The French in Egypt

Dr Mahmoud Sadek is a retired professor of Archeology and Art History, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He received his B A from the University of Alexandria, Egypt, his M A from the University of Toronto, and his PhD from Columbia University, New York, USA. He founded and chaired the Classical Archeology Program at Guelph from 1973-79. He has directed Archeological excavations in Egypt, France and Spain, and specializes in Egyptian, Greek and Roman Archeology on which he has published many books and articles

The French in Egypt
Vol 7 1998

There are two outstanding contemporary accounts of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. One is by an Egyptian, al Gabarti, who kept a daily record of events during these turbulent times. The second is written by a member of the team of scholars that accompanied Napoleon’s campaign. Naturally, both wrote from very different perspectives, but this makes it all the more fascinating to view through their eyes how the drama of those times unfolded.

At the close of the eighteenth century, Egypt, under the last of the Mamluk rulers, had undoubtedly sunk to the abyss of its long history. That slow decline started when Egypt lost its independence at the battle of Marj Dabiq, north of Aleppo, in Syria. The last of the Mamluk sultans, Qansuh al Ghuri, died on the battlefield fighting the Ottoman army headed by Sultan Selim, the son of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in the year 1516. Thus the Mamluk empire ended and Egypt became a province under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire for the next three centuries.

The Ottomans left the administration of Egypt to the Mamluk ‘Beys’ who reported to a Turkish governor appointed by the Sultan in Istanbul. Not only were crushing taxes imposed upon the Egyptians, but the Ottomans also collected one thousand of the best Egyptian artisans including goldsmiths, carpet weavers, calligraphers, wood-workers and other craftsmen, to work in Istanbul.

This did much to enhance to enhance the economy and cultural life of the Ottoman capital but it had disastrous effects upon the Egyptians. Moreover, the breakdown of the magnificent system of law and order established by the Mamluk sultans left Egypt greatly weakened and a prime target for foreign invaders.

There was a short period before the Napoleonic invasion when Egypt had a hope of independence when Ali Bey, the leading Mamluk, revolted against the Turkish governor and sent him back to Istanbul. Ali Bey marched with his army to Syria freeing it as well from the Ottomans, and he reached Mecca where he was hailed by the Arabs as the Caliph of Islam. Unfortunately he was murdered on his way back to Cairo, as a result of rivalry and intrigues. The rule of Egypt fell to his successor: Murad Bey and his co-ruler Ibrahim Bey.

Napoleon was watching this strife between Mamluk factions and the Turks with a keen eye as he had already set his sights on establishing his eastern empire. It was necessary for him to take Egypt as a first step towards India. When the French fleet was seen off the coast of Alexandria, Murad Bey summoned the esteemed Italian consul Rosetti and asked him nonchantly to pay off the “donkey boys”, as he called the French troops, by giving them a “handful of silver each”

He had never heard of Napoleon and confidently sent his army of 10,000 Mamluks and 30,000 irregulars (mainly Egyptians, Arna’outs, Africans and Bedouins) to face Napoleon’s 40,000 French veterans.

Meanwhile al Gabarti was busy recording all these happenings in his daily journal. abd al Rahman ibn Hasan al Gabarti, the Azhar University scholar, had written extensively about Egypt’s history but he is most interesting when describing what was happening in his own day.

He relates that Murad Bey believed that “if all the foreigners attack Egypt, he, Murad Bey, would destroy them all and let his cavalry trample them under the hooves of their horses“. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the forces were almost equal in number “the French had superior artillery and military discipline which was sadly lacking among the Mamluk Bey’s”. The famous battle of the Pyramids took place at Imbaba across the river from Cairo. Mamluk swords and cavalry were inevitably mowed down by French cannons and rifles . . .

Napoleon promptly issued a letter which he sent to the learned men of al Azhar and the judges and chief merchants, ostensibly to identify himself as a supporter of Islam but in fact to turn the populace against the Mamluks.

“Those Mamluks are not Egyptian. They were brought to Egypt from the steppes of Asia and the Caucasus, spoiling this beautiful country and its good hearted people .. God Almighty has decided that the time of the Mamluks is ended ..

If the land of Egypt truly belongs to the Mamluks let them show us the title deed that God has inscribed to them“. The letter as recorded by al Gabarti goes on to affirm that Napoleon was a Muslim and “the French people are Muslims and loyal to Islam. My proof is when we entered Rome we destroyed the papacy and removed the Pope who was always urging the Christians to fight Islam. We also entered Malta and destroyed the order of St John which claimed to instigate the killing of Muslims .. We are also friends of the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey and we are the enemy of his enemies. The Mamluks revolted against the rule of the Sultan and we are here to punish them”

Gabarti also mentions some accomplishments by the French during their brief stay. Egyptians were amazed to witness the sending up of a hot air balloon even though it came crashing down, to the chagrin of the French. The French also made improvements to the Nilometer to more accurately register the rise of the river in the time of the flood.

Fortifications, towers, lighthouses and administrative buildings were also erected by the French in Alexandria, Damietta and Rosseta.

All these achievements and vows of loyalty were undone with the departure of the French from Egypt three years later. Napoleon had already left for greener pastures and his deputy general Kleber’s assassination, together with the outbreak of a terrible bubonic plague that, according to Gabarti, wiped out two thirds of the populace, prompted the French to decamp for France. Although the army was guaranteed safe conduct to leave Cairo for Alexandria, where they would board ships for Europe, the troops left a trail of devastation in their wake.

Gabarti sums up the French occupation of Egypt – “the beginning of great misfortunes

Despite such adversity, Egypt was awakened, however rudely, to shake off the doldrums of past centuries and to begin to play her part in the modern era. The French did much to make the world know about the glories of Egyptian civilization. In a following article I will present the opinions of a contemporary Frenchman who accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign, Baron Dominique Vivant Denon