Murmuring amongst the troops Citadel
of CairoThe PyramidsNaval Engagement at Aboukir
Our flotilla had come up, and was moored before Gizeh. The
ammunition consumed was replaced by a fresh supply, and we were ready to
commence fresh operations when called upon.
The authorities of Cairo, the heads of the law, and
magistrates, came to Gizeh to offer their submission to General Bonaparte, who
gained their confidence, and drew such information from them as fixed his
determination with respect to ulterior operations.
His first object was to secure military occupation of Egypt.
He immediately ordered Regnier's division to pursue Ibrahim in his flight.
Vial's division was sent to Damietta, and Dugua's to Rosetta; Bon's division
protected Cairo; that of Desaix, which was destined to proceed to Upper Egypt,
waited at Gizeh until the others had reached their respective destinations.
This dispersion of the army was the signal for an explosion of that discontent
and murmuring, which, in consequence of the severe privations endured by the
soldiers, had been fomenting ever since we left Alexandria. They no longer
hesitated to give vent to their complaints: the most moderate were sending in
their resignations from all quarters ; and had it not been for the firm
resolution proclaimed by General Bonaparte, of making an example of the very
first who should presume to ask him to take the army back to France, an
intention actually entertained by some of the malecontents, no doubt the army
would have mutinied and refused obedience. The firmness of their chief kept
them within bounds, and preserved these misguided men from the disgrace that
So great was General Bonaparte's self-confidence, that, in
this state of affairs, he departed from Cairo, followed by what little cavalry
he had brought from Europe, and took the road upon which Regnier's division was
marching, in order to drive Ibrahim back into Syria, and close the entrance to
Egypt in that direction. He gave the command of Cairo to General Desaix, whilst
he was personally engaged on this expedition; but previously to his departure
he had dispatched his aide-de-camp Julien to Admiral Brueys with orders to set
sail for Corfu or Toulon ; and the aide-de-camp was not to return until he had
seen the fleet under weigh. He had also sent to Mourad Bey, as a negotiator for
peace, M. Rosetti, the Venetian consul, who was settled at Cairo: but such was
the ignorance of these oriental chiefs, that Mourad rejected General
Bonaparte's proposals, because he had just learned the destruction of our
squadron, and had persuaded himself that this event would compel us to quit
During the time that General Desaix held the command, we
went to visit the citadel of Cairo, situated between the town and the chain of
Monguatam which separates the Nile from the Red Sea. This fort is extremely
steep in the direction of the desert ; and is, generally speaking, in good
condition, but has no exterior works connected with it. We were here shown a
breach, at an elevation of upwards of fifty feet towards Monguatam, and were
told that, after the battle of the Pyramids, some mamelukes who had retired
into the citadel, seeing Cairo occupied by our troops, and not daring to
venture out into the town, formed the resolution of escaping through that
breach. In order to effect this object, they began by throwing from the rampart
all the mattresses and cushions of the divan, and every bale of cotton they
could procure: they afterwards made one of their number jump down in order to
arrange these as a platform below the breach, and then followed, one after
another, with their horses, which they actually rode on the occasion, and,
wonderful to say, escaped unhurt! I was shown the materials of the platform at
the foot of the breach.
We were also shown the collection, preserved in the citadel,
of cuirasses and helmets formerly taken from the crusaders. They were displayed
as trophies above the entrance gate, in the interior of the citadel: the major
part were in excellent condition, although they had been exposed to the open
air for ages ; but the climate, in those countries, possesses the property of
preserving objects. The well of the citadel of Cairo also attracted our
curiosity: its water is level with the Nile; and although it is of a brackish
taste, no means have been neglected to procure an abundant supply. There had
been constructed in the interior of the well a spiral staircase of gentle
descent to the water's edge: the well is, therefore, of prodigious dimensions.
These noble works attested the progress of arts in Egypt in former times, and
they were still in good condition.
We also went to visit the Pyramids; no troops had ever been
there before. Every one wished to accompany General Desaix; so that our party
exceeded a hundred persons, independently of a company of infantry which we had
taken with us as an escort. Starting from Gizeh, we crossed the plain where the
celebrated Memphis is said to have formerly stood. Of all the ancient Egyptian
cities, it is almost the only one of which no vestige remains to point out
where it had existed; and if we had not met now and then, in the plain below
the Pyramids, with some broken clay at our feet, nothing would have led us to
suppose that even a wall, still less a town, had stood on this spot.
Our conjectures were guided, in the first place, by the
canal that borders the desert at the foot of the pyramids, and which is, at the
present day, without water, except at the time of the highest swellings of the
Nile; and secondly, by a bridge of masonry-work, which could only have belonged
to Memphis, as otherwise it would be without an object; it must have been
constructed as a means of communication of the inhabitants of Memphis with
their cemetery or city of the dead, still to be seen by the side of the
pyramids, which were nothing more than tombs. The City of the Dead, near
Memphis, consists of a countless number of small pyramids, of sizes
proportioned to the fortunes of families, many of which pyramids are still
standing upon their bases.
I had heard it stated, that the large pyramids were temples
; an opinion founded upon the facts of the existence of similar ones in India,
where they were consecrated to religious worship, and of the Egyptians having
derived their knowledge from the East: I cannot, however, join in this opinion;
for the Pyramids of Egypt were, unquestionably, tombs. I was one of the, first
to ascend the largest: we were to the number of sixteen on the top, and yet
found plenty of space. The view which is embraced from this elevation in the
air, is truly delightful.
General Bonaparte was absent about twelve days. We witnessed
at Cairo, during this time, the spectacle of the feast of the Ramadan, which is
very rigidly observed in the East. It is their Lent. The fasting consists in
neither eating nor drinking any thing whatever from sunrise till sunset ; the
people must work, notwithstanding the excessive heat, and without attempting to
quench their thirst; but the sun has no sooner disappeared from the horizon,
than they partake of a plentiful repast, served up beforehand. Every thing was
new to us ; but what mostly astonished our soldiers, was the dancing of the
almées, a troop of young girls, remarkable for their elegance and
graceful turn of figure, but of a lascivious freedom of action, which must be
seen to be credited, and which decency forbids me to describe. All this,
however, was going on in the public square, in presence of a crowd of all ages
and of both sexes.
We received, one night, intelligence of General Bonaparte's
movements: he had overtaken Ibrahim in the vicinity of Salahié, at the
entrance of the desert, to which he was endeavouring to retire, and ordered him
to be charged by the cavalry, which, being too weak in numbers, incurred a very
great danger ; and the action would have terminated fatally, had not the
infantry promptly come up to relieve it: nevertheless the object contemplated
was attained. Ibrahim entered Syria, and ceased to molest us.
General Bonaparte was returning to Cairo, when he met on the
road the officer sent from Rosetta to General Desaix ; by whom he had been
ordered to proceed to Salahié, with the intelligence of the sad
catastrophe that had befallen our squadrons, and of which he had been an
eye-witness. I have already said that General Bonaparte, before leaving the
squadron, had ordered the Admiral to enter Alexandria, or proceed to Corfu ;
but whether owing to the entrances into the harbour not having yet been
sounded, or not containing a sufficiency of water,¹ our admiral had gone
to take up his moorings at the point of Aboukir, where he remained nearly a
So great was General Bonaparte's uneasiness, that during his
march from Alexandria to Cairo, he had not only twice written to Admiral
Brueys, to enter Alexandria, or set sail for Corfu ; but also, before quitting
Cairo to overtake and engage Ibrahim Bey, he had sent Julien, his aide-de-camp,
to repeat the order to the Admiral ; but this aide-de-camp, who had embarked in
a boat on the Nile, with an escort of infantry, never reached his destination ;
nor would it have been possible for him to have done so before the squadron was
engaged. He disappeared, with the whole of his escort, at a village on the
banks of the Nile, where he had landed to purchase some provisions he stood in
need of; and it was not till a long time afterwards that we learned the details
of his tragical end.
Our admiral had brought his squadron to anchor in a single
line, his headmost ship being close to a small island, forming the neck of land
upon which the fort of Aboukir is built.
The English, after reconnoitring it, caused two of their
ships to pass between the small island and the headmost ship of our line. The
first English ship that attempted this passage came too near the island, and
ran aground: the next passed between her consort, which had grounded, and the
head of our line. The English admiral, finding that the first ship² had
grounded, and the second had succeeded in forcing a passage, sent a third ship
to replace the disabled one. These two ships having joined, sailed up our line,
with the land on their right, and attacked each of our ships in succession,
whilst the remainder of the English squadron engaged them-by sailing up our
fine on the other tack; a manuvre that compelled our vessels to fight on
the larboard and starboard side at one and the same time.
Ship after ship of our squadron was destroyed, excepting the
two last, which, together with a frigate, being at anchor at the tail of the
ships at their moorings, weighed and stood out to sea, without waiting to take
their turn in the conflict ; these were the Genereux and Guillaume Tell, with
the frigate Diane, or La Justice. They proceeded to the archipelago, where they
again separated ; the Genereux went to Corfu, and the other two succeeded in
entering Malta ; a proof that the order previously given by General Bonaparte
might have been carried into effect.
The admiral's ship (L'Orient) caught fire, and blew up
during the engagement ; so that, out of fifteen sail of the line, only the two
above-mentioned succeeded in effecting their escape. The projects of General
Bonaparte were necessarily affected by the defeat of this squadron, since it
was to have returned to Europe for a further supply of troops, which he could
now no longer reckon upon.
The extent of our misfortune was not, however, so great as
we had at first apprehended. Egypt was little known at this time, and the
English were under the impression that we must all inevitably perish from want
in that country. They were the more confirmed in their opinion by the capture
of a small vessel, on its way from Rosetta to Alexandria, with a mail
containing the first letters written to France by the army subsequently to its
landing, and replete, therefore, with complaints of all the privations it had
undergone on the march through the desert, until its arrival at Cairo, during
which march hardly any bread had been procured.
These details served to confirm the English in their first
opinion, and it occurred to them, that they would greatly augment our
embarrassment, to increase the number of mouths we should have to feed. They
accordingly landed at Alexandria all the sailors, ship-boys, and soldiers of
the ships they had captured, furnishing us, by this means, with a supply of
seven or eight thousand men, upon which we never could have calculated. They
served to complete the different corps ; but, above all, we derived invaluable
assistance from the many artificers of all trades that were on board our ships.
They were added to those brought over with the army, and attached to the
various scientific bodies ; so that, in this respect, and with regard to the
artillery, we more than doubled our means of resources.
It will now be seen with what admirable wisdom every thing
was rendered available. The loss of the fleet had, in some measure, calmed the
murmurs of those who desired to be taken back to France. General Bonaparte
ordered passports to be delivered to all who had persisted in claiming them;
but, with the exception of a few individuals, who shall be nameless, all
determined to remain and cease making complaints.
Works of a gigantic nature and establishments of every kind
illustrated the first months of our residence in Egypt. The commission of
scientific men had been removed from Alexandria to Cairo, and each of its
members was named chief of some establishment, of which he was entrusted with
the formation or the management. Flour, as fine as could be obtained in Paris,
was ground in mills constructed at Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, and Cairo. By
the erection of ovens, bread became as abundant as we had hitherto found it
scarce. Hospitals were formed, which admitted of a bed for each patient. These
benevolent establishments were powerfully promoted by the exertions of Messrs.
Lurrey and Desgenettes, men possessing many claims to celebrity, and who
acquired the esteem of the commander-in-chief and the gratitude of the army.
Saltpetre-works and powder-mills were erected.
A foundry was constructed, with reverberating furnaces, by
means of which projectiles of large dimensions were recast ; and many others
were provided, in order to cast smaller ones for the use of our artillery.
Large shops were built for locksmiths, armourers, joiners, cartwrights,
carpenters, and ropemakers.
The sailors who were too far advanced in years to change
their profession, were employed in the formation of a large flotilla upon the
Nile, consisting of all the kinds of vessels on the river, which had been
properly rigged and armed. They were commanded by officers of the navy, and
were of the greatest assistance in transporting the supplies of the army.
All the troops were dressed in blue cotton clothes, and
black morocco caps: to these were added substantial cloaks of the flannel stuff
of the country, to serve as a night-covering. At no period had they been so
The fare consisted of excellent bread, meat, rice, pease,
and a little coffee and sugar, as a substitute for spirits, which were unknown
in Egypt until our arrival. The success of these several improvements was
already manifest to all. We provided ourselves with tables, chairs,
morocco-leather boots, and linen: the bread we ate was as fine as any in Paris.
We had no sooner procured the objects of primary necessity
than luxury followed. Plate was manufactured of a light and portable kind. The
plate, called hunting-plate, which the Emperor had afterwards in use at Paris,
was made from the model of what he brought back from Egypt. Silver goblets, and
services of plate, were now in general use. Establishments of confectioners and
distillers were opened, and proved very successful.
Embroiderers and lace-makers gradually followed: the Turks
themselves, who are very quick at imitating, surpassed us in this line of
business ; they even succeeded in casting silver buttons stamped with the
republican arms, and finishing gold ones in the greatest perfection.
Playing-cards, billiard and card-tables, were seen in Cairo
a few months after we had settled in that city. A French and Arabic
printing-press was at work: every thing requisite to constitute a regular
European establishment was either completed or in progress. The cavalry was
recruiting itself: all went on to our satisfaction, and with inconceivable
¹ - Two years afterward", when the English became
masters of Alexandria, they took soundings of the entrances into the harbour,
and found the middle one to be five fathoms deep in the shallowest part. Had
not our squadron lost a month without attempting to try sounding, it would have
escaped, and been of essential importance to our future destinies.
² - It is worthy of remark that this English ship was
the identical Bellerophon, which, being constantly at sea since that period,
seemed destined to pursue the remains of the Egyptian expedition in the person
of its author. This is the ship which received the emperor sixteen years
afterwards. It had yet some sailors of that early period on board, not having
been laid up during the peace of Amiens.