Napoleon Urgently Gathers Funds for His Attack on the Ottoman Empire in Syria

He writes his chief administrator in Cairo and former spy, demanding that the Christian Copts pay what they owe to fund the venture, and that the Egyptian towns do likewise, before his scheduled departure from Cairo

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In 1797, the young general Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from the conquest of the substantial Austrian territories in the Netherlands and northern Italy, proposed to the Directory (the French government) an expedition to seize Egypt, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. His purpose was to protect French trade interests, obtain influence in...

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Napoleon Urgently Gathers Funds for His Attack on the Ottoman Empire in Syria

He writes his chief administrator in Cairo and former spy, demanding that the Christian Copts pay what they owe to fund the venture, and that the Egyptian towns do likewise, before his scheduled departure from Cairo

In 1797, the young general Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from the conquest of the substantial Austrian territories in the Netherlands and northern Italy, proposed to the Directory (the French government) an expedition to seize Egypt, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. His purpose was to protect French trade interests, obtain influence in the Middle East, and undermine Britain’s access to its rich colony of India. The Directory, although troubled by the scope and cost of the enterprise, agreed to the plan in March 1798, in part to remove the popular Napoleon from the center of power but also because the idea of an assault on England had been rejected as premature. The invasion of Egypt was, the Directory stipulated, to be kept as a closely guarded secret. Napoleon set sail on May 19 with 50,000 soldiers; but as a member of the French Academy of Sciences, he also took a group of 167 scientists and scholars, including mathematicians, naturalists, earth scientists, chemists, historians and linguists. Evading Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet, Napoleon landed in Alexandria on July 1, 1798 and routed the Egyptian army. He was now in control of Cairo, but Nelson decimated his fleet in the Battle of the Nile in August.

In 1799, the Sultan of Turkey joined the British and declared war on the French. Napoleon countered with a preemptive strike into Syria, leaving Cairo on February 5 for that purpose.

To govern Egypt, Napoleon had to enlist the help of the ruling elite of Sheikhs, and to encourage them to take positions of power, in order to bring the rest of Egypt with them. As with the sheikhs, Napoleon had also to impress the Copts. The Copts, Christians in the heart of a Moslem society, personified the permanent structures of Egyptian bureaucracy. They were the scribes of Ancient Egypt, and in 19th century Egypt they were the accountants. Whether caliph or provincial governor, Emir, Mamluk or Turkish Pasha, no-one could get by without their assistance. And as Christians, the Copts might see a French presence as additional security for their faith.

The first French administrator of the Egyptian state was a man named Poussielgue, a former financial guru and spy for Napoleon. Before Napoleon left Egypt, he wanted to assure his funding for the enterprise.

Letter signed, on Republique Francaise letterhead, Cairo, to Poussielgue January 25, 1799. “I beg you, Citizen, to notify me tomorrow how much remains to be paid of the 205,000 livres which you said were available for the registry of your state of the 26th of Nivose [January 16]. How much the Copts owe on the 250,000 livres that they must pay. You tell me you have also available are 635,714 livres by the representatives of the towns. Tell me that they must pay this sum by February 7.” It is signed in full, “Bonaparte.”

Napoleon knew that he would be leaving town to attack Syria at that time.

Letters of Napoleon from Egypt are uncommon, and this is the only one mentioning the Christian Copts that we have ever seen. Moreover, a search of public sale records stretching back into the 1970s fails to turn up even one.

Despite the ultimate failure of his Middle Eastern adventure, his stay in Egypt changed that country. So such so that to some Egyptians, he is a heroic figure.

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