The French in Egypt … bite-size!

I was recently in Cairo, and was surprised by what a large French influence there was.  Shops, hotels and restaurants had French names almost as regularly as English or Arab ones.   The British were there from 1882 to 1956, so one can understand the names in English – plus, of course, English being an international language.

But the French ?

The French were there barely three years, and over 200 years ago to boot, from 1798 to 1801,.

 the Battle of the Pyramids 1798

The French Campaign in Egypt and Syria, under Napoleon Bonaparte, was to defend French trade interests, weaken Britain’s access to British India, and to establish scientific enterprise in the Ottoman/Syria territories.

On conquering Egypt, Napoleon set about generally bringing what he felt were the benefits of the ‘enlightenment’ to a backward country. He went to the mosques, learned sections of the Qu’ran,  and called meetings of the Cairo government (the Diwan) – all this despite a bloody fighting in the first months of French rule. Napoleon’s first manifesto to the Egyptian was couched in particularly attractive terms:

1) the removal of the Turks from power in Egypt
2) the introduction of Egyptians in positions of political influence 
3) respect for all religious traditions 
4) better social and economic conditions..

The French in Egypt lasted only three years and three weeks. Despite that brief length of time, historians agree that this period had two important effects on the future of Egyptian culture, namely:
– the introduction into Egypt of the notion of equality before the law;
– the development of Western culture in Egypt.

 the sphinx is now surrounded by fences, horse-and-cart rides (don’t!! most horses are cruelly treated), locals touting their wares and masses of plastic rubbish

The Suez Canal, started in 1861, was built by the French (Ferdinand de Lesseps) and the Egyptians, shared almost 50-50.  The Egyptians later sold their share of the canal to the British.  Interestingly, the Statue of Liberty in New York was originally planned for the Suez Canal by French sculptor Bartholdi (1834-1904); he wanted to name it “Egypt bringing Light to Asia”.  But it didn’t happen so was finally built in New York with the help of Gustave Eiffel.

 Gustave Eiffel                Suez

I can’t say I enjoyed the trip – too much noise and dust, and it was surprisingly cold.  The pyramids/sphinx are the last visible wonders of the ancient world, and I am pleased to have seen them … but give me France any day!



Posted on 13/01/2019 by Catherine
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