Napoléon Bonaparte had grand ambitions when he landed in Egypt in 1798. A British flotilla and the desert country itself would thwart his dreams of empire.
On June 9, 1798, the people of the oft-invaded Mediterranean island of Malta found themselves yet again under threat. A French fleet had appeared offshore, and its titular commander, Napoléon Bonaparte, was demanding the right to enter the island’s harbors to resupply his ships. It quickly became apparent the general’s demand was a ruse de guerre, for when the Maltese balked at allowing so many foreign warships entry at the same time, Napoléon sent his troops ashore in a preplanned invasion of the strategically important island.
The French troops faced little opposition. The island had long been under the dominion of a military religious order known as the Knights of St. John, but their power had declined and, lacking the support of the Maltese people, the knights were unable to mount a serious defense. Their leader, Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch, quickly capitulated, and Napoléon won himself an easy victory.
But the French commander had bigger victories in mind, and Malta was only a steppingstone en route to the land he already considered his next conquest. Unfortunately for Napoléon and those he led, that land—Egypt—would prove more trial than triumph.Napoléon’s intent was to colonize Egypt, thereby increasing French influence in the region and restricting British access to India. He always claimed to be lucky, and his luck held during those initial moves across the Mediterranean. In addition to his easy conquest of Malta, Napoléon kept one step ahead of a pursuing 14-ship Royal Navy squadron under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson.
The British admiral had come close, though. On the dark, foggy night of June 22–23 Nelson unwittingly passed within a few miles of the outer edge of Napoléon’s huge and vulnerable flotilla of 300 ships, almost all transports. Nelson raced east, beat Napoléon to Alexandria and, not finding him there, left the area on June 29 to search near Cyprus. The last British ship slipped over the horizon just hours before the French frigate La Junon, sent ahead to pick up the French consul in Alexandria for an assessment of the situation in Egypt, sailed into the harbor.
Napoléon’s planned conquest did not begin well. In calm weather his fleet might simply have sailed into Alexandria’s harbor to offload the 30,000-man army and its supplies. Unfortunately for the French, on July 1 a gale was blowing. The harbor was poorly charted, its entrance known to be tricky and difficult. Napoléon had no choice but to put men and materiel ashore on a windy beach eight miles west of Alexandria, then march them overland to launch his assault.
The landings began at noon, but it wasn’t until 8 that evening that any appreciable number of Napoléon’s wretched, waterlogged troops reached land. The rough seas drowned at least 19 men, and when the remainder finally got ashore, they had no horses, artillery, food or water. At dawn on July 2, already worn out, they began the march to Alexandria. Nomadic Bedouin tribesmen had filled in most of the wells along the route, the cisterns were empty, and the heat of the midsummer sun was like nothing any of the French soldiers had ever experienced.
The ever-present Bedouin seized the inevitable stragglers—exhausted soldiers, a few wives and camp followers, some French merchants who planned to open businesses in Cairo—but returned them a few days later. Fascinated by the creamy white skins of the men, the tribesmen had raped them. The women they had only beaten.
Defending Alexandria were just 500 Egyptian garrison troops, and despite his soldiers’ condition, Napoléon took the city in a matter of hours. Though it had been Egypt’s capital in ancient times—the city from which Cleopatra ruled, famous for its lighthouse and its library—by 1798 the port city was a miserable ghost of itself, its wonders long since vanished and most of its 6,000 people dirt poor. Indeed, Alexandria’s defenders had scant ammunition and could do little more than throw stones at the French invaders.
The rest of Egypt was nearly as defenseless. Ottoman control of Egypt was only nominal, and for all intents, the country had been ruled since about 1200 by the Mamelukes (Arabic for “owned”), a self-perpetuating class of warriors comprising ex-slaves, mostly from the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia. Mameluke agents made regular trips into the Caucasus to buy 8- to 10-year-old boys from their parents. The Mamelukes trained the boys as warriors, then freed them when they reached fighting age, whereupon they received two servants and a command. Only a boy so trained could achieve Mameluke nobility; descent had nothing to do with it. Indeed, the children of Mameluke warriors were looked down upon as not having achieved their standing in the proper way, through training. Mameluke wives correspondingly avoided having children in hopes of keeping their looks and thereby their husbands, who were as likely to prefer sex with concubines, or Mameluke boys, as with their wives.
A different Mameluke chieftain, or bey, ruled each of Egypt’s 24 provinces. The beys fielded mounted Mameluke units and, in the absence of outside enemies, fought regular battles among themselves for power and land. Fighting in concert to defend their nation was a concept unknown to them.
Napoléon went to Egypt with a complicated agenda. The French were actually allied with the Ottoman Empire, and for a while Napoléon and the five-man directory that ruled France tried to maintain the ridiculous fiction that the invasion of Egypt was meant to strengthen Ottoman control and prevent Britain from seizing Egypt for itself. The latter point was not farfetched; the Ottomans were widely believed to be on the verge of collapse, and the British, Russians and Hapsburgs were all ready to pounce on the remains. The French wanted Egypt as a colony, as the gate to the land route to India and the Far East and as the site for a canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea across the Egyptian isthmus. King Louis XIV had proposed just such a canal to the Ottomans a century before, at a time when the French were building their own Canal du Midi in southern France.
Napoléon also dreamed of using Egypt as a base from which to drive the British from south Asia and end their empire. He saw himself leading his army across Arabia to the Indian Ocean and from there across Persia to the Indus. Nothing if not ambitious, he aspired to a greatness comparable to that of Alexander the Great. All that stood in his way were some 12,000 Mamelukes, fierce warriors but hardly a match for Napoléon’s 30,000 seasoned French troops.
The Mamelukes weren’t the only obstacle, however. The French also had to contend with the desert, the incredible heat, the flies, the scarcity of water, the hostility of Egyptians forced to suffer infidels in a sacred landscape and, last and worst, diseases such as the plague. In truth, the French had come to Egypt knowing little about it and wholly unprepared for the challenges it presented. Napoléon, trying to keep his destination a secret until the last minute, had not even issued canteens to his men, much less water to fill them. The troops were wearing wool uniforms in July.
Napoléon was about to encounter not the Egypt of classical antiquity, the great civilization described by Herodotus, the Egypt of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, but the real Egypt of the 18th century, a cauldron of heat and sand. And he encountered it almost immediately
Napoléon wanted to reach Cairo as soon as possible, before the Nile flooded and inundated the very land he had to cross. To get to Cairo, he had to get to the Nile, and the mouth of the river lay 40 miles east of Alexandria, at Rosetta, and that was not the most direct route. The latter led across the desert to Damanhur, and then to the Nile at El Rahmaniya. From Alexandria he sent four divisions on this route and one to Rosetta.
The first French units left Alexandria on July 3. They lacked sufficient horses; some cavalrymen had to walk, and one division even had to leave its artillery behind. Napoléon sought to obtain horses and camels from local Bedouin leaders, but the sheiks in Cairo convinced the tribesmen to switch sides, and they harassed the French along the entire route of march. The khamsin, the desiccating wind that blows up the dust of the Libyan Desert into great choking, blinding clouds, had begun. The French troops had only dry biscuits to eat, and who can eat hardtack without water to soften it?
Thirst quickly became the deadliest enemy. A few cisterns, half full, could not possibly satisfy the thirst of thousands of men on a hellish march. “It was a pity to see men stretched on their bellies around that fetid hole, dying of thirst, panting and unable to satisfy their craving,” wrote one officer. Before the march was over, hundreds had died, some by their own hand. Meanwhile, word got around that Murad Bey, with his army of Mamelukes, was on the march to meet them. “It would be difficult,” wrote J. Christopher Herold in his superb history of the expedition, Bonaparte in Egypt, “to give an idea of the disgust, the discontent, the melancholy, the despair of that army during its first weeks in Egypt.”
At the Nile there was water at last, and fields of watermelons, and the French filled their bellies with both. A few miles south of El Rahmaniya, at the village of Shubra Khit, they met Murad Bey on July 13. The chieftain had perhaps 4,000 men on horseback, 10,000 peasants armed only with clubs and a small flotilla of gunboats. The Mamelukes rode to war on the finest Arabian horses and wearing much of their wealth—richly colored silk vests and robes, jewelry, and coins wrapped in their turbans. Each warrior carried a carbine, two or three pistols, javelins and a scimitar or two. They were generally big men, chosen for their size as boys, and they were expert horsemen who could decapitate an enemy with one swing of the scimitar.
But for all their brilliant array, for all their skill, the Mamelukes never had a chance. The French troops might have been miserable, but they were experienced and highly disciplined fighters. They had defeated armies all over Europe, and to them all the Mamelukes’ weapons and colorful silks were nothing more than booty.
Each French division formed into a deadly fighting square, each side six men deep, with artillery pieces at the corners. The mounted Mamelukes pranced around the squares, looking for a way in. After an hour of probing, they charged, only to be met by a hailstorm of grapeshot and small-arms fire. For another hour they probed the French squares, to no effect. Meanwhile, on the river the French engaged the Greek-manned Mameluke gunboats, until a lucky shot blew up the Mameluke flagship, prompting the other vessels’ hasty withdrawal. Finally, shattered against the French squares, the entire Mameluke army fled.
On July 21, the French and the Mamelukes met again, in unbearable heat at a place called Embaba, within sight of the pyramids and the Cairo skyline. This time the French faced more Mameluke infantry, including tough Albanian soldiers known as Janissaries, and a larger horde of largely ineffective Bedouins and peasants, but about the same number of Mameluke horsemen.
Despite a grueling march south, the five French divisions quickly and efficiently formed squares, now 10 men deep and again nearly impregnable. When the Mameluke horsemen closed within yards of the squares, the French opened a withering fire. Dead horses and dead men piled up as the horsemen repeatedly charged. The Janissaries retreated to a walled compound in Embaba, which the French stormed and, having taken it, killed all the defenders. Other Mamelukes, trying to escape, drowned in the Nile.
Two hours after it began, the Battle of the Pyramids was over. Murad Bey retreated to Cairo and then took his family and what remained of his army to the Sinai Peninsula. Most of Cairo’s citizens also abandoned the city, piling whatever they could on carts and heading south up the Nile—to be robbed by Bedouin, whose only interest in any warfare was booty. But it was the French who were gathering the bulk of the goods. One French officer who had killed a Mameluke horseman found more than 500 gold pieces sewn into the dead man’s skullcap. The French dragged the Nile for corpses to rob; they were insatiable, indefatigable.
At nightfall on July 22, two French infantry companies and five officers marched into Cairo. The city was a maze of tiny streets, mud hovels and great sparkling palaces, but of its 300,000 people there was virtually no sign. The French troops found the streets deserted, and all they could hear was the wailing of women from behind shuttered doors and windows. It didn’t matter. Egypt was conquered. Napoléon—who with his staff had taken up residence in Murad Bey’s riverfront palace—could not savor his triumph, however. He’d discovered that his wife, his beloved Josephine, was in Paris with a lover.
On August 1, a week after the French occupied Cairo, Horatio Nelson and his flotilla appeared off Alexandria. He found Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers’ French fleet anchored in a line parallel to the beach along a stretch of shallow Aboukir Bay, just northeast of the city. The French line of battle was formidable—500 guns faced out to sea, and Brueys believed his warships had anchored far enough inshore to prevent the British from getting inside their line and firing on them from the lee, or land, side.
Brueys had 13 ships of the line and four frigates, but what he did not have were experienced crews—half his men were under 18, and most had never seen combat. When the battle began, a quarter of the French crews were ashore, digging wells or on other errands. Nelson attacked with veteran British seamen manning his guns, and he came at full speed with all sails flying. It must have been a magnificent sight. It was certainly deadly.
And daring. The English did not know the configuration of the sea bottom between the French line and the beach and simply sailed over the shoals. Inshore, a French frigate fired on the lead English ships and was immediately sunk. The English vessels, operating in two divisions, engaged the French line from both sides. As the French had not expected to use their landward batteries, they were unprepared and had a great deal of difficulty bringing the guns into play. The ships at the rear of the French line were not in the action at all, as the wind was against them. They could only sit and watch.
What they saw as night wore on and the fighting continued was the loss of the French fleet. A British cannonball mangled the already wounded Brueys’ left leg, taking the French commander’s life some two hours before fire ravaged his 118-gun flagship, L’Oriente, setting off her powder magazine in a massive explosion. By the time the battle ended the following morning, nine French ships had surrendered, three lay in tatters and one was at the bottom of the bay. What remained of Brueys’ fleet—two ships of the line and a pair of frigates— cut their cables and escaped into the open Mediterranean.
The French fleet’s loss at the Battle of the Nile left Napoléon and his army stranded in Egypt. The English would patrol the coastline from then on; for the next three years they intercepted most French official communications. English newspapers even published letters from French soldiers to friends and family back home, in mockery. Napoléon had Egypt, but it was equally true that Egypt had him.
In the end, Napoléon himself spent a little over a year in Egypt, slipping out of the country and back to France after an abortive attempt to march his army north into the Levant in the spring of 1799. That campaign came to grief at Acre, in Palestine, when he failed to take a crusader-era fort that ringed the city. He further damaged his reputation when he ordered the massacre of more than 2,000 Turkish prisoners at Jaffa—men one of his field commanders had promised amnesty. Then, on the French retreat to Egypt, Napoléon arranged for his doctors to poison those of his own troops afflicted with the plague and delaying the French withdrawal.
Barring certain archeological discoveries, the Egyptian campaign ended in failure for the French. The native parliament Napoléon established disintegrated. Occupation troops suppressed two separate rebellions in Cairo, with much bloodshed. French soldiers walked alone through the city’s streets at their peril. In the countryside they faced even more danger. Messengers sent to distant outposts often vanished. Napoléon nominally ruled the country while there, but he never pacified it.
Barely half of the 40,000 French soldiers and sailors Napoléon took to Egypt made it home again. Of those repatriated, some 3,000 were invalids. By the time they got back to France, Napoléon was first consul and would shortly become emperor. But Egypt remained under Ottoman control; the Ottomans refused to collapse as expected; the English consolidated their hold on India and expanded their empire; and Napoléon had achieved none of his lofty goals. It had been demonstrated, finally, that he was not invincible. Egypt had beaten General Bonaparte, decisively.
For further reading, Anthony Brandt recommends: Bonaparte in Egypt, by J. Christopher Herold, and Mirage: Napoléon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, by Nina Burleigh.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.