Napoleon's military defeat in Egypt yielded a victory for history

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought along an 'army' of scholars, whose studies of this ancient culture became the foundation of Egyptology.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting “Bonaparte Before the Sphinx” captures Napoleon’s instinct that the glory of ancient Egypt could be harnessed to exalt French power. Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California.
AKG/ALBUM

By the end of the 18th century, France wanted to conquer Egypt. At war with Britain, France sought to disrupt its enemy’s dominance of the seas and its trade routes with India; taking control of Egypt would give France a foothold from which to expand in the Mediterranean. An ambitious Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte was given command of the mission. Already renowned for his campaigns in Italy, Napoleon led French forces to Egypt in 1798 to fight against the local rulers. Known as the Mamluks, they controlled the North African territory, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

While the expedition’s chief aim was martial, it had a secondary purpose: to collect scientific and historical information about Egypt, which many in France believed was an ancient civilization equivalent to classical Greece and Rome. Along with 35,000 soldiers, more than 160 scholars and artists traveled to Egypt in 1798. Officially known as the Commission of the Sciences and Arts of Egypt, this group would end up making a greater contribution to history than the French fighting forces. Their careful work, carried out over many years, would give birth to the field of Egyptology in Europe and reveal to the world the history of the grand civilization that had ruled along the Nile for millennia.

In early July 1798, the French fleet landed near Alexandria and easily captured it. French troops advanced on Cairo and took the city on July 21, after winning the Battle of the Pyramids, also called the Battle of Embabeh. Despite these initial victories, the military mission began to flag. France did not have enough men to establish sufficient garrisons, which limited its military presence to the capital city and certain areas of the Nile Delta. British naval forces were lurking offshore in the Mediterranean and succeeded in sinking the French fleet stationed off the coast of Egypt in August. Napoleon and his forces were effectively stranded. The land campaigns continued with some success, but Napoleon also had to suppress local revolts and losses of men not only to battle but also disease. (Here's how Napoleon fed his army.)

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