This extraordinary piece is one of the most beautiful maps we have ever encountered, being a unique example of William Faden’s authoritative map of the Battles of Abukir and Alexandria (1801), which ended the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, printed on silk, with details contemporarily embroidered with coloured silk thread. The result is a luminous, richly textured composition, that survives in a remarkably stellar state of preservation.
The map embraces the great Egyptian city of Alexandria, with its ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Ports and the massive walls and fortifications and extends eastwards across the ruin-dotted landscape to take in the Abu Qir Peninsula. The purpose of the map is to showcase the dramatic denouement of the French Campaign in Egypt (1798 – 1801), whereby the all that remained of Napoleon’s once-mighty army of occupation was holed up in the Alexandria-Abu Qir area, awaiting an expected British landing.
The map depicts the fierce conflict that ensued upon the arrival of a large British expedition at Abu Qir on March 8, 1801. It sketches the ‘Order of Battle of the British Army’
led by General Abercromby (lower left), and the ‘Order of Battle of the French Army’, led by General Abdullah de Menou (lower right), with British positions coloured in red, and the French in yellow. Royal Navy vessels are shown sailing offshore, while the British are shown to battle their way westwards, upon overpowered the French in the wake of their landing. Over the coming days the action moved towards the ruins of Nicopolis, near Alexandria, where on March 21, the two sides engaged in a bloody showdown, which took the life of General Abercromby, but resulted in a British victory, forcing Abdullah de Menou’s forces to seek refuge in the city. British forces subsequently laid siege to Alexandria, eventually forcing Menou’s surrender and the end of the French presence in Egypt.
The present map is considered to be the authoritative graphic record of these important events, made by the workshop of William Faden (1749 – 1836), the British Empire’s premier mapmaker, responsible for the finest battle plans of both the American Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
While we have seen many maps printed on silk, we have never encountered such a skillfully and richly embroidered piece. The map is engraved on a large sheet of white silk (contemporarily backed on linen, so as to permit the embroidery), with resplendently coloured silk thread heightening the map’s details. The work was clearly made for a very distinguished client.
The ‘Normal’ examples of Faden’s map, printed on paper, are rare, while the present example, printed on silk with embroidery is a unique objet d’art.
The Road to Abukir: Prelude to the Action on the Map
The Battles of Abukir and Alexandria portrayed upon the present map were the beginning of the final act of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt Campaign (1798 – 1801). With tremendous fanfare, France invaded Egypt, taking control over Cairo and the northern part of the country. However, French fortunes were dealt a severe blow when virtually their entire naval fleet in the region was destroyed by Admiral Nelson at Battle of the Nile (August 1-3, 1798), so marooning the French in Egypt. While the French occupation led to tremendous archaeological and cultural discoveries, it was otherwise a complete disaster. The French were severely resented by the locals and their invasion of Palestine and Syria was a fiasco. Napoleon abandoned his army upon secretly slipping out of the country in August 1799.
General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the new head of the French army in Egypt, soon realized that the cause was lost and negotiated with the Ottomans for safe passage for his army to withdraw from the country, pursuant to the Convention of El Arish (January 24, 1800). However, the British refused to recognize the agreement and were determined to intercept and vanquish the French forces. Kléber was assassinated in June 1800 and from that point onwards, French power began to disintegrate.
Eventually, what remained of the French army in Egypt, numbering 21,000 men, was holed up in the Alexandria area, with the unenviable task of repelling an expected British invasion, while waiting for an opportunity to slip away to France. The French forces were commanded by General Jacques-François de Menou, baron of Boussay (1750 – 1810), who was known as ‘Abdallah de Menou’ ever since he married the daughter of wealthy Egyptian and converted to Islam.
Meanwhile, a British fleet carrying 17,500 troops lay in wait in the Mediterranean, preparing to land and destroy Abdullah de Menou’s army. The force, commanded by the Scots veteran,
Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734 – 1801), had to wait several days to make shore due to bad weather.
The Action at Abukir and Alexandria
The stage was now set for now set for the action depicted of the present map, with the troop positions labelled in the ‘Reference’ in the lower centre (the British movements are marked 1–9 and the French A–E). At what became known as the Battle of Abukir of March 8, 1801 (not to be confused with an eponymous battle fought in 1799), Abercomby’s advance force landed at Abu Qir Bay, just to the west of Alexandria, where it was met by General Friant’s force of 2,000 men (positions 1 and A). The British compelled the French to retreat to positions 2 and B.
Over the succeeding days the British progressively pushed the French westwards towards the city of Alexandria, represented by positions 3–8 and C and D.
The Battle of Alexandria (March 21, 1801), represented by positions 9 and E, was a ferocious altercation in which 14,000 British and 9,000 French troops clashed about the ancient ruins of
Nicopolis. While the French mounted valiant offensives, they were all cut down, but at great cost to the British; General Abercromby was mortally wounded (he continued to lead throughout the battle but would succumb to his injuries a week later). The French were then forced to retreat to the relative safely of Alexandria.
The battle had exhausted both sides, and the British, having lost their commander, took some months during the scorching Egyptian summer, to find their feet under their new leader, General John Hely-Hutchinson.
Eventually, the British besieged Alexandria (August 17 to September 2, 1801), compelling Abdullah de Menou to surrender. With that, the French presence in Egypt was concluded, and entire country was handed back the Ottomans. Britain had eliminated a great danger to its interests in the Mediterranean and India, while gaining some of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures as war booty, most notably the Rosetta Stone, which was quickly spirited to London where it remains to the present day.
References: Silk printed edition of the map seemingly Unrecorded. Cf. (Normal edition of the map printed on paper:) National Maritime Museum (Greenwich): GREN74A/4; Library of Congress: G8302.A2S1 1801 .F3; Bibliothèque nationale de France: département Cartes et plans, GE D-15084; Prince IBRAHIM-HILMY, The Literature of Egypt and the Soudan from the Earliest Times to the Year 1885 Inclusive. A Bibliography: Comprising Printed Books, Periodical Writings, and Papers of Learned Societies; Maps and Charts; Ancient Papyri, Manuscripts, Drawings, &c., volume 1 (London: Trubner and Co., 1886), p. 7.
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