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A Detailed Exploration of Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and its Impact on Ottoman-French Relations

One of the interesting events in Ottoman history is the invasion of Egypt by France in 1798, despite centuries of ongoing friendly relations. This invasion, which the Ottoman state dignitaries did not anticipate, could only be ended with the help of Russia and England.

General Napoleon was in charge of the French forces that invaded Egypt. Despite the failure of this process, Napoleon would soon become the “Emperor of France”.

Corsican Napoleon!

The Ottoman-French friendship, based on mutual interests, started during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. This close relationship continued with the Ottoman Empire granting capitulations to France in 1535, allowing France to gain numerous economic privileges. In 1740, these capitulations were made permanent.

In 1672, the German philosopher Leibniz proposed the project of the invasion of Egypt, suggesting its capture by Germans and French. This was the first time the issue was brought up in France. Although the project was not adopted at the time, it would be implemented a century later.

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Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1768 on the island of Corsica. During the 18th century in the Ottoman Empire, with the reforms modeled after Europe, France provided support. According to the “French Embassy Narrative” by Vahid Pasha, who served as an ambassador in Paris, Napoleon, along with some officers, had wanted to enter Ottoman service but was deemed unsuitable by the French administration.

Corsica, under Genoese dominion, was sold to France in 1869. However, the Corsican people, refusing to accept this, rebelled against the French. Eventually, the French took control of the island, and at the age of ten, Napoleon was enrolled in the École de Brienne with a “royal scholarship”.

Napoleon, who attended this school for free, was noted for his strong memory and good grades in history and mathematics, though he did not stand out as a brilliant student. Graduating as an artillery lieutenant in 1785, Napoleon’s star shone during the Toulon rebellion in 1793, leading to his promotion to general.

At this time, Napoleon was close to Robespierre’s brother, a Jacobin leader, and his promotion was influenced by Robespierre. However, after Robespierre’s execution, Napoleon, due to his association with the Jacobins, was arrested and faced the threat of the guillotine. His star rose again after he suppressed a royalist uprising in Paris.

After returning from Egypt, Napoleon declared himself “emperor”. In 1806, the Ottoman Empire recognized Napoleon’s status.

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Supported by Director Carnot, Napoleon married Josephine, the widow of executed General Beauharnais. Josephine’s close dialogue with Director Barras also provided him a significant advantage, leading to his appointment as the commander of the army prepared against Austria.

Napoleon, achieving great fame as a young general, signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria. With this treaty, Venice was erased from history, Austria gained the Dalmatian coast and access to the Adriatic, and France, acquiring the Ionian Islands from Venice, became a neighbor to the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleon’s next target was England. His plan, supported by Foreign Minister Talleyrand, was to strike a sensitive point in England. According to the plan, capturing Egypt would deal a major blow to the English route to India, forcing economically strained England to make peace with France.

Talleyrand thought that the Ottoman authority in Egypt was weak and could be easily invaded, which would gain France a colony. Napoleon aimed to capture both Egypt and Malta, open a canal in Suez, and reach as far as India. This invasion project was approved in March 1798 by the Directory Government, leading up to the invasion of Egypt.

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Intending to save the state through reforms, Sultan Selim III initiated reform projects and established the Nizam-ı Cedid army, which would be the general name of the reforms of this period.

Sultan Selim III’s dreams Born in 1761 to Mihrişah Valide Sultan, a Georgian concubine of Sultan Mustafa III, Selim’s birth brought great joy to the palace. No prince had been born for thirty-six years since 1721, and his birth was celebrated with “seven days and nights of festivities and ceremonies”.

Following his father’s death in 1774, Selim lived freely under the reign of his uncle Sultan Abdülhamit I, engaging in music and poetry, and composing music. However, after a conspiracy by Halil Hamit Pasha to make Selim ascend the throne in 1785, his poisoning was even considered, and he was kept under strict surveillance.

During his princely period, Selim sought to learn about the world. Like his father, who corresponded with Prussian King Frederick II, Selim also exchanged letters with French King Louis XIV. According to the French ambassador in Istanbul, the young prince was “the future Peter the Great”. Selim ascended the throne as a young ruler after the death of his four older sultans, following the news of the Russian occupation of Ochakov and the massacre of 25,000 people, which led to the death of Abdülhamit from “anguish”.

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Selim had great dreams. Upon ascending the throne, he said, “I am willing to make do with dry bread for now, for God’s sake, the state is perishing…” He intended to save the state with reforms, initiating reform projects, and establishing the Nizam-ı Cedid army, which would be the general name for the reforms of this period.

More than just an invasion? Napoleon set off for Egypt with a large fleet and 35,000 soldiers prepared in both French and Italian ports. He first captured Malta, then in English hands.

On 19 May 1898, when Napoleon reached Alexandria, he explained the reason for the campaign as “eliminating the Mamluk lords in Egypt who did not obey Ottoman authority”. The real reason was Napoleon’s ambition, who said, “I need wars and victories.”

When invading, Napoleon instructed his soldiers to be respectful towards the people, religious figures, and places of worship. Despite previously stating that “the Quran is full of lies,” in Cairo, he declared his belief in Allah, respect for Prophet Muhammad, the Quran, and religious figures.

If there was no resistance from the French, the Ottoman and French flags would wave together in Egypt. The fact that he was called “Sultan-i Kebir” in Egypt was a sign that the propaganda had partially achieved its goal.

When French forces set off for the invasion of Egypt, neither Istanbul nor Cairo were aware of it. Contrary to Russia’s warnings, the Paris ambassador Seyyid Ali Efendi wrote that the preparations in Toulon were intended for the invasion of England. Ultimately, the news of the invasion caused great surprise in the palace, and Sultan Selim III wrote “What a foolish man!” on a note sent by the ambassador.

In Alexandria, Napoleon left General Kleber and headed to Cairo. The city was defended by forces organized by Governor Ebubekir Pasha and the Kolemen lords. Napoleon won the battle known in history as the “Battle of the Pyramids,” thanks to his army’s “superior firepower and discipline,” and began ruling Egypt.

During this time, the British and Russians emerged as “saviors” as their interests were threatened. British Admiral Nelson destroyed much of the French fleet, including Napoleon’s L’orient ship, at Aboukir, capturing the rest.

Having lost his fleet, Napoleon’s contact with France was cut off. Despite these setbacks, Napoleon did not let his army feel the impact and engaged in scientific activities in Egypt. He established the Egyptian Institute with the scientists he brought, conducting research in physics, mathematics, economy, art, and literature.

Thanks to the institute’s work, publications were made under the name Description de L’Egypt between 1809-1828. The French also printed dictionaries and grammar books in the printing press they brought, leading the way in deciphering hieroglyphics and giving birth to the science of Egyptology.

Napoleon also worked on a project to open a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. During the occupation, military and civilian hospitals, libraries, laboratories, quarantine centers for plague control, postal systems, street lighting, and irrigation activities were established.

Harsh realities The occupation of Egypt caused a great reaction among the people in Istanbul. Initially, the Sultan did not declare war on France. The first resistance was organized by the governor of Egypt and the Kolemen lords. Four months after the start of the occupation, war was declared on France. However, since the Babıali could not stand alone against the invasion, it had to cooperate with Russia and England.

The “eternal enemy” of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian navy, arrived in Istanbul, and according to the agreement made, the Russian navy joined the Ottoman navy in the Mediterranean. Thus, the Ottoman centuries-old principle of “closing the straits to other states’ ships” was breached. Thanks to cooperation with Russia, the occupied islands of Corfu, Zante, and Venice were liberated, and the “Republic of the Seven Islands” was established there.

During this period, Napoleon tried to gain public support by reading the Quran and claiming to have found “guidance”. He then turned to Syria, occupying El-Arish, Gaza, and Jaffa, and ordered the execution of 3,000 Muslims taken prisoner in Jaffa, justifying it with the excuse that “only enough food supplies were available for his army.”

On March 24, 1799, Napoleon laid siege to Acre. However, despite a two-month-long siege, he was unsuccessful against Cezzar Ahmet Pasha’s Nizam-i Cedid forces. Danişment notes that Napoleon, experiencing his first defeat here, said, “Had Acre not resisted, I might have become the Emperor of the East.”

Following this failure, Napoleon returned first to Egypt and then to France. It was the British who ultimately ended the French occupation. However, this led to a struggle for influence in Egypt by the British. The British eventually withdrew their forces from Egypt completely in 1803, following an agreement made in Istanbul.

Sometime after returning from Egypt, Napoleon declared himself “emperor.” The Ottoman Empire recognized his new status in 1806. Napoleon had now fully seized control of the country’s governance.

The occupation of Egypt demonstrated the significant difficulty the Ottoman Empire faced in maintaining control of these territories. As it turned out, the occupation ended with the support of Russia and England.

This implies that the Ottoman Empire’s territorial integrity from then on could be maintained only with the help of major powers, i.e., through a balance-of-power policy. Indeed, shortly after, the Empire would need allies during the revolt of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Straits issue, and the Crimean War.

Faced with difficulties, Sultan Selim III managed to secure Russian and British assistance by making concessions. This policy continued until the empire’s collapse. Although the foreign occupation in Egypt ended, the region would then come under the administration of Muhammad Ali Pasha.

The occupation of Egypt marks a significant phase in the transformation of Ottoman territories into a colonial area. This was followed by the French occupation of Algeria in 1830, the British taking Cyprus in 1878, and, in 1882, the British occupation of Egypt, which they had liberated from French occupation 80 years earlier.

Sources: Süslü, A. (1983), “Ottoman-French Diplomatic Relations (1798-1807)”, Belleten, No. 185, pp. 259-280; Armaoğlu, F. (1997), 19th Century Political History, Ankara, Turkish Historical Society; Danişment, İ. H. (1972), Annotated Ottoman History Chronology, Istanbul, Turkey Publishing House, Vol. IV; Kurtuluş, Ö. (1995), “Science on the Nile Shore”, Science and Technology, No. 331, pp. 12-15; Demir, Y. (2013), “Napoleon’s Occupation of Egypt and the Subsequent Diplomatic Situation”, Education and Society in the 21st Century, pp. 130-146; Tekindağ, Ş. (1965), “Bonaparte’s Siege of Acre in the Light of New Sources and Documents”, History Journal, No. 20, pp. 1-20.

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Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.


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