Tuesday, August 27, 2019


Two hundred and fifty years ago, on August 15, Napoleone di Buonaparte was born in the small city of Ajaccio in Corsica. He later changed his name to Napoleon Bonaparte and became a leader who not only changed the face of Europe but also of the Middle East.

In December 1797, as a 29-year-old general, Napoleon returned victorious from his campaign in Italy, but England remained the principal enemy. The French Directory (the French Revolutionary government from November 1795 to November 1799) wanted to declare war on England and march on London, but did not have the resources to achieve that ambitious goal. It seemed easier to fight British influence in the Levant, so Napoleon was requested by the directory to test the power of the British Army by cutting its communication lines to India and damaging its trade route eastward. France couldn’t fight the British in England, so it fought them in Egypt.

Indeed, in May 1798, Napoleon set out to Egypt with the Armée d’Orient, including 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors and 800 horses. He led the expedition aboard L’Orient, the 120-gun flagship of the Escadre d’Orient, a fleet of 55 warships tasked with the operation, sailing along with 300 transport ships departing from various French ports. Only a few knew the secret destination of the campaign, among them the scholars Gaspard Monge and Claude-Louis Berthollet.

Although the purpose of the campaign was primarily political – to drive the English out of the Middle East and weaken their trade – the military expedition also had indisputable scientific and cultural aspects. On these specific points it proved to be a success, and for many it helped to shape the oriental myth of Bonaparte. The French statesman and military leader commissioned a delegation of more than 160 intellectuals to accompany the French Army to Egypt. Caffarelli du Falga, who perished during the siege of Acre, commanded the delegation. Caffarelli’s tomb was discovered in 1969 in a small cemetery near the Galilee College. Napoleon also brought a library on board from which he sourced the three holy books he read during his journey at sea.

At an early stage, Napoleon decided to establish a scientific institution in Egypt, following the model of the National Institute of France (of which Napoleon was a member). Soon after reaching Cairo, and after the July 21, 1798, Battle of the Pyramids, he directed Berthollet and Monge to establish what would become the Institute of Egypt.

THE SCHOLARS of the Napoleonic Egyptian Scientific Expedition documented and researched all aspects of Egyptian civilization, ancient and modern alike. They produced a vast amount of knowledge, condensed into a monumental work called Description d’Egypte whose first volumes were published in 1809. The work was finally concluded in 1828, and a total of 23 volumes were included in the first “Imperial” edition. Three of these were the largest books ever to be printed, standing over one meter tall.

The first city the French forces encountered during the campaign was Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great. The city was famous because of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and because it housed the most extensive library known at the time.

Napoleon conquered Egypt. His forces marched 12 hours every day, sometimes in the burning sand. Suffering from the heat and lack of water, soldiers collapsed and died. Blinding sunlight also took its toll as some soldiers went blind. Morale was usually low, and scores of men developed diseases such as dysentery and bubonic plague.

In the end, Napoleon wasn’t able to take Acre, and he lifted the siege on May 17, 1799, returning to France via Egypt. On the way back, his forces were severely hit by bubonic plague. The famous painting of Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa, depicts that dark episode. Regardless, his defeat of the first Ottoman Army of Syria at Mount Tabor on April 16 allowed him to march triumphantly into Cairo on June 14.

That historic episode and the situation today remind us of the constant instability of the Middle East. Over the centuries, the region has been a magnet for foreign interventions, rarely reaching unity. Napoleon helped to understand the past through his scientific discoveries but had difficulties grappling with the challenges of his time.

We have similar challenges today. Global powers like Russia, the US and China are competing for influence in the Middle East. France, Britain and the Ottomans fought back then for the same reasons. As can be seen through Napoleon’s campaigns, Israel’s northern border invites great challenges and hardships. It is known to be a difficult and challenging military theater. This has been true for millennia: 2,000 years ago during the Hellenistic period’s Syrian Wars; 1000 years ago with the Crusades; 200 years ago with Napoleon; 50 years ago with Syria; and today with Israel’s campaign – in-between wars – against Hezbollah and Iran.


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