Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 was the first attack on a Middle Eastern country by a Western power in modern times. With 335 ships and 40,000 men, it was the largest long-distance seaborne force the world had ever seen. But Napoleon's assault was intended to be much more than a colonial adventure, for he took with him over 150 scientists, mathematicians, artists and writers - a 'Legion of Culture' - with a view to bringing Western civilization to 'backward' Egypt.
Ironically, what these intellectuals discovered in Egypt would transform our knowledge of Western civilization and form the basis of Egyptology. Travelling to the far reaches of the Upper Nile, Napoleon's artists sketched the great temples and ruins of the Pharaohs. His soldiers also uncovered the Rosetta Stone, which would eventually lead to the deciphering of the mysterious Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
But there were also setbacks. Nelson's destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile apparently put an end to Napoleon's ambitions, though the General himself did not see it that way. His secret plan was to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and invade India. Being cut off from France meant that he was free to indulge his 'oriental dream' and found his own Eastern empire, with its independent culture developed by his young French intellectuals.
Napoleon was just twenty-eight when he invaded Egypt and it was an episode which contained in embryo many seminal events in his later life. Epic military victories, his declaration of himself as emperor, the introduction of the Napoleonic Code, even the retreat from Moscow and his abandonment of his army - all of these were foreshadowed in his brilliant, ambitious and ultimately disastrous adventure.