Egyptian expedition

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Bonaparte visits the plague sufferers on the occasion of the siege of Jaffa (1799) in order to strengthen morale, although he exposed himself to the risk of infection (painting by Antoine-Jean Gros , 1804, Louvre )
Expedition to Egypt under the command of General Bonaparte. (Painting by Léon Cogniet , 1794–1880, Louvre )

The French military undertaking under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt from 1798 to 1801 is called Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign or Egyptian Expedition .

Bonaparte and his expeditionary army were accompanied by the Commission des sciences et des arts , an expert group of 167 scientists, engineers, artists, etc .; Most of them were also founding members of the Institut d'Égypte , a scientific institution for the study of Egypt, in Cairo in 1798 . The results of the expedition were documented in the multi-volume text and image collection Description de l'Égypte (German: Description of Egypt ), which laid the foundation for later Egyptology .

The objectives of the expedition set by the Directory were: to turn Egypt into a French province, to end British supremacy in the Mediterranean and to secure a dominant role for France in Levantine trade. Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire , but the power exercised since the 17th century the Beys of the Mamelukes from.

Chief of Staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier was responsible for the military, mostly positive, briefing of the Board of Directors . With his future Foreign Minister Talleyrand , Bonaparte maintained constant, secret contact in preparation for a coup d'état after his return, which was carried out on November 9, 1799 .

Starting position


The rulers, subjugated by the Ottomans in 1517 , the Mamluks , had gradually expanded their power in Egypt since the 17th century and strengthened their own position with new slaves from the Caucasus. Soon the Ottoman governor was only the formal representative of the sultan's dwindling power in distant Constantinople , while Mamluken-Beys returned to high administrative posts. From 1768, Ali Bey (1728–1773) rose up in revolt. He was beaten by his own son-in-law, Abu Dahab . After his death in 1775, various Mamluken factions fought for power.

Finally in 1791 the allied Mamluken emirs Murad Bey Muhammad and Ibrahim Bey succeeded in ousting Ismail Bey's Mamluken faction, allied with the Ottomans, from power.

After the execution of King Louis XVI. in 1793 almost all of Europe's monarchies , including Spain , Portugal, and most of the German and Italian states, had declared war on France. Great Britain was also in a state of war through the French declaration of war on February 1, 1793. The great enthusiasm of the revolutionary troops, however, ensured numerous military successes for the French (see coalition wars ).

In 1795 the Netherlands was occupied by the French army and was now under French control. Prussia and Spain signed a peace treaty with France in the same year. Under French pressure, Spain even declared war on Great Britain in August 1796. In 1797 the Peace of Campo Formio was signed between France and Austria . In 1798, Great Britain and the Russian Empire were the only major European powers still at war with the French Republic. Only Portugal, the less influential Kingdom of Naples-Sicily and the island of Malta were among their allies .

The decision for Egypt

Egypt at the time of Napoleon, 1798

Long before Napoleon's campaign, Egypt was in the focus of French expansion efforts in the Mediterranean area (details here ). From the time of the Crusades , France had an interest in the countries of the Levant (Syria, Egypt). In the Sixth Crusade from 1248 to 1254, Louis IX. France tried in vain to conquer Egypt. Following on from these historical facts, the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who was a diplomat in Paris, suggested the occupation of Egypt to the French King Louis XIV in 1672 . Between 1774 and 1798 alone, the French government grappled with more than a dozen proposals from diplomats, politicians and entrepreneurs, all of which aimed at taking the land on the Nile . In 1789, some Egyptians themselves, or at least the Mamluk emir Ismail Bey, who was being harassed by a rival faction, asked the French consul in Egypt to send French military advisers and instructors; however, the outbreak of the French Revolution prevented that. France thus had two formal reasons to intervene: On the one hand, the Kingdom of France had been an ally of the Ottoman Sultan since 1536 and could claim to want to restore his authority. On the other hand, France has been able to argue since the French Revolution that it wanted to bring the Egyptians freedom from the yoke of feudal Mamluk rule. The decision of 1798 was a complex mixture of geostrategic, economic, political and personal interests, trimmed with the ideals of the French Revolution.

After some resistance (especially from de la Révellière-Lepaux ), the Directory gave its approval to the expedition. For reasons of secrecy, the President of the Directory wrote the order to Napoleon himself. It was stated that the expedition should consist of 36,000 men of the old Italian army, officers and generals of his choice, various scientists and craftsmen and the fleet of Vice Admiral Brueys . The Treasury was instructed to send Napoleon 1.5 million francs every decade . In addition, he was allowed to take 3 of the 8 million from the “Bern treasure” that France had paid for its military intervention to establish a Helvetic Republic from the defeated Confederation.

Great Britain had lost part of its colonies in North America in the course of the 18th century, but had previously driven France from India and thus dominated large parts of the Asian trade. Most of the British Indian trade took place by sea around the Cape of Good Hope . However, if the British government wanted to send express messages to Calcutta , it could shorten thousands of kilometers by sending a messenger across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in Egypt, up the Nile to Cairo and from there to the Red Sea , where the messenger was on the Traveled on to India by sea. A capture of Egypt would therefore have cut off Great Britain from the fastest communication route with India, the "jewel in the crown of the Empire".

Economically, Egypt had a reputation for legendary fertility. In an average year, France imported goods worth around three million livres from Egyptian ports . These were domestic products (such as rice, grain, baking soda, cotton, flax, senna leaves , buffalo and camel skins) and goods from the interior of Africa (such as tamarind , ivory, ostrich feathers, gold dust, coffee, gum arabic , Asa foetida , frankincense and myrrh), which reached Egypt from the Indian Ocean via Suez . A capture of Egypt would have given France control over these flows of goods.

Napoleon himself had dreamed of the Orient since childhood. From the Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements du et commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (dt. History of the Indies ) of the Abbé Raynal he had copied a passage in his youth in Egypt as the key connection between Africa and Asia with Europe was shown. Napoleon's interest followed the trend of his time; preoccupation with Egypt had become fashionable in France at least since the publication of the novel Sethos, anecdotes de l'ancienne Égypte des Abbé Terrasson in 1731. Gardens of wealthy Parisians were adorned with sphinxes and obelisks ; Masonic symbolism took up the pyramid motif. Travel reports such as those of the Dane Frederic Louis Norden or the Englishman Richard Pococke (translated 1755 and 1772) found just as large an audience as the Lettres sur l'Égypte (1786) by Claude-Étienne Savary and the Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte (1787) by Constantin François Volney . Volney's ideal of a cultural development in Egypt in the sense of the Enlightenment later served above all to legitimize the scholars who traveled to Egypt with Napoleon. They referred to Volney's Voyage time and time again in their travelogues and academic papers .

In Germany there was great sympathy for Bonaparte's expedition among the young intellectuals who raved about the French Revolution. The German Romantic writer Karoline von Günderrode praised in her hymn poem "Buonaparte in Egypt" [...] France's favorite, the pillar of more dignified freedom, he calls back the enthusiasm of prehistoric times, shows the slack century Roman strength [...]

Ultimately, the excursion to the legendary Orient offered the young General Bonaparte after the end of the Italian campaign a welcome opportunity to increase his own fame and thus his power. For standing at the head of the State Board was, however attractive, keep the increasingly influential political expectant Napoleon for some time from Paris.

Of all the considerations about the conquest of Egypt, however, the strongest motive of Bonaparte was probably the chance of “self-styling as a ruler” and thus the signal to the French that they were ready to take over rule. To idealize the age of the pharaohs and to explain the following epochs as times of decay, was the task of the accompaniment of scientists, artists and reporters, who - similar to the model Alexander the great had done during the conquest of Persia - the expedition as Hyped up success and thus gave Bonaparte the myth of a savior.

The Egyptian expedition

Preparing the expedition

The preparations for the expedition were spread over Toulon , Marseille , Genoa , Corsica and Civitavecchia and were mainly organized by Napoleon's chief of staff, Louis Berthier . Toulon acted as the home port for the navy, which should accompany the transfer of the French army across the Mediterranean. Merchant ships were banned from leaving the ports of Toulon and its surroundings in order to have enough transport ships available. 280 merchant ships carried 28,200 infantry , engineers and gunners, 2,800 cavalrymen and 60 field and 40 siege guns of the French expeditionary army. 13 ships of the line , four frigates and a few gunboats under the command of François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers accompanied the fleet. Divisional commanders were Desaix (avant-garde), Reynier (right wing), Kléber (center), Menou (left wing), Bon (reserve) and Murat (cavalry). There were also 150 French artists, scientists and researchers.

On May 19th, after only two months of preparation, the first part of the expeditionary army left the port of Toulon. Napoleon was on board the flagship L'Orient . On May 21st, a fleet of 72 ships joined them from Genoa . On May 28, 22 ships arrived from Corsica, and on May 30 a further 56 ships that had departed from Civitavecchia. The French expeditionary army was complete and set course for Sicily . Already on June 5th it circled the southern tip of Sardinia .


Battle of the pyramids
Egypt and Syria during the campaign

The fleet arrived off Malta on June 9th. The next day French soldiers were sent to the island. The Order of Malta made no effort to fight a Christian army. On June 11, the surrender paper was signed on board the L'Orient . Napoleon was on land in Malta on June 12th and 13th. The fleet then sailed with him to Egypt and landed with the entire force at Abukir . Alexandria was captured on July 2, 1798 . In the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798, a little south of Giza , the Ottoman-Egyptian army together with a Mamluken elite unit under Mourad Bey and Ibrahim Bey, a total of around 5,000 men (plus 12,000 servants or weapon carriers), were destroyed in the Fleeing and occupying Cairo and all of Egypt.

Napoléon declared in two proclamations to the Egyptians and the inhabitants of Cairo that the goal of the French invasion was the liberation of the country from slavery and the exploitation of the "race" of the Mamluks and their arrogant beys. The residents, their families, their homes and property would be protected. Their way of life, their religion would be respected and Dīwāne would be established for self-government , staffed with local dignitaries.

Already on 1st / 2nd August 1798, the French fleet lying off the Egyptian coast was completely destroyed by the British under Admiral Nelson in the sea ​​battle at Abukir , so that a return transport was impossible and the connection with France was interrupted. An uprising in Cairo from October 22nd to 23rd, 1798, was put down by Napoleon. 14 leaders were captured, 5 sheikhs were executed, and around 2,500 insurgents are said to have been killed. Elsewhere there are reports of 2,000 executed insurgents. Jean-Joseph Ader wrote of 3000 killed (out of 300 dead on the French side) and six executed.

Foreign Minister Talleyrand had meanwhile not traveled to the Porte of Constantinople, as agreed, to assure her that the expedition was not directed against the Ottoman Empire. Under British and Russian pressure, the Ottoman Empire (then under Sultan Selim III ) finally declared war on France.

The Board in Paris expecting now with the defeat of Bonaparte. It was left to him to turn against Constantinople in order to divide the Ottoman Empire or to maintain his positions in Egypt. In any case one expects action and glorious results from him.

In February 1799 Napoleon led a campaign with 14,000 men to Syria to defend the conquest of Egypt against a forming Ottoman army. The initial successes in the siege of al-Arish , in Gaza, Hebron, Jaffa and on Mount Tabor ended before the city of Acre , which Napoleon besieged from March 20 to May 1799 . It failed because of the British Commodore Sidney Smith , who had taken over the military leadership of the city and had an excess of guns, ammunition and food.

A particularly dark chapter of the Egyptian campaign was the siege of Jaffa . According to a British description, Bonaparte had 1,400 other prisoners executed there, in addition to 3,000 defenders of the fortress, whom he had previously captured and released at al-Arish, on the condition that they no longer fight the French. The anger of the French against the defenders of Jaffa was also incited by the murder of a parliamentarian whose severed head was presented to the French on the fortress wall.

Napoleon finally had to withdraw to Egypt - also because of high losses in the fighting, epidemics and the heat - where he defeated the Ottomans in the Battle of Abukir on July 25, 1799 .

Since the domestic political situation for France had deteriorated dramatically due to the government's mismanagement and militarily due to the confrontation with the Second Coalition and Austria began to undo its Italian conquests and the founding of a republic, Napoleon returned on August 23, 1799 without being asked and with advanced reasons (his Critics called it desertion ) back to France. He left his army without informing them in a daily order and handed over the high command in Egypt to his longest-serving General Kléber .

Kléber negotiated free withdrawal from Egypt with the Ottomans, but when Britain demanded unconditional surrender , the war resumed. The Ottomans were defeated by Kléber at Heliopolis on March 20, 1800 , and after another rebellion had been put down, Cairo was reoccupied and punished with a high contribution . Kléber was murdered by a Muslim in Cairo on June 14, 1800. He was succeeded by Menou .

On March 8, 1801, 17,000 British troops landed at Abukir under the command of Generals Abercrombie and Hutchinson . The Ottoman army under Yussuf Pasha numbered more than 20,000 warriors, including 6,000 Albanians and Janissaries. The French troops, which held several cities and fortresses, are said to have been 16,000 strong. On March 21, they lost a first battle near Alexandria, the city itself was enclosed. Ramanja fell on May 9, Cairo surrendered on June 27, and Alexandria finally surrendered on August 31. The French troops had to leave Egypt, but were able to take their equipment with them, but not the documents and records of the scientific companions of the expedition. The latter protested violently and successfully because they threatened to throw their work into the sea before handing it over to the English.

The French were brought back to France on British ships. The governments of both countries started negotiations that led to the Peace of Amiens in 1802 .

The expedition of originally almost 30,000 men cost almost 20,000 lives, including 14 generals, a whole fleet with 13 ships of the line, 4 frigates and their Admiral Brueys , as well as large amounts of equipment and weapons that were not recorded.


Napoleon's reforms consisted of modernizing the Egyptian administration, introducing a new postal service, encouraging the construction of windmills and combating the bubonic plague . In addition, the was letterpress introduced and all of Egypt mapped .

The Mamluk supremacy was severely shaken by the defeats against the French, which enabled the Ottoman commander of the Albanian corps, Muhammad Ali Pasha , to become governor of the province (appointed in 1805). Murad Bey, who had sided with the French in 1799, died in 1801, his faction was continued by Alfi Bey, who was defeated by Muhammad Ali in 1807 together with the British. Ibrahim Bey, who had consistently fought the French, fled from Muhammad Ali to Upper Egypt and then to Sudan, where he died in 1816. In 1811, Muhammad Ali had many Mamluks killed in Cairo and Esna. Few were able to escape to Sudan.

For science

Even if the expedition was ultimately a military failure, it did lead to important scientific discoveries, as the scientists participating in the expedition made ancient Egyptian culture widely known and thus aroused a great deal of interest in early history. The results of this research have been published in the extensive text and image collection " Description de l'Égypte ". Single most important discovery was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone on July 15, 1799 which ultimately deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics by Jean-Francois Champollion allowed.

For Algeria

The Egyptian expedition in Algeria had another aftermath . The Dey of Algiers had granted France three loans to finance the expedition to Egypt, but also to finance Napoleon's other wars. After the fall of the emperor, the French kings refused to repay. In 1827, the meanwhile angry Dey had the French ambassador hit the fly whisk, which finally served France in 1830 as a pretext for conquering Algiers . Before that, France had protected its back in an agreement with Egypt's ruler Muhammad Ali.


  • Juan Ricardo Cole: Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan, New York NY 2008, ISBN 978-0-230-60603-6 . In German translation 2010 under the title The Battle of the Pyramids: Napoleon Conquered the Orient. Theiss, Stuttgart 2010, ISBN 978-3-8062-2202-9 .
  • Nina Burleigh: Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt. HarperCollins publications, New York 2007, ISBN 0-06-059767-4 ; Reprint: Harper Perennial, New York 2008, ISBN 978-0-06-059768-9 .
  • Robert Solé: Bonaparte à la conquête de l'Egypte. Edition. du Seuil, Paris 2006, ISBN 2-02-066453-4 .
  • Yves Laissus: L'Égypte, une aventure savante: avec Bonaparte, Kléber, Menou 1798–1801. Fayard, Paris 1998, ISBN 2-213-60096-1 .
  • Melanie Ulz: On the battlefield of the Empire. Concepts of masculinity in the image production of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Jonas, Marburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-89445-396-1 .
  • Mustafa El-Attar: Napoleon in Egypt: historical invention and historical truth . ImPrint-Verlag, Münster 2007, ISBN 978-3-936536-10-2 .
  • Charles Gillispie : Napoleon's Egypt Campaign - Benefit for Science , in: Spectrum of Science December 1994, pages 72-80.
  • J. Christopher Herold: Bonaparte in Egypt . Harper & Row, New York 1962; Reprint: Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley 2005, ISBN 978-1-84415-285-8 .
  • Henry Laurens: L'expédition d'Egypte, 1798-1801 (= Points. Histoire. Volume 244). Édition du Seuil, Paris 1997, ISBN 978-2-02-030698-0 .
  • Jean-Joël Brégeon: L'Egypte de Bonaparte (= Collection Tempus. Volume 116). Imprimerie Perrin, Paris 2005, ISBN 978-2-262-02427-7 .
  • Paul Strathern: Napoleon in Egypt . Jonathan Cape, London 2007, ISBN 978-0-224-07681-4 ; Reprint: Bantam Books, New York NY 2009, ISBN 978-0-553-38524-3 .
  • Irene A. Bierman (ed.): Napoleon in Egypt . Ithaca Press, Los Angeles 2003, ISBN 978-0-86372-299-8 .
  • Clément de La Jonquière: L'expédition d'Égypte, 1798-1801 . 5 volumes, H. Charles-Lavauzelle, Paris 1899–1907.


  • Napoleon in Egypt (Original title: Napoleon's Obsession: The Quest for Egypt ). Documentary , 45 min, director: Peter Spry-Leverton, USA 2000.
  • The Egyptian expedition of General Bonaparte (Original title: Bonaparte: La Campagne d'Egypte ). Docu-drama , 2 x 52 min, director: Fabrice Hourlier, FR 2016.

Web links

Commons : Egyptian Expedition  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Christopher Buchholz: French state cult 1792–1813 in Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. with comparisons to the neighboring departments of the Habsburg Netherlands (= European university publications. Series III: History and its auxiliary sciences. Volume 749). Lang, Frankfurt am Main / New York 1997, ISBN 3-631-31904-5 , pp. 162-165. Buchholz quotes here the results of the 1989 edition of Henry Laurens' expedition and previously disregarded instructions from Talleyrand ... about the correspondence with Bonaparte of December 27, 1798
  2. Abdarrahman Al-Gabarti describes these battles and the first phase of the French expedition in detail in: Bonaparte in Egypt. Zurich / Munich 1983.
  3. Burleigh: Mirage. Kindle edition, Locations 77–86, as well as in more detail Y. Laissus: L'Égypte, une aventure savante:… Paris 1998, pp. 12–22.
  4. ^ Robin Leonard Bidwell : Dictionary of modern Arab history: an A to Z of over 2000 entries from 1798 to the present day. Kegan Paul, London / New York 1998, ISBN 0-7103-0505-2 , p. 205.
  5. ↑ Far higher amounts are mentioned elsewhere
  6. ^ Adolphe Thiers : History of the French Revolution. Vol. 6, p. 174.
  7. Cf. on this and the following Cole: Napoleon's Egypt. Kindle edition, Locations 186–203.
  8. See on this and the following Y. Laissus: L'Égypte, une aventure savante:… Paris 1998, pp. 17 and 23f.
  9. Y. Laissus: L'Égypte, une aventure savante ... Paris 1998, p. 23
  10. "L'Égypte, située entre deux mers, en réalité entre l'Orient et l'Occident; Alexandre le Grand conçoit le plan d'y transporter le siège de son empire et de faire l'Égypte le point central du commerce du monde. Ce conquérant éclairé comprit que le seul moyen de réunir toutes ses conquêtes en un État, l'Égypte le lui offrirait en reliant l'Afrique et l'Asie à l'Europe. ”Quoted here from Y. Laissus: L'Égypte, une aventure savante: ... Paris 1998, p. 18.
  11. Cf. on this and the following Y. Laissus: L'Égypte, une aventure savante:… Paris 1998, p. 14f.
  12. C. Buchholz: French state cult 1792–1813 in Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. … Frankfurt am Main / New York 1997, p. 155 ff., The empire of the pharaohs as a model for the reorganization of France by Napoleon .
  13. ^ Abel Hugo : France militaire. Histoire des armées françaises de terre et de mer, de 1792 à 1837. Volume 2, Delloye, Paris 1838, pp. 246–250.
  14. ^ A. Hugo: France militaire… Vol. 2, Paris 1838, pp. 273 ff.
  15. ^ Franz Herre: Napoléon Bonaparte. Trailblazer of the Century. Munich 1988, quoting Napoleon's own statements on p. 79.
  16. ^ Ader (1826): Histoire de l'expédition d'Egypte et de Syrie , p. 150 ( online )
  17. ^ Henry Laurens: L'expédition d'Egypte 1798-1801. Paris 1989, p. 210 ff.
  18. ^ David G. Chandler : Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. Macmillan, New York 1979, ISBN 978-0-02-523670-7 , p. 213.
  19. ^ A. Hugo: France militaire ... Volume 3, Paris 1838, p. 194.