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The battle of the Pyramids (click to enlarge)

'From the heights of these Pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you!' - Napoleon

The Egyptian expedition of 1798 was basically Napoleonís ill-fated effort to increase his personal stature while at the same time challenging Britain's position in the East. As his armies in Italy neared the end of their successful campaign against Austria, Napoleon remained wary of the political intrigues of the Directory in Paris and feared the specter of unemployment and thus the loss of personal influence. He sensed the need for a distraction, so he created one.

Having seen the benefits of Britain's profitable colonies, the Directory listened to Napoleon's quixotic idea to invade Egypt, expel the ruling Mamelukes and establish a modern style of government friendly towards French ways. Within three months, the young general had raised and outfitted an expeditionary force of just under 40,000, which included scientists, engineers and veteran troops from the Army of Italy.

On the way to Egypt, Napoleon took possession of Malta, nearly running into Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson's fleet along the way but narrowly missing them thanks to bad weather conditions. Leaving a garrison of 3000 crewmen on Malta, Napoleon continued on his way to Egypt. Having seized Malta's considerable treasury, Napoleon proceeded on to Alexandria, which fell within hours of the French fleet's arrival.

On July 24th, 1798 Napoleon arrived in Cairo having leaving his ships at Alexandria. Nelson, who had remained at sea desperately seeking out the French fleet, finally caught up with Admiral Brueys' fleet at Aboukir Bay on 1 August 1798, destroying all but four French ships in the Battle of the Nile. The French fleet's flagship, the massive 120-gun frigate L'Orient commanded by Louis Casabianca, was attacked by a pack of British frigates and was obliterated in a massive explostion heard more than twenty miles away when its powder magazine detonated, the glow of the fire on board seen as far away as Alexandria.

At 2000 tons, L'Orient was among the largest warships of its time, its destruction a sad event which inspired the famous poem `Casabianca' by Felicia Hemans about Commodore Casabianca's son Giacomo, the boy who stood on the burning deck, dying for having refused to leave the side of his mortally wounded father. With his fleet nearly wiped out, Napoleon and the Army of the Orient were stranded in Egypt.

In Cairo, Napoleon implemented a tolerant policy designed to avoid rioting in unfamiliar surroundings. Always open to new ideas and an inquisitive and eager learner by nature, Napoleon allowed the muslims to continue to worship their prophet Mohammed. Unfortunately, however, his notion of tolerance didn't placate the Egyptians and violent riots eventually broke out in Cairo. Napoleon's suppression of the rebels was bloody.

While Napoleon is deal with the ups and downs of ruling Egypt, his army headed south and began to explore the secrets of the ancient land's past. Napoleon's engineers made detailed drawings of long-forgotten temples, artists created brilliant and exotic paintings and scientists tried to figure out the meaning of the Great Sphinx while also solving the riddle of the famous Rosetta Stone.

Solving that mystery was a problem first addressed by England's Thomas Young and eventually solved by France's own Jean Francois Champollion, who deciphered the language of the Pharaohs by studying patterns within the stone's Demotic, Greek and Hieroglyphic texts. To say Napoleon's scientific endeavors in Egypt were an historical success is an understatement at best. Europeans were able to study a culture lost for thousands of years. Meanwhile, Napoleon was busy playing warlord.

The first major engagement against the Mamelukes of Murad Bey occurred at El Rahmaniya, where Bonaparte showed the fierce, excellent horsemen that their bravery could not match modern European weapons and tactics. The French forces then continued their difficult march down the Nile towards Cairo, enduring heat, disease and exhaustion. On 21 July they drew within sight of Cairo and were treated to an awe-inspiring view of the Pyramids, and a massive Mameluke army of more than 100,000 men drawn up ready for battle.

The Mamelukes, however, were divided into two forces by the Nile and the odds facing the 25,000 Frenchmen were much easier. Forming five large Divisional squares reinforced with ample artillery, the French waited for the Mameluke assault and when it came repulsed the attacks with rigid discipline and a steady, rolling fusillade.

Approximately 6,000 of the forces of Murad Bey became casualties while Bonaparte had just under 300 casualties, not even two dozen actually killed. The second force, under Ibrahim, retreated north-east towards Syria. Three days later, the French took Cairo but the campaign's successes were ruined by Admiral Horation Nelson's defeat of the French navy at Aboukir Bay, which saw Bonaparte's army cut off from its supply lines.

October saw a bloody uprising in Cairo against the infidel invaders. Bonaparte's attempts to placate the Egyptians by saying they were being freed from Mameluke rule did not succeed and when a mob of several thousand rampaged through the city it cost the lives of 300 Frenchmen. The rebellion ended after the Europeans turned their cannons on to the El Azhar mosque.

Next the invaders had to suffer an outbreak of the plague, which decimated French ranks, but Bonaparte's bravery again put heart into his troops when he personally visited the sick and dying at a time when even their physicians were avoiding them.

In February of 1799, Bonaparte marched at the head of 13,000 men towards Syria, where the Syrian leader, Djezzar Pasha, had organised a huge army to attack Egypt. France was also now at war with Turkey and Bonaparte knew there were British plans to transport and land an Ottoman army to his rear.

Speed, therefore, was of the essence but the campaign got off to a poor start when a strong fort at El Arish held out for 10 days before surrendering. The delay was crucial, as was another at Jaffa, when it was discovered that many of the troops in that city had given their word not to fight against the French having been given clemency at El Arish.

In a pressure cooker situation, Bonaparte and his officers debated for almost a week over the fate of those who broke their bond and finally decided they would be executed. Some 4500 men were killed. Plague again broke out in the army and again Bonaparte showed great bravery in attending the sick and dying.

Advancing to Acre, he then discovered that his army's large-calibre siege guns had been captured by a British naval officer, Sir William Sidney Smith, and the delays at El Arish and Jaffa had allowed his enemies to fully prepare the strong fortress before him to withstand an assault.

Napoleon at the battle of the Pyramids by Gros

On 28 March, Bonaparte launched an assault that succeeded in getting inside the walls, but a counterattack by Djezzar Pasha threw them out again. A man with no mercy, Djezzar - "the Butcher" as he was known - then proceeded to slaughter hundreds of Christian prisoners inside the city.

Bonaparte now found himself tied to a difficult siege and with enemy forces encircling his small army. Sending out strong detachments under generals Junot, Murat and Kleber, Bonaparte knew he was in some trouble. On April 5th, Junot beat off an attack near Nazareth and when Kleber was sent to reinforce him, he found his own 1500 troops facing 35,000 men under the Pasha of Damascus.

The resulting battle of Mt. Tabor was one of the great annals of the French army, with Kleber holding the enemy off for 10 hours. The arrival of Bonaparte with a division of reinforcements threw the Turks into chaos and they fled. The victory at Mount Tabor did not help with the siege at Acre, which dragged on into May.

The nearest Bonaparte came to capturing the city was on 8 May when General Jean Lannes led a heroic assault that penetrated the walls, only to discover that a second line of defenses made going any further impossible. Lannes was almost killed in the day-long attack, the eighth unsuccessful one launched, and it forced Bonaparte to finally accept that his visions of capturing Syria would not succeed.

Returning to Cairo in early June, Bonaparte then made secret plans to return to France. He still had one more battle to be fought in Egypt, however, and at Aboukir, where Mustapha Pasha's 15,000 men faced Bonaparte's 10,000. The battle was decided when General Joachim Murat led the French cavalry against the enemy commander and captured him. On 22 August, Bonaparte sailed for France with his closest friends and supporters.

Having been informed that his earlier concerns about the Directory had been proven justifiable, Napoleon left the depleted Army of the Orient under the command of the talented General Kleber (who would be assassinated by a Muslim fanatic in Cairo on 14 June, 1800 literally while Napoleon was off in Italy beating the Austrians at Marengo). Napoleon.returned to France, landing at Frejus proclaiming the Egyptian campaign a success though the men who survived the campaign knew better. The survivors of the Army of the Orient eventually sailed home as guests of the Royal Navy.

Vive Napoleon!