Napoleon Bonaparte is known as one of the most famous leaders in French and world history. His military engagements are well known: Waterloo, Eylau, Austerlitz. But much less known are some of the key battles Napoleon’s forces fought in the Holy Land during the three years of the French campaign in Egypt and Syria from 1798–1801.
Indeed, Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt was marked by key events like the Battle of the Pyramids, but Napoleon’s forces also battled in Jaffa and Acre, and fought superior Ottoman forces in the Galilee in battles near Mount Tabor and Nazareth, and at the Jordan River.
Emerging from the Enlightenment era, Napoleon shook the Middle East through his military expedition in Egypt and Syria.
Napoleon returned triumphant from Italy in December 1797, but England remained France’s main challenge. The French Directory intended to declare war on England and “march on London,” but did not have the resources to achieve that bold objective.
Instead, Napoleon was sent to challenge the British Empire elsewhere, to cut its communication lines to India and impair its trade route eastward.
France could not fight the British in England, so it decided to fight them in Egypt.
Thus, in May 1798, Napoleon found himself aboard L’Orient, sailing to Egypt and leading the “Armée d’Orient,” which included about 36,000 foot soldiers. Napoleon’s design was not only guided by geopolitical motivations, but also by personal aspirations.
Napoleon was always attracted by the antiquities, and what greater event could have been coveted than Bonaparte marching in the footsteps of Alexander the Great?
With luck on his side having evaded the British fleet, l’Armée d’Orient landed at Alexandria on July 1, unnoticed by his enemy.
Many subsequent military engagements took place including the Battle of the Pyramids, Aboukir, the conquests of El-Arish, Jaffa and the siege of Acre, but of worthy note are several battles waged by Napoleon that occurred in the Galilee.
In September 1798, the Ottoman Empire declared war on France, and began preparing two large armies for the invasion of Egypt. In a preemptive move, Napoleon decided to intercept and destroy the Ottoman land forces before they could reach Egypt, following which he would move and confront the sea-borne forces being prepared in Rhodes.
Thus, on February 10, 1799, Napoleon departed Cairo and led a force of 13,000 soldiers into the Ottoman region called Syria, which include today’s lands of Israel and Gaza.
After having conquered El-Arish, Khan Yunis and Gaza, Napoleon’s forces moved toward Jaffa before reaching and laying siege to Acre from March to May 1799.
Napoleon deployed forces to monitor the area and sent troops into the Galilee to thwart Ottoman reinforcements from relieving the siege on Acre. Napoleon ordered General Junot to occupy Nazareth on April 6, from there he conducted reconnaissance on the road to Damascus.
An Ottoman force of 500 horses was identified not far from Nazareth. As soon as Junot received the information, he departed with 300 infantrymen and 100 dragoons. However, east of Cana, Junot had an unexpected encounter with an enemy force of 2,500 horses. Despite his smaller force, Junot engaged the enemy on April 8, (“Battle of Nazareth”), the Ottoman force lost 600 men while Junot lost 12 soldiers.
Around the same time, a threatening Ottoman force of 25,000 led by Abdallah Pasha was set to cross the Jordan river to relieve the besieged Acre.
Napoleon understood the danger of finding himself caught between the superior Ottoman force land and the sea, and dispatched General Kleber and about 2,500 men to assist Junot and to intercept Abdallah Pasha’s forces.
DESPITE THEIR actions, Kleber and Junot could not prevent the large Ottoman forces from crossing the Jordan. Kleber had hoped to surprise the large concentration of enemy forces but got lost during the night navigation. Kleber’s troops were spotted in the early morning on April 16, and a major battle ensued near Afula on the slopes of Givat Hamoreh.
Deployed in square formations, Kleber’s division resisted the overwhelming Ottoman force of 25,000 and was able to maintain his ground for six hours, until Napoleon came to the rescue with General Bon’s division, catching the rear of the Ottomans force by surprise.
Caught in between the cross firing of the two French forces, Abdallah Pasha was defeated – a brilliant victory by the young French general against the odds.
Further east is the famous Daughters of Jacob Bridge on the upper Jordan River that flows into the Sea of Galilee from the North. The bridge is on one of the oldest known routes in the world, the caravan route from Ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia.
The bridge also marks the northern limit of Napoleon’s advance in his campaign through Syria as he had sent his commander, General Murat, to occupy the citadel of Safed and monitor the Jordan river and region north of the Sea of Galilee.
Murat, with a 1,000-strong infantry force and a dragoon company, was tasked a day earlier (April 15) to capture the fortress in Safed and cut the retreat of the Ottoman forces attacked by Kleber. Murat engaged the enemy forces and took control of the bridge without any difficulties.
Napoleon’s battles in the Galilee led to clear French victories, and yet, Acre continued to resist the French siege and assaults. On May 17, 1799, after the defenders had received help from the British and an eighth attack on Acre’s walls by his forces proved inconclusive, Napoleon realized he couldn’t succeed.
Napoleon decided to lift the siege on Acre and return to Egypt with a demoralized army having suffered 1,200 killed in action, 1,800 wounded and 600 dead from the plague.
On June 14, Napoleon was once again in Egypt and Cairo, where his forces fought more battles against and confronted the sea-borne Ottoman force at the battle of Aboukir on July 25, from which Napoleon emerged victorious, but with the British and Ottomans still entrenched in the Eastern Mediterranean.
With his Oriental dream of conquest denied, Napoleon chose to return to Paris and left Egypt on August 22.
With May 5, 2021 marking the 200th anniversary of Bonaparte’s death, many are calling to cancel the commemorations over Napoleon’s decision in 1802 to reinstate slavery in the French Caribbean colonies and other dark chapters in his past.
“Cancel culture” is thus now also targeting Napoleon, focusing only on his negatives in an attempt to erase historical events. As the Franco-American philosopher George Steiner insinuated, the past is not the basement of a house, but rather its protective roof.
Pushkin’s works thrive with reference to Napoleon as a mythical hero; the last of the Atlantes, islanders like Napoleon, born on the island of Corsica, he rendered up to God the mightiest breath of life that ever animated human clay on May 5, 1821, in his field bed on the island of St. Helena.
For the German poet Heinrich Heine, Napoleon was not of the wood of which kings were made but of the marble from which gods are shaped. Napoleon’s legacy stretches from the new world in the Americas across Europe and the Middle East to India. His heritage, for better or for worse, will remain universal and as such he shall be remembered and studied through the ages.
The writer is an IDF major (res.), a regional security analyst and a former liaison officer to UN forces in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. He is a lay historian with an interest in general history of the Middle East, as well as a wine connoisseur.