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Napoleon in Egypt
First Italian Campaign | The Egyptian Campaign | Second Italian Campaign | The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign | The Prussian Campaign | The Peninsular War | The Austrian War | The Russian Campaign | From Lützen to Elba | The Waterloo Campaign

The Egyptian Campaign, 1798-99

While Bonaparte waited for the right moment to seize power, he looked to win new glories. Great Britain dominated the seas and enjoyed unbridled success in overseas trade. France was still at war with Great Britain, and Bonaparte hoped to disrupt British trade routes to India and establish French domination in the exotic east. He eluded a British fleet, captured the port of Malta, and on July 1, 1798, landed with 35,000 soldiers in Egypt.

YOUSSEF: Bonaparte finds himself in a country of legends, myths, and a great history. But it was really madness on his part because all of the military calculations at the time held that it was impossible for a European army to conquer the East.

TULARD: It is completely absurd. The Egyptian expedition is probably the craziest expedition in the history of France.

Bonaparte quickly captured Alexandria, and then on July 3, led his soldiers across the desert toward Cairo — and a looming battle.

For centuries the Egyptians had been part of the Turkish Empire, ruled by the fiercest warriors in the Middle East — the Mamelukes. Remarkable for their courage, pride, and cruelty, the Mamelukes waited fearlessly for the French armies.

YOUSSEF: They weren’t afraid of Napoleon at all. The Mamelukes were brought up with fierce principles of courage and chivalry. Fear was not part of their tradition.

On July 21, 1798, after marching two weeks across the desert, Bonaparte’s armies came within sight of the pyramids — and 10,000 Mamelukes drawn up on horseback across the sands.

"Soldiers," Bonaparte said, "from the height of these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you."

The Mamelukes charged. Bonaparte’s men stood in tight formation and held their fire until the Mamelukes reached within fifty paces of their ranks.

YOUSSEF: The Mamelukes are beautiful, magnificent… their horses rearing, plunging. Napoleon himself recognizes their courage. The Mamelukes charge the cannons with their sabers and their horses… with arms from the Middle Ages. It was a meeting between the Europe of the future and the Egypt of the past.

HORWARD: Napoleon just organized his army into five gigantic squares. These are men kneeling and standing and firing so you got a continual rolling fire. The Mamelukes rode around the squares and were shot at by that square and by this square. The French lost thirty men, the Mamelukes lost probably five or six thousand.

The Battle of the Pyramids was over in an hour. Three days later, Bonaparte led his army into Cairo.

"I was full of dreams," he said. "I saw myself founding a new religion, marching into Asia riding an elephant, a turban on my head, and in my hand the new Koran."

But Bonaparte’s dreams of an empire in the middle East were quickly shattered. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson caught the French fleet anchored off the Egyptian coast and blew it to pieces. Bonaparte and 35,000 soldiers were trapped in Egypt.

YOUSSEF: The only link that he had with France were his ships, his fleet of war ships. You can imagine what a disaster this was. He was forced to stay in Egypt and live with the Egyptians, to find his bread and water in Egypt, and even the ammunition for his weapons in Egypt.

Cut off from France, Bonaparte remained undaunted. Installed in a palace in Cairo, he imagined himself an eastern potentate, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.

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