They fought like lions with good weapons.. Why did the Mamluks lose to Napoleon in Egypt?

The following painting is one of the most famous masterpieces of the Spanish painter "Francisco de Goya", and he painted it in 1814 under the title "The Mamluk Attack", commemorating the memory of the Madrid revolution against the French occupation on May 2, 1808. What is surprising, in addition to its name, is what appears in the form of dark knights The skin wears clothes closer to the old Arab or Turkish clothes, and the reason for this is that the French sought help in putting down the Spanish revolution and abusing the revolutionaries with their Mamluk soldiers, as “Napoleon Bonaparte” began recruiting them into the French army after he fought them in the Egyptian Imbaba in 1798, for what he found in them of exceptional strength.

The painting "The Mamluk Attack" by the Spanish painter "Francisco de Goya"
A painting entitled "The Mamluk Attack" by the Spanish painter "Francisco de Goya" in 1814. (Communication sites)

A painting like that makes us reconsider our military history. The prevailing belief even among many Arab intellectuals is that the moment when Napoleon occupied the Egyptian lands was a moment of complete weakness for the Islamic armies, and that the Mamluks, when they fought Napoleon, were defeated due to the difference in strength and equipment between them and the army. Advanced French. However, this common belief does not coincide with historical facts in many aspects of it.

In fact, Napoleon was very impressed by the Mamluk knights, their strength and courage during his war with them in Egypt. After the war, he recruited hundreds of them into his army and personal guard, and they fought with him in decisive battles after that in Europe. Their influence did not stop on France, but a number of European armies were fascinated by their military performance after they saw it from their fight with Napoleon, including the British army, and they began to reproduce their fighting methods and even their weapons, and even the Mamluk knights left their traces in European society itself, so children and women began to wear costumes Influenced by the fashion of the Mamluk knights. But the question remains: If the Mamluks were so strong, why did they lose to Napoleon in Egypt? Answering this question will require us to re-read Napoleon's war in Egypt again, without presupposing the weakness of the Mamluk defenders of Egypt.

Occupation of Alexandria.. Egyptian snipers almost killed Napoleon

Napoleon himself was almost killed after entering the city, as a Muslim sniper tried to kill him and hit his shoe with a bullet.
Napoleon himself was almost killed after entering the city of Alexandria, as a Muslim sniper tried to kill him and hit his shoe with a bullet. (Getty Images)

"We thought that the city had surrendered, and to our surprise, rifle bullets rained down on us as we passed in front of a mosque."

One of the soldiers of the French campaign in his memoirs

Perhaps the battle that received a lot of attention regarding the French military occupation of Egypt is the battle of Imbaba, as it is the major battle in which Napoleon won his final victory and then extended his control over the country. However, we need to revisit the small battles that took place between Napoleon on the one hand and the Egyptian Mamluks and volunteers on the other before reaching the battle of Imbaba.

After arriving at the outskirts of Alexandria on June 30, 1798, with an expedition of 36,000 soldiers, carried by 300 ships and accompanied by a fleet of 55 ships and artillery; Napoleon quickly captured the city. There was no regular military force in the city at that time, except for a janissary squad of 500 fighters. 300 French soldiers were killed during the French penetration of the city walls. It is worth noting that General Baptiste Kleber, who was later killed by Suleiman al-Halabi, was shot during the attack on Alexandria, and Napoleon himself was almost killed after entering the city, as a Muslim sniper tried to kill him and hit his shoe with a bullet. Ironically, when the French, according to one of the French accounts, found the sniper, they found a man and a woman hiding, so they killed them.

General Marie-Rene Savary, who attended the attack on Alexandria, was mocking the Egyptians' apparent ignorance of the science of artillery and the effective handling of their weapons. During the French occupation, there were only 4 working cannons in Alexandria, which is a very small number, in addition to a small amount of gunpowder that was not sufficient to deal with the large numbers of soldiers of the French campaign. But on the other hand, the presence of the Mamluk cannons, and the fact that Kleber was wounded and another military commander was wounded by "Mino" and then shot at Napoleon; It tells us that the scene was not what some stereotypical accounts portrayed, and that the Egyptians and the Mamluks were not just hordes of primitive swordsmen in the face of guns and gunshots that they had not heard of before. In fact, the Mamluk weapons were not primitive, and this matter will become clearer to us when we know the news of the decisive battle in Imbaba.

After the French stormed the city of Alexandria, they massacred its defenders, who eventually sat in a mosque. According to General Joseph Boyer, men, women, the elderly, and even children were massacred for four hours straight. Once he was assured of complete control of the city, Napoleon took his men on a very arduous journey during the summer without rest south to the city of Giza in order to complete his mission, and then his second battle took place in Shabrakhit on July 13, 1789 with a small force of Mamluks led by Murad Bey, who occupied A prestigious position in the country, he is responsible for organizing pilgrimages from Egypt.

The Battle of Shubrakhet…the forgotten victory

Re-reading the battle in detail made some historians reconsider the possibility of calling what happened in Shabrakhet a French victory in the first place.
Re-reading the Battle of Shubrakhit in detail made some historians reconsider the possibility of calling what happened in it a French victory in the first place. (communication Web-sites)

The prevailing image of the Battle of Shubrakhit is that it is closer to a miniature experience of the Great Battle of Imbaba, in which Napoleon easily defeated a small group of Mamluks, after which the defeated withdrew to their capital to confront the occupation with all their might in the decisive battle in Cairo. But re-reading the battle in detail made some historians reconsider the possibility of calling what happened in Shabrakhet a French victory in the first place, specifically if we shed light on the naval side of the battle.

Murad Bey, a very large man with a blonde beard and known for his physical strength, went to fight the French outside Cairo, taking with him 4,000 Mamluks in addition to thousands of Egyptian Bedouin and peasant volunteers for the "jihad". The Egyptians shouted “Allah is Greater” in the face of the enemy, which frightened the French soldiers, as they later reported in their memoirs. And there, in Shubrakhit, Napoleon and his soldiers discovered that the Mamluks wore ornaments, luxurious clothes, and rare precious stones, which suggests the possibility of obtaining valuable spoils in the event of victory over them.

When the two groups met, an important matter became clear, which is that the Mamluks are much stronger in terms of physical capabilities. The simplest individual comparison between the giant Mamluk leader Murad Bey and Napoleon in physical terms illustrates the difference. And Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most important historians of the twentieth century, mentioned that the French soldiers in that period were short in stature, yet they were very tough and were able to physically bear what the soldiers of today could not bear, as they sometimes walked with their equipment without stopping for a week. But apart from Hobsbawm's observation, the physical difference between the Mamluks and the French remains clear, so that the French painters who chronicled Bonaparte's victory in the Battle of Imbaba could not help but show in their paintings that physical difference, as the Mamluks who were in captivity after the defeat were drawn with muscular and darker stature than the French .

A painting by the French artist "Antoine Jean Gros" to depict the French victory at Giza
A painting by the French artist "Antoine Jean Gros" to depict the French victory at Giza. (Getty Images)

Despite this physical strength, the Mamluks completely lacked knowledge and modern military organization (which is the same note that we mentioned regarding the cannons of Alexandria). The matter, then, was not related to the difference in equipment and the extent of the development of French weapons and the delay of its Mamluk counterpart, as much as it was related to the ability to organize large armies. While the Mamluks and with them the simple Egyptians armed with clubs treated war as an art in sacrifice and the manifestation of individual courage, the French under Napoleon dealt with war as a science in the first place, where the plan is the most important pillar. As for the Mamluks, they knew one military tactic, which was the cavalry tactic.

The Mamluks moved with enthusiasm on the battlefield, as each of them rode his horse and carried his sword and pistols. His forces on the battlefield in a way that the Mamluks did not understand in any way. Some historians argue that Napoleon did not reach those ideas except through the development that preceded him in the French military, as Napoleon made hollow rectangles from his forces (sometimes called Napoleon squares) that covered an area of 12,500 square meters, with nine cannons on each corner, which made the size of the organization and focus The fire is intense and accurate like never before.

Perhaps it would be easy for some to say that the Mamluks were very backward because they could not easily deal with Napoleon's new plans, and they used to go out in an unorganized manner until the French fired at them easily. But the reality is that what happened to the Mamluks in front of Napoleon is what happened with the largest European armies in front of him as well. The code of the great development in French military planning remained difficult to understand for the largest armies in the world. Until that time, the armies used to move as one bloc, which is exactly what the Mamluks did. . As for what the French army developed, it is the ability to divide the army into multiple corps that the commander controls, as if he were playing chess through tight planning and strict discipline.

In this context, a French colonel chronicled those who participated in the war against Egypt, saying that the French soon realized that the men they fought had matched courage, but had no idea of joint actions and teamwork. Napoleon himself later clarified this matter, and said that one Mamluk is stronger than two French soldiers, and that 100 Mamluks are equal to 150 Frenchmen, while 300 Frenchmen can defeat 300 Mamluks, while 1,500 Mamluks easily lose to 1,000 French soldiers. What Napoleon said here is the essence of the truth. The greater the number of soldiers in the arena, the more important the organization becomes than the individual capabilities.

Returning to Shubrakhit, while Napoleon won on land, the Mamluks were forced to retreat again towards Cairo; Another part of the battle took place in the waters of the Nile, in which the French fleet lost heavy losses. In the face of the Ottoman fleet, which was managed by Greek sailors, who were able to ambush the French successfully, the losses of the French were greater than the losses of the Ottoman fleet supported by cannons in Shabrakhit and guns on both sides of the river.

The Ottoman navy was generally technologically equivalent to its French counterpart, and had a larger number of boats in its fleets. The pioneers of the Ottoman fleet in that battle were able to seize some French ships already, and slaughtered some of their crews and waved the heads of the dead to the other French, as the French lost 70 dead in that naval battle. Most accounts indicate that a large explosion occurred after that due to the ignition of a Turkish gunpowder store, which caused the Ottoman fleet to panic, and took it out of the fighting, after which it returned up the river, especially with the loss of the Mamluks by land and their withdrawal. However, this account of the end of the naval battle raises the ire of some historians, as it is difficult for sailors with this level of experience to withdraw from a battle of this nature simply because of the sound of an explosion, especially since the Battle of Shubrakhit witnessed a lot of gunfire. In any case, since the news of Napoleon's arrival in Egypt, the Mamluks had been deeply suspicious of the Ottomans' desire to seriously confront the French.

The Battle of Imbaba… Courage kills

The real problem, which clearly appears in the paintings of the French invasion of Egypt, is the careful organization of the French soldiers, while the movement and attack of the Mamluks appear very random.
The real problem, which clearly appears in the paintings of the French invasion of Egypt, is the careful organization of the French soldiers, while the movement and attack of the Mamluks appear very random. (Shutterstock)

"I was next to the flag and next to me I saw the wounded Mamluks, they were burning and yet they were trying with their swords to cut off the legs of our soldiers in the front rows. I have never seen men more brave and determined."

From the memoirs of a French soldier who participated in the war

Napoleon's military plan on the land battlefield in Shubrakhit proved to be a great success, and the Mamluks fell completely in the net of his tactical tricks, and there was a final step for the success of the campaign, which was the seizure of Cairo, which the Mamluks had prepared the largest possible army to defend in a decisive battle. It is the Battle of Imbaba or the Battle of the Pyramids as the French call it, which took place on July 21, 1798, and unlike previous battles, the two armies in this battle were somewhat equal in terms of the number of forces. A number of sources estimate that the soldiers of the Mamluk army numbered 40,000 men, while most sources indicate lower numbers. These were divided between Mamluks, Arab soldiers, and Janissaries, mostly from Albania, as well as thousands of Egyptian peasants armed with primitive (and largely useless) clubs.

The Mamluks fortified the left bank of the Nile in the village of Imbaba located between the Nile River and the pyramids of Giza, and the cavalry covered the desert from Imbaba to near the pyramids, while other fewer forces remained under the leadership of Ibrahim Bey on the right bank of the river in Bulaq with 18 thousand Egyptian peasants, and the decision to divide Forces This is one of the decisions that some military historians stop with criticism. In this battle, Napoleon used again the "rectangles" tactic he used in Shabrakhit, so he organized 6 rows of soldiers in depth from the front and back, and three rows on each side, while the guns were concentrated in the corners. Napoleon focused on training the formations in such a way that they change their shapes flexibly so that they can respond to attacks if they come from any direction with the same intensity and efficiency.

The Mamluks entered the war on their purebred horses, which were very fast and beautiful, which Napoleon greatly admired. The equipment of the Mamluk knight was his rifle, a pair of pistols and spears, as well as Mamluk daggers and swords made of Damascus steel. It is ironic that the courage of the Mamluks played a major role in their defeat, as their cannons were unable to move, and at the same time they turned with a large number of their forces to attack the French right before its rectangles settled. During the Mamluk attack, the French left legions stabilized and began to devour them, as Napoleon allowed the Mamluks to approach and then greeted them with his fire , and not a single cartridge was wasted from the French soldiers.

However, the Mamluks headed with great sacrifice in the midst of the fire, throwing themselves into the clutches of death despite their inability to even break the front row of rectangles, and seeking "martyrdom" without realizing that their unstoppable attack was exactly what Napoleon wanted, who later described them as They fought like lions. After the disastrous failure of the Mamluk attack, Napoleon began to change the formations of his corps in a manner that was not usual in that era. Therefore, the defenders of Giza were unable to find a way to deal with this flexible army, which moved in an incomprehensible manner to them at the time, and achieved its goals with the least possible losses. Ibrahim's army sat on the eastern bank, unable to do anything different.

The battle ended after the few remaining Mamluks got tired of their useless series of sacrificial attacks, and they fled with Murad Bey and his remnants to Upper Egypt thanks to the speed of their horses, despite the pursuit of some French soldiers. Ibrahim Bey and his remnants took the road from Giza to Syria, and the French forces poured into Imbaba and Bashtil following the Egyptian and Mamluk fighters who tried to escape by swimming in the Nile, killing them while crocodiles killed each other in a massacre that the French soldiers told about in their memoirs and described it as terrifying. The army defending Cairo was killed in that war, estimated by some sources at 10,000 dead, including 7,000 Mamluks, while Napoleon's army only lost dozens in addition to hundreds of wounded. In the following days, Napoleon's forces began to exhume the bodies of the Mamluks who fell into the river during the battle in order to search for gold pieces and precious jewelry in their silk clothes and decorated weapons, and they actually found what they wanted.

Battle of the Pyramids, July 21, 1798 - François André Vincent
The Battle of Imbaba, by French artist François André Vincent. (communication Web-sites)

Philip Zelikow, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, analyzed the paintings of the French invasion of Egypt, and noted that the two warring sides possessed firearms, so the problem was not at all that one side lacked this type of advanced weapon or that. However, the real problem, which appears clearly in the paintings, he said, is the precise organization of the French soldiers through the squares of infantrymen and Napoleon's rectangles, while the movement and attack of the Mamluks appear very random.

We have been convinced for many years with ready and typical answers to the issue of the successive defeats that the Islamic nation has suffered in the past three centuries, such as progress, backwardness, decay and renaissance, but these general answers are more like a veil that prevents us from many facts and new visions for understanding history, and it is a veil that constantly breaks down in front of the scientific vision. And historical research methods that approximate the real and composite picture of what happened when several Islamic armies suffered successive defeats at the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the world witnessed a sweeping control of European armies that extended to the twentieth century, and paved the way for the world as we know it today.



  1. Lust for Glory: Napoleon's Egypt Campaigns Helped With Invading Europe
  2. Historical formations: about Napoleon's army
  3. And entered Al-Azhar horses
  4. Mameluke Scimitar Sword
  5. Mameluke Sword
  6. The Georgian Mamelukes in Egypt
  7. Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of the Pyramids (1798)
  8. The French campaign against Egypt.. the first invasion of the Middle East since the Crusades
  10. The Naval Component of the Battle of Shubra Khit
  12. Battle of the Pyramids (Battle of Embabeh)
  13. The Age of Revolution: Europe (1789-1848)

Want to get worth reading articles in your email? want to catch what's going on in the world?

We do not spam but sent you only important news stories 🙂

News Agencies

About Author

The latest news from the News Agencies

You may also like

Saudi Arabia imposes curfew

Saudi Arabia imposes curfew due to coronavirus in Makkah and Madina

Saudi Arabia’s government has decided to impose a 24-hour curfew in Makkah and Madina while tightening precautionary measures for the
saudi royal family

Dozens of Saudi royal family infected with coronavirus: report

Riyadh: 150 members of the Saudi royal family have been diagnosed with Coronavirus.   According to a US newspaper The