Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France for 11 years, starting in 1801. An incredibly successful military man, he initially rose to power via a military coup in 1799 before declaring himself the first Emperor of France in 1801.
The French governing system that took power after the revolution which took down the existing monarchy was in the middle (geographically speaking) of other nations whose own remaining monarchies were firmly anti-republican. Their main goal was then, to prevent these revolutionary ideas from threatening their position if they were to seep into the minds of the French people. To do that, they set out to campaign and conquer all those territories that could present any type of threat. Once under French rule, they could then control and squash any possible revolutions before they even took place.
After a victorious campaign within the confines of Italy at the end of the 18th century, France shifted their attention towards an even more powerful enemy – the monarchy of England. The campaign to Egypt had at its roots the idea of putting a wrench in the English’s ability to function and prosper. But the one who came up with targeting Egypt was actually Napoleon himself.
What was special during this particular expedition, was that in addition to soldiers and sailors Napoleon brought along for the first time ever, a group of scholars with him. Over 100 intellectuals joined him on the journey, including scientists and engineers. Their main goal was to learn and record Egyptian culture and history. And while the military aspect of the invasion was ultimately a failure, the educational side of it was more successful than anyone could have imagined.
PREPARATIONS: BEFORE THE JOURNEY
Napoleon first proposed the military expedition into Egypt in early 1798. In a letter he sent to the 5 member committee that governed over France at the time (named the Directory), he stated this campaign would safeguard French trade interests. It would also debilitate British commerce and would cut the British’s access to India. Bonaparte’s biggest dream was to establish a French presence in the area, with the idea of connecting with one of France’s allies, the Sultan of the Kingdom of Mysore in India. While France wasn’t prepared for a full-scale fight with Great Britain itself, the Directory decided that the next best thing was this expedition.
At the time, Egypt had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for a few years. It had, however, recently gained independence and was still finding its footing in terms of leadership. In France, scholars believed that Egypt was the true birthplace of Western civilization and had a deep desire to conquer and study it. Added to this were the French merchants already established there who were dealing with harassment from the ruling majority in Egypt. If that wasn’t reason enough, Napoleon (who history showed had quite the ambitions) wanted to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and create a vast empire he could rule.
He set out to convince the Directory that the moment Egypt was taken, he would be able to establish a relationship with Indian rulers, and with their support and army would then turn their attention towards the English. While the cost and sheer scope of the undertaking were very high, the committee did approve the idea. In their eyes, this was the perfect opportunity to get rid of Napoleon and his ambitions that threatened their own power as the ruling government.
THE INVASION: WHAT REALLY BROUGHT ON THE CAMPAIGN
The initial campaign Napoleon spearheaded to invade Egypt had its true origins in political and economical reasons, as most invasions did. The main objective was to invade the Ottoman territory (including what is modern Egypt and Syria) in order to prevent the British Empire from taking notice of the geographical and commercial center the area could become. As lifelong enemies, the British and the French had a long history of attempting to balance the scales in each of their favors when it came to overall power. Looking at the situation more in-depth shows us that France had the need to take over control of Egypt due to trading and commerce specifically. During the 18th century, the main portion of European trade with Egypt was handled by French salesmen. If the French could control Egypt then they could use it to threaten British commercial interests in the region and to block Britain’s best land route to India from which they also benefited commercially and financially.
The invasion began in 1798 and lasted until 1801. The way they framed the campaign towards the outside world, however, was under the same pretenses Western nations had used over the years when attempting to take control over a nation that would bring them financial and political prosperity: with the idea that they were bringing the superior western value system to the “needy” nation and to “liberate” them of their antiquated and already existing values. Mainly, the French were there to save the Egyptian people from their current rulers and their barbaric ways.
Before this expedition, colonization was rationalized with religious arguments as mentioned above. After this campaign, however, the view shifted into having scientific research as the main justification of European powers invading Oriental nations. The French expedition to Egypt ended up birthing what we today know as colonialism and creating the frame of all the invasions that came after it during the 19th and 20th centuries. This idea that a supposedly “inferior” society ruled by tyrants could be saved by Western powers sharing the “correct” ways of creating civilization was the perfect way to hide true invasion reasons. And so, when France decided to set out and colonize Egypt, they actually thought of themselves as liberators and saviors of the Egyptian population.
HOW THE EGYPTIANS FOUGHT BACK: FRANCE LOSES THE INVASION
It was the 10th of May in 1798 when Napoleon and his army of more than 30,000 souls left Toulon, France with their own fleet of boats. With the idea of setting up a post, mid-way between France and Egypt to help with replenishing provisions, he conquered the island of Malta before setting foot in Egypt less than a month after his departure.
They first set foot in Egypt after touching the cost of Alexandria following their travels up the river Nial. Napoleon took control of the city quickly, mainly because of the more advanced weapons and technology they had, and then set off to repeat that victory while making his way towards the Northern territories of the nation. Unfortunately, these would be the only bigger wins the invasion would see.
On October 21, a portion of the army made its way into Cairo. While there, a group made up of the English army was surrounding their fleet which had been left partially unattended and too far from land. With time and the surprise factor on their hands, the British destroyed each ship one by one taking the first step that would lead to the failure of the French’s Egyptian invasion. Without that fleet, Napoleon and his troops were stranded in Egypt without the ability to replenish their provisions or receive information from France.
What followed was one defeat after another as the French army was forced out of Cairo due to the Egyptian citizens’ raise against them. From there, Napoleon tried making his way into Syria with the idea of destroying the Ottoman Empire but was also defeated. His lack of boats meant that journey had to be completed by foot, and once there he was faced with the Turks and British having banded together to defeat the advancement.
OUTCOME OF THE FAILED INVASION: EGYPTOMANIA
While ultimately unsuccessful on the military front, the major cultural impact of the French invasion had was its effect on Europe. Napoleon’s travels brought with them the publication of the “Description de l’Egypte” (Description of Egypt), which showcased the findings of the scholars and scientists who had joined him in the expedition. This encyclopedia-like book had around twenty volumes and mostly showed huge engravings of the culture and architecture they found there, along with written descriptions of each one. It became the foundation of modern research into the history, society, and economics of Egypt. On the scientific front as well, the expedition eventually led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which was a key aspect of both the creation of the field of Egyptology as well as the ability to decipher ancient hieroglyphs.
As Europe entered a cultural reset, Egyptomania was born. Being the huge empire that it was, Europe had always had a fascination with everything Oriental -, and Egypt was no exception. With Napoleon’s journey and the creation of the “Description of Egypt” came the opportunity to explore a brand new subject for the French people. Furniture, parties, clothing, museums, and even food now all had an Egyptian theme. The passion was so widespread that even today we can still see the effects it has on the Western world. Egyptian-based exhibitions were set up in the Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and even The National Gallery of Canada as recent as 1995.
Apart from the cultural implications, the Egyptian invasion also had political consequences worth mentioning. It created the idea of conquering and retaining power over a group of people through the complete knowledge and understanding of the country and its population. This angle had never before been pursued to this depth before, making this one campaign particularly unique since an invading nation had never shown such detailed interest in the object of its conquest.