Spotlight on a medal of Napoleon in Egypt

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08 January 2018
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Napoleon-medal-36251.jpg Medal commemorating the Battle of the Pyramids
An intriguing item from British Museum’s collection is an 18th-century French medal commemorating a battle from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, writes Richard Kelleher.

An intriguing item from British Museum’s collection is an 18th-century French medal commemorating a battle from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, writes Richard Kelleher.

The drama of the battle scene and an idealized portrayal of the heroic general are captured in this medal which shows Napoleon inspiring his troops, ordering them forward with the pyramids behind.

Bonaparte’s Egyptian Expedition was in essence a response to the powerful position held by Britain in the East Indies. Napoleon’s plan was to take possession of Mamluk Egypt which would protect French trade interests, provide a platform from which to attack British commerce and thus undermine Britain’s access to India and the East Indies. The fleet was mobilised in southern France and sailed first to Malta, where Napoleon took the island from the Knights, before sailing to Alexandria – all the time evading the notice of the British Navy.

The Battle of the Pyramids

Once Alexandria was taken the force moved by land toward Cairo in order to avoid the superior British fleet that now approached. The ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (or ‘Battle of Embabeh’) was fought against the Mamluks on 21 July 1798 on the west banks of the Nile some nine miles from Giza, which might have been distantly visible on the horizon. The opponents were the Georgian brothers Murad and Ibrahim Bey.

Though outnumbered, his 25,000 strong army faced 40,000 Egyptian troops led by Murad Bey an in an innovative arrangement he set his five divisions of troops in ‘divisional squares’ which allowed the army to repulse the wild attacks of the Mamluk horsemen, to storm the Egyptian camp (suffering few casualties) and ultimately to live up to their leaders’ sense of history. These ‘squares’ were actually hollow rectangles and with cavalry and baggage at the centre and cannon at the corners. The even larger army of Ibrahim Bey watched helplessly from the other side of the Nile, unable to join the battle. In all, the French lost just 300 men compared to around 6,000 Mamluks.

Commemorative medals

Napoleon was an advocate of the fine arts and commissioned a series of medals to celebrate his many victories in France, Egypt, Prussia, Poland, Austria and Russia. A sequence of medals, of which this is one, concentrate on Bonaparte’s successes in Egypt and his tactical genius which were framed in order to build the legend of a military hero. The medal itself is 57mm in diameter and of bronze and on the obverse we can see Napoleon in the centre addressing his troops. He is outfitted in military dress with his characteristic bicorn hat and stands before the great pyramids of Giza.

His troops are depicted, from right to left, as a sapper, a mameluke, and four grenadiers, with two further figures obscured behind the group. The inscription below gives the date ‘5 THERMIDOR AN 6’ in the French Revolutionary calendar (21 July). The small inscription at the base of the pyramid gives the name J.J. DUBOIS. F who engraved or modelled the dies for this piece. We know little about Jean-Joseph Dubois, apart from the fact that he was a draughtsman of some repute and an archaeologist.

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On the reverse is an inscription in five lines encircled by branches of palm to the left, and olive to the right which reads ‘ALLEZ, ET SONGEZ / QUE DU HAUT DE CES / MONUMENTS QUARANTE SIECLES / VOUS COMTEMPLENT’ which translates as ‘Soldiers - forty centuries look down upon you’. This exhortation was what Napoleon was said to have uttered before the battle to inspire his troops. Around the edge of the medal a further inscription reads ‘ALLOCUTION DU GL. N. BONAPARTE A L’ARMEE FRANCAISE AU PIED DES PYRAMIDES’ (address by General N. Bonaparte to the French army at the foot of the pyramids). 

This medal is not only a reminder of the territorial ambitions of Napoleon’s regime and his military expertise but also, through its iconography, a window into Enlightenment preoccupations with the ancient past and its place in forging the identity and legitimacy of the nation states of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Further reading

Laskey, J.C. A description of the series of medals struck at the National Medal Mint by order of Napoleon Bonaparte, London, 1818.

Discover more about the collections of The British Museum on their website.

(image copyright The British Museum)