The Origins of the Egyptian Campaign
Since earliest times, Egypt had been a source of wonder to the European eye. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, visiting the country in the mid fifth century BC, encountered the following scene: "During the flooding of the Nile only the towns are visible, rising above the surface of the water like the scattered islands of the Aegean Sea. While the inundation continues, boats no longer keep to the channels and rivers, but sail across the fields and plains. On a journey far inland you can even sail past the pyramids." Less than two centuries later, the Macedonian Greek Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, completing this task in a matter of months, but remaining long enough to found the city of Alexandria, whose site he selected in 331 BC at what was then the western mouth of the Nile delta. After this, in what appeared to be a characteristic act of hubris, but was in fact an attempt to win over the local priesthood, Alexander sacrificed to the sacred bull Apis and had himself crowned pharaoh. He then set off east on his campaign of conquest against the Persians, during which he planted the seeds of Greek culture across a great swath of Asia. Eight years later, having extended his conquests to the limits of the known world, Alexander died after a drinking bout in Babylon, and his body was brought back to Alexandria to be buried in a magnificent tomb, made of gold and glass, whose site has since been lost.
In Roman times, Egypt would become the granary of the Mediterranean world, providing over a third of the grain supplies for the entire Roman Empire. During the first century BC Alexandria would become the focus of stirring events which changed the fate of that empire, when the charms of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, proved irresistible first to Julius Caesar and then to Mark Antony, while rivalry between these two ambitious men plunged the Roman Empire into civil war.
Under the Greeks, and then the Romans, Alexandria would become the intellectual capital of the Western world, the city that produced Euclid and educated Archimedes, its celebrated library a repository of all knowledge. It was here that Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth and its distance from the sun. For the latter, he used the known fact that on a certain day the sun could be seen at the foot of a deep well in Aswan 500 miles to the south, and was thus directly overhead. He then measured the length of the shadow cast by a pole in Alexandria, and thus the angle of the sun's rays there; using trigonometry, he then calculated the distance of the sun within around 5 percent of the accepted modern figure. Such was the reach and achievement of Alexandrian learning at its prime. When its library burned down in two disastrous fires, the last of which was started by zealot Christians in AD 391, the ancient world lost over half a million scrolls, and with these as much as a quarter of the knowledge and cultural heritage of Western civilization vanished forever.
French interest in Egypt began with the Seventh Crusade in the thirteenth century, led by Louis IX (who partly on account of this became known as St. Louis). In 1248 the king and over 30,000 men disembarked from 100 ships near Damietta on the Nile delta. Here they encountered the full might of the Mameluke cavalry, which inflicted on them a crushing defeat, capturing Louis and holding him to ransom.
The Mameluke cavalry was arguably the greatest war machine of the period, certainly superior to any European militia. In 1260, just ten years after the debacle of the Seventh Crusade, the Mameluke cavalry would encounter the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan's successor at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, just north of Jerusalem. Here they put the Mongol cavalry to flight, thus destroying for the first time the myth of their invincibility. Had the Mamelukes lost this battle, the Mongols could have pressed on across North Africa into Spain, encircling Europe. Not for nothing has this victory been reckoned as one of the great turning points of history, though it passed unnoticed in the medieval world it rescued. Meanwhile, to the European mind Egypt remained for the most part a land of Biblical legend: the setting of the plague of frogs, the Nile turning to blood, and Moses' parting of the Red Sea.
Four hundred years later, the German philosopher Leibniz would approach Louis XIV with a meticulously detailed plan for a French invasion of Egypt, including details of a Suez canal to facilitate trade with the Indies. Despite such lofty foresight, Leibniz's motive was in fact down to earth and devious: his employer, the Elector of Mainz, wished to divert the Sun King from invading the German states. But Louis rejected Leibniz's idea, informing him that "since the days of St. Louis, such expeditions have gone out of fashion." The papers detailing the scheme would gather dust in the archives at Hanover after Leibniz's death. It has been suggested that Napoleon might have been inspired by these plans, but it is now certain that he had no idea of their existence until he passed through Hanover in 1803, some years after his Egyptian expedition. When they were drawn to his attention, he remarked cryptically: "This work is very curious." Nonetheless, Leibniz's plans remain relevant; his scheme represented a trend that would flourish recurrently during the ensuing centuries: namely, the European habit of exporting internal conflicts to the territories of other continents.
Despite the rejection of Leibniz's scheme, during the ensuing century France expanded its colonial empire to Canada, Louisiana, the West Indies and India. Other European powers were engaged in similar enterprises, and this soon resulted in conflict, most notably between Britain and France. Britain's growing economic and maritime power eventually tipped the balance, with rapid and disastrous effect on the French colonies. In 1761 France lost Pondicherry and trading posts on the east coast of India; in 1762-3 it was forced to cede the Louisiana Territory to the Spanish and the British; and in 1763 it lost sovereignty over its Canadian colonies to Britain. France's valuable sugar-producing colonies in the West Indies—Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Dominique (Haiti)—now looked particularly vulnerable. Mindful of this state of affairs, Louis XV's foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul, came up with a scheme to take over Egypt in 1769, the very year Napoleon was born. Given Egypt's climate and its plentiful cheap labor, it was ideal for sugar plantations, and could easily supplant if not exceed France's imports from the West Indies. The fact that Egypt was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, a long-term ally of France, could easily be overcome by the simple expedient of buying it from the Turks. The following year the aging Louis XV took the courtesan Madame du Barry as his mistress, de Choiseul fell from favor, and his planned introduction of retail theory into foreign policy was shelved.
Yet France's colonial situation remained under threat, and in 1776 the idea of turning Egypt into a French colony was resurrected, when the Ministry of the Navy decided to dispatch an envoy there. The man chosen was Baron François de Tott, a Frenchman of Hungarian descent who had lived in the eastern Mediterranean for several years and had much experience of Levantine affairs. Yet this experience would prove of little avail. On his arrival in Cairo, de Tott was immediately escorted to the Citadel, the city's fortress, where he had an audience with the pasha "surrounded by all the pomp of his Vizirate." De Tott described how "the Pasha sent away the crowd which filled the hall of the Divan, [whereupon] he confided to me that there was a fermentation amongst the beys (a sure sign that a revolution was about to take place)." No sooner had de Tott arrived at the French consul's house than a revolt duly erupted and he found himself barricaded in for his own safety "while the ruling beys took possession of the Citadel, forcing the Pasha with a pistol under his throat to issue an order banishing the revolters into exile . . . but the rebels, despising such vain formalities, began firing at their enemies. . . . After several days of blasting their guns, with more noise than effect, the ruling beys fled from the Citadel into Upper Egypt . . . and a new group of beys declared themselves to be in charge." Such chaos had now become a regular feature of life in Egypt, with the pasha, who was nominally the Ottoman ruler, reduced to a mere figurehead at the mercy of the beys, the ruling provincial chieftains, all of whom were members of the warrior caste of Mamelukes.
The Mamelukes had a long history in Egypt. They were originally brought into the country around 1230 by the ruling Ayyubite sultan al-Malik, who purchased 12,000 youths from Turkey to strengthen his army. The word Mameluke derives from mamluk, the Arabic for "slave" or "bought man," though in this case the latter is closer to the actuality. In a remarkably short time the imported Mamelukes had molded themselves into the fearsome fighting force encountered by Louis IX and the Seventh Crusade in 1248. Ten years later they became the major power in the land, murdering al-Malik's successor and establishing their own dynasty. At this stage they appear to have been largely Turkic—non-Arab and non-Muslim in origin, often barely understanding Arabic. Yet curiously it was under this new dynasty that Egypt became established as the center of Arabic culture in the Muslim world, with the great Al-Azhar mosque as a beacon of learning, its medical and mathematical knowledge far outshining anything in medieval Europe. This was mainly due to the influx of refugee scholars from such places as Baghdad and Damascus, fleeing in the face of the Mongol hordes. Had the Mamelukes not defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260, the Muslim world, much like medieval Europe, would not have survived.
Yet just twenty years later this invincible force would begin a long decline. Initially this was because its ethnic origins changed. From now on, the imported youths were of Caucasian origin—Georgians and Circassians from remote mountain villages who had had little contact with civilization. As a result, the Mamelukes became more tribalized and disorganized.
In 1517 Egypt was overrun by the Turks and became part of the expanding Ottoman Empire. Egypt was now ruled from Constantinople by the distant Sublime Porte, the Turkish administration under the sultan's vizier. A pasha was installed in Cairo, and the country was obliged to pay annual tribute (miry) to the Turkish sultan. But in fact, the power of the beys who ruled over the various regions, each with their company of young, freshly imported Mamelukes, remained largely unchanged. The Porte in faraway Constantinople was not concerned, as long as there was a semblance of peace and the sultan received his miry. Over 200 years later, this had degenerated into the farcical situation encountered by de Tott. Each time a new pasha was sent from Constantinople, he would be greeted ceremoniously by the ruling beys and escorted to the Citadel, where he would be installed in some style. Here he would remain under virtual house arrest with little power to do anything but issue the occasional imperial decree (firman), whose contents and effectiveness were entirely under the control of whichever group of beys held the upper hand. Should any pasha attempt to interfere with this arrangement, a request would be sent to the Porte for a replacement, and one would duly be sent.
The Mamelukes maintained their social position and ethnic purity by the simple expedient of not recognizing mixed offspring. Although their chieftains, the ruling beys, frequently kept harems of local Egyptian women, occasionally including darker Nubians or Abyssinians from the south, they only took wives of Mameluke stock, who were imported from the Caucasus for this purpose. These seldom produced children, owing to their habit of aborting themselves when pregnant, as they believed that not giving birth helped maintain their youth, beauty and attractiveness to their husbands.
The Mamelukes thus relied upon youths imported from the Caucasus region to keep up their population, which usually stood at between 10,000 and 12,000. When these youths arrived in Egypt, they were usually of prepubescent age, sometimes as young as eight years old, and were immediately subjected to a fierce disciplinary regimen aimed at instilling the warrior virtues of the Mamelukes. Only when a Mameluke reached a certain military rank, and took command of other warriors, did he achieve the status of a free man, whereupon he was allowed to grow a beard. From this time on, the mounted Mameluke was attended by two Egyptian serradj, attendants on foot, who accompanied him into battle, bearing his extra arms.
By the late eighteenth century, Egypt was divided into around two dozen regions, each ruled by its own Mameluke bey, assisted by what was virtually his own private Mameluke army, whose duties remained purely military. No Mameluke ever stooped to labor in the fields or gather the harvest. The beys kept a firm hold over the fellahin, the local peasantry of their own region, extracting taxes and maintaining a regime that kept the fellahin downtrodden and allowed little development of any sort—economic, social or cultural. The territory outside a bey's immediate domain was of little interest to him, which meant that the fierce nomadic Bedouin tribesmen had free rein over the extensive wilderness and desert regions of the country, thus further hindering the development of trade along the routes that passed through these regions.
The beys themselves formed groups of allegiance, creating a hierarchy that supported the two senior sheiks, who ruled from Cairo. One of these was the Sheik el-Beled (chief of the country), who took control of the Ottoman pasha and ensured that the necessary annual tribute was collected and dispatched to Constantinople. The other held the title of Emir el-Hadj (leader of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca), an important post, as the large numbers of pilgrims required protection from the Bedouin and other predators. In general, there were two great pilgrimages during this period. From the west came pilgrims from as far afield as Niger and Morocco, converging on Cairo. From the north, as many as 40,000 pilgrims accompanied by anything up to 35,000 camels converged on Damascus. These pilgrimages then joined up and made their way to Mecca. The organization of the Cairo pilgrimage involved considerable power and military resources, requiring widespread cooperation amongst the beys, a situation which was often placed under considerable strain by unruly Mameluke behavior.
De Tott's arrival in Cairo in 1777 had coincided with one of the frequent shifts of power in the Mameluke hierarchy. However, his eventual report to the French Ministry of the Navy was determinedly optimistic. Despite the little difficulty he had encountered in Cairo, he could see, or chose to see, no problem whatsoever in mounting an invasion, which would result in "the peaceful occupation of a defenseless country." This report was gratefully received in Paris, where it met with the fate of so many such reports: it was duly filed and ignored.