Encounters: Napoleon in Egypt

It is so difficult to figure out how to approach Napoleon, or even to figure out why I had decided to begin my Modern Middle East survey course with his invasion of Egypt in 1798.  I resist the notion that Europe imported “modernity,” or that invasions are the best way to create cultural contact.  Besides, there had already been extensive contact, as we know from one  of the reasons the French invaded: the Mamluks had begun to privilege British merchants in Egypt over French trade.

I had scheduled two lectures on Napoleon’s invasion, and would have to include a lot of introductory information in the process.  I relied heavily on Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt.

Tuesday’s class had to do two jobs: to explain why the French had invaded, and to describe what they found when they arrived.  I asked the students to do the first: talk to your neighbors and decide why Napoleon invaded Egypt.  The responses on the poll everywhere site were both consistent and cynical: it was all about defeating the British.  But, I pointed out, I the French had just had a revolution!  In the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity!  How could they then want to invade and occupy another country?

As one of the TA’s circulated with a microphone, students struggled with the ways in which liberty and empire could be reconciled.  Their responses were fascinating, as they explored how ideological notions of freedom  intersected the state’s need to dominate;  the urge to spread the new ideology; and the desperate need to strengthen the country in the face of the huge losses that had followed 1789.

Of course, they had articulated all of the things on my own list, except the desire among some elites to keep Bonaparte out of France.  I was able to read off the elements of my own list as a summary of the previous ten minutes’ discussion.

On we went to what those French troops encountered, but, sadly, there was not enough time to do it justice.  I think my mini-lecture on the history of the Mamluks (I had to include Shajar al-Durr!) emphasized the wrong things and confused them.  Sure enough, the Poll Everywhere Question slide showed the need for clarification.

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