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Soon after Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in the Holy Land ended in humiliation, he became ruler of France.

By Laurel Seely

Less than a year before Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the reins of power in France, he led a campaign into the Holy Land, where he experienced both brilliant victory and humiliating defeat. The hard lessons he learned there were to play a profound role in his development into one of the most successful military leaders of all time.

Commonly referred to as Napoleon’s Syria campaign–although his forces never actually entered present-day Syria–this invasion has been largely overlooked by historians. Nathan Schur seeks to redress that neglect in Napoleon in the Holy Land (Greenhill Books, distributed by Stackpole Books, London, 1999, $34.95). First published in Hebrew in 1984 but now released in English for the first time, this volume draws on resources in Hebrew and Arabic that have not been readily accessible to Western historians.

Général de Division Bonaparte’s invasion of Palestine grew out of his 1798 campaign in Egypt, where his success in wresting the country from the control of the Mamelukes set him on a collision course with both the Ottoman and the British empires. Against a backdrop of ever-shifting alliances and Byzantine political maneuvers, which Schur explains with admirable clarity, Bonaparte’s motives for entering Palestine remain open to debate. Many historians have viewed the invasion as a pre-emptive strike to protect his Egyptian base. His long-term goal may even have been to overthrow Britain’s rule of India by securing a quicker route to the subcontinent than that used by the British. Some of his generals even suspected that he intended to break away from France and establish his own kingdom in Palestine. Much later at St. Helena, Napoleon would explain that the desert had always captivated his imagination because its vast expanse symbolized immensity without limit. Yet it was in the desert, ironically, that the young general would learn to moderate his boundless ambition.

The first months of the campaign were marked by victories such as the Battle of Mount Tabor on April 16, 1799, when Bonaparte reacted with lightning speed to turn a rash maneuver by Général de Division Jean-Baptiste Kléber into a victory over forces eight times as great as his own. After successfully besieging the town of Jaffa on March 7, however, Bonaparte’s soldiers had engaged in an appalling orgy of rape, murder and pillaging. Such behavior was a convention of siege warfare in that region, but the rumor of the cold-blooded massacre of more than 3,000 soldiers who had surrendered on the condition that no harm would come to them tarnished Bonaparte’s record.

The real test of Bonaparte’s abilities was to come at Acre, the de facto capital of Palestine and the seat of power of Ahmed Pasha, aka Djezzar (“the butcher”). During the siege, which lasted from March 19 to May 21, Bonaparte displayed a lack of imagination, obstinately using up his forces in a series of uncoordinated attacks on a single section of the city wall. Djezzar, on the other hand, proved a creative and flexible opponent, neatly countering the French troops’ every move. He even erected a second inner wall to create a killing zone into which Bonaparte obligingly poured his troops after finally breaching the outer wall. On this rare occasion, Djezzar’s ingenuity, plus the naval support that the British were only too happy to provide, proved too great for Bonaparte to overcome.

Bonaparte left the Holy Land in humiliation. At Acre alone he suffered more than 3,000 casualties, about a quarter of the force of 13,000 with which he had entered Palestine, but his defeat taught him many valuable lessons. He learned to remain coolheaded despite the pressure of time restraints, to make thorough preparations and coordinate his attacks carefully and, perhaps most important, to never underestimate an adversary. Those lessons, argues Schur, enabled him to effect his remarkable string of victories in the years to come. Bonaparte seems to have ultimately come full circle in later years, however. His ragtag retreat from Acre echoes a later, much more devastating retreat from Moscow.

Bonaparte’s campaign represented the first Western invasion of Palestine since the Crusades and foreshadowed the colonialism that would plague the region in the 20th century. The campaign itself had little lasting effect on the local population, but it redirected European attention to the Holy Land, setting off a wave of pilgrimages and inspiring new flights of fancy in literature. While evocations of the Levant became popular in France, details of Bonaparte’s embarrassing defeat were suppressed, at least during his reign as Emperor Napoleon. Shortly after the invasion’s ignominious end, General Kléber wrote: “We have committed in the Holy Land enormous sins and great stupidities; but it is necessary to let the curtain of the tabernacle fall on all this, and let us beware of ever raising it again, for fear that the Almighty, in his wrath, will punish us all for our temerity.” Schur raises the curtain on the Holy Land campaign and convincingly demonstrates its relevance to an understanding of Bonaparte and his time.