Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with the two goals of disrupting British trade with India and establishing a permanent French colony. Although the campaign was a failure, he successfully manipulated public opinion to enhance his popularity in France.

Summary of Event

In the late 1780’s, Napoleon Bonaparte, after reading a travel account of Egypt by the comte de Volney, conceived the idea of conquering the region. In September, 1797, near the conclusion of his victorious Italian campaign, he advocated the colonizing of Egypt and Malta in a letter to Talleyrand, the French minister of foreign affairs. In response, Talleyrand, who was familiar with Volney’s writings, agreed with Bonaparte’s idea. At the time, Bonaparte was also considering an invasion of Britain, but he soon abandoned the notion as unrealistic because of Britain’s sea power. [kw]Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (Apr. 12, 1798-Sept. 2, 1801) [kw]Egyptian Campaign, Napoleon’s (Apr. 12, 1798-Sept. 2, 1801) [kw]Campaign, Napoleon’s Egyptian (Apr. 12, 1798-Sept. 2, 1801) Colonization;French of Egypt Egypt;Napoleon’s campaign[Napoleons campaign] [g]Egypt;Apr. 12, 1798-Sept. 2, 1801: Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign[3330] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 12, 1798-Sept. 2, 1801: Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign[3330] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 12, 1798-Sept. 2, 1801: Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign[3330] Napoleon I Napoleon I;Egypt [p]Nelson, Lord Talleyrand Murad Bey Ibrāhīm Bey Kléber, Jean-Baptiste Desaix de Veygoux, Louis-Charles-Antoine Abercromby, Ralph Menou, Jacques-François de Volney, comte de Champollion, Jean François

Egypt was a traditional and impoverished country with about 3 million people. Although nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire, it was semiautonomous and ruled by local governors called beys, who belonged to an ancient warrior caste of former slaves called Mamlūks. While often dictatorial, the beys exercised limited control over much of the country. To the dismay of the French, the beys had established close relations with Britain in transporting men and supplies from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

On April 12, 1798, the Directory, Directory (France) a group of five Frenchmen holding executive power, secretly issued a decree appointing Bonaparte the commander in chief of an expedition to seize both Malta and Egypt. As justification, the decree claimed that the Mamlūks were closely allied with the British British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] French-British conflicts[French British conflicts] and that they had been regularly perpetrating “horrible cruelties” on French ships in the Mediterranean. The decree further instructed Bonaparte to destroy British settlements in the Red Sea and then to cut a canal Canals across the Suez Isthmus.

When planning and organizing the expeditionary force, called the Army of the Orient, Army of the Orient (France) Bonaparte had the assistance of Volney and other knowledgeable people. On May 19, 1798, the army departed Toulon with about thirty-eight thousand troops, accompanied by hundreds of engineers, architects, and scholars in many different fields. The fleet transporting the troops, commanded by Admiral François Brueys, totaled about four hundred ships. Their first stop was at the island of Malta, which they easily captured and reorganized as a French possession. On July 1, the expedition landed in Egypt at Marabut Bay. Within a few days, French soldiers controlled the port cities of Alexandria, Rosetta, and Damietta.

Napoleon leads his troops at the Battle of the Pyramids.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

On July 2, Bonaparte published a proclamation addressed to the people of Egypt, asserting that the Egyptian rulers were cruel tyrants who had long injured French merchants. The document promised to end tyranny, to allow wise and learned Egyptians to rule, to promote economic prosperity, and to respect the free exercise of the Islamic religion. Bonaparte gave strict orders for his soldiers to refrain from theft, rape, or the dishonoring of local customs.

On July 11, the main body of the French army left El Rahmanya, on the Nile River, Nile River, Africa and headed south toward Cairo. The majority of the soldiers marched through the desert, while the rest traveled on a flotilla of barges. By advancing rapidly, Napoleon hoped to defeat the two Mamlūk leaders, Murad Bey and Ibrāhīm Bey, before his own men became demoralized. After traveling 8 miles, the French successfully repelled an attack by Egyptian forces at Shubra Kit. The Egyptians then withdrew to the south.

On July 21, about twenty-five thousand French troops decisively defeated a larger army of probably forty thousand men at Embaba, on the Nile. This conflict is known to history as the Battle of the Pyramids, Pyramids, Battle of the (1798) because it was fought just 10 miles from the Great Pyramid of Giza. The French prevailed because of their advantages in modern equipment, better training and discipline, and a unified command. About one-third of the Egyptian troops were Bedouins, employing traditional tactics and primitive weapons. That night, Napoleon stayed in Murad’s house at Giza, and the next day he made a triumphal entry into Cairo. Cairo, Egypt

Things soon began to fall apart for the French invaders, however. On August 1-2, in the Battle of the Nile, Nile, Battle of the (1798) the British admiral Lord Nelson found and destroyed most of the French navy at Abū Qīr Bay (Aboukir Bay), cutting off Bonaparte’s supply lines. Although General Jean Reynier won a victory over Ibrāhīm Bey’s forces at El-Hanka on August 6, General Louis-Charles-Antoine Desaix de Veygoux was unable to catch the mobile forces under Murad’s command. In Cairo, Bonaparte’s colonial administration succeeded in forcing acquiescence for a few months, but a massive and violent revolt broke out on October 21. The French brutally massacred the insurgents and plundered the al-Azhar Mosque. By then, many French troops were suffering from ophthalmia and outbreaks of the plague.

After the Ottoman Ottoman-French conflicts[Ottoman French conflicts] French-Ottoman conflicts[French Ottoman conflicts] government declared war on the French, Bonaparte tried to forestall a Turkish attack by launching defensive invasions of Syria and Palestine in February, 1799. He and General Jean-Baptiste Kléber defeated Turkish troops at Mount Tabor, but they were unable to capture Acre. Returning to Egypt, Bonaparte overcame Mustafā Paşa’s Turkish invaders at Abū Qīr on July 25. By then, more than half of Bonaparte’s invading army had been buried in Egyptian graves. Recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, Bonaparte decided to abandon the Army of the Orient. On August 23, he and a few of his best generals slipped through the British blockade and sailed for home.

General Kléber, who was left in charge, soon negotiated a surrender to the British on favorable terms, but the British commander of the Mediterranean repudiated the agreement. When fighting resumed, Kléber successfully defeated the main Turkish army at Heliopolis in March, 1800, but he was assassinated by an Egyptian nationalist in June.

Kléber’s successor, General Jacques-François de Menou, unpopular and considered incompetent, failed to prevent the landing of a large British army commanded by General Ralph Abercromby. On March 21, 1801, the British won a major victory at Canopus. As Menou quarreled with his officers, British and Turkish forces isolated the French in Cairo and Alexandria. The Cairo garrison surrendered on July 28, and Menou surrendered his forces at Alexandria on September 2, 1801. By the terms of the surrender, the surviving French troops, numbering about eleven thousand, were allowed to return home.


For the French, the Egyptian campaign was a military disaster. In addition to a great loss of money and lives, the French navy was decimated, which allowed the British to gain hegemony over the Mediterranean. By returning home before the final defeat occurred, however, Bonaparte managed to escape most of the blame. By 1801, as first consul of a dictatorial government, he was able to control public reporting of the ill-advised adventure, aggrandizing his own role and placing the blame for failure on others.

The French expedition, however, did a great deal to increase knowledge of Egyptian history and culture. In Rosetta, French scholars discovered the famous Rosetta stone Rosetta stone inscribed in ancient hieroglyphics, Hieroglyphics;Egyptian demotic, and Greek, which provided the Egyptologist Jean François Champollion with the key to deciphering hieroglyphics. Bonaparte also established the Egyptian Institute of Arts and Sciences, Egyptian Institute of Arts and Sciences, Cairo which would become a center of scholarship.

The invasion had the long-term consequence of promoting significant change in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. The French brought with them many of the elements of modernization, including powerful weapons and printing presses. The defeat of the Mamlūks, moreover, created a vacuum that was soon filled by a powerful leader, Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha, who would look to Western Europe as a model for building a modern state. The expedition had almost no influence on the later digging of the Suez Canal, in large part because surveyor Jacques Le Père mistakenly concluded that such a project was technically impossible.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barthrop, Michael. Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaigns, 1798-1799. London: Osprey, 1978. Very brief account that is useful as a quick reference for basic facts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bierman, Irene, ed. Napoleon in Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. Ten essays that consider topics like the background of Napoleon’s invasion, its impact, al-Jabarti’s views, and colonial ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foreman, Laura, and Ellen Phillips. Napoleon’s Lost Fleet: Bonaparte, Nelson, and the Battle of the Nile. New York: Discovery Books, 1999. Excellent discussions of the two leaders, Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet, and the archaeological excavation of drowned relics and treasures at Abū Qīr Bay in 1998. Superb illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henry, George A. At Aboukir and Acre: A Story of Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt. London, Ont.: Althouse Press, 2002. Excellent source for details about military strategy and battles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herold, J. Christopher. Bonaparte in Egypt. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. A standard and respected narrative that goes into considerable detail.
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    xlink:type="simple">Jabarti, Shaykh Al-. Napoleon in Egypt: Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the French Occupation, 1798. New York: Markus Wiener, 1993. Interesting book by a contemporary Arab historian who considered the French invaders “uncouth barbarians” and denounced their religion, morality, government, and civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, Christopher. The Nile Campaign: Nelson and Napoleon in Egypt. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973. Good short summaries of the two men and their battles, with many original documents and illustrations.
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    xlink:type="simple">Mackesy, Piers. British Victory in Egypt, 1801: The End of Napoleon’s Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995. An account of Sir Ralph Abercromby’s expeditionary force to Egypt that dislodged the French presence in Egypt in 1801.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall-Cornwall, James. Napoleon as Military Commander. New York: Penguin, 2002. A balanced analysis of Napoleon’s military career and his influence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. New York: Random House, 2004. Fascinating narrative account of how the lives of the two Frenchmen converged to produce a revolutionary understanding of the Egyptian past.

Fall of the Bastille

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Battle of Valmy

Fall of Robespierre

Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns

Battle of the Nile

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Napoleon Rises to Power in France

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Categories: History