Acre: Napoleon’s First Waterloo
At the end of the 18th century, the trade route to India was of supreme economic importance to European colonial interests. In an attempt to weaken British control along the route, Napoleon Bonaparte launched an invasion first of Egypt, and then, as a bit of an afterthought, of the Holy Land, in 1799. The attack on the Holy Land, including the infamous siege of Acre, was ultimately devastating both for Napoleon’s forces and for the local inhabitants, whom the French soldiers plundered as they beat back their retreat. Yet Napoleon’s attempted conquest and its accompanying surveys and detailed maps of the Levant stimulated renewed interest in the region.
In setting his sights on conquering the Holy Land, Napoleon had expected a swift victory and to subsequently march towards Jerusalem; he had already conquered Malta, Alexandria, and Cairo. In order to take the Holy Land, he would first need to conquer Jaffa. On March 3rd, 1799, Napoleon lay siege to Jaffa. By March 7th, it was his.
Less than three weeks later, Napoleon attempted to take Acre. This was where his Egyptian campaign began to unravel. The Ottoman Turkish defenders, aided by the British Navy, managed to repulse the French forces after an initial infantry attack. The British, under the command of Commodore Sidney Smith, actually managed to capture Napoleon’s artillery and hand it over to the Turks. Thus, the Turks largely defeated Napoleon with his own artillery. After 54 days, Napoleon lifted the siege, in May of 1799. From there, Napoleon beat a hasty retreat to Egypt, from where he deserted his army in the middle of the night.
One of the most iconic images of Napoleon in the Holy Land is a painting that he commissioned five years after the event, in 1804, commemorating the high point of the campaign there, in Jaffa. In Antoine-Jean’s “Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa,” Napoleon is depicted as touching a leper, in a scene that is meant to invoke Christ. This painting, now hanging in the Louvre, is the first masterpiece of Napoleonic painting. While the painting depicts Napoleon as brave and virtuous in caring for his sick men, it was Napoleon’s carelessness and haste in attempting to conquer Acre with infantry alone that cost the lives of 2,300 men, with another 2,200 ill or wounded, and ultimately, brought the end to his campaign.
Upon his return to Europe, Napoleon claimed he had besieged and burnt Acre to the ground, and declared his Egypt campaign a success. In France, Napoleon’s claims were believed despite the loss of half of his army and his entire fleet. The English version of events tells a very different story: Horatio Nelson’s missive celebrates “the villain” Napoleon’s retreat from Acre.
Napoleon did have one success in this campaign, and that was to further the sciences and exploration of that area. But to the victor go the spoils, and this case was no different. With the abandonment of his troops in Egypt, Napoleon’s scientists and scholars preferred to return to England with their findings than return to France without them. One such important finding was, of course, the Rosetta Stone, which spawned Egyptology.
Napoleon’s attempt to take the Holy Land, and the later Egyptian occupation of Palestine (1831-1840), also opened up the floodgates for modern diplomacy and travel to the Holy Land. This tiny outpost of the Ottoman Empire again began to attract the attention of major European powers for both strategic and religious reasons. Ignited anew, as well, was the American imagination and longing for the land of the Bible.