At the end of the 18th century the French King Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were losing support in France, other monarchies of Europe looked on in dismay, concerned the revolution could spread into their kingdoms, one of these was the Queen’s brother Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, along with the King of Prussia Frederick William II – the two of them declared their support for the French monarchy against the French Revolution. Radical changes where taking place in France and this was perceived as a threat, France declared war on Austria on 20th April 1792 – this marked the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars. King Louis XVI was executed on 21st January 1793 and on 1st February 1793 France declared war on Great Britain. The scene had been set for the War of the First Coalition – Europe’s first attempt to defeat Revolutionary France.
After a series of victories in Italy Napoleon Bonaparte was sent to occupy Egypt, hoping to disrupt the British trade route to India. Napoleon departed Toulon France on 19th May 1798 unknown to Napoleon Admiral Horatio Nelson was leading a British fleet to destroy the French armada. Napoleon invaded and took control of Malta, it’s strategic position in the Mediterranean made it an ideal stepping stone to Egypt. On 1st July 1798 the French fleet arrived in Aboukir Bay and landed in Alexandria Egypt, along with his 35,000 man army Napoleon brought with him scientists, engineers, scholars and artists. Napoleon captured Alexandria quickly and led his force through the desert to Cairo. The Battle of the Pyramids took place on 21st July 1798 Napoleon squared up against the Mamluks but they were no match for the French army, Napoleon was victorious – Napoleon had conquered Cairo.
1st August 1798 The Battle of the Nile, Nelson found the French fleet anchored at Aboukir Bay, and destroyed it. Napoleon and his army were now stranded in the Middle East with no way to get home and no chance of supplies or reinforcements. Napoleon founded a scientific institute and explored the ancient monuments and requested his men study them in detail. Artist Vivant Denon joined a French force perusing the Mamluks in the south he sketched everything he saw, the first professional artist to enter the Valley of the Kings. Jean-Baptiste-Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage were engineers who also joined the force heading south and while exploring they discovered a tomb, 20 years later when the hieroglyphics were deciphered it was found out to be the tomb of Amenholep III. The Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799 by the French at a fort in Rosetta, the stone had hieroglyphics and ancient Greek writing on it – this was the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Napoleon’s time in the Middle East was not easy by any means firstly a revolt took place in Cairo – many French soldiers were killed, Napoleon retaliated by firing his cannon on the mosque then ordering his army to storm the mosque on horseback, the leaders of the revolt were taken away and executed. Then Napoleon head news of a Turk army gathering in the east, he marched his army to Jaffa (Tel Aviv) and sacked the city, 3000 Turks surrendered but Napoleon barely had enough supplies for his own men so he decided to kill the prisoners, originally he ordered his men to shoot them, but soon changed his mind and ordered his men to bayonet the prisoners to save bullets, it took 3 days. Napoleon then marched to Acre which was very well fortified, the ruler Jezzar Pasha could receive supplies from the British via sea, Napoleon was unable to siege the city and returned to Cairo. Napoleons time in the Middle East had come to an end he returned to France in 1799 and claimed himself a hero. The army Napoleon left behind were suffering from the plague and dysentery. In 1801 the British arrived and the remaining French troops surrendered. Many recently discovered antiquities including the Rosetta stone became the property of the British. The stone was transported back to London where it still remains today in the British Museum. In 1822 Jean François Champollion deciphered Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics by using the 3 texts on the Rosetta stone.
Discovery Channel – Napoleons Obsession: The Quest for Egypt
First paragraph source and further reading
PBS: Napoleon – link
historyworld.net – The French Revolutionary Wars link
about.com – A Timeline of the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary Wars link
thelatinlibrary.com – Timeline of Napoleon’s Empire link
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome link
Battle of the Pyramids – Louis-François Lejeune link
The Rosetta Stone – The British Museum link