Bonaparte the Muslim

(To Paolo Palumbo)

In 1797, Directory France had finally found its hero: General Bonaparte. Appointed commander of the Army of Italy at the age of 27, the young officer had managed to subdue a large part of the north of the Peninsula, defeating the army, which on paper was considered among the best in Europe. The imperial armies, once absolute masters of the Italian territory, were crushed as far as Friuli where the treaty of Campoformido was signed. From that moment, Italy thus became an immense safe from which France began to withdraw money and works of art. Bonaparte returned to his homeland with his head girded with laurel and his name echoed in all the squares of Paris: was he the strong man France needed to get out of the dark years of the revolution?

The popular success and the assiduous presence in the most fashionable city salons began to worry the members of the government who, inept and dozing off in their starvation, thought that Bonaparte was becoming too dangerous. Had he continued to win, his influence on Parisians would have become uncontrollable; and then, that companion of hers, Giuseppina, was a woman too entangled in politics with influential friendships and would certainly do something to facilitate her companion's climb. Attacking the young commander directly would have done more harm than good, so it was necessary to find a trick that would keep the Corsican general away from the capital, perhaps entrusting him with a new assignment in some distant territory.

Among all the choices available to the Directory, one seemed to have been made just for Bonaparte; it had been a long time since France had wanted to oppose the maritime power of the bitter enemy England and, unable to compete on the oceans, decided to strike a fatal blow by attacking Egypt.

Religion and civilization

The expedition to Egypt was a military operation different from the others and this peculiarity was due precisely to the organization wanted by Bonaparte. Egypt, then as now, inspired a sense of mystery among all Westerners: mummies, pyramids, animal-headed gods, rituals and their scientific knowledge inspired many academics of the time, but not alone. The Egyptian style in fashion, for example, saw its appearance well before the imperial era and already, in 1798, many objects had a shape that recalled the ancient civilization of the pharaohs.

Bonaparte was undoubtedly a man of culture, an avid reader and a lover of history: raised in the house in Ajaccio, his favorite room was his father Carlo's library. Giuseppe, the elder brother, recalled in his memoirs how much Napoleon loved to spend time immersed in books, reading in particular ancient history, science and mathematics. The passion for study and a certain curiosity towards other cultures, drew a line of continuity in the career of Bonaparte who, before each military campaign, ordered his librarian to select a series of titles for what became a real "Portable library".

Before setting sail for the Egyptian shores, the trusted librarian, at the time Louis Madleine Ripault, assembled a library and following the best practices, inserting various titles of history, but above all books concerning the civilization and political organization of Egypt. In his choice, Ripault did not forget to include the Koran, knowing that it would be a useful tool for dealing with the religious authorities of the country.

Not only soldiers went to Egypt. Bonaparte, in fact, wanted scholars, scientists and technicians to join the army who, with their work, would contribute to the construction of the new Egypt. Among these exceptional guests, we remember the famous Vivant Denon, future director of the Institute of Egypt and later of Napoleon Museum (today's Louvre), and Gaspard Monge. The general plan therefore provided for a conquest on various levels, where the "cultural" factor assumed a relevant importance, but not secondary to military programs.

The unknowns that Bonaparte had to face were really many, especially in view of a possible duel with the Royal Navy whose undisputed dominion in the Mediterranean portended bad surprises. Bonaparte knew that the main battles would be fought on land, but without the cover of a fleet, all would be useless and even dangerous.

Beyond the military aspects, what interests us most is the approach that Bonaparte had towards the Muslim religion, a culture radically different from that encountered up to that moment in other countries where he had fought.

It is good to remember that Napoleon Bonaparte was not really a religious man and his bland conception of Catholicism alienated him from the idea of ​​becoming the leader of a new crusade against the Arabs. On the contrary, the French commander immediately showed considerable interest in various aspects of the Muslim belief.

On June 28, 1798, General Bonaparte presented himself to the troops, issuing a proclamation in which he spoke of politics and how important it was to strike Egypt in order to compromise the interests of the British crown in North Africa. Part of the speech concerned the culture and religion of the country that would "host" the republican half brigades:

The people we will have to live with are Muslims. Their main belief is: "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet." Do not contradict them, behave with them as in the past you behaved with the Jews and the Italians. Respect their muftis and imams as you have respected rabbis and bishops. Show the same tolerance towards the ceremonies prescribed by the Koran and towards mosques as you have done with convents and synagogues, towards the religion of Moses and Jesus Christ. The Roman legions used to protect all religions. Here you will find customs and customs very different from those of Europe; you'll have to get used to them. The peoples of the countries where we are going treat women differently from the way we do: but in every country the man who rapes a woman is a monster. Looting does not enrich. It dishonors us, it destroys our resources and turns the people into our enemy.

The purposes described above were admirable, however, they concealed falsehoods, especially when Bonaparte spoke of respect for churches and the condemnation of looting. In Italy, the opposition of the clergy to revolutionary ideas generated a terrible civil war: the French always opposed the Catholic Church by any means.

However, beyond the propaganda ideas, the French commander had understood - at least in intentions - that in order to dominate a people so different from the French one, it was necessary to adapt to it, to understand it, without disturbing its religious customs and habits. France had intervened in Egypt for essentially economic reasons, but Bonaparte proposed himself as a liberator, playing the same part he had proposed in Italy where the oppressors were nobles and bishops, while in Egypt they were the bey (the nobility of the Ottoman Empire).

On July 2, 1798, the commander-in-chief of the army of Egypt again addressed the people of Alexandria, explaining why the French nation had ventured there: “For a long time the beys who govern Egypt have insulted the French nation, putting many adversities on their traders: the hour of punishment has come. For too long this gang of slaves taken from Georgia and the Caucasus has tyrannized over the most beautiful part of the world; but god, on whom everything depends, has ordered their empire to end. People of Egypt, they will tell you that we have come to destroy your religion; don't believe him! Answer that I have come to give you back your rights, to punish the usurpers and that I respect God, his prophet and the Koran more than the Mamluks. ".

Bonaparte really worked with great experience, trying to get to the hearts of the Muslims, offering an image of himself similar to a believer who was actually fighting for them: “Aren't we the ones who defeated the Pope, who made the Muslims go to war? Isn't it we who destroyed the Knights of Malta because these fools believed that God wanted war against the Muslims? ". Bonaparte's words, the profession of faith and friendship towards the Muslims presented, as always, a double face; he was a friend of Allah, but at the same time he demanded obedience and fidelity to the French government.

After this seductive introduction, he communicated what the rules for managing communities were: "Art. 1 - All villages within three leagues where the army will pass will send a deputation to let the commanding general know the troops that are obedient, and warn them that they will hoist the army flag, blue, white and red. Art. 2 - All the villages that take up arms against the army will be burned. Art. 3 - All the villages that have submitted to the army will put, together with the banner of the Great Lord (Mufti nda), our friend, that of the army. Art. 4 - The sheikhs will have seals placed on goods, houses and properties belonging to the Mamluks and will ensure that nothing is stolen. Art. 5 - The sheikhs, cadis, and imams will continue their functions in their respective posts. Each inhabitant will stay with them, and the prayers will continue as usual. Each will thank God for the destruction of the Mamluks and shout: glory to the Sultan! Glory to the French army, her friend! Curse to the Mamluks and luck to the peoples of Egypt! ".

As happens today towards Islam or any nation that is considered outside the democratic logic (centuries pass, but many things remain unchanged), Bonaparte also tried to push Egypt towards an elusive modernization process that it will have, in the Institute of Egypt, its spearhead. On 23 August 1798, the first meeting of theInstitut d'Egypte where the men of science, who had already landed in Alexandria, confronted each other on all matters relating to Egyptian history, to the laws, customs and traditions of that region. Bonaparte acted as a contact, being he on the front line: he combined the characteristics of a shrewd diplomat with the firmness and coldness of a consummate military adviser.

Religion and the process of civilization had, therefore, to go hand in hand, without one harming the other. In this regard, on 25 August 1798, Bonaparte wrote to the Sharif of Mecca assuring him that the journeys of Muslim pilgrims to the holy place would continue as always, offering him the protection of French troops or indigenous cavalry units. Bonaparte communicated to the Directory that maintaining good relations with the Sharif of Mecca was functional to maintaining peace in the country, but above all it facilitated the commercial needs established in the original invasion plan.

In the dialogue between Bonaparte and the Egyptian Muslim authorities some interesting notes emerged on the religiosity of the French general who, in his life, considered religion as a secondary aspect, perhaps even as an obstacle or a superstitious chain from which the free man had to untie himself. . He was also strongly anti-Trinitarian, rejecting the Christian dogma of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: “In this Russian fleet there are those who are convinced that God is not only one but that there are three. They will soon understand that it is not the number of gods who make strength, and that there is only one father of victory, gracious and merciful, always fighting for the good, who confuses the plans of the wicked and that, in his wisdom , he decided that I would come to Egypt to change its face and replace a devastating regime in a regime of order and justice ". In this sense Bonaparte felt closer to the religion of the Koran by repeating, with systematic obsession, that his power and his will always derived from a more supreme will.

THEInstitute of Egypte

Bonaparte's skill in dealing with religious was indispensable for the realization of the other great objective envisaged by the mission: the socio-cultural advancement of the Egyptian people. As soon as they arrived in Egypt, the scientists and weighers destined for this noble task were immediately a hindrance to the work of the military; General Kléber, a person who was not very subtle, immediately employed geographers, cartographers and engineers in more concrete activities, such as the construction of barracks or the handling of administrative procedures. Among the men of science, the frustration was such that many asked for repatriation also because, unaccustomed to military life, they could not wait to return to Parisian comforts. Yet Bonaparte, in his proverbial stubbornness, insisted that Egypt should have an opportunity to modernize; all the more so since the same scholars following his army saw firsthand the poor conditions in which the locals lived.

The first step in this civilizing operation was the introduction of the press: before the arrival of the French, Egypt had no publications to its credit. The printers brought three types of characters into their typographic boxes: French, Arabic and Greek; coincidentally, the first publication to appear was of a religious nature Exercises in Arabic literature, extracted from the Koran for the use of those who study this language. But the real step forward was the printing of the first newspapers by the printer Marc Aurel; the Egyptians who could read, began to be informed about what was happening in the city by browsing the Courier of Egypt, while those who favored literature and art could entertain themselves with the Egyptian Decade.

For the rest, the expedition to the land of the Pharaohs gave Europe relevant scientific results: among all, we remember the discovery by the officer of the genius Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard of the famous "Rosetta stone" then studied and translated by Champollion. The other members of the institute brought innovations in the fields of botany, geology and zoology. Thanks to them and the great work of Vivant Denon, one of the masterpieces of Egyptology was published, the Description of Egypt (ten volumes of text and 14 of tables formed in large folios published between 1809 and 1828) still today an essential point of reference for anyone wishing to devote themselves to that type of study.

In total, the institute was divided into four applied sections (mathematics, physics, political economy, art and literature) chaired by a council which included generals Bonaparte, Caffarelli and Andréossy together with the citizens Monge, Bertholet, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire , Costaz and Desgenettes. Obviously, within each section, other intellectuals and men of letters practiced, including Déodat de Dolomieu (the one who gave the name to the Dolomites) and the doctor of the Grand Armée, Dominique Larrey.

Bonaparte confined the "learned" to the outskirts of Nasriya, in a complex of dwellings attached to the palace of Qassim Bey, described by the occupants as a heavenly place, in Turkish style, full of fountains and colonnades in the open air. Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire even confessed that the beauty and sumptuousness of the classrooms was preferable to that of the Louvre in Paris. Inside the complex, greenhouses were set up for the conservation of plants, spaces were prepared for zoologists, a modest natural history museum, a library and a small archaeological collection which, although it was very poor, formed the nucleus of the current Cairo museum.

These "cultural" operations also had a positive effect on some Muslim citizens. The only Egyptian chroniclers who preserved a written memory of the French presence in their homeland were two: the Sheikh Adb-el rahman el Djabarti and the Syrian Nakoula. The first, a native of Cairo, witnessed the beauty of the residence reserved for French scientists, also leaving an interesting memory on the library and their users: “The French set up a large library in this last house with many librarians who looked at the books and handed them over to readers who needed them. This library was open every day starting at two after noon. The readers gathered in a large room next to the one where the books were; they sat on chairs lined up around a large table. The soldiers themselves worked in this library. If a Muslim wanted to enter to visit the palace he was received with great kindness. The French especially rejoiced when Muslim visitors seemed to be interested in the sciences; they immediately entertained relations with him and showed him printed books, with figures representing certain parts of the earth, animals, plants […] ”.

Our narrator was himself a frequent visitor to the library and among the various books he consulted, one in particular attracted his attention: “I have seen, among other things, a large volume of history about our Prophet (may God bless him). His sacred portrait is so well represented […]. He stands, looking up at the sky respectfully, holding a sword in his right hand and a book in his left hand; around him are his companions (please God) who in turn hold swords. On another page the first four caliphs are represented, in a third the ascension of the Prophet to heaven ”. El Djabarti continued the description of the whole scientific complex, expressing admiration for the French men of culture who had equipped themselves with many dictionaries in different languages ​​and worked day and night to translate what seemed interesting.

What occupied scholars' time most was answering the questions put forward by their director, General Bonaparte; in fact, prey to an insatiable curiosity, he delegated to the institute problems to be solved and very specific requests on what could be done to improve living conditions in Egypt.

This activity lasted until 1801, when the French troops were allowed to return to their homeland following the agreements made with the Treaty of Amiens. Undoubtedly Egypt, if analyzed only from the military point of view, was a severe defeat for revolutionary France, but it did not represent a setback for Bonaparte's career: in this the Directory had failed miserably.

The daring flight of the general in chief and the landing on the French coasts was a pleasant return also because, in 1799, the government of Paris had nothing to worry about given the alarming news coming from Italy. Once again it would be Bonaparte who resolved the question, but first the general thought it best to secure, once and for all, the popular consent, hatching with a coup d'etat with uncertain but inevitable results. The future emperor of the French needed to act freely, without letting himself be harnessed by the machinations of those scoundrels of the Directory who, moreover, were also disliked by the people.

The soldiers

Certainly that of Bonaparte and the Institute of Egypt was a more open approach to the condition of the Arabs and their customs; other French, less educated and politically engaged, reported differently to their friends or family. The Arabs seemed a truly strange people, with habits unusual for any European used to living in the city. The observation then changed, as did the judgments expressed by the soldiers, but also by the senior officers who, not always in agreement with their commander, harbored some perplexity about the Arabs and their customs.

On 20 Messidorus year VI (8 July 1798) General Joubert wrote to his brother: “On the 16th we went down to Alexandria with the admiral […]. We have seen in the bazaars (markets) of rams, pigeons and tobacco to smoke, but above all the barbers who put the heads of their customers between their knees and it seems that they want to cut it off rather than do the toilet. However, they have a very light hand. I have also seen some women, they are wrapped in long robes that hide their shapes, and that leave only the eyes uncovered, roughly like the clothing worn by penitents in our southern provinces ”. Joubert's observations did not lack a reference to the real reason why the French soldiers had arrived in that mysterious land: “When we arrived at the headquarters, at the far end of the city, we found movement and an air of life that had been unknown to us for a long time, troops disembarking, others marching across the desert towards Rosetta. The generals, the soldiers, the Turks, the Arabs, the camels, all this formed a contrast that painted the revolution that would change the face of this country in a natural way ”.

Egypt of 1798 was certainly an inhospitable country, where the scorching sands of the desert would have weakened the march of any army. Bonaparte encountered the first difficulties on the way from Alexandria to Cairo: many soldiers lost their lives, but above all they began to realize that the war in the middle of the dunes was literally a hell from which to escape as soon as possible. Among the French letters intercepted by the British fleet, one, unsigned, addressed to General Beurnoville tells of this inescapable unease: “We arrived in Cairo after four days, my dear general; our march was painful, under a fiery sky, in the sand and in the arid desert. Often without water and without bread: a violent attack took Alexandria, a violent but fast fight decided the taking of Cairo. […] Here we will rest, only now we will be able to distinguish the effects of fatigue and the influence of the climate, and decide if we could live here for a long time! ”.

The enemies of the French were the Mamluks, fearsome and very capable fighters. On the 10th Thermidor year VI (28 July 1798) the adjutant general Boyer sent a letter to General Charles Edouard Jennings de Kilmaine, commander of the cavalry of the army of England: “They are all from the mountains of the Caucasus or Georgia, among them there are several Germans, Russians and even some French. Their religion is Mohammedan. They were trained from an early age in military art, they are exceptionally dexterous on horseback, firing rifles, pistols and sabers. […]. Each Mamluk with two, three or even four servants. These follow them all day on foot, even during the fighting. The weapons of a Mamluk on horseback consist of two large rifles, which each of the servants carries at his side. It downloads them only once; he then takes two pairs of pistols which he carries around his body, then eight arrows which he carries in a quiver […]. In the end, his last resort is two sabers. He puts the bridle between his teeth, armed with a saber in each hand; he throws himself on the enemy, and cuts right and left, unfortunate is he who does not save his blows ”. However, the boldness of these knights was in vain against the weapons and tactics employed by Bonaparte.

The last city to make an impression on the French officers was Cairo, conquered after a hellish march in the desert: they are described as a pile of garbage, the streets crumbling and smelly, moreover infested with the infection of the plague. The officers, however, managed to settle down well, taking advantage of the buildings of the beys. After the first few days, the infection began to infect French soldiers as well, decimating several of them; hospital service was bad as war commissioner Duval documented: "There is no straw, there are no tools, no medication and nothing for bandages: in a word, everything is missing and the sick are in a pitiful state".

According to the chronicle of el Djabarti, Bonaparte's entry into Cairo was a triumph: "The general of the French army, Bonaparte, the friend of the Muslims, arrived in Cairo: he camped in Adlia with his army and entered the city on Friday from Bab el Nasre (Victory Gate) with a procession pompous: the ulama, the officers, the functionaries, the principal shopkeepers of Cairo accompanied him. The day of his arrival was solemn, it will make an epoch. All the people of Cairo who rushed in front of him recognized him for who he was. It was therefore evident that they had lied about him. The Mamluks and the Bedouins propagated these lies to kill the Muslims and to cause the entire ruin of Egypt ”.


On 22 August 1799, General Bonaparte handed over the command of the army of Egypt to General Kléber, promising to the Divan of Cairo that sooner or later he would return. The news coming from Europe was too serious: Jourdan was losing the German campaign and General Scherer was retreating in front of the Austro-Russians in Italy. For Bonaparte the campaign in Egypt and then that in Syria were unsuccessful, nevertheless he was firmly convinced that the French expedition had united, in some way, the cultures of East and West. From this experience, Bonaparte realized that guaranteeing freedom of worship was an essential fact if one wanted to subdue another people.

The theory of the Superior Being feared by the revolution, which saw man at the center of the universe had to necessarily be combined with an organization of the cult, including Islam. Bonaparte was firmly convinced that the Islamic religion was much more liberal than the Catholic one; this idea was based on the fact that the Koran allowed the monotheists the freedom of worship, without any kind of oppression. Evidently history will prove him wrong, but everything will fall under the wing of politics and not in religious faith in the strict sense. The story of Muhammad fascinated the French commander who appreciated the fact that he was a warrior, but also a legislator and that he perfectly dosed the two energies: persuasion and strength.

In the years to come, the shrewd and intelligent use that the emperor made of propaganda transformed the disaster into a success for the culture of the whole West: the discoveries ofInstitute d'Egypte reached the academies of half of Europe, the adventures in the desert constituted the umpteenth opportunity to glorify the sacrifice of French soldiers, but above all the figure of Bonaparte was imbued with a legendary aura well represented by the painter Antoine-Jean Gros who portrayed the general intent to cure plague patients after the terrible siege of Jaffa in 1799. Napoleon thus became a "thaumaturge king" despite the fact that that episode was not reflected in any report or even less by faithful or servants.

At first glance it is easy to judge Bonaparte as a wise leader: he knew how to draw Muslim religious in his favor, break their mistrust and even get help in the enterprise of "civilizing" a slave state. In doing this, the French commander was always very careful to respect local customs and traditions, without hurting the people although in practice he maintained an unparalleled repressive harshness. Bonaparte, forced by circumstances to set foot in a remote land, presented the expedition as a duty to an uncivilized people who had to be freed. Probably not even he believed this and the only sensible thing that remained to him was to assimilate the values ​​and history of a millenary culture that, in some ways, he considered even superior to his own.


Napoléon Ier, Correspondance Générale, Paris: Fayard, 2005, vol. II.

J. Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon, Paris: Fayard, 1999.

J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, London: Hamilton, 1963.

C. Cherfils, Bonaparte and Islam, Paris: Pedestrian, 1914.

Correspondance de l'Armée Française en Egypte, interceptée par l'escadre de Nelson, Paris: Garnery, an VII.