In ordering an expedition to Egypt and creating an Army of the Orient in April 1798, under the command of the young General Bonaparte, France’s post-revolutionary Directory sought to do two things. The first was to block Britain’s trade route to India and re-establish commerce with the Levant. The second unstated objective was to remove the ambitious young Bonaparte, whose popularity following his success in the Italian Campaign of the previous year rendered him a threat in current volatile politics.
General Bonaparte famously addressed his troops on their arrival in Egypt with the words “From the heights of the Pyramids, forty centuries look down on us”. The reality of France’s Egyptian Campaign was less grandiose, and descriptions by surviving French Officers of Napoleon’s decision to trek his 37,000 troops across the desert rather than follow the Nile River from Alexandria, tell of appalling mismanagement, of thirst, discomfort, disease and death. Nevertheless it was in the Battle of the Pyramids (more accurately the Battle of Embabeh in the Gaza plain where the battle actually took place) that Napoleon famously routed the Mameluke cavalry by putting into practise his innovative use of the massive so-called ‘divisional square’, a tactic first deployed in Antiquity. The Mamelukes had effectively ruled Egypt since the thirteenth century and were legendary, apparently invincible, and fearless warriors. Their defeat at the hands of General Bonaparte further enhanced his reputation.
The Battle of the Pyramids, between French troops led by Bonaparte and 21,000 Egyptian Mameluke soldiers was a resounding victory for the French. In contrast, the French naval fleet, stationed in the Bay of Aboukir, was attacked by the newly arrived British fleet, under the command of Horatio Nelson, and was roundly defeated. Following this naval defeat, Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign remained land-based.
Having installed himself as master of Egypt by force, Bonaparte then set about installing in Egypt what he viewed as the benefits of western civilisation. He established the Institut d’Egypte for French scholars, a library, a chemistry laboratory, a health service, a botanical garden, an observatory, an antiquities museum and a zoo.