Napoleon’s Eg ypt
INVADING THE MIDDLE EAST
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Napoleon’s Eg ypt
INVADING THE MIDDLE EAST
NAPOLEON’S EGYPT: INVADING THE MIDDLE EAST
Copyright © Juan Cole, 2007.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Cole, Juan Ricardo.
Napoleon’s Egypt : invading the Middle East / by Juan Cole.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-4039-6431-9 (alk. paper)
1. Egypt—History—French occupation, 1798–1801. I. Title.
A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.
Design by Letra Libre
First edition: August, 2007
Printed in the United States of America.
C O N T E N TS
Map of Egypt
List of Illustrations
The Genius of Liberty
A Sky Aﬂame
The Ferment of the Mind
The Flight of Ibrahim Bey
The Most Beautiful Nile that Has Ever Been
The Constant Triumph of Reason
The Festival of the Republic
The Object of His Desires
The Egyptian Revolution
The Fall of the Delta and the Arabian Jihad
Ten pages of illustrations appear between pages 122 and 123.
To Arman and Sheena
Map by Arman H. Cole
L I S T O F I L LU S T R AT I O N S
“Napoleon in Egypt.” By Jean-Léon Gérôme. Oil on oak panel.
Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, John Maclean
Magie, Class of 1892, and Gertrude Magie Fund. Photo credit: Bruce
M. White, © Photo: Trustees of Princeton University.
“Alexandria.” By Vivant Denon, Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte, 3
vols. (London: S. Bagster, 1807).
“Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids.” Engraving by Philippe Joseph
Vallot, 1838, after Antoine-Jean Gros.
“Cairo.” Vivant Denon.
“Denon Making a Sketch.” Vivant Denon.
“Rosetta.” Vivant Denon.
“The Cairo Revolt.” Drawing in A. Hugo, ed., France Militaire, vol. 2
(Paris: Delloye, 1835).
“Bonaparte Pardons the Cairo Rebels.” Drawing in A. Hugo.
“The Battle of Samanud.” Vivant Denon.
“Ambulance for the Wounded.” Description de l’Égypte, 24 vols. (Paris:
Imprimerie de C. L. F. Panckoucke, 1820–1830).
“Frontispiece.” Description de l’Égypte.
“River Port of Bulaq, Cairo.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Tomb of Ozymandias, Thebes.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Azbakiya Square.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Distillery.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Coffee Roasting Shop.” Description de l’Égypte.
“A Woman of the People.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Alimahs or Public Dancers.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Sheikh al-Sadat.” Description de l’Égypte.
“Murad Bey.” Description de l’Égypte.
AC K N OW L E D G M E N TS
apoleon’s Egypt concerns the political, military, and cultural encounter of the French and Egyptians in the late eighteenth
century, and is primarily based on a wide reading in eyewitness
memoirs and letters, not least those of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Although it
has elements of a biography of Bonaparte in Egypt, its canvas is wider than that,
and substantial attention is paid to his coterie of officers as well as his Ottoman
and Egyptian enemies and collaborators. It is the ﬁrst extended treatment in
English by a Middle East specialist such that the French sources have been read
through the lens of Egyptian realities. This book attends more closely than have
others to French struggles in the Egyptian Delta region, to the Middle Eastern
(Ottoman, Egyptian, and Muslim) cultural and institutional context of resistance
to the occupation, and to the interplay of the ideas of the French revolutionary
period with Ottoman and Egyptian ways of life. It aims at being an intimate history of what the French Annales school calls “mentalités,” that is, a history of
mindsets. Although many books have been written on Bonaparte in Egypt in
French, the last extended account in English came out in 1962, and its author
was not an Arabist. Even in the Francophone literature, few authors have treated
at length these issues in cultural dialogue and debate—and some manage virtually to ignore the presence in Egypt of Egyptians! One of my central questions is
how the French and the Egyptians constructed and remembered one another.
This book is not, however, about a “clash of civilizations,” but has as its premise
that the Greater Mediterranean has been a single civilization for a very long
time. Clashes are produced by struggles over power, not by cultures, which are
themselves often shaped and altered by mutual interaction and conﬂict. I take the
story to the eve of Bonaparte’s departure for his Syria campaign because these
ﬁrst eight months raise all the key issues I want to address in military and cultural
interplay in Egypt, and because Syria has a signiﬁcantly different local context.
The title appears to contain two anachronisms: At the time of the invasion
Bonaparte was not yet Napoleon I, and contemporaries would have spoken of
NAPOLEON ’ S EGYPT
the Orient rather than “the Middle East.” The title is a recognition that the
book concerns memories and constructions of Egypt, including those written by
Napoleon long after he became emperor. As for the subtitle, the profound confusion produced for contemporary readers by a subtitle such as “invading the
Orient” would have outweighed any gains in verisimilitude. I have used the
phrase “Middle East” in the text, as well, inasmuch as I am writing twenty-ﬁrst
My late mentor, Marsden Jones, suggested this project to me many years
ago. I was exceedingly fortunate that in 1993 Philippe de Meulenaere brought
out his priceless critical bibliography of eyewitness accounts, and that in recent
decades several rich French memoirs (e.g., those of François Bernoyer, JosephMarie Moiret, and Charles Antoine Morand) have been published. I was also
fortunate in that some relevant Arabic materials have been published in recent
decades, including the earliest chronicle by historian ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti
(perhaps co-authored with Hasan al-’Attar), the chronicles of Izzet Hasan
Darendeli and ‘Abdullah al-Sharqawi, and contemporary letters from Yemen.
The translations into English of the works of al-Jabarti, by Shmuel Moreh and
by a team of scholars under Thomas Philipp and Moshe Perlmann, have been
very useful to this book. I have always consulted the Arabic text, however, and
sometimes have preferred to paraphrase directly from it. I have also used alJabarti’s untranslated Muzhir al-Taqdis, which contains material, and pregnant
silences, not present in the other works.
I had the good fortune of studying modern Egyptian history at UCLA with
Afaf Lutﬁ al-Sayyid Marsot. Everyone who works in this ﬁeld is profoundly indebted to André Raymond, who has revolutionized our understanding of eighteenth-century Cairo. Henry Laurens has shed loads of illumination on the
French in Egypt with his own books and articles and his editions of primary
texts. My friends and colleagues Kenneth Cuno, Jane Hathaway, Gabriel Piterburg, Peter Gran, and Daniel Crecelius further taught me through their talks
and writings about the Ottoman beylicate and its era in Egypt. Edward Said’s
work on Orientalism made possible many of the insights herein.
I am deeply indebted to Alessandra Bastagli, my editor at Palgrave Macmillan, for her gentle persistence in pulling this book out of me, for her canny suggestions about writing strategies, and for the way her sage blue pencil and
suggestions for additions improved the book. My gratitude also to Alan Bradshaw, Jodie Hockensmith, and Erin Igoe at Palgrave Macmillan for their invaluable help. I also want to express warm thanks to David Pervin for recognizing
the promise of this project. Even though they came late to this particular party,
Brettne Bloom and Steve Wasserman of Kneerim & Williams, now my literary
agency, gave key encouragement and help, for which I am most grateful. The
enthusiasm of my son, Arman, and the patience and warm encouragement of my
wife, Shahin, sustained me in this project.
A trip to Paris to consult materials in the Bibliothèque Nationale was
funded by the History Department and the College of Literature, Science, and
the Arts, at the University of Michigan, as was a semester of research while I
held the Hudson Professorship, for which I am grateful. I would like to thank
kind colleagues who made it possible for me to try out some of my ideas in formal talks and conference papers, including the conference of the American Research Center in Egypt (spring 1996), the History Department at Oregon State
University (Carson Lecture, fall 1996), the History Department and the von
Grunebaum Center for Near and Middle East Studies at UCLA (1997, 2000),
and the Middle East Studies Association conference (1999). I use in this book
with the kind permission of Garnet Publishing material that appeared in a different form in my article, “Mad Suﬁs and Civic Courtesans,” in Irene A. Bierman, ed., Napoleon in Egypt (London: Ithaca Press, 2003), which came out of the
1997 UCLA conference.
The circulation department and the interlibrary loan staff at the Hatcher
Research Library of the University of Michigan in some key ways made this
book possible, as did the generosity of the lending libraries. Late in the project,
Google Books began to be available and was of help. Colleagues Joshua Cole
and John Shy were kind enough to react to an early manuscript of this book.
Lynn Hunt commented on some of the material here, presented in a different
form at a conference. David Bien generously discussed the project with me and
offered excellent advice. They are responsible for any improvements, not for
any errors that may remain. My friends and colleagues in France (where I spent
many years of my childhood and youth) and Egypt (where I lived for three
years) have been generous with their time and gracious in their hospitality, and
without those experiences this book would be much the poorer in insight.
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Napoleon’s Eg ypt
INVADING THE MIDDLE EAST
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T H E G E N I U S O F L I B E RT Y
he top-secret mission that brought 20,000 soldiers and thousands of
sailors together in the southern French port of Toulon in May 1798
baffled even junior officers such as Captain Joseph-Marie Moiret. On
the road down to the port, which lay at the foot of towering jade hills, the troops
brought in from the north saw unfamiliar olive groves and occasional palm or
orange trees. Toulon’s cerise-tile roofs sloped gently down toward the harbor.
Its narrow, winding, unkempt streets overﬂowed with soldiers in their revolutionary blue uniforms, knee-length black leggings, and white breeches, some
sporting red pom-poms and cuffs or chartreuse epaulettes. The soldiers and
sailors had suddenly doubled the city’s normal population. Beneath a brindled
sky, the spires of the Church of Saint Louis looked down on a coppice of white
masts in the harbor. A vast naval force stretched for miles, composed of thirteen
ships of the line, seventeen frigates, 30 brigs, and nearly 250 corvettes, gunboats, galleys, and merchant ships. They jostled on the choppy Mediterranean
that spring, awaiting the complete assemblage of troops on shore.
Captain Moiret, a fastidious man from a small town north of Toulon, was
descended through his maternal grandmother from a line of local nobles, making him faintly disreputable in revolutionary France. He had studied Latin and
humanities with the curate of a neighboring parish, and attended the Dominican seminary in Lyons for a while, before dropping out and joining the army.
Like many in his generation, he later gravitated from the Church to a rationalist view of the world rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, promoted
by thinkers such as François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
and Thomas Paine—though Moiret did not give up his faith. For his forebears,
the scientiﬁc ideas of the late eighteenth century, the dethroning of the
Catholic Church in France, and the advent of popular sovereignty (in the place
NAPOLEON ’ S EGYPT
of monarchy) would have been unimaginable, but he and his contemporaries
lived through and adapted to these developments.
Recruited into the Aquitaine Regiment, Moiret had risen to sergeant major.
He had served as a subaltern at Savoy (the Alpine border region between what is
now France and Italy) when the French Republic annexed it from the king of
Sardinia in 1792. Such “officers of fortune” who rose through the ranks seldom
went beyond captain, but in any case Moiret was said to be reluctant to leave the
old friends in his corps for a chance at promotion. He led not an impersonal
ﬁghting machine but a portable village of dense social networks. The 75th Infantry Demi-Brigade in which he served had recently earned the nickname “Invincible” for having fought so well in Italy against the Austrians at Lodi and
elsewhere. These units were created early in the Revolution to accommodate
the inﬂux of untrained volunteers, mixing one battalion of experienced soldiers
with one of newcomers.1 A demi-brigade formally comprised 3,000 men,
though many at Toulon were only at half strength, in part because of desertions
by troops who had not been paid in a long time or who were unwilling to set out
on a mysterious adventure across the sea.
Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican who had come to France for his education at the Royal Military Academy and excelled in mathematics and the deployment of artillery, had been given command of the Army of England after his
brilliant successes against the Austrians in northern Italy. He and the French executive closely guarded the secret destination of this expedition, even from the
minister of war, Barthélemy Schérer!2 Moiret and his fellow junior officers,
equally uninformed, speculated about the purpose of the expedition. Was it to
resemble more the invasions of the Normans or those of Saint Louis during the
Fifth Crusade? The Normans had invaded England from the French coast in
1066, whereas Saint Louis had set out to subdue the Near East. Everyone knew
that preparations were being made for an eventual republican assault on royalist
Britain, and the army being assembled had been drawn in part from the French
Army of England. Although launching an attack on Britain from the Mediterranean did not make sense logistically, it could not be ruled out as a strategy for
surprise, especially if coupled with preliminary operations in Spain.
The Revolution of 1789, which asserted the rule of the people, had set most
of the crowned heads of Europe against the French, and some publics as well. In
the wars that followed the 1793 beheading of the French monarchs Louis XVI
and Marie Antoinette, revolutionary France had defeated most of its opponents.
In response, the British had launched into action most aggressively at sea, and
had attempted, with indifferent success, to blockade some French-held ports on
THE GENIUS OF LIBERTY
the Continent. Captain Jean-Honoré Horace Say, an engineer from a prominent Huguenot family and the brother of the eminent economist Jean-Baptiste
Say, also reported for duty during those days in Toulon. In an anonymous memoir historians have traced to him, he recalled, “The . . . French Republic wanted
at last to revenge itself on London for the defeats and adversities that afflicted
our nascent liberty and through which the British Cabinet has sought, for many
years, to strangle the inexorable expansion of a new republic, which sooner or
later must defeat them.”3 Some officers hoped the ﬂeet would head west, pass
the straits of Gibraltar, and make immediately for England. Many thought that
dislodging King George III’s navy from the Mediterranean, as Bonaparte’s artillery had displaced the British from their brief occupation of Toulon itself in
1793, might be a preliminary to such an invasion. For this strategic purpose, the
islands of Sardinia, Malta, and even Sicily would make sense as targets, as building blocks toward a French Mediterranean Empire.
Some speculated that the force would strike at British links with India by attacking Egypt. British goods and soldiers bound for Calcutta most commonly, at
that time, sailed around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. But when British ofﬁcials wished to send emergency dispatches, they could cut thousands of miles
off the journey by sending envoys via the Mediterranean to Alexandria, up the
Nile to Cairo, and thence overland to the Red Sea. There they could board vessels that glided past coffee-rich Yemen into the Arabian Sea and across the glassy
Indian Ocean. This shorter route would not become commercially viable until
steamships began plying these waters decades later, but it had strategic importance for Britain’s communications with the Jewel in the Crown of its empire.
Few officers thought an Egyptian campaign likely, but Moiret found that the
civilian intellectuals, scientists, and artists who had, somewhat mysteriously, been
recruited to accompany the expedition put it forward with some certitude. The
Commission of Science and Arts consisted of 151 persons, 84 of them having
technical qualiﬁcations and another 10 being physicians, and they formed the
largest such body of experts to have accompanied a French military expedition.4
The twenty-eight-year-old Bonaparte himself had secretly departed Paris
early on the morning of 5 May, with his attractive wife, Josephine. Bonaparte,
having determined to embark on a dangerous adventure, faced a painful personal dilemma. He was seriously thinking about taking Josephine with him on
the expedition. The previous winter, he had confronted her with gossip that she
was having an affair. She had denied it all. He believed her because he wanted
to, but the rumors were true. It may be that he did not trust her to stay behind
without him. He had no idea then that she had cut back to just one affair at a
NAPOLEON ’ S EGYPT
time. Having her accompany him to the port at least allowed him to put off the
difficult decision whether to take her with him.
The young general—notorious for his opportunism and mercurial temperament—was experiencing a rare moment of genuine love and affection for
his wife of two years. Josephine had grown up on the island of Martinique in the
Caribbean, a daughter of down-on-their-luck minor nobles named Tascher de la
Pagerie (her father had been reduced to performing manual labor on the estates
of others). Originally known as Rose, she had come to France, married a
wealthy officer, Alexandre de Beauharnais, and established a literary salon. But
after the Revolution, she had seen her husband, an aristocrat and an officer who
lost a major battle with the Pru ...
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