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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 5
Murmuring amongst the troops —Citadel of Cairo—The Pyramids—Naval Engagement at Aboukir

Our flotilla had come up, and was moored before Gizeh. The ammunition consumed was replaced by a fresh supply, and we were ready to commence fresh operations when called upon.

The authorities of Cairo, the heads of the law, and magistrates, came to Gizeh to offer their submission to General Bonaparte, who gained their confidence, and drew such information from them as fixed his determination with respect to ulterior operations.

His first object was to secure military occupation of Egypt. He immediately ordered Regnier's division to pursue Ibrahim in his flight. Vial's division was sent to Damietta, and Dugua's to Rosetta; Bon's division protected Cairo; that of Desaix, which was destined to proceed to Upper Egypt, waited at Gizeh until the others had reached their respective destinations. This dispersion of the army was the signal for an explosion of that discontent and murmuring, which, in consequence of the severe privations endured by the soldiers, had been fomenting ever since we left Alexandria. They no longer hesitated to give vent to their complaints: the most moderate were sending in their resignations from all quarters ; and had it not been for the firm resolution proclaimed by General Bonaparte, of making an example of the very first who should presume to ask him to take the army back to France, an intention actually entertained by some of the malecontents, no doubt the army would have mutinied and refused obedience. The firmness of their chief kept them within bounds, and preserved these misguided men from the disgrace that awaited them.

So great was General Bonaparte's self-confidence, that, in this state of affairs, he departed from Cairo, followed by what little cavalry he had brought from Europe, and took the road upon which Regnier's division was marching, in order to drive Ibrahim back into Syria, and close the entrance to Egypt in that direction. He gave the command of Cairo to General Desaix, whilst he was personally engaged on this expedition; but previously to his departure he had dispatched his aide-de-camp Julien to Admiral Brueys with orders to set sail for Corfu or Toulon ; and the aide-de-camp was not to return until he had seen the fleet under weigh. He had also sent to Mourad Bey, as a negotiator for peace, M. Rosetti, the Venetian consul, who was settled at Cairo: but such was the ignorance of these oriental chiefs, that Mourad rejected General Bonaparte's proposals, because he had just learned the destruction of our squadron, and had persuaded himself that this event would compel us to quit Egypt. ;

During the time that General Desaix held the command, we went to visit the citadel of Cairo, situated between the town and the chain of Monguatam which separates the Nile from the Red Sea. This fort is extremely steep in the direction of the desert ; and is, generally speaking, in good condition, but has no exterior works connected with it. We were here shown a breach, at an elevation of upwards of fifty feet towards Monguatam, and were told that, after the battle of the Pyramids, some mamelukes who had retired into the citadel, seeing Cairo occupied by our troops, and not daring to venture out into the town, formed the resolution of escaping through that breach. In order to effect this object, they began by throwing from the rampart all the mattresses and cushions of the divan, and every bale of cotton they could procure: they afterwards made one of their number jump down in order to arrange these as a platform below the breach, and then followed, one after another, with their horses, which they actually rode on the occasion, and, wonderful to say, escaped unhurt! I was shown the materials of the platform at the foot of the breach.

We were also shown the collection, preserved in the citadel, of cuirasses and helmets formerly taken from the crusaders. They were displayed as trophies above the entrance gate, in the interior of the citadel: the major part were in excellent condition, although they had been exposed to the open air for ages ; but the climate, in those countries, possesses the property of preserving objects. The well of the citadel of Cairo also attracted our curiosity: its water is level with the Nile; and although it is of a brackish taste, no means have been neglected to procure an abundant supply. There had been constructed in the interior of the well a spiral staircase of gentle descent to the water's edge: the well is, therefore, of prodigious dimensions. These noble works attested the progress of arts in Egypt in former times, and they were still in good condition.

We also went to visit the Pyramids; no troops had ever been there before. Every one wished to accompany General Desaix; so that our party exceeded a hundred persons, independently of a company of infantry which we had taken with us as an escort. Starting from Gizeh, we crossed the plain where the celebrated Memphis is said to have formerly stood. Of all the ancient Egyptian cities, it is almost the only one of which no vestige remains to point out where it had existed; and if we had not met now and then, in the plain below the Pyramids, with some broken clay at our feet, nothing would have led us to suppose that even a wall, still less a town, had stood on this spot.

Our conjectures were guided, in the first place, by the canal that borders the desert at the foot of the pyramids, and which is, at the present day, without water, except at the time of the highest swellings of the Nile; and secondly, by a bridge of masonry-work, which could only have belonged to Memphis, as otherwise it would be without an object; it must have been constructed as a means of communication of the inhabitants of Memphis with their cemetery or city of the dead, still to be seen by the side of the pyramids, which were nothing more than tombs. The City of the Dead, near Memphis, consists of a countless number of small pyramids, of sizes proportioned to the fortunes of families, many of which pyramids are still standing upon their bases.

I had heard it stated, that the large pyramids were temples ; an opinion founded upon the facts of the existence of similar ones in India, where they were consecrated to religious worship, and of the Egyptians having derived their knowledge from the East: I cannot, however, join in this opinion; for the Pyramids of Egypt were, unquestionably, tombs. I was one of the, first to ascend the largest: we were to the number of sixteen on the top, and yet found plenty of space. The view which is embraced from this elevation in the air, is truly delightful.

General Bonaparte was absent about twelve days. We witnessed at Cairo, during this time, the spectacle of the feast of the Ramadan, which is very rigidly observed in the East. It is their Lent. The fasting consists in neither eating nor drinking any thing whatever from sunrise till sunset ; the people must work, notwithstanding the excessive heat, and without attempting to quench their thirst; but the sun has no sooner disappeared from the horizon, than they partake of a plentiful repast, served up beforehand. Every thing was new to us ; but what mostly astonished our soldiers, was the dancing of the almées, a troop of young girls, remarkable for their elegance and graceful turn of figure, but of a lascivious freedom of action, which must be seen to be credited, and which decency forbids me to describe. All this, however, was going on in the public square, in presence of a crowd of all ages and of both sexes.

We received, one night, intelligence of General Bonaparte's movements: he had overtaken Ibrahim in the vicinity of Salahié, at the entrance of the desert, to which he was endeavouring to retire, and ordered him to be charged by the cavalry, which, being too weak in numbers, incurred a very great danger ; and the action would have terminated fatally, had not the infantry promptly come up to relieve it: nevertheless the object contemplated was attained. Ibrahim entered Syria, and ceased to molest us.

General Bonaparte was returning to Cairo, when he met on the road the officer sent from Rosetta to General Desaix ; by whom he had been ordered to proceed to Salahié, with the intelligence of the sad catastrophe that had befallen our squadrons, and of which he had been an eye-witness. I have already said that General Bonaparte, before leaving the squadron, had ordered the Admiral to enter Alexandria, or proceed to Corfu ; but whether owing to the entrances into the harbour not having yet been sounded, or not containing a sufficiency of water,¹ our admiral had gone to take up his moorings at the point of Aboukir, where he remained nearly a whole month.

So great was General Bonaparte's uneasiness, that during his march from Alexandria to Cairo, he had not only twice written to Admiral Brueys, to enter Alexandria, or set sail for Corfu ; but also, before quitting Cairo to overtake and engage Ibrahim Bey, he had sent Julien, his aide-de-camp, to repeat the order to the Admiral ; but this aide-de-camp, who had embarked in a boat on the Nile, with an escort of infantry, never reached his destination ; nor would it have been possible for him to have done so before the squadron was engaged. He disappeared, with the whole of his escort, at a village on the banks of the Nile, where he had landed to purchase some provisions he stood in need of; and it was not till a long time afterwards that we learned the details of his tragical end.

Our admiral had brought his squadron to anchor in a single line, his headmost ship being close to a small island, forming the neck of land upon which the fort of Aboukir is built.

The English, after reconnoitring it, caused two of their ships to pass between the small island and the headmost ship of our line. The first English ship that attempted this passage came too near the island, and ran aground: the next passed between her consort, which had grounded, and the head of our line. The English admiral, finding that the first ship² had grounded, and the second had succeeded in forcing a passage, sent a third ship to replace the disabled one. These two ships having joined, sailed up our line, with the land on their right, and attacked each of our ships in succession, whilst the remainder of the English squadron engaged them-by sailing up our fine on the other tack; a manœuvre that compelled our vessels to fight on the larboard and starboard side at one and the same time.

Ship after ship of our squadron was destroyed, excepting the two last, which, together with a frigate, being at anchor at the tail of the ships at their moorings, weighed and stood out to sea, without waiting to take their turn in the conflict ; these were the Genereux and Guillaume Tell, with the frigate Diane, or La Justice. They proceeded to the archipelago, where they again separated ; the Genereux went to Corfu, and the other two succeeded in entering Malta ; a proof that the order previously given by General Bonaparte might have been carried into effect.

The admiral's ship (L'Orient) caught fire, and blew up during the engagement ; so that, out of fifteen sail of the line, only the two above-mentioned succeeded in effecting their escape. The projects of General Bonaparte were necessarily affected by the defeat of this squadron, since it was to have returned to Europe for a further supply of troops, which he could now no longer reckon upon.

The extent of our misfortune was not, however, so great as we had at first apprehended. Egypt was little known at this time, and the English were under the impression that we must all inevitably perish from want in that country. They were the more confirmed in their opinion by the capture of a small vessel, on its way from Rosetta to Alexandria, with a mail containing the first letters written to France by the army subsequently to its landing, and replete, therefore, with complaints of all the privations it had undergone on the march through the desert, until its arrival at Cairo, during which march hardly any bread had been procured.

These details served to confirm the English in their first opinion, and it occurred to them, that they would greatly augment our embarrassment, to increase the number of mouths we should have to feed. They accordingly landed at Alexandria all the sailors, ship-boys, and soldiers of the ships they had captured, furnishing us, by this means, with a supply of seven or eight thousand men, upon which we never could have calculated. They served to complete the different corps ; but, above all, we derived invaluable assistance from the many artificers of all trades that were on board our ships. They were added to those brought over with the army, and attached to the various scientific bodies ; so that, in this respect, and with regard to the artillery, we more than doubled our means of resources.

It will now be seen with what admirable wisdom every thing was rendered available. The loss of the fleet had, in some measure, calmed the murmurs of those who desired to be taken back to France. General Bonaparte ordered passports to be delivered to all who had persisted in claiming them; but, with the exception of a few individuals, who shall be nameless, all determined to remain and cease making complaints.

Works of a gigantic nature and establishments of every kind illustrated the first months of our residence in Egypt. The commission of scientific men had been removed from Alexandria to Cairo, and each of its members was named chief of some establishment, of which he was entrusted with the formation or the management. Flour, as fine as could be obtained in Paris, was ground in mills constructed at Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, and Cairo. By the erection of ovens, bread became as abundant as we had hitherto found it scarce. Hospitals were formed, which admitted of a bed for each patient. These benevolent establishments were powerfully promoted by the exertions of Messrs. Lurrey and Desgenettes, men possessing many claims to celebrity, and who acquired the esteem of the commander-in-chief and the gratitude of the army. Saltpetre-works and powder-mills were erected.

A foundry was constructed, with reverberating furnaces, by means of which projectiles of large dimensions were recast ; and many others were provided, in order to cast smaller ones for the use of our artillery. Large shops were built for locksmiths, armourers, joiners, cartwrights, carpenters, and ropemakers.

The sailors who were too far advanced in years to change their profession, were employed in the formation of a large flotilla upon the Nile, consisting of all the kinds of vessels on the river, which had been properly rigged and armed. They were commanded by officers of the navy, and were of the greatest assistance in transporting the supplies of the army.

All the troops were dressed in blue cotton clothes, and black morocco caps: to these were added substantial cloaks of the flannel stuff of the country, to serve as a night-covering. At no period had they been so comfortably equipped.

The fare consisted of excellent bread, meat, rice, pease, and a little coffee and sugar, as a substitute for spirits, which were unknown in Egypt until our arrival. The success of these several improvements was already manifest to all. We provided ourselves with tables, chairs, morocco-leather boots, and linen: the bread we ate was as fine as any in Paris.

We had no sooner procured the objects of primary necessity than luxury followed. Plate was manufactured of a light and portable kind. The plate, called hunting-plate, which the Emperor had afterwards in use at Paris, was made from the model of what he brought back from Egypt. Silver goblets, and services of plate, were now in general use. Establishments of confectioners and distillers were opened, and proved very successful.

Embroiderers and lace-makers gradually followed: the Turks themselves, who are very quick at imitating, surpassed us in this line of business ; they even succeeded in casting silver buttons stamped with the republican arms, and finishing gold ones in the greatest perfection.

Playing-cards, billiard and card-tables, were seen in Cairo a few months after we had settled in that city. A French and Arabic printing-press was at work: every thing requisite to constitute a regular European establishment was either completed or in progress. The cavalry was recruiting itself: all went on to our satisfaction, and with inconceivable activity.

¹ - Two years afterward", when the English became masters of Alexandria, they took soundings of the entrances into the harbour, and found the middle one to be five fathoms deep in the shallowest part. Had not our squadron lost a month without attempting to try sounding, it would have escaped, and been of essential importance to our future destinies.

² - It is worthy of remark that this English ship was the identical Bellerophon, which, being constantly at sea since that period, seemed destined to pursue the remains of the Egyptian expedition in the person of its author. This is the ship which received the emperor sixteen years afterwards. It had yet some sailors of that early period on board, not having been laid up during the peace of Amiens.

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