Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The Napoleonic expedition famously is known for being the opening lecture of many courses on Modern Egyptian History; certainly it was a watershed, bringing the initial European colonial interest in the country. Napoleon famously sought to portray himself as a quasi-Muslim and distributed leaflets printed in Arabic. His efforts met with limited success, but initially, after defeating a Mamluk Army at the "Battle of the Pyramids' (actually fought at Imbaba) and occupied Cairo, he set up councils of Azhari scholars to help administer Cairo.
From the beginning, not everyone was buying what Napoleon was selling, and by September French efforts at imposing new taxes and other moves were provoking opposition. Meanwhile, the Ottomans, who still nominally controlled Egypt, declared war, and Ottoman religious authorities began to emphasize the French Revolution's notorious hostility to religion in all forms
By October of 1798, the simmering resistance exploded into open rebellion. Although it had support in many elements of Cairene society, it was particularly led by Al-Azhar, especially among lower-ranking clerics and students. The old city of Cairo barricaded its gates; senior French officers were assassinated. Accordingly Napoleon deliberately targeted Al-Azhar itself in his response/French troops broke down the barricades, surrounded the quarters around Al-Azhar and Sayyidna Hussein, and French artillery mounted on the Citadel and elsewhere opened fire on October 22, specifically targeting the Mosque. The next day, October 23, French troops moved in and occupied the Mosque itself.
The French claimed little real damage was done, though the Arab historian Jabarti says that it was the worst destruction the city had seen. Jabarti was critical of the rebels' resort to violence but shocked by the profanation of Al-Azhar; reportedly the French tied their horses in the prayer hall, urinated against the walls, and otherwise displayed their contempt. In addition to those killed in the shelling and fighting, some sheikhs and other organizers were arrested and executed. After that, Napoleon granted amnesty to other participants (right).
Though Cairo was pacified temporarily the French would encounter growing resistance during the remainder of their occupation. After his campaign in Syria and about a year after the Cairo revolt, Bonaparte suddenly felt that France urgently needed his presence (a feeling not shared by the ruling Directory) and slipped through a British blockade, leaving his Army in Egypt. In 1800 a bloodier revolt broke out.
Even during the worst periods of British rule in Egypt, no one would have dared shell Al-Azhar; but Napoleon had done so.
Girodet-Trioson's 1810 painting Révolte du Caire 21 octobre 1798 is probably not a reliable depiction, but here it is anyway: