Napoleon’s Bicentenary

2021 marks 200 years since the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte himself spent one year in Egypt and what was then the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire, winning remarkable victories on the battlefield in the Galilee, but failing in the end to achieve his goals and eventually returning to France. Many world events, expositions, ceremonies, and books are commemorating the anniversary this year.

By Stephane Cohen

In the Arab world, Napoleon is still considered a controversial figure, and the bicentenary of his death is met with mixed feelings as well as indifference. Napoleon is still the subject of controversy between those who see him as a military conqueror and those who recognize that he left an important cultural mark, signaling the beginning of an “Arab Renaissance.” Indeed, Napoleon’s commemoration revives the historical debate in the Arab world. His place in Arab history is still trapped in a Manichaean perception that portrays him as either a hero or a villain.[1] Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy claimed that Napoleon’s scheme was a mix of “fire and light”: Napoleon’s venture was a military campaign and Egyptians resisted the French forces, but it was also the start of an era of intellectual progress. Rashad al-Madani, a retired Gazan history lecturer, would remind his students of Napoleon’s massacre in Jaffa, adding that “the French occupation was worse than that of Israel.” For Al-Hussein Hassan Hammad, an historian at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Napoleon’s forces were on an imperial mission to exploit Egypt’s wealth.[2]

Muhammad Sarhan refers to the devastating effects of the French invasion led by Napoleon in Egypt and the Levant. For Sarhan, ignoring what the French had done in Egypt was not possible: killing, looting, and entering Al-Azhar with horses. The Islamic world at that time was the center of the resistance against the French. Sarhan expressed his shock that some Arab writers and historians persist in romanticizing Napoleon’s campaign, depicting it as the beginning of an enlightenment in the region, despite the “massive crimes” committed by the French during their three years (1798-1801) stay in Egypt.[3]

Prior to Napoleon’s rise to power, the Enlightenment in Europe renewed a debate on the social realities in the Middle East, particularly the “lethargy of the Ottoman empire,” while philosophers such as Montesquieu, Turgot, Vergennes, and Volney discussed despotism and the ills of the Middle East region, linking it to cultural and social circumstances, climate determinism, and moral forces. Savary (Lettres sur l’Égypte, 1785-1786) and Volney (Voyage en Syria et en Égypte, 1787) gave two different descriptions of Ottoman Egypt: the first traveler has a Rousseau-influenced vision of the Nile Delta, where the local population still practiced the hospitality of ancient peoples, the second saw the Turks as pure oppressors of Egypt, to whom he attributed the responsibility for all evils, real or imaginary (negligence, decadence,…).[4]

Emerging from the Enlightenment era, Napoleon shook the Middle East through his military expedition in Egypt and Syria. For many, it was Napoleon who was responsible for awakening Egyptian nationalism with his military campaign and explorations of the region’s history, which the Ottomans had tried to erase.

Even today, Napoleon Bonaparte is known as one of the most famous leaders in French and world history. His military engagements are well known – Waterloo, Eylau, Austerlitz – but much less known are some of the key battles Napoleon’s forces fought in the Holy Land during the three years of the French campaign in Egypt and Syria.

Indeed, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was marked by key events like the battle of the Pyramids, but Napoleon’s forces also battled in Jaffa and Acre, and fought and defeated superior Ottoman forces in the Galilee in battles near Mount Tabor, near Nazareth and on the Jordan River.

Back in December 1797, even though Napoleon returned triumphant from his campaign in Italy, England remained France’s main challenge. The Directory – the French Revolutionary government – intended to declare war on England and ‘march on London,’ but did not have the resources to achieve that bold objective.

Instead, the young Napoleon, only 29 years old, was sent by the Directory to challenge the British empire elsewhere, to cut its communication lines to India and impair its trade route eastward. France could not fight the British in England, so it decided to fight them in Egypt.

Furthermore, from 1798, an expedition was planned against the regencies of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis, with the desire to make the Mediterranean a ‘French lake’ to prevent England from setting foot on these shores.[5]

The ‘Armée d’Orient’ (the army of the Orient) was established in April 1798 and Napoleon surrounded himself with ten generals: Kléber, Desaix, Murat, Lannes, Davout, Menou, Caffarelli, Jullien, Andréossy and Dumas.[6]

On May 19, 1798, Napoleon found himself aboard the L’Orient, the 120-gun flagship of the ‘Escadre d’Orient’, sailing to Egypt and leading the ‘Armée d’Orient’ (the army of the Orient), on a fleet of ~400 ships of all kinds [7], which included about 36,000-foot soldiers, 10,000 sailors, 2820 cavalrymen, and hundreds of horses. Napoleon’s design was not only guided by geopolitical motivations, but also by personal aspirations.

Predating Moshe Dayan by 150 years, Napoleon was always attracted by the antiquities, and what greater event could have been coveted than Bonaparte marching in the footsteps of Alexander the Great[8]?

For Dominique de Villepin, a former French Prime Minister, Napoleon was the successor to either Caesar or Alexander. Even if the purpose of Napoleon’s expedition was primarily political – to drive the English out of the Middle East and weaken their trade route to India – the military campaign had undisputable scientific and cultural aspects too, as Napoleon saw himself as the capstone of the Enlightenment[9].

Indeed, Napoleon commissioned a delegation of 167 scholars to join the French army to Egypt, initially to help his soldiers conquer the country and study everything about Egyptian history, culture, society, flora, fauna, and more. Caffarelli du Falga, who died during the siege of Acre, commanded this delegation. Interestingly, Napoleon also brought on board some 2,000 bottles of Burgundy wine and tasked his private secretary Bourienne to put together a traveling library, including books on science, arts, and poetry among others[10].

With luck on his side having evaded the British fleet, ‘l’Armee d’Orient’ landed at Alexandria on July 1st, unnoticed by his enemy.

Many subsequent military engagements took place including the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’, Aboukir, the conquests of El-Arish, Jaffa and the siege of Acre, but of worthy note are several battles waged by Napoleon that occurred in the Galilee.

In September 1798, the Ottoman Empire under Selim III declared war on France and began preparing two large armies for the invasion of Egypt and to confront Napoleon’s army. In a preemptive move, Napoleon decided to intercept and destroy the Ottoman land forces before they could reach Egypt, following which he would move and confront the sea-borne forces being prepared in Rhodes.

And thus, on February 10, 1799, Napoleon departed Cairo and led a force of 13,000 soldiers divided into 4 divisions and supporting forces into the Ottoman region called Syria, which are including today’s lands of Israel and Gaza, led by famous generals such as Kleber, Lannes, Bon, Murat, Reynier. In Sinai, Kleber restored the Saint Catherine’s Monastery which houses a remarkable museum with more than 2,000 icons.[11]

After having conquered El-Arish, Khan Yunis, Napoleon moved into Gaza, where he reportedly slept in Qasr al-Basha in Gaza City, the Pasha’s Palace, sandstone edifice still stands, first built in the 13th century[12]. Next, Napoleon’s forces moved towards Jaffa and stormed the city, Kleber’s division was assigned to Murat’s cavalry and moved as a vanguard towards Jaffa to take up a position north to the fortified port city on March 3. Napoleon laid siege on Jaffa on March 3rd, 1799, and the city surrendered on March 7th with Bonaparte being pleased that the siege lasted only a few days. While Napoleon forced his way into Jaffa from the south, Kleber deployed cannons to shell the Ottoman garrison located northeast to Jaffa on a small hill in Ramat Gan named Tel Gerisa[13], commonly known as Napoleon’s Hill[14].

Kleber’s division was spared the subsequent massacre carried out by the French in Jaffa but did not lose time, on the morning of March 7th, Brigadier François-Etienne Damas was sent out in a reconnaissance mission to explore the highlands in the direction of Nablus. Damas was shot and injured the next day in a gunfight while retreating from the Azzun area, east of ​​Qalqilya and Hable. He was evacuated to Jaffa on a stretcher.[15] Subsequently, Napoleon’s forces tried to avoid military engagements in the hilly grounds of Samaria, east of the ‘Via Maris’, as they marched through the coastal plains until Acre was reached. Local Arab leaders forced guerilla warfare upon Napoleon’s forces to slow their advance towards Acre. In retaliation, the French army burned agricultural crops west of Tulkarm. French forces were attacked at an ambush near Qalansuwa on March 11th. On March 15th, French vanguard units encountered enemy forces near the Khan of Qaqun; indeed, a large force composed of 2,000 to 4,000 local warriors (depending on the sources) and 1,000 Mamluk cavalrymen intended to delay Napoleon’s advance to Acre. Napoleon forces prevailed, but not without casualties as general Lannes attempted to pursue the Karmis to “teach them a lesson”. The purpose of the local warriors’ hit-and-run attacks was to lure the French to pursue them into the valley leading to Nablus where they would then be ambushed by men shooting down at them from the overlooking hills. Napoleon and Kleber have learned from the mistake that General Damas had made a week earlier, stopped Lannes’ pursuit of the local warriors at the mouth of this valley and started shelling Tulkarm, Shuweika and Danaba with artillery.[16] Napoleon was nevertheless unhappy with Lannes due to the “unnecessary” casualties.

Napoleon continued his march north, finally reaching and laying siege to Acre from March 19th to May 21st, 1799. Napoleon deployed forces to monitor the area and sent troops into Galilee to thwart Ottoman reinforcements from relieving the siege on Acre. Napoleon ordered General Jean-Andoche Junot to occupy Nazareth on April 6, from there he conducted reconnaissance with 70 Druze cavalrymen under the command of Sheikh Daher on the road to Damascus.

The Druze scouts identified an Ottoman force of 500 horses not far from Nazareth. As soon as Junot received the information, he departed with 300 infantrymen and 100 dragoons, in addition to Daher and his Druze cavalry. However, east of the village of Cana, Junot had an unexpected encounter with an enemy force of 2,000 to 3,000 horses, between Loubi and Mount Tabor. Despite his smaller force of about 400 soldiers, Junot engaged the enemy in a battle that lasted five hours. The Ottoman force lost 600 men while Junot lost twelve soldiers. The engagement occurred on April 8th and is known as the battle of Nazareth.

Around the same time, a threatening Ottoman force of 25,000 lead by Abdallah Pasha was set to cross the Jordan river to relieve the besieged Acre.

Napoleon understood the danger of finding himself caught between the superior Ottoman force land and the sea and dispatched General Kleber and about 2,500 men to assist Junot and to intercept Abdallah Pasha’s forces.

Another small engagement occurred on April 11th east of the village of Cana, but despite their actions, Kleber and Junot could not prevent the large Ottoman forces from crossing the Jordan. Kleber had hoped to surprise the large concentration of enemy forces but got lost during the night navigation. Kleber’s troops were spotted in the early morning on April 16, and a major battle ensued near Afula on the slopes of Givat Hamoreh.

Deployed in square formations, Kleber’s division resisted the overwhelming Ottoman force of 25,000 and was able to maintain his ground for six hours, until Napoleon came to the rescue with General Bon’s division, catching the rear of the Ottomans’ force by surprise.

Caught in between the cross firing of the two French forces, Abdallah Pasha was defeated – a brilliant victory by the young French general against the odds.

Further east is the famous Daughters of Jacob Bridge on the upper Jordan river that flows into the Sea of Galilee from the north. The bridge is on one of the oldest known routes in the world, the caravan way from Ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia[17].

All the armies of the ancient world have trod this trail: Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite, Roman, Greeks, Arab and Christian Knight, just to name a few. All have crossed the sacred river at this point.

The bridge also marks the northern limit of Napoleon’s advance in his campaign through Syria as he had sent his commander, General Murat, to occupy the citadel of Safed and monitor the Jordan river and region north of the Sea of Galilee.

With a one thousand strong infantry force and a dragoon company, Murat was tasked a day earlier (April 15th) to capture the fortress in Safed and cut the retreat of the Ottoman forces attacked by Kleber. Murat engaged the enemy forces and took control of the bridge without any difficulties.

Napoleon’s battles in the Galilee in the spring of 1799 led to clear French victories, and yet, Acre continued to resist the French siege and assaults. On May 17th, 1799, after the defenders had received help from the British and the eighth attack on Acre’s walls by French forces proved inconclusive, Napoleon realized he couldn’t succeed.

With his army suffering from disease, Napoleon decided to lift the siege on Acre and return to Egypt with a demoralized army having suffered 1,200 killed in action, 1,800 wounded and 600 dead from the plague. Napoleon’s losses from the plague certainly contributed to the French defeat at Acre. From the moment Napoleon set foot in Egypt until the spring of 1799, his armies were victorious in battle. This reality changed when Napoleon surrounded and imposed a siege on Acre. The siege was indeed a failure, seen by many as the decisive turning point of the French campaign in the region, but one must also remember that heavy rains delayed the advance of Napoleon’s forces along the Mediterranean coast (as it did during his march towards Waterloo 16 years later…). One can remind the lines written by Victor Hugo himself, “If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, decided the downfall of Napoleon. All that Providence required to make Waterloo the end of Austerlitz was a little more rain, and a cloud traversing the sky out of season sufficed to make a world crumble.[18]

On June 14th, Napoleon was once again in Egypt and Cairo, where his forces fought more battles against and confronted the sea-borne Ottoman force at the battle of Aboukir on July 25th, from which Napoleon emerged victoriously, but with the British and Ottomans still entrenched in the eastern Mediterranean. With his Oriental dream of conquest denied, Napoleon chose to return to Paris and left Egypt on August 22nd.

To conclude this non-exhaustive account, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria attempted to bring modernity to a region which, up until then, had been on the edges of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. His conquest of Egypt gave birth to Egyptology, modern mapping, and other modern disciplines such as military medicine. The bandages used to treat the many wounded French soldiers came from a woven Gaza fabric – and to this day are called “gauze pads.”[19]

Napoleon’s occupation did not modernize Egyptian society; French revolutionary principles were perceived as too radical and foreign, and were met with determined local resistance. Napoleon’s military campaign created a political vacuum in Egypt: Following the French withdrawal, Muhammad Ali Pasha soon filled the vacuum and began laying the foundations for modern Egypt that later would play such an essential role in the history of the Middle East. Furthermore, it led Britain to secure dominions to protect its Indian possessions against any possible attacks by land. The British reliance on military force underpinned the British Raj until 1947 and sustained British interventions in the region, in today’s map: Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Iran, and Afghanistan. Napoleon’s campaign contributed to the emergence of the “awakening” movement, known as the Nahda (“the Renaissance”),[20] that appeared in the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire, in Egypt and the Levant, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

In traditional scholarship, the Nahda triggered a reformist drive of subsequent and emphasized the need for reform and revitalization in the face of European superiority and the stagnation of the Ottoman empire. More recent scholarship suggests that the Nahda’s cultural reform would have been as “autogenetic” as it was Western-inspired.

To mark the 200 years since the death of Napoleon, La Villette park has opened a rare exhibition of hundreds of objects, paintings, sculptures, garments, furniture, scripts, maps, videos, not only devoted to the political and military successes of Napoleon but also to his private life. The last item presented in the exhibition is the marble sculpture representing the moment of Napoleon’s death, created by the sculptor Vincenzo Vela. Through this art piece, Vela captured the melancholy of Napoleon’s death, turning attention away from an unfolded map of Europe.[21] These maps were, in part, Romantic visions of the new relation of empire to space:  not only was Napoleon well-known to study maps assiduously on the eve of military engagements as tactical aids, noting sites of battles, but purposefully collected a wide range of them in his personal library, which he studied them in their specifics. The attack on the Holy Land, including the infamous siege of Acre, was ultimately devastating both for Napoleon’s forces and for the local inhabitants, whom the French soldiers plundered as they beat back their retreat. Yet, Napoleon’s attempted conquest and its accompanying surveys presented us with remarkable and detailed maps of the Levant that stimulated renewed interest in the region.

5 May 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of Bonaparte’s death, many were calling to cancel the commemorations over Napoleon’s decision in 1802 to reinstate slavery in the French Caribbean colonies and other dark chapters in his past.

“Cancel culture” is thus now seeking to target Napoleon, focusing only on his negative actions in an attempt to erase historical events. As the Franco-American philosopher George Steiner insinuated, the past is not the basement of a house, but rather its protective roof.

Pushkin’s works thrive with reference to Napoleon as a mythical hero; the last of the Atlantes, islanders like Napoleon, born on the island of Corsica, he rendered up to God the mightiest breath of life that ever-animated human clay on 5 May 1821, in his field bed on the island of St. Helena[22]. For the German poet Heinrich Heine, Napoleon was not of the wood of which kings were made but of the marble from which gods are shaped. Napoleon’s legacy stretches from the new world in the Americas across Europe and the Middle East to India. For better or worse, his heritage will remain universal and as such he shall be remembered and studied through the ages.

The author is an IDF Maj. (res.), a regional security analyst and a former liaison officer to UN forces in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. He is a lay historian with an interest in general history of the Middle East.

[1]  نابليون البطل نابليون المجرم, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 17 May 2021,

[2] “Split vision marks Mideast perception of Napoleon’s legacy”, The Arab Weekly, 8 May 2021,

“Two centuries on: Napoleon’s campaign in Palestine, Egypt still contentious”, AFP, 2 May 2021,

[3] قرنان بعد نابليون.. كيف تنتقي فرنسا تاريخاً خالياً من العبودية والاستعمار؟,

[4] Sarga Moussa, « Le voyage en Orient », Essentiels Littérature, Gallica,

[5] Augustin Barbara, « L’espion de Napoléon », Le Mondae, 3 July 1982,

[6] Nicolas Grimal, « Le General et les Pharaons », Bicentenaire de la mort de Napoléon Bonaparte, Institut de France, 5 May 2021, p. 13,

[7] Nicolas Grimal, « Le général et les pharaons », L’Institut de France, 4 May 2021,

Événement du 5 mai 2021 à l’Institut

[8] Dominique de Villepin, Le soleil noir de la puissance, (Paris, Perrin, 2009), p. 35

[9] Henry Kissinger, World Power, (London, Penguin, 2014), p. 45

[10] Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon, (London, Haper Collins, 2018), p. 175

[11] Jean-François Colosimo, ‘’Égypte: le sanctuaire des livres sacrés”, Le Figaro, 11 June 2021,

[12] “Two centuries on: Napoleon’s campaign in Palestine, Egypt still contentious”, AP, 2 May 2021,

[13] Eriola Jakoel and Diego Barkan, “Tel Gerisa”, Excavations and Surveys in Israel, Volume 122 Year 2010, 17 November 2010,

[14] Aaron A. Burke, “Egyptian Rule and Canaanite Resistance as Seen from Jaffa”, ARCE, 4 February 2021,

[15] Rudersdorf Von Jochem, François Étienne Damas (1764 – 1828), “Militärkommandant und Staatsrat im Großherzogtum Berg”, Düsseldorfer Jahrbuch; 82, 2012.

[16] Farid Al-Salim, “Landed Property and Elite Conflict in Ottoman Tulkarm”, Institute for Palestine Studies, Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 47, Autumn 2011,

[17] Richard Martin Preston, The Desert Mounted Corps: an account of the cavalry operations in Palestine and Syria, 1917-1918, (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1921), p. 261

[18] Victor Hugo, “The Eighteenth  of June, 1815”, Les Misérables, Chapter III, (New York, Barnes & Noble, 2017), p. 196

[19] Moshe Gilad, “Waterloo?! The Middle East Is Where Napoleon Really Surrendered”, Haaretz, 4 April 2017,

“Gauze”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 January 2009,

[20] Ursula Lindsey, “A Nuanced Account of the Arab Nahda”, Al-Fanar Media, 2 November 2018,

[21] «The Last Moments of Napoleon I», Museo Vincenzo Vela,

[22]  Mike Dash, The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine, Smithsonian Magazine, 8 March 2013,

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