Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East
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Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East

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by Juan Cole
     
 

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In this vivid and timely history, Juan Cole tells the story of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Revealing the young general's reasons for leading the expedition against Egypt in 1798 and showcasing his fascinating views of the Orient, Cole delves into the psychology of the military titan and his entourage. He paints a multi-faceted portrait of the daily travails of

Overview

In this vivid and timely history, Juan Cole tells the story of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Revealing the young general's reasons for leading the expedition against Egypt in 1798 and showcasing his fascinating views of the Orient, Cole delves into the psychology of the military titan and his entourage. He paints a multi-faceted portrait of the daily travails of the soldiers in Napoleon's army, including how they imagined Egypt, how their expectations differed from what they found, and how they grappled with military challenges in a foreign land. Cole ultimately reveals how Napoleon's invasion, the first modern attempt to invade the Arab world, invented and crystallized the rhetoric of liberal imperialism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Cole] has mined a number of rich, recently discovered memoirs and letters to bring the personal aspect of these encounters vividly to life.” —The Nation

“[A] well-researched contribution to Middle Eastern history.” —Publisher's Weekly

“Cole has produced an engaging and provocative book.” —Richard Fraser, Library Journal

“Cole's sources allow for a well-rounded accounting of events.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“Historian Cole, effectively utilizing diaries and letters of contemporaries on both sides, illustrates the confusion, hostilities, and necessary accommodations as two distinct cultures collide.” —Jay Freeman, Booklist

“The book itself contains a lively account of the first eight months of France's invasion of Egypt in the summer 1798 followed by a bloody attempt to occupy and then to hold the country by the use of armed force. Unlike almost every previous work which highlights the presence of numerous French scientists and archaeologists among the members of what is usually presented as a civilizing mission, the aim of this work is to present the occupation as a series of vicious military encounters, of battles, skirmishes and ambushes, between the French and a population which they could not understand the members of which they could not correctly identify...It is to Cole's great credit that he does not force the parallels too far. But the shadow of contemporary Iraq is never far away.” —Roger Owen, Dar Al-Hayat

“As the bibliography of the disaster known as the Bush administration grows, a useful early distinction will be chronicle versus analysis and context. Cole, a thoughtful and imaginative scholar, offers the latter with his account of an earlier, disastrous attempt to interfere with the Arab world.” —Robert Birnbaum, the Morning News

“A timely and entertaining look at a previous Middle Eastern misadventure by one of America's most provocative and informed scholars.” —Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Award-winning The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

“We are told that at the time of their invasion of Iraq the top leaders of the U.S. did not know anything about the division within Islam between Sunni and Shia -- or, for that matter, the history of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, or the other key countries of the Middle East. If any American is interested in catching up, the place to begin is with Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt: The Invention of the Middle East, a masterful and beautifully written account of Western imperialism's first assault on the Islamic world. It includes indispensable details on the West's contempt for Islamic peoples -- so-called Orientalism -- and the untold misery it has caused.” —Chalmers Johnson, author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

“When Napoleon invaded Egypt, many outsiders believed the Middle East was a region they could easily conquer and rule. Some still believe it. Cole's book reminds us that today's leaders are not the first to find the Islamic world far more complex than they imagined. It not only offers delicious stories about the private lives of invaders, but also teaches urgent lessons for the modern age.” —Stephen Kinzer, bestselling author of Overthrow and All the Shah's Men

“This is a detailed account of Napoleon's brief attempt to invade and occupy Egypt. With great skill the author depicts the horrors and massacres consequent to an invasion and the evil it causes both occupier and occupied. Imperial attempts have seldom been as disastrous a fiasco as this one was and Napoleon tried to down play the brutality and cupidity of the invasion and ordered the State Papers dealing with it burnt. However thanks to the diaries and letters of the invaders we have detailed accounts of how a so-called civilized people can inflict untold horrors on an alien race in the name of imperialism, which in other words, was for greed and contempt for 'the other' masked in the guise of teaching them 'liberty', a concept which today we translate as 'democracy'.” —Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, Professor Emerita of Near Eastern History, UCLA, and award-winning author of Egypt in the Reign of Muhammed Ali

“This is a remarkable book, which provides a gripping account of the first modern encounter between a western army and a Middle Eastern country, and should provide cautionary reading for those who still think that superior Western power will inevitably prevail over the resistance of a population determined not to be subjugated by outsiders.” —Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor at Columbia and author of The Iron Cage and Resurrecting Empire

“Most books on the expedition focus on the outsize characters of Napoleon and his staff. But Juan Cole presents it through Egyptian eyes.” —International Herald Tribune

“Cole's book presents an erudite, very readable and sometimes fascinating account of Napoleon's campaign, and adds to our knowledge of this endeavor.” —Bustan: The Middle East Book Review

author of the Pulitzer Award-winning The Looming T Lawrence Wright

A timely and entertaining look at a previous Middle Eastern misadventure by one of America's most provocative and informed scholars.
author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the Americ Chalmers Johnson

We are told that at the time of their invasion of Iraq the top leaders of the U.S. did not know anything about the division within Islam between Sunni and Shia -- or, for that matter, the history of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, or the other key countries of the Middle East. If any American is interested in catching up, the place to begin is with Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt: The Invention of the Middle East, a masterful and beautifully written account of Western imperialism's first assault on the Islamic world. It includes indispensable details on the West's contempt for Islamic peoples -- so-called Orientalism -- and the untold misery it has caused.
bestselling author of Overthrow and All the Shah Stephen Kinzer

When Napoleon invaded Egypt, many outsiders believed the Middle East was a region they could easily conquer and rule. Some still believe it. Cole's book reminds us that today's leaders are not the first to find the Islamic world far more complex than they imagined. It not only offers delicious stories about the private lives of invaders, but also teaches urgent lessons for the modern age.
Edward Said Professor at Columbia and author of Th Rashid Khalidi

This is a remarkable book, which provides a gripping account of the first modern encounter between a western army and a Middle Eastern country, and should provide cautionary reading for those who still think that superior Western power will inevitably prevail over the resistance of a population determined not to be subjugated by outsiders.
Tom Reiss
Most books on the expedition focus on the outsize characters of Napoleon and his staff, men like his towering second in command, Gen. Jean-Baptiste Kleber, who was eventually stabbed to death by a fanatical Muslim, or Gen. Jacques Menou, who converted to Islam. But in Napoleon's Egypt, Juan Cole…mostly ignores these larger-than-life characters to present the invasion and occupation through Egyptian eyes. Cole says his work "attends more closely than have others...to the interplay of the ideas of the French revolutionary period with Ottoman and Egyptian ways of life," and what it lacks in narrative drive and coherence, it makes up for in fascinating quotations, mostly from contemporary memoirs and diaries, and in an analysis that suggests comparisons to the current American adventure in Iraq.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In July 1798, Napoleon landed an expeditionary force at Alexandria in Egypt, the opening move in a scheme to acquire a new colony for France, administer a sharp rebuff to England and export the values of French republicanism to a remade Middle East. Cole, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Michigan, traces the first seven months of Napoleon's adventure in Egypt. Relying extensively on firsthand sources for this account of the invasion's early months, Cole focuses on the ideas and belief systems of the French invaders and the Muslims of Egypt. Cole portrays the French as deeply ignorant of cultural and religious Islam. Claiming an intent to transplant liberty to Egypt, the French rapidly descended to the same barbarism and repression of the Ottomans they sought to replace. Islamic Egypt, divided by class and ethnic rivalries, offered little resistance to the initial French incursion. Over time, however, the Egyptians produced an insurgency that, while it couldn't hope to win pitched battles, did erode French domination and French morale. Perplexingly, Cole ends his account in early February 1799, with Napoleon still in control of Egypt but facing increasingly effective opposition. Napoleon's attack on Syria is only mentioned, not detailed, and his return to Cairo and eventual flight to France are omitted altogether. In a brief epilogue, Cole makes an explicit comparison between Napoleon's adventure in Egypt and the current American occupation of Iraq. Though at times episodic and disorganized, this doesn't detract from the value of Cole's well-researched contribution to Middle Eastern history. Illus. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780230606036
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
05/27/2008
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Napoleon's Egypt

Invading the Middle East


By Juan Cole

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Juan Cole
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60741-5



CHAPTER 1

THE GENIUS OF LIBERTY


The 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, gun-boats, 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 rational-ist 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 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. 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! 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 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." 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.

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 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 Prussians, executed as a counterrevolutionary. Then the Jacobins clapped her in prison, as well, and scheduled her date with the guillotine. A well-connected lover rescued her. She later had a number of affairs, one with a budding politician named Paul Barras, who went on to become a member of the French executive. Finding her a spendthrift, he introduced her to the romantically naïve young Bonaparte, who renamed her Josephine and pursued and married her. In one of his early letters to "Madame Beauharnais," full of Corsican misspellings, he wrote, "I wake up full of you. Your portrait, and the intoxicating memory of last night, left my senses altogether bereft of repose." In 1796 Barras arranged for him to become supreme commander of the French army invading Austrian-ruled northern Italy, a campaign that separated him from his new bride for most of the following two years. He wrote frequently and passionately. She seldom replied. During the campaign, he remonstrated with her from Bologna, "You are sad, you are sick, you never write to me.... Don't you love your good friend any more? ... Perhaps I will make peace with the Pope and will be with you soon." Rumors reached him of her affairs, but despite flying into a rage at first, he generally dismissed them.

Neither of them appears to have been eager for another long separation. In Toulon, Josephine expressed her confidence that, given her upbringing in Martinique, the rigors of his exotic destination held nothing new for her. They waited together in the port for a storm to blow over, touring his magnificent flag-ship, the Orient, and welcoming the generals and scientists who were to participate in the expedition. In private, they discussed earnestly the question of whether Josephine should accompany her husband abroad, and in between their deliberations they made passionate love. Gen. Alexandre Dumas at one point blundered in on one of their arguments, finding Josephine in bed in a state of undress and weeping at her husband's indecision. In the end, Bonaparte decided to postpone the decision, sending her to take the waters at a health spa, Plombières, in the mountains southeast of Paris. He said he might bring her to him once he had secured his new conquest, given the dangers of the expedition. But leaving the oversexed Josephine alone in France was attended with dangers of its own.

On 9 May 1798, the newly arrived Bonaparte passed in review of the Republican soldiers, and gave a speech that attempted to stir their sense of adventure and that also held out to them a promise of land on their return. In the latter pledge, published in the official Moniteur (The Monitor), he overstepped his authority, since as a general he was in no position to legislate on civilian land rights, and, facing the fury of his superiors, he had to brand the transcript inaccurate. In its stead, the military issued a further communiqué, represented in a subsequent number of the Moniteur as the actual text of the speech delivered. Bonaparte ordered that this second communiqué be disseminated widely, and even made it up as a poster. Therein the general compared the French Army of England to the troops of the Roman Republic who had fought against despotic Carthage in North Africa. He thundered, "The genius of liberty, which has since its birth rendered the Republic the arbiter of Europe, is now headed toward the most distant lands."

Bonaparte's compliments bolstered the army's aplomb. Moiret asserted that the army maintained its cool, its sangfroid, confident of securing its goal, whatever that might be. Others shared Moiret's assessment of Bonaparte's charisma. A young officer at Toulon, Michel de Niello Sargy, later wrote, "I was far from having any idea of the nature of the armament that was prepared, and even less of its destination, when I threw myself—like so many other young persons— into that audacious expedition. I was seduced by the renown of the commander in chief and by the glory of our arms. It was a delirium, a nearly universal compulsion." Bonaparte's fervor and charisma, despite the Italian accent and grammatical errors, produced the most extraordinary effect. His incredible Italian campaign of 1796–1797 had induced hero worship among many of the officers and troops. Later, after he had become Napoleon I, he remarked, "The military are a freemasonry and I am its Grand Master."

The enthusiasms of the French troops and officers were very much shaped by the Revolution and by the ideology of the early Republic. The French of this era employed keywords such as nation, fatherland (patrie), constitution, law, regeneration, and virtue to mark membership in the revolutionary community. A prominent historian of the period argued that "revolutionaries placed such emphasis on the ritual use of words because they were seeking a replacement for the charisma of kingship." Republican rhetoric deployed "liberty" as its refrain. In response to Bonaparte's 9 May speech, which evoked many of the same central terms, the soldiers had shouted, "The Immortal Republic forever!" That night, the authorities had the house of the Commune (the revolutionary municipal government of Toulon) illuminated and the troops planted at its door a tree of liberty with the inscription, "It grows each day." Supporters of the Revolution throughout France planted liberty trees each May, often decorated in the colors of the French flag. The authorities designed the ritual planting at Toulon as a means of reinforcing solidarity among the troops. Bonaparte in his communiqué clearly conveyed the idea that the Republican army incarnated the virtue of liberty, and was now exporting it to an exotic locale, engaging in what was in effect a vast tree-planting ceremony.

The weather was still not cooperating. Bonaparte wrote back to his political superiors in Paris, "We have been here at anchor three days, Citizen Directors, ready to depart. But the winds are extremely strong and contrary." He issued orders on how to punish the substantial number of soldiers and sailors who jumped ship at the last moment, who declined to go off into the unknown and so would be missing their chance to "reestablish the glory of the French navy." Some may have left just for lack of nourishment. The merchant Grandjean later grumbled that hunger gnawed at him during his two days of filling out paperwork in Toulon, which thus seemed to him like two centuries, since the crush of newcomers had made even a crust of bread hard to find, and then at astronomical prices. At last, on the eighteenth of May, the mistral died down.

A memoirist, who was a young sailor at the time, recalled,

One of the last days of [that month], the commander in chief, Bonaparte, accompanied by his numerous and brilliant general staff, boarded the Orient and afterwards visited all the ships of the line. During that day, the entire fleet celebrated, and each ship fired a twenty-one gun salute, while the batteries throughout the city, the port and the harbors rang out, responding with all their artillery. What a magnificent spectacle! On arriving at our ship, the Dubois, I saw General Bonaparte for the first time, and I was struck by his severe and imposing features. Although short in stature, he was enveloped by a halo of glory that made him seem very great to me.


The troops boarded their vessels with a show of great élan, reminding more than one observer of grooms going off enthusiastically to their weddings. The cannoneer Louis Bricard, who left instead from Marseilles, spoke of a "supernatural joy" among them, though he said that their girlfriends in the port did not share it, complaining tearfully about the flower of French young manhood being sent far away from France "without knowing their destination," and worrying that "they might never return."

The quartermaster François Bernoyer, a fierce republican and devotee of rationalist Enlightenment philosophy, also remarked on the festive mood of the troops. Born in Avignon in 1760, the civilian Bernoyer headed up the uniforms department. He wrote that, to the accompaniment of artillery salutes, the squadron set sail on 19 May, at first following a circuitous route and sometimes finding itself becalmed. Would it follow the coast? Speculation was rife. Then the order came to set out to sea, and some felt confirmed in their belief that Sicily was the object. First, there was a rendezvous with additional ships at Corsica. On 31 May the fleet was rallied, or reoriented, according to technology-loving Bernoyer: "This maneuver is a thing of beauty, since one moves about the great masses of these vessels, just as one maneuvers troops on the ground." The squadron then passed Sicily with such speed that rumors about a landing there were quashed. The betting now focused on Malta, a tiny island not far from Tunis, which had been for centuries in the hands of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Napoleon's Egypt by Juan Cole. Copyright © 2007 Juan Cole. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author

Juan Cole, internationally respected historian, celebrated blogger, and Middle East expert, teaches history at the University of Michigan. His blog, Informed Comment, receives 250,000 unique hits every day. He has written numerous books, including Engaging the Muslim World, Napoleon's Egypt and Sacred Space and Holy War. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI.

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