Napoleon at the Pyramids: Myth versus Fact

Before leading the French army to victory at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte rallied his troops by pointing to the distant pyramids and saying, “Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you.” (1) Napoleon’s encounter with the pyramids during his Egyptian campaign led to at least three myths about him.

Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, 1798-99. In reality, the battle took place so far from the pyramids that the latter were barely visible on the horizon. They were probably obscured by smoke once the fighting got underway.

The Battle of the Pyramids by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, 1798-99. In reality, the battle took place so far from the pyramids that the latter were barely visible on the horizon. They were probably obscured by smoke once the fighting got underway.

Napoleon and the imams

The first myth is that Napoleon entered the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Cheops) and converted to Islam. This rumour actually originated with Napoleon or his staff, since it first appeared in the army’s Order of the Day for August 26, 1798. The order included the supposed transcript of a long “Conversation of Bonaparte in the Grand Pyramid with several imans and muftis,” including three named Soliman, Mohamed and Ibrahim. At one point Napoleon reportedly said:

Glory to Allah! There is no other God but God; Mohammed is His prophet, and I am one of his friends. …. The Koran delights my mind…. I love the prophet and intend to visit and honour his tomb in the sacred city. But my mission is first to exterminate the Mamelukes. (2)

This conversation was reprinted in a book called Life of Buonaparte, First Consul of France, from his birth to the Peace of Luneville, translated from the French in 1802. There it was embellished with a description of how Napoleon reached the room within the Great Pyramid where the meeting took place.

He…penetrated into the interior, where he found a passage a hundred feet long and three feet broad, which conducted him by a rapid descent towards the apartments that served as a tomb for Pharaoh, who erected this monument. A second passage, much injured, and leading towards the summit of the pyramid, carried him successively over two platforms and thence to a vaulted gallery, in one of the walls of which the place of a mummy was seen, which was believed to have been the spouse of one of the Pharaohs. (3)

The story was repeated in several early biographies of Napoleon, including those by Willem Lodewyk Van-Ess (1809), Sir Walter Scott (1827) and William Henry Ireland (1828).

Napoleon and the Red Man

The second myth has to do with a phantom called the Red Man.

The Red Man…appeared for the first time to General Buonaparte, then in Egypt, the evening before the battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon, attended by several officers, was riding past one of those monuments of antiquity, when a man wrapped in a red mantle came out of the pyramid, and motioned him to alight and follow him. Buonaparte complied, and they went together into the interior of the pyramid. After an hour had elapsed, the officers became uneasy at the long absence of their commander: they were just on the point of entering the monument in quest of him, when he came forth with a look of evident satisfaction. Before this interview with the Red Man, he had steadfastly refused to give battle: but now he issued orders to prepare immediately for attack, and the following day he gained the victory of the Pyramids. (4)

For more about the Red Man, see Was Napoleon superstitious?

Napoleon and the mystery

The third myth appears to be of more recent vintage. Napoleon is said to have spent some time alone in the Great Pyramid, from which he emerged visibly shaken by some experience that he refused to divulge to anyone else. (5)

Napoleon stayed outside

The problem with these legends is that no one who was with Napoleon in Egypt reports that he ever entered a pyramid. According to Napoleon’s private secretary, Bourrienne:

On the 14th of July Bonaparte left Cairo for the pyramids. He intended spending three or four days in examining the ruins of the ancient Necropolis of Memphis; but he was suddenly obliged to alter his plan. This journey to the pyramids, occasioned by the course of war, has given an opportunity for the invention of a little piece of romance. Some ingenious people have related that Bonaparte gave audiences to the mufti and ulemas, and that, on entering one of the great pyramids he cried out, ‘Glory to Allah! God only is God, and Mahomet is his prophet!’ Now, the fact is, that Bonaparte never even entered the great pyramid. He never had any thought of entering it. I certainly should have accompanied him had he done so, for I never quitted his side a single moment in the desert. He caused some persons to enter into one of the great pyramids while he remained outside, and received from them, on their return, an account of what they had seen. In other words, they informed him there was nothing to be seen! (6)

Instead, Napoleon amused himself by encouraging his companions to climb a pyramid under the hot Egyptian sun. “Who will get to the top first?” he asked. (7) The winner was the oldest of the contestants: 53-year-old mathematician Gaspard Monge. Monge had with him a gourd of brandy, from which he offered each of the others a generous sip as they reached the summit.

Napoleon’s chief of staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier also made the attempt. Halfway up, he pleaded exhaustion, asking, “Is it really necessary to go all the way to the bitter end?” He decided to abandon the attempt. “We will tell them in Paris that we have climbed to the peak of this great pyramid, and they will believe it.” However, as Berthier descended, Napoleon called to him, “Are you coming back to us already?” Napoleon then referred to Berthier’s Italian mistress, Countess Visconti, for whom the chief of staff was pining. “She is not at the summit of the pyramid, my poor Berthier, but she is not down here either.” Thus egged on, Berthier resumed the climb and made it all the way to the top, with the encouragement of Monge, who saved some brandy for him. (8)

After his men descended, Napoleon reportedly told them he had calculated that with the stones of the pyramids, one could build a wall 10 feet (3 metres) high around all of France. Monge later redid the calculation and found it was correct. (9)

Napoleon and the Sphinx

Bonaparte Before The Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-68

Bonaparte Before The Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-68

Another myth says that Napoleon was responsible for the destruction of the Sphinx’s nose, having ordered his troops to use it for cannon target practice. In fact, the Sphinx’s nose was gone long before Napoleon and his troops arrived in Egypt. See “Did Napoleon’s troops shoot the nose off the Sphinx?” by Tom Holmberg on The Napoleon Series.

You might also enjoy:

10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

Was Napoleon superstitious?

Fake News about Napoleon Bonaparte

Louis Étienne Saint-Denis: Napoleon’s French Mameluke

  1. Napoleon Bonaparte, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Vol. IV (Paris, 1860), p. 340.
  2. A. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Volume I (London, 1884), p. 222.
  3. As excerpted in The New England Quarterly Magazine, No. II (Boston, 1802), p. 139.
  4. The Atheneum; Or, Spirit of the English Magazines, Volume I (April to September 1817), pp. 731-732.
  5. See, for example, Allen Drury, Egypt: The Eternal Smile (New York, 1980), p. 254.
  6. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, During the Periods of the Directory, The Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1831), p. 208.
  7. Étienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, Lettres Écrites d’Égypte (Paris, 1901), p. 236.
  8. Ibid., pp. 236-237.
  9. Olympe Audouard, Les mystères de l’Égypte dévoilés (Paris, 1865), p. 335.

14 commments on “Napoleon at the Pyramids: Myth versus Fact”

  • Lally Brown says:

    Another absolutely fascinating and well researched article, always a delight to read what you have posted each week.

  • Susan Doherty says:

    Fascinating article. Thank you for rekindling my interest in Napoleon. On to more reading about this man and his times!

  • Charles R. Matlock III says:

    Excellent article! My dad, in my youth passed on the myth of Napoleon’s cannoneers blasting the nose off the Sphinx. I have long since learned that this was not so. Also, learned that the battle of the pyramids was a good distance from those structures, though they could still be seen, as opposed to contemporary illustrations which depicted the pyramids a stones (cannon ball shot ?) throw away.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Charles. Yes, “Battle of the Pyramids” is rather a misnomer – Napoleon’s idea to call it that, apparently. And the paintings do look striking.

  • John Adan, MD, FSCAI, FACC, FACP says:

    It was a secured scientific expedition. Nelson nixed it. Napoleon was also turned back at Acra where he lost his best engineer, Cafarelli. It looked like tracing the footsteps of Alexander The Great.

  • Hunter S. Jones says:

    Absolutely love the info you focus on with your posts. Great stuff!

  • Paul Maney says:

    Shannon: I was having lunch yesterday with a fellow pedagogue who blithely related the “Napoleon inside the pyramid” story as gospel truth, replete with his supposed last words being, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” about what he witnessed there. All my life I’d heard that his final utterances were mostly incoherent with some variation on “the army, France, and Josephine” being distinguishable.
    I didn’t want to call out my friend and embarrass her, but I did send her a link to your blog and would like to say how impressed I am with your obvious scholasticism and research.
    I’ve looked over many of your topics, but might have missed a few of my favorite myths about the man I consider to be truly one of the most “dethpicable” (to quote my hero, Daffy Duck)
    men in history, to wit: 1.That Napoleon might have actually met Princess Caraboo, 2. That one of Napoleon’s “doubles” exchanged places with him and was sent to St. Helena while Nappy made his way to (get this) St. Louis, 3. That Napoleon’s um…er…penis (blush) was taken from him by his British surgeon after his death (we hope) and later was auctioned around the world, finally ending up in (get this) St. Louis! In any event, I intend to order a copy of “Napoleon in America” post-haste and I trust it will be as wonderfully rendered as your site. My very guest fishes, Paul Maney

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thank you for your kind comments about the blog, Paul. I’m glad you are enjoying the site. Of your favourite myths, I have written about the third (see “What happened to Napoleon’s body?“). You have now got me thinking I should do a post on “Top 10 Myths About Napoleon.” There’s certainly no shortage to choose from! Thank you also for your interest in Napoleon in America. I hope you like the book.

      • Paul Maney says:

        Shannon: I’m looking at a book entitled “Stranger Than Science” written by Frank Edwards that was published in 1959. In it there’s a chapter entitled ‘Napoleon’s Strange Death.’ which recounts the strange tale of one of Nappy’s “doubles,” Francois Eugene Robeaud. Supposedly he switched places with “you know who” and according to this tale, he was the one who passed away on St. Helena in 1821. I’ve never seen this story anywhere else and wonder if you’ve come across any mention of this tale in your research? According to Edwards (who provides no sources or citations for any of his tales), this all begins with a faded inscription contained in the “town records of the village of Baleycourt, on the Meuse River.”
        That mysterious document asserts that Robeaud “was born in this village in 1771…died on St. Helena…” with the date of his death being “illegible.” I sometimes pass these stories on to my students with a few caveats just to entice them into doing research on their own, but I wonder if this story has any basis in reality or was it just plucked out of thin air?
        Any thoughts?

        • Shannon Selin says:

          I have come across the Robeaud legend, Paul. According to Michael Sibalis (see his excellent “Conspiracy on St. Helena? (Mis)remembering Napoleon’s Exile“), it first appeared in print in 1911, “supposedly derived from the memoirs of a police agent named Ledru (purportedly published in Liège in 1840 but not to be found in any library today)” (Sibalis, p. 3). In 1934, V. Schleiter, député-maire of Verdun, reported that he had investigated the claim and was unable to find that any Robeaud had ever been born in Baleycourt. Still, the legend lives on, appearing in books and blogs of the “incredible but true” variety published as recently as last year.

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Some ingenious people have related that Bonaparte gave audiences to the mufti and ulemas, and that, on entering one of the great pyramids he cried out, ‘Glory to Allah! God only is God, and Mahomet is his prophet!’

Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne