At the time of the invasion, the Directoire had assumed executive power in France. It would resort to the army to maintain order in the face of the Jacobin and royalist threats, and count in particular on general Bonaparte, already a successful commander, having led the Italian campaign.
The notion of annexing Egypt as a French colony had been under discussion since François Baron de Tott undertook a secret mission to the Levant in 1777 to determine its feasibility. Baron de Tott's report was favorable, but no immediate action was taken. Nevertheless, Egypt became a topic of debate between Talleyrand and Napoleon, which continued in their correspondence during Napoleon's Italian campaign. In early 1798, Bonaparte proposed a military expedition to seize Egypt. In a letter to the Directoire, he suggested this would protect French trade interests, attack British commerce, and undermine Britain's access to India and the East Indies, since Egypt was well-placed on the trade routes to these places. Bonaparte wished to establish a French presence in the Middle East, with the ultimate dream of linking with France's ally Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in India. As France was not ready for a head-on attack on Great Britain itself, the Directoire decided to intervene indirectly and create a "double port" connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, prefiguring the Suez Canal.
At the time, Egypt had been an Ottoman province since 1517, but was now out of direct Ottoman control, and was in disorder, with dissension among the ruling Mamluk elite. In France, "Egyptian" fashion was in full swing – intellectuals believed that Egypt was the cradle of western civilization and wished to conquer it. French traders already based on the River Nile were complaining of harassment by the Mamluks, and Napoleon wished to walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. He assured the Directoire that "as soon as he had conquered Egypt, he will establish relations with the Indian princes and, together with them, attack the English in their possessions." According to a 13 February 1798 report by Talleyrand, "Having occupied and fortified Egypt, we shall send a force of 15,000 men from Suez to the Sultanate of Mysore, to join the forces of Tipu Sultan and drive away the English." The Directoire agreed to the plan in March 1798, though troubled by its scope and cost. However, they saw that it would remove the popular and over-ambitious Napoleon from the center of power, though this motive long remained secret.
Rumors became rife as 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors were gathered in French Mediterranean ports. A large fleet was assembled at Toulon: 13 ships of the line, 14 frigates, and 400 transports. To avoid interception by the British fleet under Nelson, the expedition's target was kept secret. It was known only to Bonaparte himself, his generals Berthier and Caffarelli, and the mathematician Gaspard Monge. Bonaparte was the commander, with subordinates including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, Kléber, Desaix, Berthier, Caffarelli, Lannes, Damas, Murat, Andréossy, Belliard, Menou, and Zajączek. His aides de camp included his brother Louis Bonaparte, Duroc, Eugène de Beauharnais, Thomas Prosper Jullien, and the Polish nobleman Joseph Sulkowski.
The fleet at Toulon was joined by squadrons from Genoa, Civitavecchia and Bastia and was put under the command of Admiral Brueys and Contre-amirals Villeneuve, Du Chayla, Decrès and Ganteaume.
The fleet was about to set sail when a crisis developed with Austria, and the Directoire recalled Bonaparte in case war broke out. The crisis was resolved in a few weeks, and Bonaparte received orders to travel to Toulon as soon as possible. It is claimed that, in a stormy meeting with the Directoire, Bonaparte threatened to dissolve them and directeur Reubell gave him a pen saying "Sign there, general!"
Bonaparte arrived at Toulon on 9 May 1798, lodging with Benoît Georges de Najac, the officer in charge of preparing the fleet. The army embarked confident in their commander's talent and on 19 May, just as he embarked, Bonaparte addressed the troops, especially those who had served under him in the Armée d'Italie:
When Napoleon's fleet arrived off Malta, Napoleon demanded that the Knights of Malta allow his fleet to enter the port and take on water and supplies. Grand Master von Hompesch replied that only two foreign ships would be allowed to enter the port at a time. Under that restriction, revictualling the French fleet would take weeks, and it would be vulnerable to the British fleet of Admiral Nelson. Napoleon therefore ordered the invasion of Malta.
The French Revolution had significantly reduced the Knights' income and their ability to put up serious resistance. Half of the Knights were French, and most of these knights refused to fight.
French troops disembarked in Malta at seven points on the morning of 11 June. Gen. Louis Baraguey d'Hilliers landed soldiers and cannon in the western part of the main island of Malta, under artillery fire from Maltese fortifications. The French troops met some initial resistance but pressed forward. The Knights' ill-prepared force in that region, numbering only about 2,000, regrouped. The French pressed on with their attack. After a fierce gun battle lasting twenty-four hours, most of the Knights' force in the west surrendered. Napoleon, during his stay in Malta, resided at Palazzo Parisio in Valletta.
Napoleon then opened negotiations. Faced with vastly superior French forces and the loss of western Malta, von Hompesch surrendered the main fortress of Valletta.
Thirteen days after leaving Malta and continuing to successfully elude detection by the Royal Navy for the time being, the fleet was in sight of Alexandria, where it landed on 1 July, though his plan had been to land elsewhere. On the day of the landing he told his troops "I promise to each soldier who returns from this expedition, enough to purchase six arpents of land." and added:
Menou had been the first to set out for Egypt, and was the first Frenchman to land. Bonaparte and Kléber landed together and joined Menou at night at the Marabou, on which the first French tricolor to be hoisted in Egypt was raised. Bonaparte was informed that Alexandria intended to resist him and he rushed to get a force ashore. At 2 am he set off marching in three columns, arriving by surprise beneath Alexandria's walls and ordering an assault – the enemy gave up and fled. The city had not had time to surrender and put itself at the French's discretion but, despite Bonaparte's orders, the French soldiers broke into the city.
On 1 July Napoleon, aboard the ship L'Orient en route to Egypt, wrote the following proclamation to the Muslim inhabitants of Alexandria:
When the whole expeditionary force had been disembarked, Admiral Brueys received orders to take the fleet to Aboukir Bay before anchoring the battle-fleet in the old port of Alexandria if possible or taking it to Corfu. These precautions were made vital by the imminent arrival of the British fleet, which had already been seen near Alexandria 24 hours before the French fleet's arrival. It was wisest to avoid the risks of a naval battle – a defeat could have disastrous results and it was in the force's better interests to go by land, marching at top speed to Cairo to frighten the enemy commanders and surprise them before they could put any defence measures in place.
Louis Desaix marched across the desert with his division and two cannon, arriving at Demenhour, fifteen miles (24 km) from Alexandria, on 18 Messidor (6 July). Meanwhile, Bonaparte left Alexandria, leaving the city under Kléber's command. General Dugua marched on Rosetta, with orders to seize and hold the entrance to the port housing the French fleet, which had to follow the route to Cairo down the river's left bank and rejoin the army at Rahmanié. On 20 Messidor (8 July), Bonaparte arrived at Demenhour, where he found the forces that had met up, and on 22 Messidor they marched to Rahmanié, where they then awaited the fleet with their provisions. The fleet arrived on 24 Messidor (12 July) and the army began to march again at night, followed by the fleet.
The winds' violence suddenly forced the fleet to the army's left and straight into the enemy fleet, which was supported by musket fire from 4,000 Mamluks, reinforced by peasants and Arabs. The French fleet had numerical superiority but still lost its gunboats to the enemy. Attracted by the sound of gunfire, Bonaparte ordered his land force to the charge and attacked the village of Chebreiss, which was captured after two hours' fierce fighting. The enemy fled in disorder towards Cairo, leaving 600 dead on the battlefield.
After a day's rest at Chebreiss, the French land force continued the pursuit. On 2 Thermidor (20 July), it arrived half a mile from the village of Embabé. The heat was unbearable and the army was exhausted and needed a rest, but there was not enough time and so Bonaparte drew up his 25,000 troops for battle approximately nine miles (15 km) from the Pyramids of Giza. He is said to have shown his army the pyramids behind the enemy's left flank and at the moment of ordering the attack shouted "Soldiers, see the tops of the Pyramids" – in accounts written long afterwards, this phrase was altered into "Soldiers, remember that from the top of these pyramids, 40 centuries of history contemplate you", though historians later discovered that the pyramids were not visible from the battlefield. This was the start of the so-called Battle of the Pyramids, a French victory over an enemy force of about 21,000 Mamluks. (Around 40,000 Mamluk soldiers stayed away from the battle.) The French defeated the Mamluk cavalry with a giant infantry square, with cannons and supplies safely on the inside. In all 300 French and approximately 6,000 Egyptians were killed. The battle gave rise to dozens of stories and drawings.
Dupuy's brigade pursued the routed enemy and at night entered Cairo, which had been abandoned by the beys Mourad and Ibrahim. On 4 Thermidor (22 July), the notables of Cairo came to Giza to meet Bonaparte and offered to hand over the city to him. Three days later, he moved his main headquarters there. Desaix was ordered to follow Mourad, who had set off for Upper Egypt. An observation corps was put in place at Elkanka to keep an eye on the movements of Ibrahim, who was heading towards Syria. Bonaparte personally led the pursuit of Ibrahim, beat him at Salahie and pushed him completely out of Egypt.
The transports had sailed back to France, but the battle fleet stayed and supported the army along the coast. The British fleet under the command of Horatio Nelson had been searching in vain for the French fleet for weeks. The British fleet had not found it in time to prevent the landings in Egypt, but on 1 August Nelson discovered the French warships anchored in a strong defensive position in the Bay of Abukir. The French believed that they were open to attack only on one side, the other side being protected by the shore. However, during the Battle of the Nile the arriving British fleet under Horatio Nelson managed to slip half of their ships in between the land and the French line, thus attacking from both sides. In a few hours 11 out of the 13 French ships of the line and 2 out of the 4 French frigates were captured or destroyed; the four remaining ships fled. This frustrated Bonaparte's goal of strengthening the French position in the Mediterranean Sea, and instead put it totally under British control. News of the naval defeat reached Bonaparte en route back to Cairo from defeating Ibrahim but, far from being worried, Mullié states:
After the naval defeat at Aboukir, Bonaparte's campaign remained land-bound. However, his army still succeeded in consolidating power in Egypt, although it faced repeated nationalist uprisings, and Napoleon began to behave as absolute ruler of all Egypt. He set up a pavilion and from within it presided over a fête du Nil – it was he who gave the signal to throw into the floats the statue of the river's fiancée, his name and Mohammed's were mingled in the same acclamations, on his orders gifts were distributed to the people, and he gave kaftans to his main officers.
In a largely unsuccessful effort to gain the support of the Egyptian population, Bonaparte issued proclamations that cast him as a liberator of the people from Ottoman and Mamluk oppression, praising the precepts of Islam and claiming friendship between France and the Ottoman Empire despite French intervention in the breakaway state. This position as a liberator and Ottoman ally initially gained him solid support in Egypt and later led to admiration for Napoleon from Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who succeeded where Bonaparte had not in reforming Egypt and declaring its independence from the Ottomans. In a letter to a sheikh in August 1798, Napoleon wrote, "I hope... I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness." However, Bonaparte's secretary Bourienne wrote that his employer had no serious interest in Islam or any other religion beyond their political value.
Shortly after Bonaparte's return from facing Ibrahim came Mohammed's birthday, which was celebrated with great pomp. Bonaparte himself directed the military parades for the occasion, preparing for this festival in the cheik's house wearing oriental dress and a turban. It was on this occasion that the divan granted him the title Ali-Bonaparte after Bonaparte proclaimed himself "a worthy son of the Prophet" and "favourite of Allah". Around the same time he took severe measures to protect pilgrim caravans from Egypt to Mecca, writing a letter himself to the governor of Mecca.
Even so, thanks to the taxes he imposed on them to support his army, the Egyptians remained unconvinced of the sincerity of all Bonaparte's attempts at conciliation and continued to attack him ceaselessly. Any means, even sudden attacks and assassination, were allowed to force the "infidels" out of Egypt. Military executions were unable to deter these attacks and they continued, showing that in the end the French were in Egypt but not really its masters.
22 September 1798 was the anniversary of the founding of the First French Republic and Bonaparte organised the most magnificent celebration possible. On his orders, an immense circus was built in the largest square in Cairo, with 105 columns (each with a flag bearing the name of a département) round the edge and a colossal inscribed obelisk at the centre. On seven classical altars were inscribed the names of heroes killed in the French Revolutionary Wars, whilst the structure was entered through a triumphal arch, on which was shown the battle of the Pyramids. Here there was some awkwardness – the painting flattered the French but aggrieved the defeated Egyptians they were trying to win over as allies.
On the day of the festival, Bonaparte addressed his troops, enumerating their exploits since the 1793 siege of Toulon and telling them:
After making himself master of Egypt, Bonaparte gave Egypt his version of the benefits of western civilisation. Cairo soon took on the appearance of a European city, with its administration confided to a 'divan' chosen from among the best men of the province. At the same time the other cities received municipal institutions. An Institut d'Égypte of French scholars was set up and he joined the title of President of the Institut to the title of académicien. The conqueror became the legislator, setting up a library, a chemistry laboratory, a health service, a botanical garden, an observatory, an antiquities museum and a menagerie.
Under Bonaparte's orders, the scholars drew up a comparative table of Egyptian and French weights and measures, wrote a French-Arabic dictionary and calculated a triple Egyptian, Coptic and European calendar. Two journals were set up in Cairo, one for literature and political economy under the name Décade égyptienne, and the other for politics under the title Courrier égyptien.
Its numbers hugely reduced by deaths in action and from disease, the army could no longer hope for reinforcements from France after the naval disaster at Aboukir, but Bonaparte tried to overcome this problem by levying from among the slaves in Egypt between the ages of 16 and 24 and turning the 3,000 sailors who had survived Aboukir into a légion nautique. All the streets in Cairo were closed at night by gates to stop the inhabitants aiding the Arabs in a night attack on the French. Bonaparte removed these fences, since the Egyptians could use them as barricades if they rose against the French – this removal proved to be justified by the events that soon followed.
On 22 October 1798, while Bonaparte was in old Cairo, the city's population was spreading weapons around the streets and fortifying strongpoints, especially at the Great Mosque. The chef de brigade Dupuy, Cairo's commander, was the first to be killed, then Sulkowski, friend and aide de camp to Bonaparte. Excited by the sheikhs and imams, the Egyptians swore by the Prophet to exterminate all Frenchmen and any Frenchman they met – at home or in the streets – was mercilessly killed. Crowds rallied at the city gates to keep out Bonaparte, who was repulsed and forced to take a detour to get in via the Boulaq gate.
The French army's situation was critical – the British were menacing coastal towns, Murad Bey was still in the field in Upper Egypt, and generals Menou and Dugua were only just able to hold down Lower Egypt. The Arabs and the Egyptian peasants had common cause with those rising against the French in Cairo – the whole desert was in arms. A manifesto of the Great Lord was published widely throughout Egypt. This violent and bigoted attack on the religion of the French (or lack of it) stated:
Bonaparte did not feel threatened by the storm building on all sides. Via his orders the Arabs were beaten back into the desert and the artillery was turned back on the rebel city. Bonaparte personally hunted down the rebels from street to street and forced them to concentrate their retreat in the Great Mosque. Luckily for the French the sky was covered with clouds and thunder was rumbling, a very rare phenomenon in Egypt. Many of the superstitious residents considered the thunder as a sign from heaven and they begged for mercy from their enemies. Bonaparte replied "He [ie God] is too late – you've begun, now I will finish!" He then immediately ordered his cannon to open fire on the Mosque. The French broke down the gates and stormed into the building, massacring the Egyptians inside.
Back in absolute control of Cairo, Bonaparte sought out the authors and instigators of the revolt. Several sheikhs and many Turks or Egyptians were convicted of participation in the plot and executed. To complete his punishment, the city was hit by a high tax and its divan was replaced by a military commission. To negate the effects of the Great Lord's firman, the French posted a proclamation in all the cities of Egypt, ending in the words:
The most religious of the prophets said: "The revolt has fallen asleep – cursed be he who wakes it up!" While Bonaparte remained in Egypt, there was no further revolt.
With Egypt quiet again and under his control, Bonaparte used this time of rest to visit Suez and see with his own eyes the possibility of a canal (known as the Canal of the Pharaohs) said to have been cut in antiquity between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean by order of the pharaohs. Before setting out on the expedition, he gave Cairo back its self-government as a token of its pardon – a new 'divan' made up of 60 members replaced the military commission.
Then, accompanied by his colleagues from the Institut, Berthollet, Monge, Le Père, Dutertre, Costaz, Caffarelli, and followed by a 300-man escort, Bonaparte set out for the Red Sea and after three days' marching across the desert he and his caravan arrived at Suez. After giving orders to complete the fortifications at Suez, Bonaparte crossed the Red Sea and on 28 December 1798 moved into Sinai to look for the celebrated fountains of Moses 17 kilometres from Suez. On his return, surprised by the rising tide, he ran the risk of drowning. Arriving back at Suez, after much exploration the expedition fulfilled its aim, finding the remains of the ancient canal built by Senusret III and Necho II.
In the meantime the Ottomans in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) received news of the French fleet's destruction at Aboukir and believed this spelled the end for Bonaparte and his expedition, trapped in Egypt. Sultan Selim III decided to wage war against France, and sent two armies to Egypt. The first army, under the command of Jezzar Pasha, had set out with 12,000 soldiers; but was reinforced with troops from Damascus, Aleppo, Iraq (10,000 men), and Jerusalem (8,000 men). The second army, under the command of Mustafa Pasha, began on Rhodes with about eight thousand soldiers. He also knew he would get about 42,000 soldiers from Albania, Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Greece. The Ottomans planned two offensives against Cairo: from Syria, across the desert of Salhayeh-Belbays-El Kankah, and from Rhodes by sea landing in the Aboukir area or the port city of Damietta.
In January 1799, during the canal expedition, the French learned of the hostile Ottoman movements and that Jezzar had seized the desert fort of El-Arich ten miles (16 km) from Syria's frontier with Egypt, which he was in charge of guarding. Certain that war with the Ottoman sultan was imminent and that he would be unable to defend against the Ottoman army, Bonaparte decided that his best defence would be to attack them first in Syria, where a victory would give him more time to prepare against the Ottoman forces on Rhodes.
He prepared around 13,000 soldiers who were organised in divisions under the command of Generals Reynier (with 2,160 men), Kléber (with 2,336), Bon (2,449), Lannes (2,938), division cavalry under General Murat (900), brigade of infantry and cavalry under Brigade chief Bessières (400), camel-company (89), artillery under Dommartin (1,387), and engineers and sappers under Caffarelli (3,404). Every infantry and cavalry division had 6 cannons. Napoleon took 16 siege cannons which were placed on ships in Damietta under the command of Captain Standelet. He also ordered contre-amiral Perrée to Jaffa with siege artillery pieces. The total artillery sent on the campaign was 80 cannon.
Regnier and the vanguard quickly arrived before Arish, captured it, destroyed part of the garrison and forced the rest to take refuge in the castle. At the same time he caused Ibrahim's mamluks to flee and captured their camp. Bonaparte's French forces left Egypt on 5 February 1799 and, seven days after leaving Cairo, Bonaparte too arrived at Arish and bombarded one of the castle towers. The garrison surrendered two days later and some of the garrison joined the French army.
After marching 60 miles (97 km) across the desert the army arrived in Gaza, where it rested for two days, and then moved onto Jaffa. This city was surrounded by high walls flanked by towers. Jezzar had entrusted its defence to elite troops, with the artillery manned by 1200 Ottoman gunners. The city was one of the ways into Syria, its port could be used by his fleet and a large part of the expedition's success depended on its fall. This meant Bonaparte had to capture the city before advancing further, and so he laid siege to it from 3 to 7 March.
All the outer works were in the besiegers' power and a breach could be produced. When Bonaparte sent a Turk to the city's commander to demand his surrender, the commander beheaded him despite the envoy's neutrality and ordered a sortie. He was repulsed and on the evening of the same day the besiegers' cannonballs caused one of the towers to crumble. Despite the defenders' desperate resistance, Jaffa fell. Two days and two nights of carnage were enough to assuage the French soldiers' fury – 4,500 prisoners were shot or beheaded by an executioner taken on in Egypt. This vengeful execution found apologists, who wrote that Napoleon could neither afford to hold such a large number of prisoners nor let them escape to join Jezzar's ranks.
Before leaving Jaffa, Bonaparte set up a divan for the city along with a large hospital on the site of the Carmelite monastery at Mount Carmel to treat those of his soldiers who had caught the plague, whose symptoms had been seen among them since the start of the siege. A report from generals Bon and Rampon on the plague's spread worried Bonaparte. To calm his army, it is said he went into the sufferers' rooms, spoke with and consoled the sick and touched them, saying "See, it's nothing", then left the hospital and told those who thought his actions unwise "It was my duty, I'm commander-in-chief". However, some later historians state that Napoleon avoided touching or even meeting plague-sufferers to avoid catching it and that his visits to the sick were invented by later Napoleonic propaganda. For example, long after the campaign, Antoine-Jean Gros produced the propaganda painting Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa in 1804. This showed Napoleon touching a sick man's body, modelling him on an Ancien Régime king-healer touching sufferers from the "King's Evil" during his coronation rites – this was no coincidence, since 1804 was the year Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor.
From Jaffa the army set off for the coastal town of Acre. En route it captured Haifa and the munitions and provisions stored there, along with the castle at Jaffe, the castle at Nazareth and the town of Tyre. The siege of Acre began on 18 March but the French were unable to take it and it was here that the Syrian campaign came to an abrupt halt. The city was defended by newly created Ottoman infantry elites (Nizam-ı Cedid) under the command of Jezzar Pasha and was right on the coast, enabling it to be reinforced and resupplied by the British and Ottoman fleets.
After sixty days' repeated attacks and two murderous and inconclusive assaults, the city remained uncaptured. Even so, it was still awaiting reinforcements by sea as well as a large army forming up in Asia on the sultan's orders to march against the French. To find out the latter's movements, Jezzar ordered a general sortie against Bonaparte's camp. This sortie was supported by its own artillery and a naval bombardment from the British. With his usual impetuosity, Bonaparte pushed Jezzar's columns back against their own walls and then went to help Kléber, who was retrenched in the ruins with 4,000 Frenchmen and 20,000 Ottomans under his command. Bonaparte conceived a trick which used all the advantages offered him by the enemy position, sending Murat and his cavalry across the River Jordan to defend the river crossing and Vial and Rampon to march on Nablus, while Bonaparte himself put his troops between the Ottomans and the magazines. These manoeuvres were successful, in what was known as the Battle of Mount Tabor. The enemy army, taken by surprise at many points at once, was routed and forced to retreat, leaving their camels, tents, provisions and 5,000 dead on the battlefield.
Returning to besiege Acre, Bonaparte learned that Rear-Admiral Perrée had landed seven siege artillery pieces at Jaffa. Bonaparte then ordered two assaults, both vigorously repulsed. A fleet was sighted flying the Ottoman flag and Bonaparte realised he must capture the city before that fleet arrived there with reinforcements. A fifth general attack was ordered, which took the outer works, planted the French tricolour on the rampart, pushed the Ottomans back into the city and forced the Ottoman fire to relent. Acre was thus taken or about to capitulate.
However, one of those fighting on the Ottoman side was the French émigré and engineer officer Phélippeaux, one of Bonaparte's classmates at the École Militaire. Phélippeaux ordered cannon to be placed in the most advantageous positions and new trenches dug as if by magic behind the ruins which Bonaparte's forces had captured. At the same time Sidney Smith, commander of the British fleet, and his ships' crews landed. These factors renewed the courage of the besieged and they pushed Bonaparte's force back, with stubborn fury on both sides. Three final consecutive assaults were all repulsed, convincing Bonaparte that it would be unwise to continue trying to capture Acre. He raised the siege in May and consoled his soldiers with the proclamation:
The French force's situation was now critical – the enemy could harass its rear as it retreated, it was tired and hungry in the desert, it was carrying a large number of plague-sufferers. To carry these sufferers in the middle of the army would spread the disease, so they had to be carried in the rear, where they were most at risk from the fury of the Ottomans, keen to avenge the massacres at Jaffa. There were two hospital depots, one in the large hospital on Mount Carmel and the other at Jaffa. On Bonaparte's orders, all those at Mount Carmel were evacuated to Jaffa and Tentura. The gun horses were abandoned before Acre and Bonaparte and all his officers handed their horses over to the transport officer Daure, with Bonaparte walking to set an example.
To conceal its withdrawal from the siege, the army set off at night. Arriving at Jaffa, Bonaparte ordered three evacuations of the plague sufferers to three different points – one by sea to Damietta, one by land to Gaza and one by land to Arish. During the retreat the army picked clean all the lands through which they passed, with livestock, crops and houses all destroyed by sword and fire and Gaza the only place to be spared, in return for remaining loyal to Bonaparte. To speed the retreat, Bonaparte also took the controversial step of killing prisoners and plague-stricken men along the way. His supporters argued that this was necessary given continuing harassment of stragglers by Ottoman forces.
Finally, after four months away from Egypt, the expedition arrived back at Cairo with 1800 wounded, after losing 600 men to the plague and 1200 to enemy action. In the meantime Ottoman and British emissaries had brought news of Bonaparte's setback at Acre to Egypt, stating that his expeditionary force was largely destroyed and Bonaparte himself was dead. On his return Bonaparte scotched these rumours by re-entering Egypt as if he was at the head of a triumphal army, with his soldiers carrying palm branches, emblems of victory. In his proclamation to the inhabitants of Cairo, Bonaparte told them:
At Cairo the army found the rest and supplies it needed to recover, but its stay there could not be a long one. Bonaparte had been informed that Murad Bey had evaded the pursuit by generals Desaix, Belliard, Donzelot and Davoust and was descending on Upper Egypt. Bonaparte thus marched to attack him at Giza, also learning that 100 Ottoman ships were off Aboukir, threatening Alexandria.
Without losing time or returning to Cairo, Bonaparte ordered his generals to make all speed to meet the army commanded by the pasha of Rumelia, Saïd-Mustapha, which had joined up with the forces under Murad Bey and Ibrahim. Before leaving Giza, where he found them, Bonaparte wrote to Cairo's divan, stating:
First Bonaparte advanced to Alexandria, from which he marched to Aboukir, whose fort was now strongly garrisoned by the Ottomans. Bonaparte deployed his army so that Mustapha would have to win or die with all his family. Mustapha's army was 18,000 strong and supported by several cannon, with trenches defending it on the landward side and free communication with the Ottoman fleet on the seaward side. Bonaparte ordered an attack on 25 July and the Battle of Abukir ensued. In a few hours the trenches were taken, 10,000 Ottomans drowned in the ocean and the rest captured or killed. Most of the credit for the French victory that day goes to Murat, who captured Mustapha himself. Mustapha's son was in command of the fort and he and all his officers survived but were captured and sent back to Cairo as part of the French triumphal procession. Seeing Bonaparte return with these high-ranking prisoners, the population of Cairo superstitiously welcomed him as a prophet-warrior who had predicted his own triumph with such remarkable precision.
The land battle at Abukir was Bonaparte's last action in Egypt, partly restoring his reputation after the French naval defeat at the same place a year earlier. However, with the Egyptian campaign stagnating and political instability developing back home, a new phase in Bonaparte's career was beginning – he felt that he had nothing left to do in Egypt which was worthy of his ambition and that (as had been shown by the defeat at Acre) the forces he had left to him there were not sufficient for an expedition of any importance outside of Egypt. He also foresaw that the army was getting yet weaker from losses in battle and to disease and would soon have to surrender and be taken prisoner by its enemies, which would destroy all the prestige he had won by his many victories. Bonaparte thus spontaneously decided to return to France. During the prisoner exchange at Aboukir and notably via the Gazette de Francfort Sidney Smith had sent him, he was in communication with the British fleet, from which he had learned of events in France. As Bonaparte saw (and later mythologised) it France was thrown back into retreat, its enemies had recaptured France's conquests, France was unhappy at its dictatorial government and was nostalgic for the glorious peace it had signed in the Treaty of Campo Formio – as Bonaparte saw it, this meant France needed him and would welcome him back.
He only shared the secret of his return with a small number of friends whose discretion and loyalty were well-known. He left Cairo in August 1799 on the pretext of a voyage in the Nile Delta without arousing suspicion, accompanied by the scholars Monge and Berthollet, the painter Denon, and generals Berthier, Murat, Lannes and Marmont. On 23 August 1799 a proclamation informed the army that Bonaparte had transferred his powers as commander in chief to General Kléber. This news was taken badly, with the soldiers angry with Bonaparte and the French government for leaving them behind, but this indignation soon ended, since the troops were confident in Kléber, who convinced them that Bonaparte had not left permanently but would soon be back with reinforcements from France. As night fell, the frigate Muiron silently moored by the shore, with three other ships escorting her. Some became worried when a British corvette was sighted at the moment of departure, but Bonaparte cried "Bah! We'll get there, luck has never abandoned us, we shall get there, despite the English."
On their 41-day voyage back they did not meet a single enemy ship to stop them, with some sources suggesting that Bonaparte had purchased the British fleet's neutrality via a tacit agreement, though others hold this unlikely, since many would argue that he also had a pact with Nelson to leave him to board on the Egyptian coast unopposed with the fleet bearing his large army. It has been suggested that Sidney Smith and other British commanders in the Mediterranean helped Napoleon evade the British blockade, thinking that he might act as a Royalist element back in France, but there is no solid historical evidence in support of this conjecture.
On 1 October Napoleon's small flotilla entered port at Ajaccio, where contrary winds kept them until 8 October, when they set out for France. When the coast came in sight, ten British ships were sighted. Contre-amiral Ganteaume suggested changing course towards Corsica, but Bonaparte said "No, this manoeuvre would lead us to England, and I want to get to France.". This courageous act saved them and on 8 October 1799 (16 vendémiaire year VIII) the frigates anchored in the roads off Fréjus. As there were no sick men on board and the plague in Egypt had ended six months before their departure, Bonaparte and his entourage were allowed to land immediately without waiting in quarantine. At 6 pm he set off for Paris, accompanied by his chief of staff Berthier. He stopped off at Saint-Raphaël, where he built a pyramid commemorating the expedition.
The troops Bonaparte left behind were supposed to be honourably evacuated under the terms of a treaty Kléber had negotiated with Smith in early 1800, but British Admiral Keith reneged on this treaty, sending an amphibious assault force of 30,000 Mamlukes against Kléber.
Kléber defeated the Mamlukes at the battle of Heliopolis in March 1800, and then suppressed an insurrection in Cairo. However, on 14 June (26 prairial) 1800 a Syrian student called Suleiman al-Halabi assassinated Kléber with a dagger in the heart, chest, left forearm and right thigh. Command of the French army passed to General Menou, who held command from 3 July 1800 until August 1801. Menou's letter was published in Le Moniteur on 6 September, with the conclusions of the committee charged with judging those responsible for the assassination:
The Anglo-Ottomans then commenced their land offensive, the French were defeated by the British in the Battle of Alexandria on March 21, surrendered at Fort Julien in April and then Cairo fell in June. Finally besieged in Alexandria from 17 August – 2 September 1801, Menou eventually capitulated to the British. Under the terms of his capitulation, the British General John Hely-Hutchinson allowed the French army to be repatriated in British ships. Menou also signed over to Britain the priceless hoard of Egyptian antiquities such as the Rosetta Stone which it had collected. After initial talks in Al Arish on 30 January 1800, the Treaty of Paris on 25 June 1802 ended all hostilities between France and the Ottoman Empire, resecuring Egypt for the Ottomans.
An unusual aspect of the Egyptian expedition was the inclusion of an enormous contingent of scientists and scholars ("savants") assigned to the invading French force, 167 in total. This deployment of intellectual resources is considered as an indication of Napoleon's devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment, and by others as a masterstroke of propaganda obfuscating the true motives of the invasion; the increase of Bonaparte's power.
These scholars included engineers and artists, members of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, the geologist Dolomieu, Henri-Joseph Redouté, the mathematician Gaspard Monge (a founding member of the École polytechnique), the chemist Claude Louis Berthollet, Vivant Denon, the mathematician Jean-Joseph Fourier (who did some of the empirical work upon which his "analytical theory of heat" was founded in Egypt), the physicist Étienne Malus, the naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the botanist Alire Raffeneau-Delile, and the engineer Nicolas-Jacques Conté of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers. Their original aim was to help the army, notably by opening a Suez Canal, mapping out roads and building mills to supply food. They founded the Institut d'Égypte with the aim of propagating Enlightenment values in Egypt through interdisciplinary work, improving its agricultural and architectural techniques for example. A scientific review was created under the title Décade égyptienne and in the course of the expedition the scholars also observed and drew the flora and fauna in Egypt and became interested in the country's resources.
The Egyptian Institute that Napoleon established saw the construction of laboratories, libraries, and a printing press. The group worked prodigiously, and some of their discoveries were not finally cataloged until the 1820s.
A young engineering officer, Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard, discovered the Rosetta Stone in July 1799. However, many of the antiquities collected by the French in Egypt were seized by the British Navy and ended up in the British Museum – only about 50 of the 5,000 Egyptian objects in the Louvre were collected during the 1799–1801 Egyptian expedition. Even so, the scholars' research in Egypt gave rise to the Description de l'Égypte, published on Napoleon's orders between 1809 and 1821.
Napoleon's discoveries in Egypt gave rise to fascination with Ancient Egyptian culture and the birth of Egyptology in Europe.
The printing press was first introduced to Egypt by Napoleon. He brought with his expedition a French, Arabic, and Greek printing press, which were far superior in speed, efficiency and quality to the nearest presses used in Istanbul. In the Middle East, Africa, India and even much of Eastern Europe and Russia, printing was a minor, specialized activity until the 1700s at least. From about 1720, the Mutaferrika Press in Istanbul produced substantial amounts of printing, of which some Egyptian clerics were aware of at the time. Juan Cole reports that, "Boneaparte was a master of what we would now call spin, and his genius for it is demonstrated by reports in Arabic sources that several of his more outlandish allegations were actually taken seriously in the Egyptian countryside."
Bonaparte's initial use of Arabic in his printed proclamations was rife with error. In addition to much of the awkwardly translated Arabic wording being unsound grammatically, often the proclamations were so poorly constructed that they were simply undecipherable. The French Orientalist Jean Michel de Venture de Paradis, perhaps with the help of Maltese aides, were responsible for translating the first of Napoleon's French proclamations into Arabic. The Maltese language is distantly related to the Egyptian dialect, however, classical Arabic differs greatly in grammar, vocabulary, and idiom. Venture de Paradis, alternatively, who had lived in Tunis, understood Arabic grammar and vocabulary, but did not know how to use them idiomatically.
The Sunni Muslim clerics of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo reacted incredulously to Napoleon's proclamations. Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, a Cairene cleric and historian, received the proclamations with a combination of amusement, bewilderment, and outrage. He berated the French's poor Arabic grammar and the infelicitous style of their proclamations. Over the course of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, al-Jabarti wrote a wealth of material regarding the French and their occupation tactics. Among his observations, he rejected Napoleon's claim that the French were "muslims" (the wrong noun case was used in the Arabic proclamation, making it a lower case "m") and poorly understood the French concept of a republic and democracy – words which did not exist at the time in Arabic.
In addition to its significance in the wider French Revolutionary Wars, the campaign had a powerful impact on the Ottoman Empire in general and the Arab world in particular. The invasion demonstrated the military, technological, and organisational superiority of the Western European powers to the Middle East, leading to profound social changes in the region. The invasion introduced Western inventions, such as the printing press, and ideas, such as liberalism and incipient nationalism, to the Middle East, eventually leading to the establishment of Egyptian independence and modernisation under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the first half of the 19th century and eventually the Nahda, or Arab Renaissance. To modernist historians, the French arrival marks the start of the modern Middle East.
The campaign ended in what some back home in France believed was a failure, with 15,000 French troops killed in action and 15,000 by disease. However, Napoleon's reputation as a brilliant military commander remained intact and even rose higher, despite some of his failures during the campaign. This was due to his expert propaganda, such as his Courrier d'Égypte, set up to propagandise the expeditionary force itself and support its morale. That propaganda even spread back to France, where news of defeats such as at sea in Aboukir Bay and on land in Syria were suppressed. Defeats could be blamed on the now-assassinated Kléber, leaving Napoleon free from blame and with a burnished reputation. This opened his way to power and he profited from his reputation by engineering his becoming First Consul in the coup d'état of 18 brumaire (November 1799).
Colonel Barthelemy Serra took the first steps towards creating a Mameluke Corps in France. On September 27, 1800 he wrote a letter from Cairo to the first consul, couched in an Oriental style. He regretted being very far away from Napoleon and offered his total devotion to the French nation and expressed the Mameluke's wish to become the bodyguard to the first consul. They wished to serve him as living shields against those who would seek to harm him. The first consul became receptive of admitting a unit of carefully selected cavalrymen as his personal guard. He had an officer pay appropriate respects to the foreign troops and provided Napoleon himself with a full report to the number of refugees.1798
19 May (30 Floréal year VI) – Departure from Toulon
11 June (23 Prairial year VI) – Capture of Malta
1 July (13 Messidor year VI) – Landing at Alexandria
21 July (3 Thermidor year VI) – Battle of the Pyramids, French land victory
1 and 2 August (14-15 Thermidor year VI) – Battle of the Nile, British naval victory over French squadron anchored in Aboukir Bay
10 August – Battle at Salheyeh, French victory
7 October – Battle of Sédiman, French victory
21 October (30 Vendémiaire) – Cairo Revolt
7 March – Siege of Jaffa, French victory
8 April – Battle at Nazareth, French victory, Junot with 500 defeats 3000 Turks
11 April – Battle of Cana, French victory, Napoleon wins a great battle against Turks
16 April (27 Germinal year VII) – Bonaparte relieves the troops under Kléber just as the latter are about to be overwhelmed at the foot of Mount Tabor
20 May (1 Prairial an VII) – Siege of Acre, French troops retire after eight assaults
1 August (14 Thermidor year VII) – Battle of Abukir, French victory
23 August (6 Fructidor year VII) – Bonaparte embarks on the frigate Muiron and abandons command to Kléber
24 January (4 Pluviôse year VIII) – Kléber concludes the convention of El-Arich with the British admiral Sidney Smith
February (Pluviôse-Ventôse year VIII) – French troops begin their withdrawal, but the British admiral Keith refuses to recognize the convention's terms.
20 March (29 Ventôse year VIII) – Battle of Heliopolis, Kléber wins one last victory, against a force of 30,000 Ottomans
14 June (25 Prairial year VIII) – A Kurd named Suleiman al-Halabi assassinates Kléber in his garden in Cairo. General Menou, a convert to Islam, takes over command
3 September (16 Fructidor year VIII) – The British recapture Malta from the French
8 March (17 Ventôse year IX) – British landing near Aboukir
21 March (30 Ventôse year IX) – Battle of Alexandria, French defeat, army under Menou digs in at Alexandria ready for the siege of Alexandria
31 March (10 Germinal year IX) – Ottoman army arrives at El-Arich
19 April (29 Germinal year IX)– British and Ottoman forces capture Fort Julien at Rosetta after a four-day bombardment, opening the Nile.
27 June (8 Messidor year IX) – General Belliard surrenders in Cairo
31 August (13 Fructidor year IX) – Siege of Alexandria ends in Menou's surrender