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Egypt: History - French Occupation Period


French Occupation Period

When Napoleon arrived in Cairo, he brought with him a wide array of disorders and also Europe. After the three years that he spent in Cairo, the city would never again be the same Oriental town that it had been. The French left a legacy that is written all over the European parts of Cairo. Their tastes were mainly of a French middle class influence.


Napoleon came to Egypt on his way to India. Egypt just happened to be in the way and he had to get past this barrier first. The English and the French had a rivalry for an empire. Apparently the French had in mind to create a canal that would connect the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The trade war in Europe had been building for years and it had now come to the point where the east was the highest stakes to be won. Napoleon had been told that a conquest of Egypt would more than make up for the loss of the French West Indian colonies to the British. They were correct in thinking that the route across Egypt would be the fastest and maybe the best trade route to the east. This was all provided that Egypt and the trade itself were in the hands of the Europeans and not someone who would lay ridiculous levies on anything that passed through Egypt.

To get to Egypt, Napoleon needed three hundred ships to carry himself and his forty thousand soldiers. Napoleon set out from Toulon and other Mediterranean ports. The British thought that they were going to go through the Straits of Gibraltar to attack England by way of Ireland. There was a fairly small squadron of English ships that were sent out to stop the French from reaching the English Channel. The English did finally determine that Napoleon was sailing east and not west. The English did finally catch up to the French and chased them all the way to the port of Abukir, near Alexandria, Egypt. The English defeated the French fighting fleet. However, Napoleon's own ship L'Orient, narrowly missed the fighting. Had it not, the outcome of the entire battle might have been completely different.

Napoleon was never able to get reinforcements from France because of the loss of safe communications with his homeland. He met his first resistance from the Egyptian people in the Delta. The peasants and the townspeople fought him, rather than soldiers. When Napoleon entered Cairo, he sent for the sheikhs of the city. He informed them that he intended to set up a group of ten to rule the country and set up the laws. This was ultimately how he ran the country. He arrived in the city on Wednesday, July 25, 1798 and moved into the Mohammed Bey al Elfi palace, which was brand new. Very few soldiers came into the city with Napoleon, as most of them stayed along the river. The people of Cairo seemed in a kind of shock by the occupation of these new rulers. They did not realize that the Mamelukes, whose job it had been to defend the city and failed miserably, were no longer capable of defending the city. It was the job of the Egyptians. The French also seemed to be cautious as if they didn't know how to go about beginning to occupy the city.

In the beginning the French soldiers walked through the city unarmed and paid extremely high prices for everything that they bought. This encouraged the rest of the people to come out of hiding. French restaurants were opened up by the French citizens of Cairo for the new soldiers in their city. This was the first restaurant that Cairo had ever seen. The Egyptians were very excited about this and this allowed the French to come into Cairo very lightly at first.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was setting himself up militarily in the city. He began by occupying all of the strategic buildings and began to set up artillery all around the outside of the city. He also began to make stronger contacts with the sheikhs that he had convinced to cooperate with him. The Mameluke sheikhs seemed to be very impressed with the European culture. Napoleon needed some sort of visible sign from the people that they had submitted to his rule. He ordered everyone to wear a sort of badge on their hats as a symbol of friendship and submission. The people for the most part ignored this order and eventually Napoleon was forced to withdraw it. This was the first sign of the unrest the people were beginning to feel. They began to resent everything that he did in the city. He taxed all of the buildings and even tried to level off the graves in a cemetery at Ezbekiya so that he could have level ground around his headquarters. The people became very hostile about the cemetery and he did not go through with his plan.

The demonstrations by the people of Cairo became too much for Napoleon and he had one of his generals, Dupuy, go out into the streets to disperse the demonstrators. The people attacked the general, killed him and many of his soldiers. The people then occupied the remaining gates on the streets of Cairo and put up barricades in all parts of the city. The year was 1798 and this was Cairo's first revolt against the occupation of the French.

The French responded by setting up cannons in the Citadel and firing them at Azhar and the areas around it. During the night, the French had forces go into the area and destroy the barricades. The cavalry forced their way into the Azhur and killed an unknown number of people. The citizens of Cairo would never rest in their harassment of the French. They had finally learned that it was up to them alone what they did. There were no Mamelukes, soldiers or outsiders to help. The resistance was so violent that Napoleon demanded that the sheikhs tell him who the leaders of the revolts were. They refused at first, but eventually they did betray some. One of the betrayed was the chief of the Corporation of the Blind. He and four others were arrested and shot. The French then set about destroying parts of the city and Giza. They also built forts all around the city and demolished mosques, small palaces and some homes in the city. They even poisoned the dogs in the city because the dogs would sound a warning when a French soldier would approach.

Cairo did manage to benefit from the presence of the French. Napoleon had two headquarters, one of which was military and the other intellectual. Even before he had left France, he planned to establish a solid French cultural base for the future. It seemed that the two policies of military and intellect began to grow further apart from each other. The French had to defend themselves more and more against attacks, while the scholars made very deep impressions on Cairo's people in the very wealthy Institut de l'Egypte.

This Institut de l'Egypte had been set up in two houses in a part of Cairo called Nasriya. There were four sections; industry, science and mathematics, health, art and literature. There were thirty-six French scholars that were there. In the brand new house of Hasan al Kachef, who was a Circassian Mameluke and had fled with Murad, the industry, health, and science sections set up laboratories, workshops and libraries. In the other house, which belonged to Ibrahim al Sinnari, who a Turkish deputy, the painters and artists worked.

The citizens of Cairo continued to openly oppose Napoleon, which caused him to execute more and more people every day. In one day alone he had ninety people shot in the Citadel and five Jews and two women were arrested and thrown in the Nile to drown. The people who worked for the French now rode around on horses and carried weapons. They would insult the Moslems, which must have been encouraged by Napoleon because he always needed these minorities to help him rule. Things continued to deteriorate and it must have been during this time that he decided that he would not be able to stay in Egypt.

In 1798 he was beginning to believe that the Turkish and the British, who were working together at this time, were getting ready to attack him from Syria. Thinking that he should attack first, he started preparing an attack on Syria. On September 22, 1798, he left Cairo on a mission to explore the area as far as Suez. He returned to Cairo almost immediately and in February 1799, he along with his army set out to defeat the Turks in Syria. The baggage that he took along with him was incredible. He had beds and mattresses, slaves and women in French clothes. Not much of it was military equipment. The French were defeated at Acre by mostly British soldiers. Napoleon got back to Cairo as quickly as he could with only seven thousand of the twelve thousand that he had left with. The citizens were delighted that he had been beaten.

At about the same time that he was arriving back in Cairo, the Turks were arriving in Abukir. Napoleon was completely on the defensive now and quickly went north to face the Turks. These Turks had no British soldiers helping them, and the French easily beat the Ottoman troops. He returned to Cairo with thousands of Turkish prisoners. By this time, it was inevitable that a better prepared Turkish army would beat him. Knowing this, he went home to France where he became the First Consul in 1799. Kleber had been left in charge of Cairo.

On the Egyptian borders, Sir Sidney Smith who had defeated Napoleon at Acre, appeared with the Turks. Kleber knew that he could not win the fight so he signed an agreement to evacuate the country. It was the year 1800. As the French began to evacuate the city, the Egyptians didn't even attempt to hide their hatred of the French. They ridiculed and insulted the French. The Mamelukes that had been hanging around outside the city, were ready to reoccupy the city as soon as the French were gone. There was a period of weeks in which the Mamelukes, the French and the Turks watched each other nervously around the city.

The French had no ships so this made it very difficult for Kleber to leave the city. The Mamelukes and the Turks began grouping together as if getting ready for an attack on the city. Kleber began to feel trapped so he marched out of Cairo and attacked the Turks at Heliopolis. The Turks left after the first attack and the people of Cairo armed themselves with clubs after hearing the gunshots. The Turks needed someone else to take the heat to divert attention from themselves for failing and their cowardice. The Turks then ordered all the Christians to be killed since there were bad feelings against the Christians that had sided with the French. Moslems were also arrested and killed or manhandled by the same people who were killing the Christians. It turned out to be more of a religious issue that had inspired the brutality. The entire city was in a state of civil war.

After sometime, the city began to be without food and the sheikhs were afraid that the city would be reduced to ruins in the bombardment by the French. The people tried to negotiate with Kleber. However the French troops came back to the city and broke through the barricades the people had set up. Finally the Turks and Mamelukes agreed to leave Cairo. The French gave them camels and money to help them get out faster. Once again the French controlled the city, but all they really wanted to do was to leave Cairo. The only way to get out was if the British let them go, and that probably wasn't going to happen. Something dramatic was going to have to happen to stop the atmosphere of mutual hatred that was between the French soldiers and the people of Cairo.

This finally happened on June 17, 1800, when General Kleber was stabbed to death at the palace headquarters at Ezbekiya, on his terrace. News spread quickly on the streets of Cairo and the people held their breath waiting for the reaction by the French. The French were afraid to enact any excessive revenge and were only too glad to accept the confession of the killer, who was a student of religion named Suleiman Alepin. He said that he had acted alone, which was virtually impossible scenario in any political assassination. However, Alepin and two accomplices were formally tried and sentenced to death. Alepin was forced to watch his accomplices beheaded and then had to suffer a painfully slow death.

Kleber was succeeded by General Jacques Menou. There had never been a person who was left in charge of a city that was in a more dangerous or critical situation. Menou had become a Moslem and had a Moslem wife. Their son, Said Soliman Mourad Jacques Menou was the first citizen recorded by the French in the census of Cairo. The Egyptian Moslems never believed that any Europeans who became Moslems were really Moslems. That left Menou just another Frenchman.

The British soldiers led by Sir Ralph Abercromby landed at Abukir on March 8, 1801. The Turks landed at al Arish on the eastern frontier of Egypt. The French knew that it was all over by this point. Menou was not a good general and he was easily beaten when he attacked the English near Alexandria. Abercromby was killed and was succeeded by Sir John Hutchinson as commander. Menou was isolated in Alexandria and was virtually cut off from Cairo by flooding and the sea dikes in the country. The British did not want to get involved in a street fight with the French, so they waited for the French to finally surrender.

The city was completely surrounded by the British, Mamelukes and Turks and the people inside the city were beginning to starve. Sir John Hutchinson offered to honor the original evacuation agreement with Kleber and the French agreed happily. The British, Mamelukes and Turks took over Cairo. There was a Colonel Stewart that entered the city first and went to the Citadel. It had been abandoned and no one had the keys, so he was unable to get in. There was a French officer that had been somehow left behind and eventually opened the gates. The British offered to protect the French officer, but he refused their offer and wandered out into the street where he was stoned to death by the people. The Turks went to the Citadel, where they found the British already there. The Turks were furious.

The Ottoman flag flew over the city because officially the Turks were in control of Cairo, but the British were in control of the Citadel. Many from the British army followed the French out of the city and all the way to Alexandria to make sure that they were gone. The British stayed in the city only long enough to reestablish the Turks and they were all too happy to leave the city. One of the Turks that was left in charge was a young officer named Mohammed Ali. Ali had proved himself in a cavalry charge against the French and was soon promoted by The Turkish admiral, Husein.Mohammed Ali was an Albanian that was born in the same year as Napoleon and was thirty-three years old when he came to Cairo as an officer of the Turkish forces.

Mohammed Ali made himself pasha of Egypt with some help from his Albanian troops in 1806, five years after the British had left Cairo to the Turks. The Porte reluctantly acknowledged him the ruler of an independent state within the Ottoman Empire. He would rule Egypt for forty-three years, in which most of the years Egypt would be his private estate and Cairo would be his private city.

Mohammed Ali knew that eventually he would have to contend with the Mamelukes if he ever wanted to control Egypt. They were still the feudal owners of Egypt and the land was still the source of wealth and power in Egypt. In 1804 and 1805, Ali began to attack the Mamelukes. In one of the Mameluke's attempts at a defense, they forced their way into the city to fight him there. Ali's Albanians captured or killed most of the Mamelukes, which was the first serious blow to the Mameluke's. The captured Mamelukes were tortured and killed. During this clash the city was pillaged so badly that the people revolted against the Turkish governor and elected Mohammed Ali as pasha. He was considered to be the only enemy of both the Turks and the Mamelukes.

The British were still watching the happenings in Egypt. They attacked Egypt in 1807 with the intentions of overthrowing the Turks and reinstating the Mamelukes in authority. However, the five thousand Albanian troops defeated the British and had the captured British soldiers sold into slavery. Some of the soldiers were led around the city starving and miserable. Some of the people in Cairo took pity on the soldiers, gave them food, helped their sick and gave them donkeys to ride. There were 466 British soldiers and 24 officers that were thrown into the dungeons, but many of them were later ransomed by General Frazer. There were a few that were left behind, including one Scottish soldier, Keith, who became a Moslem and fought as a Moslem. He later became the governor of the Holy City of Medina after showing great bravery in battle.

After defeating the British, Mohammed Ali was in a very good position. The Turks were not going to be a problem since technically he was still representing them. The Mamelukes were much weaker after the defeat of the British and he was able to seize their lands in the Delta. By 1808 he was powerful enough to confiscate all of the land in Egypt, even the lands which were part of an Egyptian organization of religious endowment. He destroyed all of the title deeds to the land except his own. He set up a system of omdehs, who were local government representatives, and mudirs, who were provincial governors. This system remained in effect until 1952.

As long as enough Mamelukes remained alive to claim their ancient rights to the land and to resist him, the land still didn't completely belong to Ali. He invited five hundred of the leading Mameluke lords to attend a ceremony that was supposedly for his son, Tusun. The lords accepted and arrived wearing their most beautiful clothes and expensive armor, riding decorated horses. On March 1, 1811, Shahin Bey led the military procession of Mamelukes out of the Citadel. He went down a hill to the gate of Azab. The doors of the gate were shut quickly in front of them so that they were trapped with high walls on either side of them and Albanian soldiers behind them. Turks that were up on the high walls, were ordered to killed the Mamelukes as soon as the gate was closed. Five hundred Mamelukes were trapped in a very small space with their horses and all their armor. They removed as much of their armor as they could and tried to hide from the battering that came from above and behind them. Shahin Bey was wounded and then beheaded and presented to Mohammed Ali to claim a bounty. None of the Mamelukes escaped. The houses of the Mamelukes were soon raided and some of the women were murdered.

After the fight was over, Mohammed Ali immediately went to find the less important Mamelukes who had remained in the countryside. Thousands of people were killed as well as the Mameluke power in Egypt. Mohammed Ali was in absolute power after their annihilation. He immediately began to spread his new kingdom with his sons Tusun, who was his favorite, and Ibrahim as his best generals. Istanbul invited them to war with the Wahhabis of Arabia and was able to get personal control of the Red Sea coast. This meant that he control the Red Sea on both sides. He occupied Sudan and began to modernize Egypt. There were armories, factories, shipyards and canal systems were built by foreign experts that he imported to help. Some Egyptians were even sent abroad to study, especially in France.

The Europeans began to be the privileged class of Egypt. Ali created monopolies in the trading and manufacturing areas which he shared with the European consuls. They had no choice but to agree to his outrageous terms, but they did reap the benefits anyway. The Europeans began to come to Egypt for different reasons than before. They were either the archaeologists or the tourists. The first archaeologist was Giovanni Belzoni. He was the son of a Paduan barber and was a strongman in a traveling fair. He came to Cairo in 1815 and became a fanatic of the ancient ruins. He was one of three people who did a lot to popularize Egypt and Cairo with the Europeans. The other members of the trio were John Lewis Burckhardt who was the Anglo-Swiss traveler, scholar and explorer. He discovered many Pharaonic sites that Belzoni exploited later. Another was Herbert Salt who was the British consul in Cairo. He was a business partner with Belzoni and he made a fortune from the antiquities he shipped to Europe in large amounts. Burckhardt did the discovery and Belzoni and Salt robbed the sites. Belzoni and Salt were the ones who sent to England the head of Memnon, the trunk of Ramses and the straight left Pharaonic arm which is in the British Museum's Egyptian section. Auguste Mariette came to Cairo in 1850 and is probably the most respected archaeologist in Egypt. He is the person who founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and collected most of what is inside.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Mohammed Ali greatly enjoyed the European attention and interest in Egypt. He knew that it was a gold mine if he could figure out how to attach Egypt to the ever-expanding industrial and trading riches in Europe. There were two things that really made this possible. Ali introduced cotton to Egypt in 1822 and in 1845 Lieutenant Thomas Waghorn carried the mail from Bombay to London in thirty days, which was a record time. He used an overland route through Egypt to do this.

The cotton in Egypt was a native form called baladi. The Europeans needed a superior quality of cotton and in 1818, the Ethiopian cotton, called Maho, was shown to Mohammed Ali. Jumel, a Frenchman that had been in America, knew about this kind of cotton and convinced Mohammed Ali to grow a plot near the Heliopolis obelisk. By 1820, three bales had been shipped to Trieste. Mohammed Ali then put Jumel in charge of his cotton plantations. Mohammed Ali began to sell the entire crops for a year at a fixed price. Money began to flow into Egypt.

The cotton industry also brought the credit system to Cairo, but not in a good way. Europe kept enticing Mohammed Ali and his successors to continue borrowing at the incredibly high interest rates that eventually gave France and England the excuse to foreclose on the Egyptian economy and control all Egyptian life. Eventually Mohammed Ali was in such debt that an American consul, Gliddon, went to England to interfere in Egypt. No one would do a thing in England. Gliddon said that the peasants in Egypt had a right to plant what they wanted, but to no avail.

Another thing that would give Egypt its biggest lift was the direct route from India across Egypt to England. This was the first stage in the step to the Suez Canal. The Canal would not be started until 1859 and after Mohammed Ali's death. It was finally opened in 1869 and thereafter tied Egypt to Europe.

By the time the canal was opened, Ismail, Mohammed Ali's grandson was ruling Egypt. The European influence did good and bad for Cairo. Ismail intentionally divided Cairo into east and west areas because he wanted to built a Paris on the Nile. He then built two new boulevards in the old city and cut the city into quarters. Ismail's new quarter was set on a French plan and was the organization of modern Cairo. This area is called Ismailiya.

Gas was brought to Cairo by Ismail in 1870, which was eventually replaced in 1898 with electricity. This made Cairo one of the earliest cities in the world to use electricity. Building was very heavy during a period of about ten years. Many homes were built as well as buildings. So much money was spent during this period that there seemed to be an endless supply of money. However, the money came from heavy taxation of everyone and everything and large loans from Europe. He was in such debt that in 1875 Ismail had to sell his shares of the Suez Canal to the British for four million pounds.

In 1876, a group of Europeans told Ismail that he owed 91 million pounds. In 1879 the British and French did what Ismail had been expecting them to do for a long time. They told Ismail to abdicate, which he did because there was nothing else that he could do. The people wouldn't even help him because of the heavy taxes that he had levied on them. The people hated him. He finally gave in and left the country for Europe and died in exile in 1895.

Ismail's son, Tawfik, inherited what was left of Egypt. The taxes that were placed on the people were even more harsh than before. Everything was taxed. A revolt was started by a man who liked to call himself Ahmad the Egyptian. He was the son of a peasant and became colonel of Tawfik's army. Arabi started speaking out for the peasants. The revolt began in 1881 with mutiny in the army itself. The rest of the country joined in immediately. Four thousand men marched to the square outside Abdin Palace and told the khedive to come out. Tawfik wasn't there, but when he did arrive, the palace was surrounded by soldiers that had cannons pointed at the palace.

Tawfik had to sneak into the palace by the back way. He was advised by some of his leaders to appeal to the troops. He walked down the staircase with his British comptroller, Auckland Colvin, on one side and General Charles P Stone on the other. Tawfik asked the troops what they wanted. Arabi told him they wanted liberty, an assembly of notables, a constitution and all Egyptians to be equal under the law. Tawfik asked for time to think about it. Later Arabi was called to the palace and he either apologized to him or thanked him. The Egyptians have never forgotten it or forgiven him. Arabi was made minister for war. The British and French were aware what was happening and sent a fleet of ships to Alexandria.

On July 11, 1882, the British bombarded Alexandria. Russian and American warships were in the harbor as well and the Europeans scrambled to get to the ships. Arabi had lined up along the Suez Canal hoping to stop the British. However, the British did go up the canal and landed at Ismailiya. On September 14, the British cavalry reached Abbasiya in Cairo. Arabi went out to Abbasiya and handed his sword over to the British. He has never been forgiven for this action either. Major Watson was an intelligence officer who entered the fortress alone. He ordered the commandant to get up and get out of the Citadel. The keys were handed over to Watson.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011


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