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Why Western armies win battles— but not wars—in the Muslim world.

Crimson and azure robes embroidered with silver and gold flashed in the hot Egyptian sun as 7,000 Mamluk cavalry trotted toward the invaders, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army of the Orient. Suddenly, the Mamluks uttered blood-curdling war cries and spurred their horses to a gallop, scimitars and spears glinting brilliantly. The French—stacked six deep in square formations, the long bayonets of their rifles bristling with menace—braced themselves. The Mamluks thundered down, pulling jewel-encrusted pistols from their opulent sashes and shooting off a volley. The French held their breath, the ofcers fnally bellowing, “Fire!” when the enemy was 50 feet away. Bullets and grapeshot exploded from rifes and artillery, thudding into the Mamluk line. Horses reared and screamed, riders tumbled from the saddles. After a furious blur of action, the Mamluks pulled back, leaving behind a contorted mass of dead and wounded. The French reloaded and awaited the next charge.

Thus commenced the Battle of the Pyramids, on July 21, 1798, a short, ferce encounter that would result in a three-year French occupation of Egypt, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. The invasion was the largest and most violent meeting between Western and Muslim Arab armies since the Crusades. It would spark the first modern Egyptian revolution, transform international relations, make its mark on Western science and art, and help vault Napoleon to the summit of power. But in the end France would be forced to withdraw, a cautionary tale for modern Western policymakers and soldiers who seek quick victories over Muslim nations yet underestimate how determinedly those countries will fight to rid their lands of invaders.

The revolutionary French government—called the Directory—believed it had compelling reasons to invade Egypt. Since 1792, Republican France had been at war with virtually every European monarchy and was still fighting its most powerful enemy, Great Britain, when Napoleon arrived in Egypt. Taking this ancient land would strike a blow at Britain by threatening sea and land passages to its colony in India. Ideologically, the conquest was considered a war for liberation: France would replace what was assumed to be a despised Ottoman-Egyptian autocracy with a republican government based on freedom and liberty. Politically, the notion that great nations should have colonies was attractive, and in the eyes of the French was not contradictory to the aim of “liberating” Egypt. Finally, the invasion conveniently ejected the 28-year-old Napoleon from the country. The Directory was keen to see France’s most ambitious general busy in battle abroad and not flitting around the parlors of Paris, scheming for power.

Born in Corsica, Napoleon was a brilliant mathematician and a dedicated revolutionary. Commissioned as an artillery officer, he had risen rapidly through the ranks, eventually earning command of the Army of Italy, a land he conquered in 1797. Convinced of his destiny, Napoleon dreamed of reliving the adventures of Alexander the Great. “Europe is a molehill,” he said. “Everything here is worn out….We must set off for the Orient; that is where all the greatest glory is to be achieved.”

Firing French imaginations were romantic fantasies of “reawakening” Muslims from a supposed centuries-long slumber. In their ignorance, many French believed they would be welcomed to shimmering cities of marble and walk in the footsteps of Caesar and Cleopatra. They knew little of the realities of Muslim Arab civilization in the late 18th century, with its unique and splendid cultural achievements.

Meanwhile, across the blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, Ottoman Egyptian society was unaware of French intentions. Egypt had a population of about 4.5 million; its bustling capital, Cairo, around 267,000. Among its many wonders, the city boasted al-Azhar, the Middle East’s preeminent mosque and educational institute. The Mamluks, the upper echelon of society and a proud warrior class, lived in elegant sophistication. They had originally been installed in Egypt as slave warriors in the ninth century, but after defeating Mongol invaders at Ayn Jalut (in Galilee) in 1260, they overthrew the Ayyubids in the 13th century to become the rulers of Egypt. After the Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamluks in 1517, the sultan left them in charge as his vassals. Growing in power, and far removed from the sultan in Istanbul, Mamluk beys (lords) ruled Egypt virtually as a private fief, rarely even paying tribute to the sultan.

By the time of the French invasion, Egypt was controlled by two powerful Mamluk leaders, Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey. But they ruled a weakened land. Once the center of a vigorous coffee trade, Egypt had been hit by drought, plague, and low Nile floods, critically damaging its agricultural production. (High Nile floods are vital for fertilization and irrigation; low floods are disastrous.) Its people were overtaxed, its leadership wracked by power struggles. In the desert, strong Bedouin tribes dominated, often robbing and assaulting pilgrims to Mecca and urban dwellers who ventured beyond their cities’ walls.

The Ottoman Egyptian army was a polyglot force, including Albanians, Greeks, Arabs, Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, and others, and consisting of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Its pride was the deadly Mamluk cavalry. Trained from youth and mounted on fleet Arab steeds, they were renowned for their thunderous charge. Armed with swords, spears, and carbines, and often sporting several pistols stuck into their belts, they would rush their opponents, discharging their pistols, which they tossed aside to be gathered by their servants, and then, clenching the reins in their teeth, strike their terrified foes down with sword and lance. Valuing individual displays of courage over discipline, they numbered between 9,000 and 10,000 at the time of the French attack and were served by about 20,000 unarmed attendants.

Another 20,000 men—elite Janissary infantry, armed with muskets and scimitars, and additional mounted troops—supported the Mamluk cavalry. And thanks to mercenary payments and alliances, tough, clever Bedouin bolstered the Egyptian ranks, although they were independent and fickle warriors. Finally, untrained fellahin (peasants), whose weapons consisted of little more than clubs and knives, served as ground troops. Extremely rough estimates put their numbers at 10,000, for a total army of approximately 40,000 men.

These warriors had known success for centuries. This time, however, their foe was something they had never encountered before: a technologically advanced, highly trained, and battle-tested European army, headed by the greatest general of the age.

Napoleon’s Army of the Orient consisted of 28,000 infantrymen armed with muskets and organized into five divisions. Another 3,000 artillerymen and engineers manned 171 assorted howitzers, mortars, and field guns firing shells, canister, and ball shot. The army was rounded out by 2,700 cavalrymen, plus various bodyguards and guides.

In battle, the French would pummel their enemy with artillery, wear them down with clouds of skirmishers, and harry them with cavalry employed to scout, break an opponent’s lines, and run down fleeing troops. Depending on the engagement, the infantry were formed into columns for attacking in depth, lines to concentrate firepower, or squares several ranks deep. If a square was charged by cavalry, the outer ranks would kneel, those directly behind them would crouch, and the hindmost soldiers would remain upright.

The result was a fearsome and impenetrable wall of bayonets. Few horses could be induced to breach the mass of deadly 15- inch spikes. From the squares’ centers Napoleon and his officers directed their men and, through the blue-gray haze of gunpowder, reacted to the course of the battle.

In May 1798, Napoleon’s troops secretly amassed at Toulon, France. Thirteen ships of the line, 17 frigates, and hundreds of transports bobbed in the Mediterranean, ready to sail. The plan was inelegant: take Malta to use as a base and to confuse the British as to Napoleon’s intentions—was his goal the Levant, Egypt, or India?—then land on the Egyptian shoreline at Alexandria and end the campaign in triumph with the capture of Cairo, some 130 miles down the Nile.

But Napoleon had a much grander scheme in mind. In 1797 he had ruled Italy as if it were his own, and he enjoyed that taste of power. Taking Malta and Egypt would place the entire Levant within his grasp and the glittering treasure of India within striking distance.

Acquiring territory and power would be just the first step. Napoleon also planned to avail himself of the vast intellectual riches of the East. He took along 167 scientists, architects, and artists. Known as the savants, they were to study and catalog mysterious Egypt. Furthermore, Napoleon, keenly aware of the power of the word, loaded an Arabic printing press on board for issuing proclamations. It was a historic moment, for this would be the first press in the Middle East. Napoleon also intensely studied the Koran, believing that knowledge of the Egyptians’ faith was vital to ruling them.

One potential threat to this grandiose plan was the Ottoman sultan, Selim III. Although the Mamluks ran Egypt as their own fiefdom, it was nominally part of Selim’s empire. With this in mind, the Directory sent emissaries to Istanbul to assure him that its Egyptian operation was merely to protect the rights of French merchants, an excuse the Ottomans justifiably viewed with skepticism. Indeed, the campaign was already in motion.

Arriving on June 9 at Malta, Napoleon negotiated with the ruling Knights of Malta, who briefly resisted, but then, confronted with a superior force, surrendered. The French replenished their supplies and, leaving behind a garrison of 4,000 men, set sail again on the 19th. In pursuit were Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson and the British fleet. On a hunch, Nelson struck out for Egypt, arriving at Alexandria ahead of his quarry on June 28. Finding no enemy there, the impatient admiral rushed north on the 29th. At dawn that very morning, a French frigate made landfall in Egypt, just a few miles west of Alexandria. Nelson however, would be back.

Once the army was assembled on shore, Napoleon marched it to Alexandria, where it met cannon fire, a detachment of Mamluk cavalry, and about 300 Bedouin. Beating off these blows, the French scaled the walls and took the city, losing perhaps 20 to 100 killed and several hundred wounded.

One of Napoleon’s first acts was to publish a proclamation to the Egyptian people printed in Arabic, Turkish, and French. The French are “true Muslims” and friends of Islam, the document promised, and had come to end the tyranny of the Mamluks. “Egyptians will be able to occupy all public offices, so that the country will be governed by virtuous and educated rulers, and the people will be happy.” More to the point, the proclamation warned that villages resisting the French “will be burnt to the ground.” Egyptian reaction is recorded in the writings of an alAzhar cleric, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, who rejected the notion that the French were Muslims, ridiculed the proclamation’s bad Arabic, and, among many other points, questioned the morality of French women. (He did, however, express admiration for the scientific mission of the savants.)

Appointing General Jean-Baptiste Kléber governor of Alexandria and providing him with a 2,000-man garrison, Napoleon set out on a 150-mile march to Cairo, seeking a crushing victory over the Mamluks. Settling on a multipronged attack, Napoleon on July 3 dispatched a division under Major General LouisCharles Desaix toward the town of Damanhur, 40 miles southeast of Alexandria, while other units struck out toward Rosetta, which lay near the coast to the east. Meanwhile a flotilla made up of gunboats and transports under Captain Jean-Baptiste Perrée sailed down the Nile to link up with the entire army at El Ramaniyah, a city on the Nile en route to Cairo.

As soon as the march commenced, it became apparent how ill prepared the Army of the Orient was for desert fighting. The men did not have enough canteens or provisions, and thirst and hunger soon tormented them. One Sergeant François recalled that in one village, “in five minutes, these wells were emptied; soldiers pressed in to descend on them in such great numbers that many were smothered. Others were crushed by the mob. More than thirty soldiers died.” Wool uniforms and heavy backpacks added to the misery in desert temperatures that reached 115 degrees. “The entire campaign,” in the words of Napoleon biographer Alan Schom, “was a colossal foul-up from the very beginning.”

Virtually none of the French aside from the savants spoke Arabic or had been educated about Muslim culture. Far from being welcomed as liberators, they often encountered villages whose terrified inhabitants fled upon their approach, taking food and livestock with them. Worse, the French soldiers were shadowed by Bedouin who kidnapped and ransomed stragglers, sometimes raping or killing them. Many soldiers grew insubordinate, others committed suicide.

Napoleon pressed on, his columns approaching the Nile near El Ramaniyah on July 10. “When the troops caught sight of the Nile,” wrote one observer, “they broke ranks, rushed forward, and threw themselves into the water. Some leapt in fully clothed, complete with their rifles.” Scouts reported to Napoleon that one of the Mamluk rulers, Murad Bey, had left Cairo with 3,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry, heading toward the French. Napoleon ordered a review of the army. In a rousing address he promised them victories along the way and food upon reaching Cairo. “This speech had a great effect,” recalled one officer. “It looked as if [Napoleon] had at last convinced us all of the purpose and greatness of his plans.” Meanwhile in Cairo, al-Jabarti recorded how the calm and confident Mamluk leaders asserted that “they would crush [the French] beneath their horses’ hooves.”

Murad Bey decided to confront the invaders at the village of Shubra Khit, 80 miles north of Cairo. Learning of this, Napoleon ordered General Desaix’s division down the western bank of the Nile. Napoleon discovered that an Ottoman Egyptian flotilla led by Nikola, an expert river navigator, was proceeding toward them from the south, and he dispatched Captain Perrée with 60 ships to head them off.

On the 13th, the Mamluks attacked. Each brave rush was met by sizzling blasts of rifle and artillery fire from the French squares, and Perrée’s ships fought off an ambush. Suddenly, the Mamluks wheeled their horses and disappeared into the desert as Nikola’s flotilla also broke off the engagement; they had tested their foe and now pulled back to plan their next move. This short, sharp skirmish resulted in about 300 French casualties and perhaps an equal number of Mamluk losses. After allowing his men a brief rest, Napoleon roused his army and pressed forward. He would not be denied his decisive battle.

Once again, the French troops marched through hostile terrain, suffering swarms of flies, intense heat, and a lack of food and water. Discipline broke down as the men became desperate. Entering a village, recalled one infantryman, the troops “would simply fall upon it, ransacking all they could, their officers turning a blind eye to what was going on.” When one village resisted, the French burned it, took all the food, and killed as many as 900 men, women, and children. Such atrocities gave the lie to any French pretensions about liberating and civilizing Egypt.

Meanwhile, Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey had linked forces near the village of Embaba, about two miles from Cairo and across the Nile from it. Murad positioned his 6,000 Mamluks, 15,000 infantry, plus roughly 3,000 Bedouin on the west bank, where they dug in. Ibrahim Bey’s troops formed up on the east bank to defend Cairo, with approximately 1,000 Mamluk cavalry, 4,000 attendants, and several thousand militia and fellahin supported by some aging artillery. Nikola’s ships blockaded the Nile. [See map, page 38.]

The French arrived on the west bank of the Nile near Embaba on the evening of July 20. In the morning, they could see the minarets and domes of Cairo, eliciting “a thousand cries of joy,” wrote Napoleon. As the sun rose, they could make out the massive white forms of the pyramids in the distance to the south. And sweeping across the plain before them, glimmering in the light, stood the long colorful line of Murad Bey’s army.

This was the moment of destiny Napoleon had sought. After describing his battle plan to his officers, he gestured dramatically toward the pyramids and proclaimed, “Forty centuries of history are looking down on you.”

Yet Napoleon was also well aware of immediate practical concerns. His men were tired, sick, and weak; their morale at an ebb. He feared the legendary Mamluk cavalry charge and assumed his force of 20,000 to 25,000 was outnumbered. He ordered his army into squares, six ranks deep. One division was positioned near the Nile, just north of Embaba, another four spread out a mile or two from each other in an arc (all to the west of the Nile), Desaix’s unit facing the western tip of Murad Bey’s army. Major General Charles Dugua’s division was held in reserve at the apex of the arc; Napoleon set up his command post there.

Around 3 p.m., as Desaix advanced to outflank the enemy, Murad Bey’s cavalry dashed forward “with the speed of lightning,” in Napoleon’s words. Receiving fire, the Mamluks careered on to the next division (of Major General Jean Louis Reynier) where, recalled Sergeant François, “they threw themselves forward in a mad charge….It was real carnage. The sabers of the enemy cavalry met the bayonets of our first rank. It was an unbelievable chaos: horses and cavalrymen falling on us….Several Mamluks had their [silk] clothes on fire….I saw right beside me Mamluks, wounded, in a heap, burning, trying with their sabers to slash the legs of our soldiers.”

The Mamluks, their charges broken up by French fire, corpses, and riderless horses, sped on between the squares, only to be picked off by sharpshooters. A few simply rode away from the battle. A detachment now rushed toward Dugua’s reserves. “I seized the opportunity,” Napoleon later said, “and ordered General [Louis-André] Bon’s division, which was by the Nile, to launch an attack on where the enemy was dug in” at Embaba. Bon and Major General Honoré Vial’s division trapped some Mamluks, who were cut down or forced to withdraw. Again, cavalry attacks against the French squares were futile.

Ibrahim Bey, positioned across the Nile on the eastern shore, ordered his artillery to open up on the French. He and his men crossed the river to aid their fellows just as the French infantry stormed the defenses of Embaba, bayoneting many and driving the enemy into the river. Cairo residents observing the rout “began to scream at the top of their voices, crying ‘Oh God, Oh God,’ ” recalled one witness. The Nile reddened, filled with the bodies of men and horses.

After about two hours, the Battle of the Pyramids, as Napoleon grandly named it, was over. Murad Bey and his Mamluks galloped away to Upper Egypt farther inland, Ibrahim Bey fleeing to the Sinai. Estimates of Ottoman Egyptians killed range from 800 to 1,600, with a total of 10,000 dead, wounded, or taken prisoner; French losses are put at between 20 to 30 killed and 260 wounded. It was an impressive victory, but the Egyptian campaign was far from over.

The Army of the Orient streamed into Cairo. Some residents fled, others began looting and burning the beys’ villas. A few groups, such as Christian Copts, welcomed the invaders. Napoleon established his residence at a bey’s mansion, and immediately began organizing a satellite of the French Republic. He set up meetings with leading Egyptian clerics and sheikhs to form a directory—under his firm control, of course—to administer the city. He imposed stiff taxes to pay for the army’s upkeep and had resisters publicly beheaded or shot. In many ways, the French rule was as harsh as that of the deposed Mamluks.

In fact, over the next few weeks the French committed several grave errors that would come to haunt them. For instance, they tore down the gates that guarded and sealed off Cairo’s wealthier districts from the underclass, an extremely unpopular move among a ruling class distrustful of the foreign invaders and fearful of crime.

The French often favored Georgians, Circassians, and Copts over the majority Arab Muslims, which upset societal norms and rules. Cairo residents were also offended by liberal European attitudes toward women and alcohol. In the Delta and Upper Egypt, the French army established collective responsibility for crimes committed against its soldiers. This meant that an entire village would be burned and its inhabitants slaughtered for, say, the murder of a single Frenchman.

Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey were still at large. Bedouin ruled the deserts. Many villages were indifferent to the French administration. And at the height of his powers, Napoleon had fallen into a depression upon learning of the infidelities of his wife, Josephine, in Paris (though he kept his own mistress in Cairo) as well as political intrigues there. Then in early August came devastating news: Admiral Nelson had destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir Bay (a few miles east of Alexandria, near the mouth of the Nile) in the Battle of the Nile. When informed of this, Napoleon was “simply stunned” according to one witness. A month later the Ottoman Empire declared war on France, then formed an alliance with Britain, Austria, Naples, and Russia. Earlier, Napoleon had written to his brother Joseph that he would be returning to France in “a couple of months.” Now, he and the Army of the Orient were essentially marooned in Egypt.

Some three months after the French took Cairo, simmering resentment against their brutal rule burst into open revolution. Oppressive taxes, humiliating cultural breaches, and disrespect to native dignitaries had angered Egyptians of all classes. Moreover, Sultan Selim III, incensed by France’s seizure of his territory, had issued an imperial decree calling upon his subjects to rebel against the occupiers. Early on October 21, furious crowds began shooting, knifing, and stoning French soldiers. Napoleon and his army were caught by surprise. Reacting ruthlessly, they poured cannon and rifle fire into the throngs. By evening of the 22nd, the revolt was essentially over, leaving around 3,000 Egyptians and about 100 Frenchmen dead, with untold wounded. In the days that followed, the French rounded up and executed those they believed to be the ringleaders.

Still, Napoleon was undeterred and pushed for more conquests over the next six months. Learning that an Ottoman army was massing in Syria to invade Egypt, Napoleon decided to strike first and prevent the Royal Navy from using Levantine ports. On February 6, 1799, Napoleon invaded Palestine with 10,000 troops, taking El Arish and Jaffa, where his men captured 4,000 Ottomans. “What am I supposed to do with them?” Napoleon wondered; his own troops were already short of food and water. His solution? Shoot and bayonet 2,000 of them.

“That atrocious scene,” recalled one of Napoleon’s childhood friends, who was a staff officer during the Egyptian campaign, “still makes me shiver whenever I think about it.” By mid-March Napoleon had laid siege to Acre (a fortress city on the Mediterranean some 75 miles north of Jaffa) but withdrew on May 21 and returned to Cairo. On July 14, the Ottoman army, transported by a British-Ottoman fleet, landed at Aboukir Bay, but was defeated by Napoleon there 11 days later.

By now, Napoleon had received news of French defeats in Europe at the hands of Russo-Austrian forces, and of a crisis in leadership in Paris. Convinced his time in Egypt was over, and that his destiny lay in Europe, Napoleon handed command of the Army of the Orient to General Kléber, and—unsummoned by the Directory—secretly sailed to France on August 23. “I will chase out that bunch of lawyers who are making a mockery of us and who are incapable of governing the Republic,” Napoleon told an associate. “I will install myself at the head of the government, and I will rally all parties in my support.”

Landing at Frejus, France, on October 9, Napoleon was thrilled to be greeted by ecstatic crowds welcoming home the grand conqueror of Malta and Egypt, indeed of the pyramids themselves. By December 1799 he had been made first consul and become the supreme leader of the French Republic. The stage was set for a spectacular new phase in his illustrious career.

Kléber successfully battled the Ottomans until his assassination in Cairo in 1800. Confronted by the combined might of British and Ottoman armies, the French finally withdrew from Egypt in 1801.

In the short term, the French impact on Egypt was superficial. They killed perhaps 12,000 Egyptians, losing around 6,000 of their own. The long-term effect, however, was significant. In the power vacuum created by the defeat of the Mamluks and the French retreat, an Ottoman army officer, Mehmet Ali, seized control of Egypt, massacred the remaining Mamluks, and launched economic, military, and educational reforms that wrenched Egypt into modernity.

One of the enduring legacies of the French occupation was the publication in 1809 of the first of 23 volumes of the savants’ seminal work, the Description of Egypt, with far-reaching influence on European arts and sciences, from the writings of Flaubert and Chateaubriand to the lush paintings of the Orientalist school to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, enriching Western civilization as well as its understanding of ancient Egypt and modern Muslim culture. “The invasion,” writes the Palestinian scholar Edward Said in his book Orientalism, “was in many ways the very model of a truly scientific appropriation of one culture by another,” an appropriation that “still dominate[s] our contemporary cultural and political perspectives.”

But Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt set a tragic precedent. In the two centuries since he landed at Alexandria, Western armies have arrived in the region woefully ignorant of its languages, cultures, infrastructure, geography, and climate.

Today, the West knows its soldiers can almost always achieve quick wins on the battlefield and begin to engineer regime change. But it fails to anticipate what can follow—prolonged guerrilla war, destructive cultural misunderstandings, massive dislocation of inhabitants, and even violent revolution. And as Napoleon learned, when an invading army pulls out, it often leaves behind a radicalized society that presents a whole new set of threats.


O’Brien Browne, a contributing editor to MHQ, is an instructor in Middle Eastern Politics and History at Schiller International University in Heidelberg, Germany

Originally published in the Autumn 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.