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The day Napoleon landed
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 05 - 2013

The twists and turns of the early days of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century still resonate today. The overconfidence that was shattered, the promises that were made, and the air of panic and expectation and of courage and despondency recall some aspects of the present day.
In their invasion of Egypt, the French first landed on a strip of land on the western side of Alexandria, and a little-known fishing village by the name of Agami, now a major summer resort, was the site of the first encounter between Europe's greatest army of the time and the puzzled Egyptian locals. These could have had little idea of what this invasion meant for them, although the sheer size of the expedition must have given them much trepidation.
The man who chronicled the French expedition to Egypt almost blow by blow was named Abdel-Rahman Al-Gabarti, and excerpts from his chronicles, known in Arabic as Agaab Al-Athar fil-Taragim wal-Akhbar (Wondrous Memories of Biographies and News) offer us endless insights into the turmoil that befell this country more than two centuries ago.
Despite the exuberance of his style, necessary for chroniclers at the time, Al-Gabarti's words convey the sense of troubled puzzlement of a nation that had been rudely shaken out of its false sense of security to discover that its Ottoman overlords were no longer the uncontested masters of the eastern Mediterranean.
This is how Al-Gabarti begins his tale of the invasion of Egypt: “this is the first year of great epics and tremendous events, of cascading disasters and escalating events, a time when evil multiplied and disasters befell us, when catastrophes arrived in droves and time lost its balance, when old habits died and old ways vanished, when horrors converged and nothing was the same, when prudence failed and destruction spread, and when ruination was everywhere to be seen, but its roots remained invisible. All of this goes to show that God spares from destruction only those cities in which the just dwell.”
At almost the same time as the French invasion, on 22 June 1798, 10 English ships also appeared off the coast of Alexandria, anchored far from the shore but close enough for the inhabitants to see them. Before long, 15 more English ships had joined them, and local residents were curious to see what this was all about. A small boat came ashore with 10 people abroad. These disembarked, and a meeting was arranged between them and the dignitaries of Alexandria, led by Mohamed Korayem.
Of the latter, later to become a main figure in the events that were yet to unfold, Al-Gabarti offers this account: “his family is believed to be from the Maghreb. He started out working as a weigher of goods in the port, where he acquired a good reputation and much love. Murad Bey [co-ruler of the country with Ibrahim Bey] placed him in charge of the customs and the port.”
“The men who came in the boat told Mohamed Korayem that they were English and that they were looking for the French fleet that had sailed to an unknown destination in these parts. The French may have ill intentions towards Egypt, the English told their Egyptian interlocutors, and they were capable of striking with fearful power. The Egyptians did not like what they heard, but suspected the English of spinning tales out of ulterior motives.”
“Incensed at what he had heard, Korayem answered them in a harsh manner, thinking that what they said was nonsense. The English captain tried to allay the fears of the Alexandrines. ‘We will remain in our ships off the shore and will guard the coast. All we need from you is water and food, for which we will pay,' the captain said.”
“The locals sent him away, reminding him that this land belongs to the [Ottoman] sultan and does not belong to the ‘Francis' [French] or anyone else, so please leave us alone.” They then sent to the governor of the nearby province of Beheira, asking him to gather a force of Bedouins and bring them to the city. Already, a sense of discomfort was setting in, as Al-Gabarti explains.
“Messages were sent by courier from Alexandria to Cairo,” he writes. “These messages were read out and caused consternation among the people, who talked about them incessantly as speculations rose and rumours ran wild.”
On 27 June 1798, reports reached Cairo to the effect that the English ships that had been anchored off Alexandria had departed. The reports, Al-Gabarti writes, had a calming effect on the population, though the ruling Mamluks remained unmoved. Confident in their power, “they claimed that even if all the Franks were to arrive, they could trample them under their horses' hoofs.”
A week later, on 4 July 1798, reports came from Alexandria, Rosetta and Damanhour to the effect that on 2 July French ships had anchored off the coast and that the French had sent a group to meet the local consul, but that the city's inhabitants had stopped them.
At night, some of the ships shifted to Agami, 4km or so west of Alexandria. Having landed there, the French then brought their weaponry ashore, though the inhabitants of Alexandria did not notice what was happening until the next morning, when they awoke to find that the French had “surrounded the town like locusts,” in Al-Gabarti's words.
The inhabitants and the Bedouins who had been brought in as reinforcements came out to confront the French, but their resistance did not last long. “The kashef [local governor] of Beheira was defeated, along with the Bedouin forces he had gathered,” Al-Gabarti writes, adding that the Alexandrines went inside their houses as the French entered the city.
The French lost 40 men in this battle, and 80 to 100 French soldiers were wounded. Once they had entered Alexandria, the French declared an amnesty and met with the dignitaries of the city and asked them to collect the weapons of the inhabitants. They also asked the dignitaries to wear a cockade on their chests, three pieces of felt or silk in black, red, and white. These pieces were to be placed one above the other, forming a pattern of three circles one inside the other.
“In Cairo,” Al-Gabarti writes, [co-ruler] Ibrahim Bey rode to Kasr Al-Aini for a meeting with [co-ruler Murad Bey, who came from Giza to meet him. The emirs, ulema, and judges convened to discuss these momentous events. Then they agreed to send a letter informing Islambul [Istanbul] of what had happened. Also, Murad Bey gathered his army and prepared to fight the invading French.”
Al-Gabarti does not conceal his contempt for the idea of calling on Istanbul for help in such an urgent crisis: “the letter was sent by Bakr Pasha by sea, so that the turiaq [medicine] could be brought from Iraq,” he writes. “Bringing the turiaq from Iraq” was a way of denoting an ineffectual course of action, since by the time medicine has been brought from Iraq, the patient who needed it would probably be dead.
“Murad Bey left after Friday Prayers,” Al-Gabarti continues, “leading his troops to the Al-Jisr Al-Aswad [the black bridge], where he set up camp for two days to make plans for battle. He was joined there by Ali Pasha Al-Tarabulsi and Nasef Pasha, both close associates who reside like him in Giza. Murad Bey took with him numerous cannons and gunpowder and set out en route with his army, the cavalry leading the way. Sailing beside him on the river were Turkish and Moroccan battalions.”
“Murad Bey also sent to Cairo, ordering an iron chain to be made,” Al-Gabarti adds, writing that “the chain was thick and strong and 130 cubits in length. It was to be tied at the port near Borg Meghayzel across the river to prevent the ships of the ‘Francis' from crossing past this point. This was the idea and on the advice of Ali Pasha.”
“Close to the chain, Murad Bey had a pontoon bridge built, on which ramparts and cannons were placed. The defenders did that because they thought that the ‘Francis' would not be able to fight them on land. They also intended to advance in their ships and to fight from aboard them. The idea was to stall the ‘Francis' and prolong the fighting until reinforcements arrived.” But this wasn't to be, according to Al-Gabarti.
“After taking Alexandria, the ‘Francis' proceeded along the western bank of the Nile, meeting no resistance. When Murad Bey left to fight them, the marketplace was deserted and burglaries took place. The roads were cut off, and bandits started attacking the outskirts of the town. People stopped walking in the streets or going to the markets after sunset, so the governor ordered the marketplace to be opened and kept the coffeehouses operating at night. He also instructed the inhabitants to hang lanterns outside their houses and shops.”
“This was intended for two purposes. One was to end the panic and bring things back to normal and the other was to be able to spot any intruders.” Reports then reached Cairo that the French had arrived in Damanhour and Rosetta. Most of the inhabitants of these two towns had taken refuge in Fuwa and its surroundings.
At this point in his narrative, Al-Gabarti notes that some people had asked for amnesty from the French and had remained in their houses. “These were the prudent ones,” he adds. “When the ‘Francis' arrived in Alexandria, they wrote messages and declarations intended to reassure the populace. These messages were taken to Cairo by some of the prisoners the ‘Francis' brought along with them from Malta. Some of those prisoners arrived in Boulaq a day or two before the ‘Francis' did.”
According to Al-Gabarti, some of the arrivals were Moroccans and some were spies. “And many were polyglot, as are many among the heathen population of Malta,” he writes. The following is one of the declarations distributed by the invading French among the terrified populace of Cairo.
“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. There is no God but God, who has no offspring and no partner in His Kingdom. From the Francis, who believe in freedom and equality, from the army chief Bonaparte, who wishes to inform the people of Egypt that for a long time the chieftains who have been in control of the Egyptian land have been treating the French community with disrespect and inflicting justice on their traders through various types of harm and transgression, and now the hour of their punishment has come.”
“For a long time, a clique of Mamluks, bought into the land [from abroad] has been wreaking havoc on this loveliest of countries. So Almighty God has ordered the destruction of their state. O Egyptians, you have been told that I [Bonaparte] only came to this land to destroy your religion. This is a sordid lie. Do not believe this and tell those who spread such rumours that I only came to deliver you from the hands of the Mamluks and that I am more pious than the Mamluks and that I worship Almighty God and respect his Prophet and the great Quran.”
“Tell them, too, that all peoples are equal before God and that the only thing that differentiates them is reason, manners, and knowledge. And the Mamluks are devoid of manners and reason. So what makes them special enough to deserve to rule Egypt? Why should they have the best of everything in it — the beautiful women slaves, the choicest horses, and the most pleasant mansions?”
“If it were true that the Egyptian land was the property of the Mamluks, let them show us the title deeds that God has written for them, but Almighty God is Merciful and Just. In the name of God, from now on, no barrier will prevent the inhabitants of Egypt from being accepted into the highest of positions or from reaching the highest of ranks. The knowledgeable, the upright, and the wise will be placed in charge, so that the nation may once again prosper.”
“In the past, Egypt used to have great towns, wide canals, and immense commerce. This prosperity has dwindled because of the injustice and greed of the Mamluks.”
“O sheikhs, judges, imams, and dignitaries, tell your countrymen that the French are also faithful Muslims. This is why they went to the great city of Rome and destroyed the seat of the papacy which used to instigate the Christians against Islam. Then they went to the island of Malta and expelled the chevaliers [the Knight Hospitallers] who used to claim that God wanted them to fight the Muslims.”
“The French remain at all times loving and faithful to the great Ottoman sultan and they are the enemies of his enemies, may God prolong his kingdom. The Mamluks have refused to obey the sultan and ignored his orders, for the only thing they obey is the greed in their hearts. Blessed are the people of Egypt who come to an agreement with us immediately, for they shall prosper and rise in rank. Blessed are those who remain in their homes and refrain from taking sides with either of the warring factions, for in time they will become our friends. And woe unto those who side with the Mamluks and fight us, for they will have no hope and no future.”
The declaration then proceeded to lay out articles of instruction to the Egyptian populations, as follows: “Article 1: all the towns situated within a radius of three hours journey from the areas in which the French soldiers pass should send to the army chief to inform him that they are friends and that they have flown the French flag of the three colours; Article 2: any village that rises up against the French army will be burned by fire; Article 3: any village that obeys the French army is to fly the flag of the Ottoman sultan, who is our friend, my God prolong his life; Article 4: the sheikhs [mayors] of every town are to confiscate the money, houses, and property owned by the Mamluks immediately and ensure that nothing is lost; Article 5: the sheikhs, the ulema, the judges, and the imams are to stay in their posts and the inhabitants of the towns should remain safely in their homes. Prayers are to be performed in the mosques as usual.”
“The Egyptians should thank Almighty God for being delivered from Mamluk rule. And they should say: May God bring honour to the Ottoman sultan; May God bring honour to the French army; May God curse the Mamluk army; May God bring prosperity to the Egyptian people.”
The above declaration was drafted at Alexandria on 13 Messidor of the French revolutionary calendar, a date equivalent to 3 July 1798.

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