The Power and Question of Faith: Murad Bey’s Pros and Cons during the French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801

By Eman M. Vovsi     


Mourad Bey
Mourad Bey from "Description de l'Egypte"

Egypt had played no part in the rivalries of the European powers since the Ottoman conquest in 1517.  But as the Sublime Porte weakened, France, one of the expanding nations of the eighteenth century, began to consider the possibility of an occupation of that territory.  Both Louis XIV (under advice of Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710s) and Louis XIV (based on the reconnaissance of the French diplomacy under Minister Etienne Françoise duke de Choiseul) had considered this possibility.  It remained, however, for the Revolutionary government to put it into execution with the major goal to cut Britain’s lifeline to India by seizing Egypt and the Levant.   

On 1 July 1798 the French “Army of the Orient” of some 38,000 men landed at the Alexandria bay under the command of the twenty-eight year old General Napoléon Bonaparte.[1]  After several days of rest, the expeditionary troops began their advance on Cairo.  The main opponent with whom the French had soon to contend was the Mamluks – an elite military force, which had dominated the country while paying lip service to the nominal authority of the Turkish governor appointed by Istanbul.  One of them, Murād Bey Muhammad (1750-1801), became a centerfold figure in the subsequent resistance against the French invaders turning at the end into their true ally.  In presenting his biography this paper hopes to show another, non-European point of view of the Egyptian expedition, with the major goal to highlight most colorful events of Murād Bey’s life and actions, which, it is hoped, will enrich general knowledge on the Bonaparte’s expedition through the prism of the internal history of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century.               

Murād, a young Circassian boy came into the possession of Muhammad Bey Abū ’l-Dhahab in 1768, a Mamluke and the right hand of ‘Alī Bey, a powerful leader, who ruled Egypt autocratically from 1769 to 1773.[2]  Murād’s slavery lasted for a short time during which he was trained in the use of arms, horsemanship and Qu’ran, and after several years he “was freed, made an amir, given excellent estates and promoted.”  At that time ‘Alī Bey had given indication of an ambition to restore an independent Mamluk sultanate over Egypt and its dependencies, which enabled him successfully to rebel against the Ottomans and capture Mecca.   He went on campaign against Syria; but while he was away, Abū ’l-Dhahab, being encouraged by Constantinople, revolted against ‘Alī Bey.  In the course of the intestine wars submerged with the period of instability, Abū ’l-Dhahab defeated and killed ‘Alī Bey, but in 1776 died at Saint-Jean-d’Acre.  At that time Murād Bey had proven himself a fearless and respectful warrior among the fellow Mameluks, who endorsed him as their new chieftain.  To affix this pledge, he married Abū ’l-Dhahab’s concubine, Nafīsa Khātūn,[3] so respected by al-Jabartī in his chronicles. 

Within a few weeks of Abū ’l-Dhahab’s death, Egypt was in the throes of civil war and the next ten years were spent in a power-struggle among the various Mamluke factions.  Along with another respected Mamluke from the Abū ’l-Dhahab’s house, Ibrāhīm Bey, Murād rose in revolt against Ismā‘īl Bey, a new governor of Cairo, who was supported by the Ottomans. Together, Ibrāhīm Bey and Murād Bey in their pitted combat for power formed a reluctant and unstable duumvirate, which for a while controlled Egypt.

Ismā‘īl Bey was finally compelled to abandon Egypt and flee to Istanbul by March 1778, when his supporters abandoned him.  The central power shifted to both the beys, who often disturbing each other, maneuvered for advantage.  According to the French envoy, François Baron de Tott, who visited Egypt in 1777-78 with the official mission to inspect the French consular and commercial establishment, Ibrāhīm held the title shaykh al-balad (head of the country) while Murād Bey exercised the power of amīr el-hadjdi, or leader of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.[4] 

The French observers of that time reported that

Murād Bey and Ibrāhīm Bey are the most powerful princes of Egypt.  Ambition, which is their ruling passion, has disunited them.  They have been at war with each other.  The equality of their forces again made them friends, but at present Murād Bey prevailing over his colleague, has obliged him to fly into Upper Egypt.[5]  

However, the French mission succeeded in concluding the treaty with the duumvirate of Ibrāhīm and Murād to counteract British trading privileges in the Red Sea area.  It was, however, abrogated by Murād (who came to power in Cairo) a few years later when he proceeded to conclude a new trade agreement with the British Consul in Egypt.[6]  Thus the Mamluk rulers of Egypt were, towards the end of the eighteenth century, embroiled in the vicissitudes of Anglo-French imperial rivalry, which eventually led to the military presence of these powers in that territory.      

If at the beginning, as the chronicler al-Jabartī recorded, “Murād participated with Ibrāhīm Bey in the administration of the country, in legal stipulations, in setting revenues and expenditure, in the distribution of moneys and offices”, later on the situation changed: both became greedy and arrogant and constantly quarreled with each other.  Extortion, oppression and anarchy meanwhile reigned in the countryside, while the administration, such as it was, defaulted on the payment to tribute to Istanbul.  As for Murād Bey, continues the chronicler, “he was overcame by fear and cowardice, carelessness and fickleness, dangerous involvement yet without courage.”

Hostilities and instabilities continued in Egypt.  In July 1780 Murād Bey and Ibrāhīm Bey deposed one governor of Cairo and in September 1783 deposed another.  While Ibrāhīm Bey held customhouses of Suez and Alexandria, Murād claimed the provinces of Lower Egypt.  They both sought to maximize their own income, which weakened the local economy and often led to quarrels and skirmishes between the factions.     

Ibrāhīm Bey drove Murād Bey from Cairo and in January 1784 the two beys fired cannon at each other across the Nile but to no effect.  They made again their peace in April, but in late 1784 Murād Bey entered Cairo and forced Ibrāhīm to flee.  As to the population, measurability continued; the fellahin abandoned their villages because of the lack of irrigation and of fear of  oppression.[7]     

In the August of 1786 the sultan’s force under Hasan Pasha (Kapūdān) arrived in Egypt to make a determined effort to break the power of the Mamluks and to bring the country back under effective Ottoman control.  He issued the proclamation on tax reduction, which subsequently supposed to attract the local population and turn them against the ruling beys. Murād marched towards Rosetta to meet the Turkish land forces but was defeated.  The Ottoman forces occupied Cairo and Lower Egypt, but Murād and Ibrāhīm held out in Upper Egypt, from where they conducted hit-and-run sallies against the Turks.  Only in April 1791, when endorsed by the Turks their former rivalry, Ismā‘īl Bey, died of the plague (Hasan Pasha was recalled back to Istanbul in October 1787 in preparation for the upcoming war with Russia), could both Murād and Ibrāhīm reenter Cairo and restored the unshared duumvirate.  Some source estimated that when they come back to power, the forces of Murād Bey counted 400 and that of Ibrāhīm’s only 200 loyal Mamluks.[8]  Nonetheless, they began with a vengeance, withholding financial obligations to the sultan and drove many Europeans to the bankruptcy, practically disregarding previous capitulations. 

On the other hand, Murād, in particular to the local matters, seems to have been a good organizer.  He founded an arsenal at Cairo and imported craftsmen to cast cannon; he also created the Mamluk’s Nile flotilla, which was placed under the command of a Christian Greek, named Niqūlā (Barthelemy), who was given the same privileges and honors as the beys. Murād Bey resided in his lavishly decorated house at Giza where he received the first disturbing news on landing of “the Franks” on the beaches of Marabut west of Alexandria at the beginning of July 1798.[9]

The unexpected arrival of the French army created consternation among the ruling factions of Egypt; even the unfortunate fellahin of the fields and merchants of the towns, long inured to the hazards of war, rapine and extortion, were perplexed.   Bonaparte’s first proclamation, although written in the honeyed words on respect of Islam, Holy Qu’ran and the Prophet was particularly aimed against the ruling caste – the Mamluks, and it was impossible to eradicate the suspicion and prejudice of the Muslims for the invader.[10]

Abu Bakr, the nominal Turkish Pasha in Cairo immediately summoned a dīvān attended by all the Mamluk beys and the most respected ulamā leaders.  After short deliberations, Murād Bey volunteered to go, meet the French and put them to sword, thus getting much support of the assembly’s members (despite the precautions expressed by Ibrāhīm).  “Rise up like the brave men you are and prepare to fight and to resist by force, leaving the outcome to Allah,” he received parting wishes from the Pasha.[11]  Murād Bey immediately assembled his troops “took with him many guns and gunpowder and traveled overland with his cavalry.  The infantry, consisting of marines, Greeks and Magribīs traveled on the Nile on the small galleons.”  He also ordered the forging an iron chain, which should stretch from one bank of the Nile to another to prevent the French ships from passing near Cairo.[12]       

Meanwhile, the French “Army of the Orient”, which took Alexandria on 2 July, marched off on Cairo.  Bonaparte led his divisions further through the hot sands of the Damanhour desert when, on July 13, near the small town of Shubrā Khīt (Chebreise) the French patrol acknowledged the concentrated masses of the Mamluk troops lined up in battle array.

Murād Bey’s Mamlukes, even with its reinforcements on foot, was numerically far inferior to the French army, but his every warrior carried an arsenal on horseback.  Charging at full gallop, each Mamluk would discharge his carbine, fire his several pairs of pistols, fling his javelin and finally throw himself on his enemy scimitar in hand.[13]  However, this brief battle in reality was a little more than a protracted skirmish.  “It was a magnificent sight to see these troops swooping before out bataillons,” wrote the then artillery lieutenant Jean-Pierre Doguereau, “their dazzling armor, their saddles, the trapping of their horses, which were nearly all embellished with gold or silver, glinted in the sun to produce a wonderful effect.”[14]  For about three hours the Mamluk horsemen circled about the compact French squares looking for a weak spot.  After several unsuccessful charges effectively repulsed by firearms, Murād Bey, regrouping his troops, saw an explosion that destroyed his flagship on the Nile.  Terrified, he gave the order to retreat.  Murād Bey rushed to Cairo, which he reached on July 16, bringing along devastating news of a defeat.

On the next day he crossed the Nile in order to give another battle on the west bank, at the shore of Imbāba village.  Here, he began construction of a fortified camp, surrounded by rough trenches and breastworks, along which were arranged some forty pieces of ordnances.  Al-Jabartī chronicles that “Cairo called for arms and ordered the people to move out to the fortifications; such a call was repeated every day”[15], which later on gave an idea to some historians to count thousands Mamluks being assembled for the upcoming battle.  In fact, there were no more than 1,500 to 2,000 true Mamluke warriors at that time in Egypt,[16] but they were supported by more numerous men on horseback (Bedouins) and ill-trained Albanian infantry.

Battle of the Pyramids by Baron Gros
The Battle of the Pyramids by Baron Gros

The decisive “Battle of the Pyramids” (which was fought at a considerable distance away from these ancient marvels of the world) occurred on 21 July.[17]  On that day the French infantry broke their camp at Umm Dīnār and advanced a mile south toward the Imbāba village.  Murād Bey decided to meet the French behind fortifications thus remaining immobile, while the French were free to maneuver as they wished.  Around 3:30 p.m., as the Bonaparte’s army was slowly approaching, Murād Bey ordered an attack and the Mamlukes charged with a ferocious yell against its right flank commanded by generals Desaix and Reynier.  The French squares unleashed the murderous volley.  “The earth was covered with the bodies of men and horses,” wrote French artillery officer, an eyewitness; “those who had not been hit passed between the divisions… and again came under fire.”[18]  After the fighting had lasted about three quarters of an hour, recorded al-Jabartī, the army on the western bank was defeated.  Many of the horsemen drowned because “they were encircled by the enemy and darkness that spread over the land.”[19]  According to the French estimates, the Mamlukes lost seven or eight hundred men (the usual number is given nearly 2,000, which seems exaggerated[20]).  Seeing that the French decided to withhold the pursuit Murād Bey, with the part of his Mamluke cavalry retreated to Giza and hence fled south, toward Middle Egypt.

In three days after their victory, the French were in occupation of Cairo, as well as Alexandria and Rosetta.  At first glance it appeared that the conquest was swift and complete but realities, which Napoléon’s army faced, were quite different from what had been anticipated.  The destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir Bay on 1-2 August not only cut off the expeditionary corps form the metropolis but also established unchallenged British control through Egypt’s Mediterranean ports.[21]  Bonaparte was preoccupied with the establishment of a new administration, offered improvement of a tax system and gave a green light to the merchants; at the same time he observed all military matters for they were far away from being completed.

The Mamluks though routed in the set of battles were still in control of the most of the territory of the Middle and Upper Egypt, where Murād Bey rallied his troops for the upcoming long struggle with the French.  Part of Bonaparte’s agenda after his entry into Cairo was to come to terms, which would pacify Mamluke beys.  While in Cairo, Murād Bey’s wife, Nafīsa, appeared and sued for peace for herself and her companions.[22]  Considering this as an open possibility, the French commander in chief gave full powers to Carlo Rosetti, the Austrian consul in Cairo, to reach a deal with Murād Bey by offering him a governorship of Girga in Upper Egypt.  The negotiations did not produce any tangible result for Murād demanded immediate French withdrawal from the country and even offered to pay Bonaparte “10,000 gold purses to cover his army expenses.”[23]  Understanding, that it would be impossible to control Egypt while the Mamluks were unwilling to deliberately lay down their arms, Bonaparte gave the order to one of his ablest generals, Louis Desaix, to pursue Murād Bey and destroy his forces.

Desaix’s started his campaign on 26 August when his forces (around 2,860 men on foot, two pieces of ordnance and no cavalry[24]) sailed a small flotilla from Cairo to pursue in the guerilla war that will last nearly fourteenth months.  The forces of Murād were estimated of 3,000 and were reinforced, besides his own Mamlukes, by significant number of volunteers. It is interesting to note that at this early stage, one of Murād Bey’s chief officiers was a Piedmontese Colonel Altamare, who later would serve as an instructor in Muhammad Alī’s army.   There also was an Armenian, named Papazoghlu, who commanded an elite unit of 300 soldiers and was a most trusted Murād’s lieutenant. He also had a Bulgarian physician named Dimitri, and three Gaeta brothers from Zanta (Sicily), who made artillery pieces for Murād Bey and also commanded various combat detachments under their mighty patron.[25]  Among several captured Mamluks, the French sources indicate several men of the Russian and German origin.[26]

The following account of the expedition of Desaix’s forces against Murād Bey is preserved mainly according to the French collected sources compiled by Clement de La Jonquière in his monumental five volumes work Expédition d’Égypte, 1798-1801; the chronicle of Al-Jabartī’s mentions these events only briefly.  It was due to Christopher Herold’s efforts, however, which achieved a great task by combining all possible accounts and presenting them in a way of a clear and chronological narrative.

After some 125 miles, the French flotilla disembarked the French troops near the oasis of El-Bahnasa, where Desaix was hoping to catch the Mamlukes.  But Murād Bey withdrew into the Libyan Desert and Desaix, again placing his troops on the boats, continued his pursuit.  He followed Murād Bey to Dairut but, once again, not finding him there, the French returned to El-Bahnasa.  The first big encounter occurred on 7 October, near the old Coptic monastery of Sediman.  Here, once again, the cavalry of Murād Bey despite its vigor and ferocity was defeated; leaving nearly 400 dead and wounded, he retreated to the El-Faiyum oasis.[27]

But Murād Bey never saw this battle as a defeat, but rather as a seatback on his road to victory.  He was receiving supplies and men but moreover, he knew his people and their opinion toward the “Franks”: along with fear and possible admiration for Bonaparte’s proposed administrative reforms and even paying him lip-service, they would never cease to despise him and his troops as infidels.

The struggle continued.  Desaix entered El-Faiyum at the end of October in order to “reorganize” the province, give his troops some rest and more importantly, find news of Murād-Bey’s whereabouts.  The French presence angered the local population, which had just recently been taxed by the Mameluks and now faced new extortions.  Although an uprising of the fellahin was repulsed from now on the pacification of the areas of occupation was a long and painful process.  In the meantime, Desaix went back to Cairo for reinforcements; by mid-December, upon his return with sufficient number of the French cavalry, he started out for the south again. Vivant Denon, an artist and scientist of the newly established Institute d’Égypte, also arrived to join the troops (he would later sketch a portrait of Murād-Bey, which is still preserved in the famous Description de l’Égypte)[28].  Soon after the New Year the French were near Girga, nearly 300 miles upstream from Cairo.  “Each time the French troops approached,” reported Al-Jabartī, “they [Murād-Bey and his entourage] moved further south because of the great fear of the French.”[29] 

It was mere a guerilla war, which was not bringing any success to either side.  Knowing that his troops are now passing the town and villages populated by Christian Copts, more sympathizing to the “Franks” Murād-Bey decided on a new approach.  During the three weeks that the French troops remained in Girga, from his camp just thirty-five miles south, he displayed his previous energy and build up an army of more than 10,000 troops.  In addition to that, Murād-Bey wrote his sworn enemy, the Mamluke Hasan-Bey who governed Isna, persuading him to join him against the infidels; Hasan joined Murād with 400 of his own Mamlukes.  Further, Murād-Bey appealed to ashraf (plural of sharīf; those, who were honored as descendants of the Prophet) of Yambo and Jidda, on the Red Sea coast asking them to join their common cause.  In Nubia, his agents were buying up slaves to serve in the Mamluke army; everywhere, from Aswan to Asyut, his emissaries carried messages inciting the fellahin to kill the invaders.[30]  Because of the political changes and better protection of the Russian borders, the main factor of former mamluke recruitment, that is, from the Caucasus provinces was no longer available and their ranks were undermined by the accidental, untrained element and mere mercenaries. Murād-Bey also recruited Arabian warriors from Hejaz, led by sharīf of Mecca; they wore green turbans and represented, as Denon noted in his diary, “the picture of a savage man in the most hideous form imaginable.”[31]

The new battle, which Murād-Bey gave to the French when they left Girga in their further pursuit, occurred on 22 January 1799 near the town of Samhud.  The Mamluks followed their usual tactics and flung themselves upon the French squares, but in vain.  After several unsuccessful attacks against the firmed French formations, Murād-Bey abandoned his further attempts; living Mecacns to fight, he fled to the south.[32]   The French continued their march down to the cataracts of the Nile and on 2 February Desaix crossed the Aswan, being now nearly 600 miles from Cairo.  Leaving a garrison here to preserve “law and order”, Desaix returned to Luxor and from there, further north, back to Asyut.

However, news, which reached the capital at the middle of February 1799 were far off from being satisfactory.  Douguereau noted in his diary “Murād-Bey appeared everywhere where he was least expected; he achieved marches under unbelievable rapidity.”[33]   And it was rightly so: Murād-Bey had made his 300-mile dash across the Libyan Desert, has beaten Desaix to the race.  With his usual boasts, he incited the peasantry to revolt; soon, Murād appeared to be marching to Asyut, cutting off the small French garrisons up the river Nile. 

The next several months are the confused story of marches and counter-marches along the long Nile valley between Aswan and El-Faiyum, of ambushes and violent skirmishes on the river.  Feeling that he is loosing his allies, his power and control over the huge chunk of the territory, Murād-Bey turned war into aggressive struggle for just cause.[34] 

And so Murād-Bey continued his resistance.  He and his allies managed to blow up several French boats with ammunition; they offended several lost mobile columns and killing separate soldiers; assaulted garrisons and even compelled the French to evacuate Aswan.[35]   But the bulk of the territory was under the enemy’s control; furthermore, his supply of Meccan reinforcement from Arabia has halted.  Murād-Bey and his loyal Mamlukes were now hiding in the oases of what now is modern Sudan, undefeated, but unable to continue fighting on a full scale.  It was in early July, as recorded by Al-Jabartī’, when it became apparent that Murād-Bey had returned to Upper Egypt and was noticed near El-Fayum.[36]  On the night of 13 July, from the summit of Cheops’ Pyramid, Murād had a lively conversation, by coded signals, with his wife Nafīsa who was in her Cairo mansion at that time.  On the very next day the Ottoman forces, from 12,000 to 15,000 men supported by the British fleet, have landed at the Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria.[37] 

Bonaparte abandoned his presupposed plan to lead his troops against Murād-Bey in person.  Thinking quickly and acting in a more than a swift manner, he redirected his troops to the bigger danger and on 25 July the landing Turkish forces were destroyed.[38]  After that victory, French rule in Egypt was almost comparatively secured, although signs of a local resistance continued throughout their entire presence until 1801.

When he received news of yet another victory of the “Franks” over the Ottomans, Murād-Bey fled south.  Tireless Desaix was sent once again to follow him; he caught the Mameluk at his camp near Samhud in early August.  Murād-Bey himself was almost taken prisoner being compelled to run off, leaving all his possessions, tents, arms and equipment.  The French caught him again near El-Faiyum and following a short skirmish both parties finally decided to negotiate.  According to Al-Jabartī’, who truthfully admits that he did not have a chance to verify the details, “between Murād-Bey and the commander (Desaix) messengers and letters went back and forth.  A truce was established and presents were exchanged.  Murād-Bey came to terms with the French, one of the conditions being the appointment of Murād-Bey to rule over Upper Egypt under French authority.”[39]  Since the end of October 1799 he finally ceased the fighting and remained neutral.  How can one explain such a transformation?

The new French commander in chief, General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, who was left in charge of the “Army of the Orient” (after Bonaparte’s departure in August 1799) opened peace negotiations with the Turks and subsequently, on 28 January 1800, signed convention with Porte at al-‘Arīsh undertaking to evacuate Egypt.  The French were prepared to leave Cairo as the Turkish army approached to take possession of the city.  The messenger was sent to Murād-Bey with an invitation to arrive to Cairo for the meeting with the new authorities.  Only at that time he decided consult with Kléber for an agreement, feeling that he could accommodate himself better with the French than with the Ottomans.[40]  However, the British, who at that time were fully supporting their Turkish allies, did not recognize the convention of al-‘Arīsh and hostilities resumed its course.    

Already as early as the middle of the March, General Kléber had sent one of the members of the Institute, a mathematician Jean-Baptiste Fourier to sound out Murād’s wife, Nafīsa about a possibility of bringing him to the French side in exchange for the official plenipotentiary governorship of Upper Egypt.  Nafīsa received the proposal and, further, found a way to pass it on to her husband.  Murād-Bey, who was not paying required tax tribute to the Sultan for many years since he established his leadership, had no interest to meet the Ottomans and was not displeased to see the Grand Vizier routed.  He agreed on the French proposal and sent one of his assistants to General Kléber to conclude an alliance with the French.[41]  The circle was now complete: paradoxically, but two years ago the French had attacked Murād-Bey in the name of their ally, the Sultan, threatening to overthrow the Mamlukes, who resisted the invasion in the name of this same Sultan, their sovereign.  Now, after a year of cat-and-mice chase against Desaix up and down the Nile, Murād-Bey turned to the French in order to became completely independent from the Sultan (or so he was promised) in whose name he originally fought the “infidels.”

At the same time, in the course of the approaching Turkish army, General Kléber assured Murād-Bey that he intended him to take no part in combat if matters should come to it.  Despite the calls of his former duumvir, Ibrāhīm-Bey to hasten to Cairo, Murād refused and established himself at Torrah, a village on the right bank of the Nile, three miles from the city.  Through his agent, he sent the following words to the French commander in chief:

You may tell the French that I am united with them today because they have made it impossible for me to continue the war; I ask that I should be allowed to establish myself in part of Egypt, so that, if they leave, I can with the help they will give me, seize a country of my own, from which only they would be able to eject me.  I swear that my fate will be linked to theirs until that time and I will be faithful to our agreements.[42]   

Both parties kept their parts of agreement.  According to the new proposals, Murād-Bey was to occupy the province of Girgeh in the Upper Egypt, of which he was to be considered the General Governor for the French Republic, collecting revenues and paying certain taxes.  He also was obligated to furnish thirty of his most reliable Mamlukes to General Kléber’s disposal.[43]  

During the battle at al-Matarīyya (Heliopolis) 20 March 1800, which followed the breaking up the convention with Porte at al-‘Arīsh, General Kléber’s army completely routed the Ottomans.  Murād-Bey and his Mameluks, as new allies, were positioned on the French right; however, when the battle commenced, he moved away and “then had been lost to sight in the desert, taking no part in the action.”[44]  Al-Jabartī’s also concurs that Murād-Bey “remained calm and stayed neutral, adhering to his armistice with the French.”[45] 

Meanwhile, the French troops very busy with operations against revolted Cairo, which was finally subjugated in the last days of April.  Thanks partly to Murād-Bey, who intercepted a large food convoy, the city was starved and this assisted General Kléber to finalize the situation.   Murād-Bey helped him to negotiate with the Turkish garrison commander, Nasīf Pasha, to deliver the terms and surrender the city back to the “Franks”.[46]  After suppressing the last nidus of resistance in neighboring Būlāq, on 22 April, the French could re-enter Cairo with little or no obstacle.  On 2 May, Kléber visited Murād-Bey at his residence on al-Dhahab Island, upon his invitation.  As Al-Jabartī records, “he was friendly with the French and extremely proud; the French appointed him amir of Upper Egypt from Jirjā to Isnā”.[47]   Murād-Bey soon departed to his new post.

Mamelukes by Carle Vernet
Mameluke by Carle Vernet

However, having Mameluks as new allies produced only a temporary semi-administrative change, which could only prolong the struggle of the French Army in Egypt and not end it.  The fellahin were still under the yoke of the French occupation, “being squeezed as lemonade” regardless of how enlightened or “civilized” it was.  Moreover, Murād-Bey now received almost a sanctioned right to rule in his domain in any way he pleased, which meant the all too familiar oppression and taxation from the mighty Mameluks, who were still feared by the lower classes.  Although Kléber promised a general pardon to the people of Cairo and tried to pacify the population he did this by imprisoning and assaulting some “rebellious” but respectful sheiks of the umma, which finally led to his assassination on 14 June 1800.[48]  Paying tribute of a loyalty and obviously agitated, Murād-Bey sent a deputation of Mameluks to represent him at the burial procession.                  

After Kléber’s death the new commander in chief, General Jacques Menou (a recent Islam convert, ‛Abd Allāh Menou), continued his predecessor’s administrative and military policy.  While the ultimate aim of the French became to bring their troops safely back to France, they did not give way easily to efforts of the Ottoman Empire, assisted by Great Britain, at recapturing Egypt.   The latter also planned to attract the remnants of the Mamlukes to their side in an upcoming campaign against the French.  Thus, British General Sir Ralf Abercromby, upon arrival of his troops in Egypt received a special instruction from Downing Street stating among other issues that

… beys and Mamlukes who, before the French invasion, were the real sovereigns of Egypt, are now [more] afraid of the views prejudicial to their interests and exclusive of their authority, hastily and imprudently manifested by the Porte after the treaty of El Arish, with respect to the future government of Egypt, than of the establishment of the French, who appeared to have entered into a compromise with Mourad Bey (the most powerful of them) for a partition of power and territory.[49]                 

It was a clear “divide and conquer” policy advocated by the British cabinet, as their troops disembarked at Aboukir Bay on 8 March 1801.  In the meanwhile, the French enjoyed nine month of peace and thanks to the alliance Kléber had made with Murād-Bey, they received a fixed tribute from Upper Egypt without having to administer it; thanks to the same alliance and to Murād’s prestige, subversion in Cairo and Lower Egypt finally seized.[50]

The last several weeks of Murād-Bey’s life and actions are available only in fragments.  Preparing to face the British, General Menou led the French Army to Alexandria; on March 21, the enemies met near the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Canopus.  Prior to that Menou sent for Murād-Bey who, at that time, being in the Upper Egypt should assist in holding of Cairo along with the French garrison under General Belliard.

But the situation deteriorated.  The French lost the Battle of Canopus and withdrew back to Alexandria, which they decided to defend.  In the meanwhile, combined Anglo-Turkish force under General Hutchinson and old Kapūdān Pasha advanced toward Cairo up the left bank of the Nile; another force of the Grand Vizier with 15,000 entered Egypt from the Syria and took the right bank of the river.

Cut off from the coast, with two armies advancing toward Cairo, General Belliard considered the possibility and giving up Cairo and withdrawing into Upper Egypt, where he would join forces with the Murād-Bey’s Mamlukes.  The plan was frustrated when Murād-Bey, on his way to Cairo, died of the plague on 7 April 1801.  He was buried at Sūhāj; later on Nafīsa, his beloved wife, erected a tomb to him near the grave of ‘Alī Bey, his once the mighty patron.[51]  Persuaded by Hutchinson, who offered them “protection of the British Army in the most solemn manner” the remnants for the Murād-Bey forces passed over to the British by the end of May.[52]

The French occupation soon ended, but the Mamlukes never recovered their power.  Murād-Bey was not Robin Hood and his Mamlukes were scarcely a merry lot, but they were fighting for what they believed to be their rights, their pride and indignation were equal to every weariness; simply put, they did not even think to give up.  They introduced the classical guerilla warfare, the type of struggle, which would follow the French everywhere, where they would bring their arm: in Spain, in Tyrol and most of all, in Russia in 1812.  Murād-Bey was also a transitional figure; fighting against the French, he realized their power and, while pursuing his own ambitions, joined them, perhaps, to buy some time.  His power was strong and influential; he gathered allies in any way possible, using force, eloquence, and if necessary, a bribery.  Even the French called him “the outstanding Mamluke leader [who’s death was] sincerely regretted by all the officers.”[53] The remnant of once the mighty military élite, Murād-Bey was, perhaps, the last true Mamluke, who took with him into the oblivion the ancient culture and a legendary ethos of a warrior, which emerged from the glorious past of the time immemorial.     

Primary sources:

Abd al-Rahmān al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, in 4 vols., translated and edited by Thomas Philipp and Moshe Perlmann.  Stuttgart: Steiner, 1994.

Douguereau, Jean-Pierre.  Journal of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, translated and with an introduction by Rosemary Brindle.  Westport, 2002.

Douin, G. and E. Fawtier-Jones.  L’Angleterre et L’Égypte.  Vol. 1, La politique Mameluke, 1801-1803.  Paris, 1829.

La Jonquière, Clement de.  Expédition d’Égypte, 1798-1801, in 5 vols.  Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1899-1907.  

Secondary sources and special studies

Annesley, George.  The Rise of Modern Egypt.  Cambridge, 1994.

Chandler, G. David.  The Campaigns of Napoléon.  Scribner: New York, 1966.

Herold, J. Cristopher.  Bonaparte in Egypt.  Haper & Row: New York, 1962.

Moorhead, Alan.  The Blue Nile.  Vintage Books: New York, 1972.

Phillip, Thomas and Ulrich Haarmaan, eds., The Mamluks in Egyptian Politics and Society, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

The Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., C.E. Bosworth et al.  12 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987.

The Cambridge History of Egypt, in 2 vols.  General ed. M. W. Daly.  California University Press, 1998.

Vatikiotis, J. Peter.  The History of Modern Egypt.  London, 1991.


[1] Clement de La Jonquière, Expédition d’Égypte, 1798-1801, in 5 vols (Paris, Charles-Lavauzelle, 1899-1907); vol. I, 509-17.  

[2] Unless otherwise noted, the following information on the early life of Mourād Bey is derived from two indispensable sources, such as Abd al-Rahmān al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, in 4 vols., translated and edited by Thomas Philipp and Moshe Perlmann (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1994), vol. III, 259-266 and The Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed.,  s.v. “Misr,” vol. VII, 179.

[3] Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “Marriage in late eighteenth-century Egypt,” in The Mamluks in Egyptian politics and society, Thomas Phillip and Ulrich Haarmaan, eds., (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 284.

[4] Based on Baron de Tott’s Memoirs of the Turks and Tartars, English transl., 2 vols, (London, 1786), as cited in Christopher J. Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt (New York, 1962), 9.

[5] Cited in Peter J. Vatikiotis, The History of Modern Egypt (London, 1991), 33-34.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Cambridge History of Egypt, general ed. M. W. Daly (California University Press, 1998), vol. II, 83-84.

[8] Daniel Crecelius, “The Mamluk beylicate of Egypt,” in The Mamluks in Egyptian politics and society, Thomas Phillip and Ulrich Haarmaan, eds., (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 132.

[9] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 3.

[10] George Annesley, The Rise of Modern Egypt (Cambridge, 1994), 6.

[11] Based on Nicolas Turk’s Chronique d’Egypte, 1798-1804, ed. and transl. by Gaston Wiet (Cairo, 1950), as cited in Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 64.

[12] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 3.

[13] As observed by many actual participants of the expedition, cited in Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 91.

[14] Jean-Pierre Douguereau’s Journal of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, translated and with an introduction by Rosemary Brindle (Westport, 2002), 13.

[15] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 10.

[16] Based on Crecelius, “The Mamluk beylicate of Egypt,” 132.  The ”typical” number of 6,000 Mamlukes and 10,000-12,000 foot-soldiers, which was first turned in by Freidrich Kircheisen in his Napoleon I (Leipzig, 1914), with no reference to any source seems to be a legend of great vitality.

[17] The sources describing the Battle of Pyramids are too numerous to be listed here; what follows is the general description, narrated by David Chandler in his The Campaignes of Napoleon  (New York, 1966), 224-26. 

[18] Douguereau’s Journal of the Egyptian Expedition, 14.

[19] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 13.

[20] Letter from General Damas to Kléber in Correspondance de l’armée française en Egypte (Paris, 1798), 95, as cited in Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 98. 

[21] The Cambridge History of Egypt, vol. II, 122.

[22] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 20.

[23] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 146.

[24] La Jonquière, Expédition d’Égypte, vol. III, 193.

[25] Crecelius, “The Mamluk beylicate of Egypt,” 144-45.

[26] Derived from Archives de la Guerre, France.  B6 (Armée d’Orient)15.  Pièces en Arabe et Pièce diverses, as cited in the ibid., 134-35. 

[27] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 233-36; La Jonquière, Expédition d’Égypte, vol. III, 212-15.

[28] Alan Moorhead, The Blue Nile (New York), 120-22.

[29] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 62.

[30] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 244-45.

[31] Moorhead, The Blue Nile, 124.

[32] La Jonquière, Expédition d’Égypte, vol. III, 530-31.

[33] Douguereau’s Journal of the Egyptian Expedition, 107.

[34] Moorhead, The Blue Nile, 130.

[35] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 257-58.

[36] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 117.

[37] Turkey declared war on France on 9 September 1798.

[38] Chandler, The Campaignes of Napoleon, 243-44. 

[39] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 129.  He further states that Murād-Bey “secretly asked the French for permission” and, when granted, pretended that he agreed for a meeting in Cairo.  Ibid., 138.

[40] Ibid., 129, as cited in accordance with Pierre-Danielle Martin’s Histoire de l’expédition française en Egypte (Paris, 1815) vol. II, 24-28, 53.  

[41] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 358, as based on Martin’s Histoire de l’expédition française, vol. II, 87.  

[42] Douguereau’s Journal of the Egyptian Expedition, 155.

[43] Ibid., 155.  This group of thirty Mamlukes will transform, later on, into the elite unit of Napoléon’s Imperial Guard. 

[44] Douguereau’s Journal of the Egyptian Expedition, 142.

[45] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 147.

[46] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 359; Douguereau’s Journal of the Egyptian Expedition, 158-59.

[47] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 164.

[48] George Six, Dictionnaire Biographique des généraux et amiraux de la Révolution et de l’Empire, 2 vols. (Paris, 1934), vol. II, 11.

[49] Letter of Minister Huskisson to General Abercromby, 23 December 1800, in G. Douin and E. Fawtier-Jones, L’Angleterre et L’Égypte: La politique Mameluke, 1801-1803 (Paris, 1829) Vol. I, 83; original orthography of the letter preserved.

[50] Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, 378-79.

[51] Al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, vol. III, 245.

[52] Letter of Hutchinson to Osman Bey, 5 May 1801. L’Angleterre et L’Égypte: La politique Mameluke, 1801-1803 (Paris, 1829) Vol. I, 10.

[53] Douguereau’s Journal of the Egyptian Expedition, 178.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2008

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