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THE PROGRESS OF THE FRENCH CAMPAIGN IN UPPER EGYPT, FROM MINYA TO ASYUT (20 – 25 DECEMBER 1798), ACCORDING TO VIVANT DENON

June 5, 2012

I do not intend to give a detailed account of the French Campaign in Upper Egypt (towards the end of August 1798 – 29 May 1799) here. I simply want to chart the chronological progress of that campaign which was led by General Louis Desaix on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte to chase up Murad Bey and his Mamluks who had fled to Upper Egypt following their defeat on 21 July 1798 in the famous Battle of the Pyramids. But I will restrict myself here to the roughly seventy miles stretch of the Nile Valley between Minya and Asyut, an area heavily inhabited by Copts. During the campaign over in area some two interesting Coptic evens occurred. I will also touch on the place and people of that region. This, hopefully, will furnish the geographical, demographical and historical backdrop for further studies. I will depend mostly on Journey to the Lower and Upper Egypt,[i] which is the English translation of Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les Campagnes du Général Bonaparte.[ii] Denon, who was a French savant and artist, and who had accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte in his Expedition in Egypt as part of his Egypt’s Institute, joined Desaix’s expedition in early November 1798. The story is not easy to read. Denon distorts the names of Egyptian villages and towns, and occasionally gives more than one form, which is often confusing.[iii] Furthermore, for some reason which he doesn’t explain, the American translator, Arthur Aikin, assigns one extra day to the dates which Denon’s give. Not convinced of Aikin’s logic, I use the same dates given in the original Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte.

The French troops arrived in Beni Suef on the 31st August, and moved out of it in the morning of 4 September. In the evening of 5 September they reached Abu Jarj. From there Desaix sent a detachment to El-Bahnasa[iv] looking for Murad Bey. It returned to Abu Jarj on 7 September, after it found that Murad had fled to Al-Lahun, while his fleet sailed up the Nile to Asyut. Desaix wanted to destroy the fleet of his enemy, so he moved his infantry fast to catch it: he reached Minya on 9th September, Mallawi on the 10th, Dayrout on the 12th, and Asyut on 14th; only to find that Murad’s fleet had sailed up the Nile to Gerga. He, therefore, returned to Dayrout on the 21 September, where he remained for three days to arrange for a campaign in Faiyum. The two armies eventually met on 7 October 1798 at Sediman (a small village west of Bahr Yusuf) where Murad’s army was routed, but he managed to save his life. Following this victory, Desaix set up to organise the three governorates of Beni Suef, Minya and Faiyum, and obtained more supplies and cavalry from Cairo to augment his forces. He spent around four weeks, from 22 November, in Beni Suef, and then on the 16 December 1798 he resumed his campaign.

In the noon of 20 December 1798, the French army, around 3000 infantry and 1000 cavalry, arrived at Minya (Denon calls it Mynyeh). The following morning the French left Minya to reach Kom Az Zuhayr (which he calls Come-el-Casar) on the 21st December, where they spent the night. In the morning of the 22nd, the army moved again. Denon tells us that at 11 am of the same day they reached an area between the two great ancient cities, Antinoe (Sheikh Abada/Dayr Abu Hinnis) and Hermopolis (Al-Ashmunin).[v] Accompanied by Desaix at the head of 300 cavalry, they went to Hermopolis in what he calls in his book the “Excursion to Achnusuin”.[vi] This occurred while the infantry was continuing their advance towards Mallawy.

Mallawi (which Denon calls Melaiei and also Melaui), which is the birthplace of Mu’allem Ya’qub, was reached by the French army, joined by Desaix and Denon, on 22 December. They spent the night there, and on the 23rd they departed from it. Denon tells us at this juncture that a Coptic deputation appeared in the evening of that day, and informed them of a massacre committed by the Mamluks, when sixty Copts were murdered, upon which the deputation fought back and killed eight Mamluks. This I will talk about in a separate article. That night the French reached Al-Qusiyyah (which Denon bizarrely calls Elgansanier), at which they spent the night. In the morning of 24 December, the army marched south, and on their way they passed over Manfalut (which he calls Mount Falut), where they were informed that the Mamluks were stationing at Bani Adi Al Baharyyah (which he calls Beneadi). When they reached Bani Adi, they found that Murad had already evacuated it. Moving on, they reached Bani Sanad (which he calls Benisanet) on 24 December. They spent the night at it, and the following morning they marched towards Asyut (which he calls Siut), which they occupied without resistance on 25 December 1798. Denon does not tell us about the “Battle of Ain Al-Qusiyyah”, which occurred at the village of Al-Atamnah, to the west of Manflut, and in which Mu’allem Ya’qub distinguished himself.

The chronology of the campaign between Minya and Asyut, therefore, seems to be:

–          Minya                           : Reached 20 December 1798; left 21 December

–          Kom Az Zuhayr          : Reached 21 December; left 22 December

–          Mallawi                       : Reached 22 December; left 23 December

  • The Coptic deputation that joined the French after the massacre of their people by the Mamluks (23 December 1798)  

–          Al-Qusiyyah               : Reached 23 December; left 24 December

  • The Battle of Ain Al-Qusiyyah (24 December 1798)

–          Bani Sanad                  : Reached 24 December; left 25 December

–          Asyut                            : Reached 25 December; left (on the way to Jirja) on 26 December 1798.

Vivant Denon found this stretch of the Nile Valley, between Minya and Asyut, richer, cleaner, and more beautiful compared to what he had seen so far in Egypt. “Mynyeh was the handsomest town we had yet seen; it had good streets, substantial houses very well situated, and the Nile flowing through a large and cheerful channel. From Mynyeh to Come-el-Casar, where we slept, the country is more rich and abundant than any that we had hitherto travelled over, and the villages so numerous and contiguous to each other, that from the middle of the plain I reckoned twenty-four around me: they were not rendered gloomy by heaps of ruins, but planted with tress so thickly interwoven, that it put me in mind of the descriptions which travellers have given us of the islands in the Pacific Ocean.”[vii] “Melaui is larger and still more beautiful than Mynyeh; its streets are straight, and its bazar very well built.”[viii]

Around the time of the French Expedition, the population of Egypt was estimated at three to four million.[ix] The Coptic population then is unknown but Middle Egypt (the area now marked by the governorates of Beni Suef, Minya, Asyut, and Sohag) had a large Coptic community, probably exceeding 25% of the overall population, or even 50%. Some villages and towns were almost entirely Coptic. Furthermore, the area was covered with several churches and monasteries, which increased the feeling of the Coptic presence. Minya and Asyut, particularly, were, and still are, major areas of Coptic concentration. In the 1976 Census, there were 398,360 Christians in Minya Governorate, forming 19.4% of its total population; while there were 338,966 Christians in Asyut Governorate, forming 20% of its total population.[x] In addition to the towns of Minya and Asyut, other towns where Copts are prominent are: Abu Qurqas, Dayr Abu Hinnis, Dayr Mawas, Mallawi, Dayrout, Al-Qusiyyah, and Manfalut.


[i] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country: and published under his immediate patronage by Vivant Denon; tr. Arthur Aikin. New York; printed by Heard and Forman for Samuel Campbell; January 1803.

[ii] Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les Campagnes du Général Bonaparte (Paris; P. Didot l’aîné; An X 1802).

[iii] After identifying the villages and towns Denon gives, I used name forms as given in the Google Map of Egypt.

[iv] On the western bank of Bahr Yusuf. Previously known as Oxyrhynchus.

[v] The two ancient towns fall almost on the same latitude. One reaches their area somewhere between Saqiyat Moussa and Mallawi in Minya Governorate. Antinopolis (Antinoe, or Ansina) is situated a little over six miles south of Beni Hassan at a village called Sheikh Abada, on the eastern bank of the Nile. It was founded by Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD. The village of Sheikh Abada does not seem to be marked on Google Map; however, Dayr Abu Hinnis is just a couple of miles south to it. Hermopolis (or Hermopolis Magna) is the famous El Ashmunein (or  Al-Ashmunin). It is located to the west of the road between Bebi Suef and Dayrout. It is the site of a large Coptic cathedral which is now destroyed, and was the seat of Bishop Severus, who compiled the History of the Coptic Patriarchs (aso known as Sawiris Ibn al-Muqaffa’ [Severus of Ashmunin]).

[vi] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt ; Vol. 1; page 201. In page 204, he calls it Achmunin.

[vii] Ibid; page 201.

[viii] Ibid; page 204.

[ix] P. J. Vatikiotis: The History of Modern Egypt From Muhammad Ali To Mubarak (London; 1991); p. 36.

[x] See Milad Hanna: Na’am aqbat lakin masriyun (نعم أقباط لكن مصريون ) (Cairo; 1980); pp. 62-3.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 9, 2012 12:09 am

    Hi.

    Finally found time to catch up with your posts.
    Thank you for the insight in this period of Egypt’s history, to me it’s an entirely new world that i discover here.
    A human life is so short and there’s so much to learn and explore.

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