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Facts & Figures

Napoleon in Egypt : The Battle of the Pyramids ( July 1798)

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.

François-Louis-Joseph WATTEAU
French 1758-1823
The Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798 (La Bataille des Pyramides, 21 juillet 1798) (1798-99)
oil on canvas
94.0 x 120.4 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes (Inv. P. 46.1.211)
© Photo RMN - René-Gabriel Ojéda
Above: Following the landing near Alexandria and capture of the city late in May 1798, Napoleon’s army swept south where they confronted the main Egyptian Army outside Cairo Read more
Above: Following the landing near Alexandria and capture of the city late in May 1798, Napoleon’s army swept south where they confronted the main Egyptian Army outside Cairo. Napoleon’s superior military tactics overwhelmed the Mameluke cavalry and the battle for Cairo was over in a few hours. Three days later Napoleon marched into the city. Watteau exploits the dramatic setting with the majestic Great Pyramid of Giza – still almost unknown – theatrically dwarfing the battle. Close
Certainly Bonaparte held high hopes of advancing both his own status and expanding the French Empire. Despite the fact that the military Campaign was a failure, when the French Fleet was destroyed by Lord Nelson and the British Navy at Aboukir in the Battle of the Nile (effectively blockading the Army of the Orient in Egypt), the Egyptian Campaign acquired legendary status. Napoleon and his personal body-guard, Raza Roustam, as well as a number of the captured Mamelukes, departed Egypt in 1799 - while the majority of the army were repatriated back to France by the British Navy following the final defeat of the French forces in Egypt in 1801. Nevertheless, the Egyptian Campaign entered into the popular imagination. One hundred and fifty-four scholars from every profession – from archaeology to architecture, medicine to geography, and engineering to lexicography – had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt as part of this expedition. Their scientific studies of both ancient and modern Egypt, together with the legendary status of the Battle of the Pyramids, established a mystique embracing both the Pharaohs and the exotic Orient. 

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