Three Short Years and Their Aftermath

At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon made an attempt to capture Egypt, for strategic and economic reasons. An exhibition in the Paris Institut du Monde Arabe takes a look at this colonial episode. Susan Javad reports from the museum

"They then entered the al-Azhar mosque on their horses, which they tethered to the qibla." Historical portrayal of Napoleon's visit to al-Azhar by Henry Léopold Lévy

​​ Furtively and silently, Napoleon Bonaparte steals out of Egypt in August 1799, setting off by ship for France. He leaves behind him 30,000 men, transferring command of the troops to General Kléber.

With this departure, Napoleon ushered in the final chapter of the devastating French expedition to Egypt. Commencing on a triumphant note just one year previously, the adventure would come to a miserable end in 1801.

The French presence in Egypt thus lasted only three years. The Institut du Monde Arabe's latest exhibition attempts to trace the deep marks left behind by this brief juncture, not only in Egypt but also in France.

France's strategic military and scientific interest

Nearly 400 objects have been brought together. And although the focus is on the Egyptian expedition, the story told in the show already takes up the thread earlier on. The year 1769 was chosen as symbolic point of departure, being both Napoleon's year of birth and the probable birth year of Muhammad Ali, pioneer of modern Egypt. The trajectory then takes us far beyond the actual expedition until 1869, the year the Suez Canal was opened.

In 1798 the French government dispatched the young General Bonaparte to conquer Egypt. The plan was to land a critical blow to arch-enemy Great Britain, as Egypt formed an important station along the sea route to India.

Along with this concrete strategic military interest in the country, the expedition was also designed to pursue scientific ends. In the finest Enlightenment fashion, 160 French scholars from diverse disciplines thus accompanied Napoleon's troops.

Bestowing the achievements of the Enlightenment

At the outset, the signs seem auspicious. The Mamluk troops, descendants of Turkish military slaves who became the rulers of Egypt under the Ottomans, are defeated by the French, who seize Cairo.

Napoleon endeavors to bestow the achievements of the Enlightenment upon the Egyptians. He installs a Divan, a state council of Egyptian notables, to take on leadership of the country. At the same time, exchanges between French scholars and the Egyptian intellectual elite are imposed.

The rumour that Bonaparte's soldiers had destroyed the Sphinx's nose during artillery practice proved untrue. Historical portrayal by Jean-Léon Gérôme

​​ But the tide soon turns. The French fleet, anchored before the Egyptian port of Abukir, is destroyed by the English, and resistance stirs among the Egyptian populace. Finally, the Ottoman sultan declares a holy war against the French, fomenting an uprising in Cairo. Napoleon reacts with violence against the citizenry, not shrinking even at desecrating and plundering the Al Azhar Mosque.

Egyptian chronicler Al Djabarti, at first inclined to welcome the French influence, indignantly documents the incident: "They then entered the Al Azhar Mosque with their horses, which they tethered to the Qibla (prayer niche)." This scene was later glorified by painter Henri Lévy as a heroic act in his 1875 "Napoleon in the Grand Mosque at Cairo."

Following an attempt by the French to extend their sphere of power to Syria, the English intervene, putting an end to the French foray. By this time, Napoleon is of course long since safe at home, having seized the opportunity while attention was focused elsewhere to declare himself the supreme ruler of France. In the process, he deftly uses the aura of the Egypt expedition to his own advantage.

A ruinous military debacle, the expedition was nonetheless a scientific success. Flora and fauna were documented minutely, the legacy of the Pharaohs surveyed and diagrammed, and also the dress, customs and way of life of the Egyptians researched and recorded. The scientific high point is doubtless the discovery of the Rosetta Stone – today housed in the British Museum in London – which several years later proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In Europe this flood of information unleashes a veritable wave of Egyptomania – whose manifestations in the form of pharaonic-looking candleholders, dishes and similar are colorfully presented at the IMA. Another after-effect of the expedition was the development of Orientalism in literature and art, which came to a climax in the late 19th century in the paintings of Delacroix. This image of the Orient still shapes the Western viewpoint today, as Edward Said convincingly demonstrated in his influential book "Orientalism."

Scientific milestone: during Napoleon's Egyptian expedition, the whole country was fully cartographed for the first time. Map by Gilles Robert de Vaugondy

​​ In Egypt as well, the repercussions of the French expedition were still felt many years hence. When Muhammad Ali, an officer in the Ottoman army that fought against the French troops, ascends to power in 1805, Egypt is ruled by a man who has witnessed the technological superiority of the French with his own eyes.

It is perfectly clear to him that Egypt must open itself up to scientific progress. Ali initiates a broad-based reform program, fostering in particular a modern educational system. He thus paves the way for the Nahda, the "Arab Renaissance" that sent ripples out from Egypt starting in the mid-19th century to influence the entire Arab world, becoming an important source of Arab nationalism.

All in all, three short years with far-reaching consequences.

Susan Javad

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Info: The exhibition at the IMA is on view until 29 March 2009.

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