News in 1798 that Napoleon was massing a huge force in the Mediterranean port of Toulon sent waves of fear through Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Candidates for invasion included England, Spain Portugal, Sicily, and even Brazil. Few knew, however, that Bonaparte's secret objective was to raise the French flag over the Pyramids of Egypt. "We must go to the Orient," he was reputed to have said. "All great glory resides there."
Like Aristotle's scientific observations and specimens collected during his journeys with Alexander the Great in his conquests on the then known world, the real winners of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign were the artists, historians and other savants who accompanied him, and carried back numerous treasures, including the Rosetta Stone, inscribed in both Greek and hieroglyphics, which would later enable linguists to decipher the hieroglyphs.
In July 1798, after a rough six-week trip, nearly 400 transport ships landed some 34,000 troops near Alexandria, launching Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, whose objective was to raise the French flag over the Pyramids.
Bonaparte's troops were accompanied by nearly 1,000 civilians: administrators, artists and poets, botanists and zoologists, surveyors and economists. It was they who were to return to France triumphant, with enough information to swell the 22-volume Descriptions de L'Egypte, the authoritative tome on Egyptology for generations.
On July 21, 1798, Napoleon's army met the Mamelukes of Egypt 15 kilometers north of the Pyramids at Giza, and in a single day ended their seven-century rule of Egypt. The Mamelukes (which means 'white slave' in Arabic) were a terrifying warrior caste, mostly of Georgian slave descent.
Napoleon's swift victory was followed by disaster at the Battle of the Nile, where the ability of the French to realize Napoleon's ambitions would be fatally crippled when British ships realized that, with their shallower draughts, they would be able to slip between the French ships and the shore. They sandwiched the French, raking them with fire while the hapless defenders struggled frantically to move cannons to the vulnerable sides of their ships. It was a decisive victory. Only two of the French ships escaped, the rest either sunk or captured. Not a single British vessel was lost, and only 218 British were killed. The French losses were estimated at around 1,700 lives.
Napoleon chose to ignore the destruction of his fleet, and the castaway status it brought his army. The bulk of his army, meanwhile, forced its way up the Nile to Aswan, revealing to the stunned soldiers the ancient wonders of Thebes, Karnak and Luxor.
The most important artifact plundered during Napolean's Egypt campaign was the Rosetta Stone -a Ptolemaic era stele written with the same text in two Egyptian language scripts (hieroglyphic and demotic) and in classical Greek.
The artifact was created in 196 BC, discovered in 1799 at Rosetta, a harbor on the Mediterranean coast, and contributed greatly to the decipherment of the principles of hieroglyphic writing in 1822 by Frenchman Jean-François Champollion, showing that the written Egyptian language was similar to Coptic, and that the writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.
In a touch of historical irony, Champollion died of an apoplectic attack in Paris in 1832 at the age of 41 exhausted by his labors during and after his scientific expedition to Egypt. While studying the Valley of the Kings, he irreparably damaged KV17, the tomb of Seti I, by physically removing two large wall sections with mirror-image scenes, which are now in the collections of the Louvre and the museum of Florence.