After taking control of Alexandria, the army penetrated Lower Egypt so swiftly that General Dupuy could write that ‘in just fifteen days we have conquered yet another province of the Roman Empire’. The subsequent British naval victory at Aboukir Bay however, isolated the expedition from mainland France and checked French ambitions.
Over the course of the next three years the French army nevertheless launched an invasion of Syria, and repressed two major revolts in Cairo, as well as innumerable lesser uprisings. They fought against Ottoman and English armies, and experienced less conventional confrontations with Jihadi warriors, and were harassed by Bedouin raiders. Bonaparte set up a Divan, or governing council, to rule on issues of law, reformed the taxation system, used Arabic printing presses to issue proclamations, and proposed Europeans models for agriculture and industry in order to ‘modernise’ what was understood by Europeans to be a backward country.
The savants sketched antiquities and scenes of daily life in contemporary Lower Egypt. Their output was published in the series La Description de l’Égypte (1809—29), and, together with Vivant Denon’s 1803 Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte, influenced the popularisation of images and ideas of Egypt and the Orient in France and beyond.
Like their British opponents, many officers and other ranks kept journals and retained their unsent letters. They subsequently wrote memoirs later in life, told stories, and sang about their time in Egypt. Some of them learned Arabic, some converted to Islam, many bought food, trinkets and sex. The sum of their cultural production offered European reader-viewers a rich array of representations of life past and present on the other side of the Mediterranean. In France cashmere shawls and Egyptian motifs became fashionable. Turbans and scimitars became props in plays, hieroglyphs fascinated the educated, and false hieroglyphs even appeared on military decorations.
Britain too was drawn by Napoleon into a close encounter with Egypt. Naval success at the Battle of the Nile culminated in a ground war to expel the French army involving over 22,000 troops between 1801 and 1802. Five years later an expeditionary force was despatched to take and hold Alexandria. During these operations officers produced sketches of significant terrain. Some of this work had military utility as visual aids to planning and the application of firepower. But amateur soldier-artists also sketched what they considered significant in a wider sense, including ancient ruins and a quotidian life unlike their own. Back in Britain, some of this work was used as source material by professional artists commissioned to produce battle paintings, by others with a commercial interest in producing engravings for a wider market, and for the production of panoramas. Egypt became newly visible in Britain, too.