Napoleon Bonaparte’s bloody campaign in Egypt and Ottoman Palestine, which marked the beginning of modern European colonialism in the Middle East, remains controversial two centuries after the death of the French emperor.
The Corsican general sailed east with 300 ships in 1798 to conquer Egypt and block an important route between Great Britain and its colonial territories in India.
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But Bonaparte also brought around 160 scientists and engineers who produced mountains of research that would play a key role in transforming Egypt into a modern state.
For the Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy, who spoke before the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death on May 5th, the company was a mixture of “fire and light”.
“It was certainly a military campaign and the Egyptians resisted the French forces. But it was also the beginning of an era of intellectual progress, ”he said.
The « Description de l’Egypte » resulting from the mission was an encyclopedic representation of Egyptian society, history, fauna and flora.
With the discovery of the Rosetta stone by French troops, hieroglyphics could also be deciphered for the first time, which opened up the field of Egyptology.
Ruler Mohamed Ali relied heavily on Napoleonic research in building the modern Egyptian state, says the French-Egyptian writer Robert Sole.
The Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, who contributed to the overthrow of Mohamed Ali’s dynasty in 1952, used the episode to promote an anti-colonial national identity.
For the historian Al-Hussein Hassan Hammad at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Napoleon’s scientists, like his troops, were on an imperial mission « to serve the French presence in Egypt … and to exploit its wealth ».
When Bonaparte’s fleet anchored near Alexandria in 1798, he ordered soldiers to smear walls with the message: « Egyptians, you are told that I have come to destroy your religion: it’s a lie, believe it not! «
But his claims of religious tolerance soon gave way to repression after he overthrew the centuries-old Mamluk dynasty in July 1798.
When the Egyptians rebelled against their occupiers in October, the French troops did brutally suppressed the uprising. They killed thousands and even bombed the Al-Azhar Mosque, a key authority on Sunni Muslims worldwide.
Many Egyptians today see the episode as « the first modern imperialist aggression against the Muslim Orient, » said Sole.Napoleon captured the old port city of Gaza with little resistance from the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire in February 1799 after marching through the Sinai Desert after British Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed his fleet.
« He’s a little one Man who wreaked havoc in this region, « said Ghassan Wisha, head of history at the Islamic University of Gaza.
» Napoleon came here not only with soldiers, but also with scientists and agricultural specialists. But he used science to justify the occupation. He lied. «
Rashad al-Madani, a retired history professor in the Gaza Strip, said the city was » a center for honey, oil and agriculture and a strategic point between Asia and Europe « .
Napoleon wrote that Gaza’s hills covered with « forests of olive trees » reminded him of Languedoc in southern France.
Two million Palestinians live in Gaza, including many refugees and their descendants who are ruled by the Islamist terrorist group Hamas live under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, which, according to Israel, is supposed to prevent the entry of weapons.
Madani would remind his students of Napoleon’s massacre of around 3,000 people in the port city of Jaffa, which are now higher up the coast in modern Israel The Qasr al-Basha, the pasha palace where the future emperor is reported to have stayed, is still standing, a humble sandstone building surrounded by unkempt be clay buildings and electrical wires.
The palace, which was first built in the 13th century, had long borne the name of Napoleon. Significantly, after taking power from the rival Palestinian Authority in Gaza in 2007, Hamas changed its name.
The palace has become a museum and the bedroom on the first floor, where the general stayed, is now unfurnished and filled with Byzantine artifacts.
« The people of Gaza today have a dark, negative image of all military campaigns, including that of Napoleon, » said Wisha.
In Acre, a sleepy port city further north in Israel, The Palestinians found a local hero in the battle against Napoleon.
Ahmad al-Jazzar, a Bosnian whose military career saw him executing regional rulers before finally being installed as Ottoman garrison commander in Acre, is still widely recognized by many admired for standing up to a crushing French siege for two months.
« In our history books, Ahmad al-Ja zzar viewed as a strong character, a hero, « said Madani.
But Jazzar – Arabic for » butcher « – was also » a cruel creature, an aggressor, « he said. « A lot of students didn’t like it when I told them this. »
Marianne Khoury, executive producer of Youssef Chahine’s film « Adieu Bonaparte, » said Napoleon’s campaign was still « overly controversial. »
For many in France, the 1985 film was « unacceptable, » she said. « How dare Chahine as an Arab director talk about Bonaparte? »
« But at the same time there is the colonial aspect that is still sensitive and many Egyptians don’t accept it, » she said.
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