Why Napoleon insisted on conquering Egypt.

By Brahm Rusensweig

Historians aren't sure why Napoleon insisted on conquering Egypt.

The ostensible aims were to wrest control of the Indian Empire from the hands of the British.

Napoleon's own memoirs list the reason solely as "glory".

That Napoleon should commit 38,000 fighting men simply to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great seems quite plausible to today's historians.

At any rate, from a military point of view, Napoleon's Egyptian adventure was little more than a disaster.

When French land forces surrendered to the British on September 2, 1801, they had been cut off in Egypt for some three years.

This posed no problem for Napoleon, by this time he was already back in France, had crowned himself Emperor, and was trumpeting the triumph of his Egyptian campaign to an enthralled French public.

News in 1798 that Napoleon was massing a huge force in the Mediterranean port of Toulon sent shivers through Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Candidates for invasion included England, Spain Portugal, Sicily, and even Brazil.

However, Bonaparte's secret objective was to raise the French flag over the Pyramids of Egypt. "We must go to the Orient," he was reputed to have said. "All great glory resides there."

In July 1798, after a rough six-week trip, nearly 400 transport ships landed some 34,000 troops near Alexandria.

Along with the soldiers came nearly 1,000 civilians, who were to have a more lasting effect on history. These consisted mainly of administrators, but also included artists and poets, botanists and zoologists, surveyors and economists.

It was they who were to return to France triumphant, with enough information to swell the 22-volume Descriptions de L'Egypte, the authoritative tome on Egyptology for generations.

On July 21, 1798, Napoleon's army met the Mamelukes of Egypt 15 kilometres north of the Pyramids at Giza.

The Mamelukes (which means 'white slave' in Arabic) were a fearsome warrior caste, mostly of Georgian slave descent, who had ruled Egypt in the name of the distant Turkish sultan for seven centuries.

In a single day, the 29-year-old Corsican ended their rule forever.

Napoleon in Egypt

Napoleon's swift victory may have been due to the way he adapted to the rigours of warfare in the Near East.

He faced a highly developed cavalry with little of his own, but by organizing his infantry into hollow squares which faced four directions, he could repel a charge from any side. This combined with his artillery enabled Napoleon to resist the Mameluke attacks, though without his own cavalry he was unable to stop most of them from escaping to fight again.

Within a few days, victory would be followed by profound disaster.

At the Battle of the Nile, the ability of the French to realize Napoleon's Pharaonic ambitions would be fatally crippled.

The transport ships that had landed the French at Alexandria had sailed away again, but the line-of-battle ships that had accompanied them had stayed, and were lying off the Egyptian coast east of Alexandria at Aboukir Bay.

The French admiral Francois-Paul Brueys had arranged the ships in a long crescent close to the shore, believing that only one side of the line would be exposed to attack.

The British ships soon realized that, with their shallower draughts, they would be able to slip between the French ships and the shore.

They sandwiched the French, raking them with fire while the hapless defenders struggled frantically to move cannons to the vulnerable sides of their ships.

It was a decisive victory.

Only two of the French ships escaped, the rest either sunk or captured. Not a single British vessel was lost, and only 218 British were killed. The French losses were estimated at around 1,700 lives.

Historians (and Napoleon himself, in his memoirs) have long blamed Brueys for faulty strategy.

By anchoring his ship in a line, but neglecting a margin by which the enemy could slip by, he ensured defeat.

New historical evidence, however, suggests that Napoleon was also to blame. Brueys was forced to fight at anchor, say some historians, because his ships were undermanned.

Napoleon had taken hundreds of sailors and forced them ashore to forage for water and supplies.

The disorganization that marked the Battle of the Nile also characterized the Egyptian campaign, which was on the brink of mutiny before the battle of the Pyramids, and was marked throughout by rivalry among Napoleon's generals. The problem, modern historians feel, was a lack of a goal in the Egyptian campaign more concrete than glory alone.

Napoleon chose to ignore the demolition of his fleet, and the castaway status it brought his army.

He continued with his plans to pacify Egypt, and to preempt an Ottoman attack he marched on Palestine, sacking Jaffa and besieging Acre, which held out against him. The bulk of his army, meanwhile, forced its way up the Nile to Aswan, revealing to the stunned soldiers the magnificence of Thebes, Karnak and Luxor.

On August 23, 1799, Napoleon abandoned his army in Egypt, and slipped off with a small crew on a swift vessel to France.

Upon arrival, he took advantage of political turmoil to stage a coup d'etat, ultimately crowning himself Emperor.

His army in Egypt fared less well.

While largely met by military success, their numbers steadily dwindled through lack of supplies and illness. By the time they surrendered to the British, one man out of every three had died.

The real winners of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign were the artists, historians and other savants who accompanied him, and carried back numerous treasures (including the Rosetta Stone, inscribed in both Greek and hieroglyphics, which would later enable linguists to decipher the hieroglyphs).

Astounded by the depth of Egypt's previously unknown splendours, they opened the eyes of France and the West to the mysteries of that country.

So enchanted were the French by their role in the 'conquest' of Egypt, as Napoleon succeeded in convincing them, that for a century French art and culture would continue to glorify it.

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