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When Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition “revealed Egypt to the world and to itself”


As France marks the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, France 24 plunges into the past, in the footsteps of the Egyptian campaign, launched by General Bonaparte in 1798. A military disaster, but a political springboard for the future Napoleon. A scientific and cultural enterprise imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment which turned Egypt upside down. Robert Solé, Franco-Egyptian writer and journalist, looks back on the different facets of this famous expedition.

On May 19, 1798, at 6 a.m., more than 300 ships left Toulon harbor for Egypt. In all, nearly 54,000 people, including more than 36,000 soldiers, set sail under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte who, at the age of 29, launched the campaign in Egypt, at the request of the Directory. Officially, the future emperor is responsible for cutting off the route to India from the English and freeing the Egyptian people from the tyranny of the Mamluk princes who are then in power in the country.

On board are also more than 160 civilians, including architects, astronomers, botanists, engineers, painters, doctors, and orientalists, all members of the Commission for Science and the Arts specially constituted before the campaign. . The mathematician Gaspard Monge, the painter and genius inventor Nicolas-Jacques Conté [inventeur du crayon papier] and the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, are also part of the journey that will be a milestone in the Napoleonic epic.

It will be a milestone, but not for military reasons, because the hero of the Italian campaign sees his expedition turn into a fiasco. After easy victories for a well-equipped army, such as the capture of Alexandria and the battle of the Pyramids, the French fleet was sunk in Aboukir harbor at the beginning of August by the English and Admiral Nelson.

General Bonaparte in Cairo

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1886), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An event which nails on the spot the army of the East which will be later also the victim of an epidemic of plague and stopped dead in Saint-Jean d’Acre [actuelle Acre en Israël]. On August 22, 1799, General Bonaparte left for France, escaping the English navy, leaving the soldiers left behind to capitulate on August 31, 1801.

A campaign that has gone down in history, despite the military fiasco

Although disastrous militarily, this Bonapartist expedition has nevertheless been remembered mainly thanks to its cultural and scientific dimensions.

“The Napoleonic legend first retained the military victories by describing Bonaparte as the victor of the Pyramids and the land of the Pharaohs. Only insofar as this expedition ended after three years in military failure, since the Ottomans and the English have regained control of Egypt, the emphasis has been placed on the scientific and cultural contribution of this campaign “, explains Robert Solé, Franco-Egyptian writer and journalist, author of several books on the expedition of ‘Egypt, interviewed by France 24.

A colossal and inestimable contribution, assures Robert Solé, in the sense that these scientists accomplished a considerable work, encouraged by Napoleon, which will be concretized by a monumental publication which will make reference: “The Description of Egypt”. A work, a copy of which is kept in the Historical Library of the National Archives, in which we find the innumerable notes, plans, drawings and sketches, made between 1798 and 1801.

When Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition “revealed Egypt to the world and to itself”
The Description of Egypt, Antiquities, vol. V, pl. 8: Pyramids of Memphis, 1814. Historical Library, MI 130. © National Archives (France)

“All this unprecedented work, even from an ethnological and sociological point of view, laid the foundations of Egyptology and marked the history of science, insists Robert Solé. Bonaparte’s scholars have even revealed Egypt to the world. and to herself, because at the time, the Egyptians were not interested in their Pharaonic past, and even rejected a past which they considered as pagan “.

This cultural and scientific approach, which revived Egyptomania in all its forms and launched the passion of the French for this country, is part of the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, decrypts the author of “La Grande Aventure de l ‘ Egyptology “(Perrin editions, 2019). “At the time of this campaign, we are in the aftermath of the French Revolution which is then convinced that it must go and spread civilization in the world. However, as at that time it is estimated that Egypt was at the origin of civilization, it is a matter of bringing civilization back to its cradle “.

And to add: “It is in this spirit and this idea, in any case officially, that Napoleon Bonaparte, who claims to be an admirer of Islam and who does not come in a spirit of crusade, is going to conquer the ‘Egypt”.

“A time bomb”

Except that at the time, it was the first shock since the crusades between the West and the Muslim East. “And the Egyptians, underlines Robert Solé, do not understand at all what these French people come to do at home, in this province of the Ottoman Empire, especially since this first Franco-Egyptian meeting was violent, since It is above all a colonial operation and a military occupation “.

Asked about the perception of this Napoleonic expedition by the Egyptians today, the Franco-Egyptian writer specifies that until the 1950s, when Egypt was still a monarchy, “it was accepted” that the French with Bonaparte “had brought modernity”, so much this campaign upset the history of the country.

When Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition “revealed Egypt to the world and to itself”
A photo released by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities on June 22, 2014, showing a pistol dating from Napoleon Bonaparte’s French campaign in Egypt (1798-1801), after it was found near the port of Alexandria. © Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, AFP

“This expedition, when examined objectively, is a time bomb, since at the time, if it does not bring much to the Egyptians, it causes a break in the history of this country, which was dozed off for centuries, believes Robert Solé. Even if the character should not be praised too much because of the violence that enamelled the expedition, modern Egypt begins with Bonaparte and his famous campaign, in the sense that it has a significant political effect by destroying the political system of the Mamluks and opening the way for Mehemet Ali, the founder of the modern state “.

“From 1952 and the military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, this campaign was described as a foreign occupation, a parenthesis, which had the main effect of awakening Egyptian nationalism, continues Robert Solé. French expedition has since been largely ignored and it remains until today very little known and very badly taught in the country “.

Finally, if it was a game-changer in Egypt, this campaign will also have had an impact on the imperial fate of the “victor of the Pyramids”.

“To summarize, adds Robert Solé, we can say that Bonaparte left for Egypt in 1798, but it was Napoleon who later returned to France to take power there, after having acquired experience as head of state, by directing both the army of the East and Egypt ”.

While he was the most popular general in the country, he did not seem ready to take power as some encouraged him to do in 1798. “It is too early to attack the Directory, he knows it and he feels it, and he was above all convinced that he had to go to the East, which greatly attracted this young general who was fascinated by Alexander the Great, because in his eyes, says Robert Solé, it is in this region of the world that we can achieve a great purpose “.

And to conclude: “He was right, since it was crowned with glory after this Egyptian experience, that he became first consul, then emperor.”

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