized more and more. Let’s Make Egypt Great Again, and so forth. But there were a couple of problems here. The first was that Napoleon had his pamphlets translated into “Arabic” by a French scholar named Jean Michel de Venture de Paradis, who used Maltese aides to help him. The Maltese language descended from Sicilian Arabic and does show some Egyptian Arabic influence, but it is definitely not Egyptian Arabic, and so the translations these aides produced had a very high gibberish-to-coherent-text ratio. The second problem was that Napoleon didn’t actually care at all about Islam. His private secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, later wrote:

I confess that Bonaparte frequently conversed with the chiefs of the Mussulman religion on the subject of his conversion; but only for the sake of amusement. The priests of the Koran, who would probably have been delighted to convert us, offered us the most ample concessions. But these conversations were merely started by way of entertainment, and never could have warranted a supposition of their leading to any serious result. If Bonaparte spoke as a Mussulman, it was merely in his character of a military and political chief in a Mussulman country. To do so was essential to his success, to the safety of his army, and, consequently, to his glory. In every country he would have drawn up proclamations and delivered addresses on the same principle. In India he would have been for Ali, at Thibet for the Dalai-lama, and in China for Confucius.

But as I say, regardless of whether or not it helped Napoleon the introduction of the printing press to the Arab Middle East was an important development.

As for the scholars, well, you know how Egyptology is a big thing these days? You largely have Napoleon to thank for it. The smart people he brought with him, who were officially there to help draw up plans for a canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas (an idea that later became the Suez Canal), were really there to spread French Enlightenment thinking (as Alexander’s army had brought Greek philosophy with it) and to study Egyptian antiquity. It was a French army engineer, Pierre-François Bouchard, who discovered the Rosetta Stone, one of the most important archeological finds in history, in 1799 while on this campaign. So indirectly, Napoleon is the reason why people can read Egyptian hieroglyphs today.

Napoleon’s forces disembarked in Alexandria and he sent most of the fleet to anchor in Abu Qir Bay, near the Nile Delta, amid reports that the British navy was already nearby. He then led his forces along the coast east toward Cairo. On July 13 they encountered a relatively small Mamluk force led by Murad Bey, who was Amir al-Hajj at the time. Technically this position, “commander of the Hajj,” gave the holder the responsibility for organizing the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, but in practice the Amir al-Hajj was one of the two dominant Mamluk chieftains of Egypt. Napoleon defeated this Mamluk force at the Battle of Shubra Khit, the Mamluks being completely confounded by Napoleon’s use of the infantry squares tactic and completely overwhelmed by French firepower.

The French army continued its march, turning south to follow the west bank of the Nile to Cairo. Murad Bey and the remnants of his force regrouped added some additional forces. The two armies, which were probably of roughly equal size at around 25,000 men apiece, met on July 21 at Imbaba, around four miles outside of Cairo. We’re told that Napoleon rallied his army before the battle by saying something like “from the heights of those pyramids, 40 centuries of history look down upon you.” Stirring stuff. The problem is, it turns out that Napoleon probably couldn’t have seen the pyramids from where his army was, so it’s unlikely he actually said that. Nevertheless he did dub the battle the “Battle of the Pyramids,” presumably because it sounded cooler than the “Battle of Imbaba.”

The rallying worked. Well, maybe it would be more accurate to say that Napoleon’s tactics worked. He employed infantry squares again, based on the success he’d had with that formation at Shubra Khit. During the battle Ibrahim Bey, who held the office of Sheikh al-Balad (“leader of the city”, the higher of the two senior Mamluk offices), sat with another army on the eastern bank of the Nile, helpless to do anything while the French army cut Murad Bey’s force to shreds with their gunfire. The Mamluks lost thousands of men to only 29 killed on the French side. Murad Bey escaped and with most of his remaining forces headed south into Upper Egypt, where he began a guerrilla campaign against the French. Ibrahim Bey didn’t even try to put up a fight, instead taking his forces off toward Sinai and beyond. Cairo surrendered to Napoleon on July 22 and he moved into the city a couple of days later.

The Battle of the Pyramids by 18th-19th century French painter François-Louis-Joseph Watteau. Note that they did not actually fight this close to the pyramids. (Wikimedia Commons)

This was in many ways the high water mark of Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure. Those reports that the British fleet was hanging around proved to be right, and in early August they found the French fleet at Abu Qir and destroyed it. Although Napoleon continued his campaign and only finally quit and snuck back to France in August 1799, it seems pretty clear in hindsight that the loss of the fleet spelled the beginning of the expedition’s end. Nevertheless, despite only spending a relatively short time in the region Napoleon left an outsized impact. In Egypt, for example, Napoleon’s defeat of the Mamluks did open the door for a restoration of Ottoman control (though only after he’d left), but that restoration quickly turned into the establishment of the Khedivate of Egypt under an Albanian viceroy named Muhammad Ali (d. 1848). His dynasty would rule Egypt until the 1952 Free Officers coup.

Napoleon’s impact on the wider Middle East was just as profound. His easy victories over Muslim armies showed that Europe had far surpassed the Islamic world in technology, tactics, education, and a host of other areas. These were lessons that the Ottomans up north in Constantinople had already learned all too well, but Napoleon’s invasion definitely reinforced the message. The introduction of the printing press, at the risk of repeating myself, was a very important development. And the French brought with them revolutionary ideas about liberty, equality, nationalism, that weren’t necessarily alien to the region but nevertheless percolated a bit more rapidly after Napoleon’s arrival. It’s for these reasons that most historians of the Middle East place the start of the region’s “modern period” at or around the time of Napoleon’s invasion.