Napoleon’s Legacy in the Middle East

Napoleon in Egypt, 1798

Napoleon in Egypt, 1798

By Ben Tannenbaum

Painting of Napoleon in Egypt courtesy of Artunframed

This spring, Europe has grown consumed with Napoleon mania. As the 200th anniversary of Waterloo nears, re-enactors plan to flock to the battlefield. The EU has commissioned a commemorative coin to mark the occasion. Even the British have joined the enthusiasm, as the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square runs a special Wellington exhibit (replete with a trending #Waterloo200). Much of the anniversary hype figures to remain in Europe. However, Napoleon also left a large impact on the Middle East.

Even prior to becoming Emperor, in 1798 Napoleon stamped his legacy on the Middle East with an invasion of Egypt. At this time, Egypt nominally remained under Ottoman dominion. However in practice the Porte had very little command over events in its far ranging provinces. Mamluk officials held tangible authority within Egypt. Initially, the French troops met little opposition when they landed at Alexandria on July 1. The next few weeks proved busy for Bonaparte as he consolidated control over Alexandria, installed a new regime in Cairo, and marched south into the desert. Finally faced with substantial resistance, Napoleon defeated a 20,000 strong Mamluk army at the Battle of the Pyramids. The Mamluk cavalry charged boldly, but Bonaparte swiped them away within an hour. He installed himself in a Cairo palace and enjoyed the company of French intellectuals that had accompanied the expedition.  

Unfortunately, Napoleon had little opportunity to bask in his success. The British agreed to support the Ottomans and Mamluks against the invaders. Whitehall grew pensive, fearing a French-dominated Egypt that could threaten India. Much of this angst subsided following Horatio Nelson’s smashing victory in the Battle of the Nile. On August 1, 1798, the British fleet found the French resting in Aboukir Bay outside of Alexandria. Under cover of night, Nelson’s ships maneuvered around both sides of the French flotilla. British gunboats unleashed devastating damage. With his navy in disarray, Napoleon had lost access to supplies or reinforcements. Additionally, bands of roving Mamluks began to exact their toll on the Armée d’Orient. Captured Frenchmen faced unimaginable torture at the hands of the opposition forces.

Understandably, Napoleon sought to get out of Egypt. In February 1799 the French moved deeper into the Levant. Bonaparte scored a triumph at Jaffa before investing Ottoman troops at Acre. Like the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, troops on both sides suffered mightily from combat and disease. A few cases of bubonic plague even popped up within the ranks. Unlike his Frankish forebears, however, Napoleon did not manage to conquer Acre and had to withdraw back to Egypt. The end of Bonaparte’s Middle Eastern adventure does not represent his most glorious exploit. French domestic politics stood in disarray, as the Directory had soured on its overly ambitious general. Napoleon left the army stranded in the desert and returned to Paris to consolidate his personal political position.

With hindsight, it seems Napoleon left behind a mixed legacy for the Middle East. Modern anti-colonial sensibilities certainly resent the idea of French intervention in Egypt. Further, the abandonment of his men reflects poorly on Napoleon’s generalship. However, the French operation did manage to have some positive cultural impact. Bonaparte’s expedition discovered much about Ancient Egypt, uncovering artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone. Further, his invasion installed a relatively progressive law code that gave Egyptians more civil rights than they had enjoyed under the Mamluks. Like all aspects of Napoleon’s career, his exploits in Egypt figure to remain controversial and debated in the modern era.

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