Last spring, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death brought much reflection on his legacy, but little was said about his lasting impact on the Middle East. Even in the Arab world itself, the debate about his significance—which is not so different from that within Europe—has faded somewhat. But without a doubt, the three years that the French emperor spent conquering Egypt and launching attacks into Ottoman Palestine changed the region forever. Stephane Cohen writes:
Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was marked by key events like the battle of the Pyramids, but Napoleon’s forces also battled in Jaffa and Acre, and fought and defeated superior Ottoman forces in the Galilee, in battles near Mount Tabor (near Nazareth) and on the Jordan River. Napoleon’s campaign in the Galilee in the spring of 1799 led to clear French victories, and yet, Acre continued to resist the French siege and assaults. On May 17, 1799, after the defenders had received help from the British and the eighth attack on Acre’s walls by French forces proved inconclusive, Napoleon realized he couldn’t succeed. With his army suffering from disease, Napoleon decided to lift the siege on Acre and return to Egypt with a demoralized army.
Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Syria are recognized as the beginning of the modern period in Middle Eastern history. . . . Napoleon’s occupation did not modernize Egyptian society, [but] created a political vacuum in Egypt. Following the French withdrawal, Mohammad Ali Pasha soon filled the vacuum and began laying the foundations for modern Egypt that later would play such an essential role in the history of the Middle East. Furthermore, it led Britain to secure dominions to protect its Indian possessions against any possible attacks by land. Catalyzed by Napoleon’s campaign, the “awakening” movement—known as the Nahda (or “renaissance”), an Arab cultural and intellectual movement—flourished in many parts of the Middle East throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, with Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, and Tunis, as its focal points.