‘Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you,’ General Napoleon Bonaparte told his staff. It was 3 p.m. on July 21, 1798, and he was referring to the Pyramids, standing tall and clear some 10 miles away, west of the Nile on the flat Egyptian landscape. It is unlikely many of his officers could have heard the remark, but his reference to Egypt’s antiquity was appropriate, as yet another conqueror stood in the shadow of the architectural wonders that had been built when Egypt was a powerful, independent country. Over the past few millennia, Hyksos, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Turks had all conquered Egypt. Now it was the turn of the French.
France was the most powerful country on mainland Europe in 1798, its supremacy challenged only by Britain. It is amazing, however, that the French republic could field an army at all. Internal chaos had resulted from the overthrow of the French monarchy, which began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and eventually led to the guillotining of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793. During that period, French troops were more noteworthy for their revolutionary zeal and nationalist fervor than for discipline or efficiency. That would begin to change under Bonaparte.
The young Corsican’s rise to military greatness was made possible, in part, by the revolution. The officer ranks of the French army were reduced as members of the nobility fled, and a young officer willing to give lip service to the revolution and the republic could rise rapidly by winning battles. As an artillery captain, Bonaparte won a battle at Toulon in 1793. As commanding general of the Army of Italy between March 1796 and October 1797, his brilliant tactical and strategic use of the central position won a campaign against Austrian and Papal forces in northern Italy and gained him international attention.
It was Bonaparte himself who then requested the exotic assignment to Egypt. Asked by the five-man Revolutionary Directory to take charge of troops being assembled to invade Britain, Bonaparte gave a dismal assessment of such an invasion’s prospects–and proposed to lead a mission to Egypt instead.
Fascinated by the Middle East since childhood, Bonaparte had discussed its strategic importance with France’s new foreign minister, Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, and the explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. ‘With Malta and Corfu in our hands, we should be masters of the Mediterranean,’ Bonaparte explained. ‘If we cannot dislodge England from the Cape [of Good Hope], we must take Egypt.’ Conquering Egypt would cut Britain’s overland access to India. Bonaparte submitted his proposal on March 5, and Talleyrand’s support ensured its approval by the Directory.
Egypt was part of the Ottoman empire, but Bonaparte reasoned that the Turks would not protest a French takeover, since the Mamelukes, a warrior caste, were essentially ruling Egypt and were only sporadically sending minimal revenue to the sultan.
In Arabic, Mameluke means ‘bought man,’ or slave. Brought into Egypt during the 13th century from the Caucasus region, the warrior-slaves gradually gained influence and eventually overthrew their masters to become the ruling class. When the Ottoman empire had expanded into Egypt in 1517, the Mamelukes officially lost their autonomy. In reality, however, the masses of Egypt in 1798 were jointly ruled by Ibrahim Bey, a former slave of European descent, from Alexandria and by Murad Bey from Cairo. Paying limited deference to Istanbul, the two beys and their warriors taxed the people mercilessly, levied duties on all goods entering or leaving Egypt and lived in luxurious palaces, served by dozens–even hundreds–of slaves.
During the voyage to Egypt, Bonaparte would have a proclamation printed that represented his army as a Turkish ally whose subjugation of the recalcitrant, corrupt Mamelukes was in the Ottoman empire’s best interests. He also addressed the Egyptian people, promising to liberate them from their tyrannical oppressors.
By mid-May 1798, Bonaparte had assembled a combined force of some 36,000 soldiers and 17,000 sailors, as well as a corps of scientists. Boarding a total of 400 transports, with an escort of 100 warships commanded by Admiral François Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, the French set sail from the ports of Toulon, Ajaccio, Genoa and Civitaveccia. Once at sea, the convoys rendezvoused, and on June 9 they reached Malta. After negotiating with the archipelago’s wards, the Knights of St. John, Bonaparte laid siege to Valetta on June 11 and seized control of the entire island in 24 hours. Leaving General Claude Henry Belgrand, comte de Vaubois, and 3,500 troops on Malta, Bonaparte departed on June 18.
A British flotilla patrolling the waters off Toulon, including 14 ships of the line, had been scattered by a gale just 24 hours before Bonaparte and the bulk of his expedition had departed on May 19. Once he returned to sea, the British commander, Rear Adm. Horatio Nelson, had no clue of the French fleet’s whereabouts, and he decided–correctly–to sail east. Nelson came within a few miles of the French on the foggy night of June 22. On June 29, he arrived off Alex-andria, then sailed for Crete–thus missing his last chance to catch Bonaparte at sea before the French general’s arrival off the Egyptian coast on July 1.
In the early morning hours of July 2, the French came ashore a few miles west of Alex-andria in a heavy swell that drowned 19 of them. Bonaparte and three of his generals, Louis André Bon, François de Boussay, baron de Menou, and Jean Baptiste Kléber, led some 4,500 troops on a five-hour march to Alexandria, reaching the city at 8 a.m. and taking it by storm by 11 o’clock at a cost of only 100 dead and 200 wounded. Ibrahim Bey lost at least 700 of his men before abandoning the city and retiring to the east bank of the Nile.
On July 3, Bonaparte sent about a quarter of his army up the coast, establishing garrisons in Alexandria, Aboukir and Rosetta, at the mouth of the Nile. The remaining 25,000 soldiers embarked on a rapid 100-mile trek toward Cairo, with General Louis Antoine Desaix leading the vanguard.
Speed was Bonaparte’s primary concern, with little or no consideration given to his troops’ supplies and health. Marching in the sweltering desert heat without adequate food or water, some of the troops committed suicide to escape the hellish conditions. Stragglers, including female camp followers, were captured, beaten and raped by Bedouins.
The French finally reached the Nile on July 10 and had their first encounter with Murad Bey’s Mamelukes at El Rahmaniya. The Mamelukes’ attack was repulsed, and after fully assembling his weary forces at El Rahmaniya on the 11th, Bonaparte allowed them two days to rest and quench their thirst with both Nile water and the watermelons that grew along its banks.
Resuming his march up the Nile on the 13th, Bonaparte encountered a Mameluke force of 3,000 or 4,000 cavalrymen, supported by about 10,000 men on foot, near the village of Shubra Khit. Forming into squares, the French infantry defeated their attackers, then pressed on for Cairo.
At about 2 p.m. on July 21, Bonaparte first came in sight of the village of Embabeh, about eight miles away from Gizeh and its Pyramids. There, Murad Bey awaited him. At that point, if the Mamelukes had concentrated all their forces on the east bank of the Nile, the French would have had the difficult task of crossing it to give battle. But instead of letting Bonaparte come to him, Murad Bey chose to confront the general on the west bank. The Mameluke forces were also unwisely divided, with Ibrahim Bey’s forces remaining on the east bank.
After giving his troops just one hour to rest, Bonaparte was ready to proceed into battle at 3 p.m. In front of the French force, about a mile away, were about 4,000 to 6,000 mounted Mamelukes, supported by 40 cannons and a small but professional Turkish contingent, mainly tough Albanian troops. To the right of the cavalrymen, closer to the Nile, were some 15,000 fellaheen–peasant levies armed mostly with clubs, who were essentially an ineffectual mob. On the east bank, constituting no danger to the French until they crossed the Nile, was Ibrahim Bey’s force, composed of several thousand Mamelukes and about 18,000 fellaheen.
Bonaparte later said that the enemy forces assembled on the west bank alone numbered 78,000, roughly three times the size of his force. The Corsican’s tendency to exaggerate is also evident in his later reference to the engagement as ‘the Battle of the Pyramids,’ which sounded much grander than ‘the Battle of Embabeh.’
The French soldiers could see before them the splendid horses of the Mamelukes, prancing magnificently and snorting in the heat of the day. Each rider was armed with a musket, a pair of pistols, several javelins of sharpened palm branch, whatever battle axes, maces and daggers he could attach to himself or his saddle, and a short, curved sword made of black Damascus steel. Riding into battle, a Mameluke could discharge his musket, fire his pistols–dropping them to the ground for his attendants to pick up–and then select an edged weapon as he approached the enemy.
Since a Mameluke saw battle as his mo-ment of glory, he carried with him valuable earthly possessions. Jewels, gold and silver coins were attached or hidden in his layers of bright silk vests and baggy silk trousers, which were covered with a full-length, long-sleeved, loose-fitting tunic called a caftan. A turban completed his ensemble.
The Mamelukes knew one tactic–a cavalry charge. Napoleon had seen that tactic at Shubra Khit and devised a way to counter it. Placing his troops in square divisions–which may actually have been rectangular rather than perfectly square–he was able to withstand the charging hordes of Mame-lukes from any direction. Each square consisted of ranks of infantry from six to 10 men deep. In the center of each square was Bonaparte’s small number of cavalrymen, and the artillery was placed on the outer corners of the squares.
Napoleon positioned his five divisions in an oblique line from the Nile. Bon’s division was next to the river. Then came the divisions of Generals Honoré Vial, Charles Joseph Dugua and Jean Louis Reynier. On the flank farthest from the Nile and closest to the Mamelukes was Desaix’s division. Bonaparte and his staff took shelter within the middle square, which gave him the most protection from either flank and at the same time allowed him to see the two divisions on either side of Dugua’s square. The French troops would get additional support from a flotilla of 15 river boats, manned by 600 sailors under the command of Captain Jean-Baptiste Perrée, which Bonaparte had assembled at Rosetta and sent up the Nile to assist his army.
The key to French success was their discipline. If any soldiers were to break and run, they would be cut down by the Mamelukes–and they would expose the other sides of the square to a two-sided attack.
As Bonaparte’s five divisions moved forward, the Mameluke cavalrymen charged as expected, concentrating their attack on the French right flank. The five divisions tightened into their square formations, and Desaix’s square was the first hit. The French artillery fired into the charging horde, but the infantrymen held their fire until the Mamelukes were nearly upon them. Lieutenant M. Vetray, an officer in Reynier’s division, recalled that moment in the battle: ‘The soldiers fired with such coolness that not a single cartridge was wasted, waiting until the last minute when the horsemen were about to break our square. The number of corpses surrounding our square soon was considerable, and the clothes of the dead and wounded Mamelukes were burning like tinder….The blazing wads of our muskets penetrated at the same time as our bullets through their rich uniforms, which were embroidered with gold and silver and floated as lightly as gauze.’
Although the Mamelukes’ cavalry charge was highly unsuccessful against Bonaparte’s division squares, they repeated the tactic again and again, as if sheer determination could overcome French firepower. At times during the furious onslaught, some Mamelukes would penetrate the square, only to be finished off with bayonets and rifle butts.
While the Mamelukes were engaging the two squares on Bonaparte’s right, Dugua’s square in the middle was using howitzers to shell the warriors in the area between Embabeh and the squares. A detachment of cavalry and grenadiers, sent by Desaix into the village on the French right, climbed onto the flat roofs of the houses and began firing on the Mamelukes.
On the opposite shore, the Mamelukes not engaged in the battle screamed their encouragement. Their cheering may only have encouraged the Mamelukes on the west bank to continue their suicidal charges.
While the Mamelukes continued to charge and retreat, a curious encounter took place. As a white-bearded Mameluke rode his horse tauntingly in front of Bon’s square on the extreme French left, Lieutenant Nicholas Desvernois rode out to accept the challenge. Like two medieval knights on a field of honor, they faced each other and closed the distance. Desvernois’ first pistol shot dismounted the Mameluke. Crawling on his hands and knees, with his beard dragging on the ground, the Mameluke used his scimitar to sever the feet of the lieutenant’s horse. The battle continued on the ground until Desvernois’ saber struck the Mame-luke’s head, disabling him. Soldiers raced out of the square to finish off the Mameluke with their rifle butts.
Desvernois was richly rewarded. The many gold pieces sewn into his foe’s clothing and a magnificent sword, with inlaid gold on the rhinoceros-horn handle and sheath, became the property of the victor.
As the battle continued, Bon’s and Vial’s divisions launched an assault from the French left into the village, under covering fire provided by their riverine flotilla. The French came under fire from cannons hidden in the village. But the cannons, which were mounted on fixed carriages that prevented them from traversing the field of battle, proved ineffective in stopping the attack.
When Bon’s and Vial’s troops entered the village, a demibrigade was rushed forward to cut off a Mameluke retreat. Murad Bey, though wounded in the face, managed to flee with a part of his cavalry toward Gizeh before the trap could close.
With their escape routes blocked, the other Mamelukes and their fellaheen plunged into the Nile in an effort to reach their forces on the opposite shore. Perhaps 1,000 drowned and hundreds more were shot. Some warriors were reportedly clubbed with oars by French boatmen trying to check their escape.
According to some accounts, Ibrahim Bey had contemplated crossing the Nile to help his Mameluke brethren, but a dust storm came up, blocking his view of the fighting. In any case, while Murad Bey fled south, Ibrahim Bey and his forces abandoned Cairo during the night and fled to the east. The next morning, July 22, 1798, the sheiks and imams were willing to surrender the city. Sending deputations ahead of him, Bonaparte did not enter Cairo until July 24.
An estimated 2,000 or so Mamelukes died at Embabeh, along with several thousand fellaheen. Bonaparte’s losses were officially reported as 29 killed and 120 wounded. The chief surgeon of the army, Dominique Larrey, believed the number of wounded was 260. The battle had lasted only an hour or two.
The Mamelukes who died on land were searched for plunder by French soldiers. In the days that followed, the French also fished bodies from the Nile, often finding as many as 200 to 300 gold pieces on a corpse.
In spite of his brutal disregard for the comfort of his troops in the field, Bonaparte was a generous commander when his troops occupied Cairo. Entertainment was arranged, along with trips to the pyramids. Soldiers enjoyed a great deal of freedom to intermingle with the population.
A little more than a year after the Battle of the Pyramids, Bonaparte’s supply line from Europe had largely been cut off, and he had an increasingly difficult time achieving his objectives in the Middle East. He abandoned his army, which remained in Egypt for two more years after his departure.
One legacy survives Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign. His victory at Embabeh afforded the 500 scientists he had brought on the expedition the opportunity to record Egypt’s past and present. Egyptology would become a respected field of study, and the secrets of the pyramids and the society that built them would be revealed. The Rosetta stone, discovered by a Frenchman in 1799, would be deciphered by another Frenchman in 1822, unlocking the written language of the ancient Egyptians. *
This article was written by John Dellinger and originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!