Despite concerns about their partial and limited knowledge of the country, the British army won a significant, though not decisive, victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria on 21 March 1801. The map of the action shows the isthmus upon which the battle was fought, situated between the Mediterranean sea on the right hand side and Lake Aboukir on the bottom left hand side. The value of such maps lay in their operational utility, but these wars also saw the proliferation of commercial maps aimed at civilian audiences eager to follow the contests being waged in distant lands. The map of the Battle of Alexandria was a fusion of two types of map: the topographical and the battle plan. The illustrative lines and text offered a dynamic, narrative of the action, while a general view of the terrain was also provided.
Many of the troops’ who landed in Egypt in 1801 prior knowledge of the country was derived from their reading of the Bible and their initial encounters with the country were often filtered through this religious framework. As they sailed towards the coast under a heavy rainfall several soldiers noted that this seemed to contradict the biblical prophecy that no rain would fall on Egypt as punishment for its infidelity. A pious Scottish soldier, however, found his religious faith reaffirmed by the encounter with Egypt and the remnants of its ancient civilization. ‘We were now upon Scripture ground’, he recalled in his memoir, ‘we had come from a distant Island of the sea, to the land of the Proud Pharoahs, to carry on our military operations’. Marching past the ruins that marked the former ‘glory of ancient Egypt’ he saw this as a ‘fulfilment of Jehovah’s threatenings’ and ‘evidence to the truth of the Scriptures.’ (Anon., Narrative of a private Soldier, pp. 83, 114).
An even greater influence on British soldiers and particularly officers’ understanding of Egypt was their schooling in classical history and literature. Abercromby, it was claimed, determined that drinkable water could be found by digging after recalling a passage in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries recounting how the Roman army in Egypt had found water by this method (cf. The 28th and 61st regiments of foot in the Egyptian Campaign 1801-2). The coast upon which the British forces were encamped as they laid siege to the French garrison at Alexandria was rich in monuments to Egypt’s Greco-Roman history. The most obvious of these was the Greek city of Alexandria founded by the formidable military conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Just outside Alexandria, and clearly visible from the British encampments, stood Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman triumphal column flanked by a pair of sphinxes. The British camp was located on the site known as Cleopatra’s Caesarum, a Roman temple built in memory of Cleopatra’s lover Julius Caesar. Close by stood the obelisk Cleopatra’s Needle, engraved in hieroglyphics.
Campaigning in such an iconic, ‘antique’ landscape, abounding with relics of formidable military conquerors, endowed the British expedition with a sense of its historic grandeur and significance. Indeed, an inscription engraved at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle in 1802 commemorated British military successes in Egypt and Syria since 1798 and symbolically yoked these victories to the military triumphs of the classical age (cf. Wilson, History of the British Expedition, vol. 4, p. 306). Once the French garrison at Alexandria had capitulated, the British troops were able to examine close up what they had only hitherto been able to view from a distance. They took measurements of Pompey’s pillar and transcribed and translated its Greek inscriptions. Officers broke off so many chips of these ancient monuments as souvenirs that a General Order was issued forbidding them from continuing to do so a sentinel was at the foot of Pompey’s Pillar (cf. Wilson, History of the British Expedition, vol. 4, p. 60). The 61st regiment even made a failed attempt to transport Cleopatra’s Needle back to Britain, going so far as to build a specially-constructed wharf for this purpose.
These antiquarian investigations affirmed officers’ identity as gentlemanly connoisseurs as well as soldiers. Yet interest in the classical topography of the region was not entirely removed from more military concerns. In a largely flat and featureless landscape, the antiquities and ruins dotted across the terrain served as important tactical reference points and defensive bulwarks. They were also symbolic landmarks marking territory won and lost: the French flew the tricolour of the republic from the top of Pompey’s Pillar, the flag being quickly lowered when the British took possession of Alexandria. There were also close affinities in this period between the military survey and the antiquarian survey. Several leading exponents of military surveying and cartography, including Major-General William Roy, were also actively engaged in the scholarly study and excavation of historical monuments in Britain.
The relationship between military and classical topographies can be considered with reference to a sample of different views of Alexandria sketched by British soldiers. The first of these is by a private soldier, William Porter, of the 61st regiment. This commercial print was based on an original drawing in an album of watercolours by Porter. The album recorded the experiences of the 61st regiment in Egypt and had been commissioned by one of its officers, Captain Charles Hicks. The print shows a view of Alexandria from the South with Pompey’s Pillar in the distance on the left and in the centre foreground two Indian sepoys, part of General Baird’s East India Company force which had crossed the Red Sea to join the British army expedition. It records a number of cross-cultural encounters: between the Indian and British troops and between the British and the local Egyptians, one of whom is shown conversing with an officer with both figures gesturing towards the ancient city.