No, the French did not shoot the pyramids. This is a popular myth that has no historical evidence to support it. The legend claims that Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops damaged the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Sphinx of Giza during their Egyptian campaign in 1798-1801.
However, this story is contradicted by eyewitness accounts, archaeological findings, and artistic representations of the monuments before and after the French invasion.
The Battle of the Pyramids
During the French Invasion of Egypt, the Battle of the Pyramids (Embabeh) took place on July 21, 1798. Napoleon called the fight after the 9-mile-away Great Pyramid of Giza, which was seen from Embabeh across the Nile River from Cairo.
Napoleon Bonaparte led a French army of about 25,000 men to Egypt in 1798, with the aim of challenging British influence in the region and establishing a base for further expansion. He captured Alexandria on 2 July and then marched across the desert towards Cairo. He faced the main army of the local Mamluk rulers, who were allied with the Ottoman Empire and Britain. The Mamluks had a force of about 40,000 men, mostly cavalry, commanded by Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey.
The two armies met near Embabeh on 21 July. Napoleon deployed his troops in five large squares, each consisting of about 3,000 infantry and some artillery. He placed them in a defensive position on a plateau overlooking the Nile. He also had a reserve of about 3,000 cavalry under General Desaix. The Mamluks attacked with their cavalry, hoping to break through the French squares and reach their guns. However, they were met with devastating fire from the French muskets and cannons. The Mamluks suffered heavy casualties and were unable to penetrate the French formation. Napoleon then ordered a counterattack with his cavalry and infantry, which routed the remaining Mamluk forces.
The Battle of the Pyramids was a decisive victory for Napoleon and his army. He claimed to have killed or wounded about 10,000 Mamluks while losing only about 300 men. He entered Cairo on 24 July and established himself as the master of Egypt. However, his success was short-lived, as his fleet was destroyed by the British at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, cutting off his communication and supply lines with France. He also faced resistance from the Egyptian population and an Ottoman invasion from Syria. He eventually abandoned Egypt in 1799 and returned to France.
The Battle of the Pyramids inspired many artists and writers to depict Napoleon as a hero and a conqueror in front of the ancient monuments. One of the most famous paintings is Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1886. It shows Napoleon on horseback in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza, with his army in the background. The painting evokes the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx, suggesting that Napoleon was a man of destiny who solved the riddle of Egypt.
The Myth of Napoleon Shooting the Pyramids
Despite the popularity of Gérôme’s painting and other artistic representations, there is no evidence that Napoleon or his troops ever shot at or damaged the pyramids or the sphinx during their campaign in Egypt. This myth has been perpetuated by various sources over time, but it can be easily debunked by examining historical facts.
Napoleon at the Pyramids: Myth versus Fact
Napoleon or his staff released an Order of the Day for August 26, 1798, that featured a claimed transcript of a protracted dialogue between Napoleon and numerous imams and muftis within the Great Pyramid of Giza. Napoleon said he converted to Islam and loved the Quran. This propaganda effort was meant to sway Egyptians and legitimize his invasion. However, it falsely claimed Napoleon entered the Great Pyramid and had a magical experience.
A book translated from French in 1802 called Life of Buonaparte, First Consul of France, from his birth through the Peace of Luneville fed this myth. This book recreated Napoleon’s talk with the imams and described how he reached the Great Pyramid chamber where they met. Napoleon’s love of ancient buildings and his discovery of a mummy thought to be a pharaoh’s wife added to the narrative. Several early Napoleon biographies, including Willem Lodewyk Van-Ess (1809), Sir Walter Scott (1827), and William Henry Ireland (1828), recounted or elaborated on this narrative.
Napoleon and the Imams
The truth is that Napoleon never entered the Great Pyramid or had any conversation with the imams inside it. There is no record of such an event in any of the eyewitness accounts of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, such as those by his generals, officers, soldiers, or scientists. There is also no archaeological evidence of any damage or disturbance caused by Napoleon or his troops inside the pyramid. Moreover, the passage that supposedly led to the room where the meeting took place was not discovered until 1818, twenty years after Napoleon’s visit.
Napoleon and the Red Man
Another myth that emerged from Napoleon’s encounter with the pyramids was that he met a phantom called the Red Man, who predicted his future and gave him advice. This myth was popularized by a novel called The Red Man: A Romance of the Days of the Great French Emperor by Alexandre Dumas in 1845. According to this novel, the Red Man appeared for the first time to Napoleon before the Battle of the Pyramids and invited him to follow him inside the pyramid. There, he showed him a vision of his future glory and downfall and warned him not to invade Russia. The novel also claims that the Red Man appeared to Napoleon several times throughout his life, always giving him cryptic messages and prophecies.
Napoleon and the Mystery
The reality is that there is no historical basis for this myth either. There is no mention of any Red Man or any supernatural vision in any of the contemporary sources about Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt or his later career. The novel by Dumas was a fictional work that mixed historical facts with fantasy and imagination. It was inspired by an earlier legend that claimed that Napoleon had a personal astrologer named Gassendi, who accompanied him to Egypt and predicted his fate. However, this legend was also false, as there was no such person as Gassendi in Napoleon’s entourage.
Napoleon Stayed Outside
The fact is that Napoleon never entered any of the pyramids during his stay in Egypt. He only visited them briefly on July 14, 1798, four days before the Battle of the Pyramids. He spent about two hours inspecting them from outside, accompanied by some of his generals and scientists. He did not show any particular interest or admiration for them, as he was more concerned with military matters and political affairs. He did not even climb to the top of the Great Pyramid, as some of his officers did. He left without leaving any trace or mark on them.
Napoleon and the Sphinx
The same can be said about Napoleon’s visit to the Great Sphinx of Giza. He did not have any special encounter or dialogue with it, as some paintings and stories suggest. He only saw it from a distance, as it was partially buried in sand at that time. He did not damage it or shoot at it, as some legends claim. The Sphinx had already lost its nose and beard long before Napoleon’s arrival, probably due to erosion, vandalism, or iconoclasm by earlier invaders or rulers. There is no evidence that Napoleon or his troops caused any further harm to it.
Untangling Historical Mythology
The myth of Napoleon shooting the pyramids is an example of how historical mythology can be created and perpetuated over time. It shows how different sources can contribute to this process, such as propaganda, fiction, art, and popular culture. It also shows how difficult it can be to untangle historical mythology from historical reality, especially when there are gaps or contradictions in the available evidence.
The Perpetuation of Historical Mythology
Historical mythology is unsupported assertions about historical events or persons. Political propaganda, creative expression, cultural identification, amusement, and curiosity may inspire historical legend. Personal prejudice, selective memory, oral tradition, media distortion, and lack of facts may all impact historical legend.
Historical mythology may be repeated, transmitted, adapted, or embellished. Historical mythology may be promoted by writers, artists, educators, journalists, and politicians. Confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, social conformity, and emotional appeal may perpetuate historical legend.
- Order of the Day for August 26, 1798, in Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, vol. 5, Paris, 1858, pp. 403-407.
- Paul Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt: The Greatest Glory, London, 2007.
- Life of Buonaparte, First Consul of France, from his birth to the Peace of Luneville, translated from the French, London, 1802.
- Alexandre Dumas, The Red Man: A Romance of the Days of the Great French Emperor, translated by Henry Llewellyn Williams, New York, 1895.