French campaign in Egypt and Syria
The French campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798–1801) was Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria, proclaimed to defend French trade interests, to establish scientific enterprise in the region and ultimately to join the forces of Indian ruler Tipu Sultan and drive away the British from the Indian subcontinent. It was the primary purpose of the Mediterranean campaign of 1798, a series of naval engagements that included the capture of Malta. The campaign ended in defeat for Napoleon, and the withdrawal of French troops from the region. On the scientific front, the expedition eventually led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, creating the field of Egyptology. Despite early victories and an initially successful expedition into Syria, Napoleon and his Armée d'Orient were eventually defeated and forced to withdraw, especially after suffering the defeat of the supporting French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.
Table of Contents / Timeline
The notion of annexing Egypt as a French colony had been under discussion since François Baron de Tott undertook a secret mission to the Levant in 1777 to determine its feasibility. Baron de Tott's report was favorable, but no immediate action was taken. Nevertheless, Egypt became a topic of debate between Talleyrand and Napoleon, which continued in their correspondence during Napoleon's Italian campaign. In early 1798, Bonaparte proposed a military expedition to seize Egypt. In a letter to the Directory, he suggested this would protect French trade interests, attack British commerce, and undermine Britain's access to India and the East Indies, since Egypt was well-placed on the trade routes to these places. Bonaparte wished to establish a French presence in the Middle East, with the ultimate dream of linking with France's ally Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in India.
As France was not ready for a head-on attack on Great Britain itself, the Directory decided to intervene indirectly and create a "double port" connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, prefiguring the Suez Canal. At the time, Egypt had been an Ottoman province since 1517, but was now out of direct Ottoman control, and was in disorder, with dissension among the ruling Mamluk elite. According to a 13 February report by Talleyrand, "Having occupied and fortified Egypt, we shall send a force of 15,000 men from Suez to the Sultanate of Mysore, to join the forces of Tipu Sultan and drive away the English." The Directory agreed to the plan in March, though troubled by its scope and cost. They saw that it would remove the popular and over-ambitious Napoleon from the centre of power, though this motive long remained secret.
Rumours became rife as 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors were gathered in French Mediterranean ports. A large fleet was assembled at Toulon: 13 ships of the line, 14 frigates, and 400 transports. To avoid interception by the British fleet under Nelson, the expedition's target was kept secret. The fleet at Toulon was joined by squadrons from Genoa, Civitavecchia and Bastia and was put under the command of Admiral Brueys and Contre-amirals Villeneuve, Du Chayla, Decrès and Ganteaume. Bonaparte arrived at Toulon on 9 May, lodging with Benoît Georges de Najac, the officer in charge of preparing the fleet.
French invasion of MaltaMalta
When Napoleon's fleet arrived off Malta, Napoleon demanded that the Knights of Malta allow his fleet to enter the port and take on water and supplies. Grand Master von Hompesch replied that only two foreign ships would be allowed to enter the port at a time. Under that restriction, re-victualling the French fleet would take weeks, and it would be vulnerable to the British fleet of Admiral Nelson. Napoleon therefore ordered the invasion of Malta. The French Revolution had significantly reduced the Knights' income and their ability to put up serious resistance. Half of the Knights were French, and most of these knights refused to fight. French troops disembarked in Malta at seven points on the morning of 11 June. General Louis Baraguey d'Hilliers landed soldiers and cannon in the western part of the main island of Malta, under artillery fire from Maltese fortifications. The French troops met some initial resistance but pressed forward. The Knights' ill-prepared force in that region, numbering only about 2,000, regrouped. The French pressed on with their attack. After a fierce gun battle lasting twenty-four hours, most of the Knights' force in the west surrendered. Napoleon, during his stay in Malta, resided at Palazzo Parisio in Valletta. Napoleon then opened negotiations. Faced with vastly superior French forces and the loss of western Malta, von Hompesch surrendered the main fortress of Valletta.
Battle of the PyramidsImbaba, Egypt
The French army, under Napoleon Bonaparte, scored a decisive victory against the forces of the local Mamluk rulers, wiping out almost the entire Ottoman army located in Egypt. It was the battle where Napoleon employed the divisional square tactic to great effect. The deployment of the French brigades into these massive rectangular formations repeatedly threw back multiple cavalry charges by the Mamluks. In all 300 French and approximately 6,000 Mamluks were killed. The battle gave rise to dozens of stories and drawings. The victory effectively sealed the French conquest of Egypt as Murad Bey salvaged the remnants of his army, chaotically fleeing to Upper Egypt. French casualties amounted to roughly 300, but Ottoman and Mamluk casualties soared into the thousands. Napoleon entered Cairo after the battle and created a new local administration under his supervision. The battle exposed the fundamental military and political decline of the Ottoman Empire throughout the past century, especially compared to the rising power of France. Dupuy's brigade pursued the routed enemy and at night entered Cairo, which had been abandoned by the beys Mourad and Ibrahim. On 22 July, the notables of Cairo came to Giza to meet Bonaparte and offered to hand over the city to him.
Battle of the NileAboukir Bay, Egypt
Bonaparte's administration of EgyptCairo, Egypt
After the naval defeat at Aboukir, Bonaparte's campaign remained land-bound. His army still succeeded in consolidating power in Egypt, although it faced repeated nationalist uprisings, and Napoleon began to behave as absolute ruler of all Egypt. In a largely unsuccessful effort to gain the support of the Egyptian population, Bonaparte issued proclamations that cast him as a liberator of the people from Ottoman and Mamluk oppression, praising the precepts of Islam and claiming friendship between France and the Ottoman Empire despite French intervention in the breakaway state.
Revolt of CairoCairo, Egypt
Ottoman offensivesIstanbul, Turkey
Syrian Campaign: Siege of JaffaJaffa, Israel
Siege of AcreAcre, Israel
The siege of Acre of 1799 was an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman city of Acre (now Akko in modern Israel) and was the turning point of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and Syria, along with the Battle of the Nile. It was Napoleon's second tactical defeat in his career, three years previously he had been defeated at the Second Battle of Bassano. As a result of the failed siege, Napoleon Bonaparte retreated two months later and withdrew to Egypt.
Battle of Mount TaborMerhavia, Israel
The Battle of Mount Tabor was fought on 16 April 1799, between French forces commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte and General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, against an Ottoman Army under Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, ruler of Damascus. The battle was a consequence of the siege of Acre, in the later stages of the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria. Upon hearing that a Turkish and Mamluk army had been sent from Damascus to Acre, for the purpose of forcing the French to raise the siege of Acre, General Bonaparte sent out detachments to track it down. General Kléber led an advance guard and boldly decided to engage the much larger Turkish army of 35,000 men near Mount Tabor, managing to hold it off until Napoleon drove General Louis André Bon’s division of 2,000 men in a circling manoeuvre and took the Turks completely by surprise in their rear. The resulting battle saw the outnumbered French force inflict thousands of casualties and scatter the remaining forces of the pasha of Damascus, forcing them to abandon their hopes of reconquering Egypt and leaving Napoleon free to carry on the siege of Acre.
Retreat from AcreAcre, Israel
Rosetta StoneRosetta, Egypt
Battle of Abukir (1799)Abu Qir, Egypt
Bonaparte leaves EgyptAjaccio, France
Siege of DamiettaLake Manzala, Egypt
On 1 November 1799, the British fleet commanded by Admiral Sidney Smith unloaded an army of Janissaries near Damietta, between Lake Manzala and the sea. The garrison of Damietta, 800 infantry and 150 cavalry strong, commanded by General Jean-Antoine Verdier encountered the Turks. According to Kléber's report, 2,000 to 3,000 Janissaries were killed or drowned and 800 surrendered, including their leader Ismaël Bey. The Turks also lost 32 standards and 5 cannons.
Battle of HeliopolisHeliopolis, Egypt
Battle of Abukir (1801)Abu Qir, Egypt
Battle of AlexandriaAlexandria, Egypt
British expeditionary corps under Sir Ralph Abercrombie defeat the French army under General Menou in the Battle of Alexandria during Anglo-Ottoman land offensive. The armies engaged on this day both numbered approximately 14,000 men. Losses for the British were, 1,468 killed, wounded and missing, including Abercromby (who died on 28 March), Moore and three other generals wounded. The French on the other hand had 1,160 killed and (?) 3,000 wounded. The British advanced upon Alexandria and laid siege to it.
End of the campaignAlexandria, Egypt
- The rule of Mamluk-Beys in Egypt is broken.
- The Ottoman Empire retakes control over Egypt.
- French supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean is prevented.
- Important archaeological discoveries, including the Rosetta Stone
- Description de l'Egypte, which detailed the findings of the scholars and scientists who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. This publication became the foundation of modern research into the history, society, and economics of Egypt.
- The invasion demonstrated the military, technological, and organisational superiority of the Western European powers to the Middle East, leading to profound social changes in the region.
- The printing press was first introduced to Egypt by Napoleon. He brought with his expedition a French, Arabic, and Greek printing press, which were far superior in speed, efficiency and quality to the nearest presses used in Istanbul.
- The invasion introduced Western inventions, such as the printing press, and ideas, such as liberalism and incipient nationalism, to the Middle East, eventually leading to the establishment of Egyptian independence and modernisation under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the first half of the 19th century and eventually the Nahda, or Arab Renaissance.
- To modernist historians, the French arrival marks the start of the modern Middle East.
- The campaign ended in failure, with 15,000 French troops killed in action and 15,000 by disease.
- Napoleon's reputation as a brilliant military commander remained intact and even rose higher, despite some of his failures during the campaign.
- Bernède, Allain (1998). Gérard-Jean Chaduc; Christophe Dickès; Laurent Leprévost (eds.). La campagne d'Égypte : 1798-1801 Mythes et réalités (in French). Paris: Musée de l'Armée. ISBN 978-2-901-41823-8.
- Cole, Juan (2007). Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East. Palgr
- Cole, Juan (2007). Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-6431-1.
- James, T. G. H. (2003). "Napoleon and Egyptology: Britain's Debt to French Enterprise". Enlightening the British: Knowledge, Discovery and the Museum in the Eighteenth Century. British Museum Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-7141-5010-X.
- Mackesy, Piers. British Victory in Egypt, 1801: The End of Napoleon's Conquest. Routledge, 2013. ISBN 9781134953578
- Rickard, J French Invasion of Egypt, 1798–1801, (2006)
- Strathern, Paul. Napoleon in Egypt: The Greatest Glory. Jonathan Cape, Random House, London, 2007. ISBN 978-0-224-07681-4
- Watson, William E. (2003). Tricolor and Crescent: France and the Islamic World. Greenwood. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0-275-97470-7.
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