Napoleon’s Balfour Declaration

Bonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic, in Africa and in Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine – the unique nation of the Jews, who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny, which even so has never been able to destroy your name of your existence as a nation ……

Rightful heirs of Palestine!

My great nation, which does not trade in human beings or in countries, as did those who sold your fathers into slavery in other nations, herewith calls upon you, not to conquer your inheritance, but to receive only that which has already been conquered, so that you can remain there as ruler, under our guarantee, and will defend it against all foreigners”(1)

Or so went the declaration by the Corsican General, not yet 30 years of age, allegedly made in Jerusalem on Passover day 1799.  Historians have never been able to confirm the authenticity of this claim. The original declaration in French was never found, and Napoleon was never in Jerusalem. On the other hand, many other substantiating documents exist, including discussions in the Directory. There is, most famously, a German translation smuggled to England just prior to WWII, as the Viennese rabbinical family that owned it was set to escape Hitler. That has been alleged to be a forgery. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rumor in Egypt that a Jewish family owned a Hebrew copy signed by Napoleon himself. But the source of the rumor could have been many of the Nazi fugitives who lived in Egypt then. Yet a number of historians have concluded that something like this document could have easily been in Napoleon’s mind as he marched from Egypt to punish the ruler of Acre, Ahmed Pasha Al Jazzar (The Butcher). The bloody and cantankerous man had smuggled an Ottoman firman to Egypt a few months prior which caused the Cairo riots of October 1798. Ahmed Pasha was known to be partial to sectarian killings, having started his reign in the Levant by sealing Christians into the walls of Beirut. When the French approached his walls he rounded up all the Christians of Acre, killed them and tossed their bodies over the wall. His reasons were not entirely murderous. The Christians, Jews, Druze and Shi’a of the Levant were collaborating with Napoleon in his effort to topple the Ottoman Empire. There is plenty of documented evidence that the French General promised small independent Cantons to all the diverse religious groups of the region. Napoleon landed in Egypt with a clear dream. He would build a new oriental empire on the ashes of the Ottoman shambles. Egypt would be its vanguard, Islam its ideology, and the Levant pacified by subdivision into vassal states.  “Little Europe” was too small for him. A century before the Ottoman demise, the Frenchman had in mind a “post-Ottoman” order. Napoleon’s vision was a less democratic version of the nascent United States. A constellation of states which would emerge independently from a French culture, but still owe more than a passing resemblance to it. His dreams of an oriental empire faded before the walls of Acre, and as his army swept back to Egypt, a multitude of Levantine Christian refugees joined it to escape the revenge of the Butcher. The scene of the “Shawam” escaping the chaos of their homeland to Egypt would be repeated many times in the next two centuries.  By a cruel irony, the French army entered Egypt on June 5 1799, and upon this occasion and on this date  the great General declared his loss a victory.

There was another vision for the region, one rarely taken up by recent historians. It starts with an equally talented and remarkable, but lesser known, General Louis Desaix, Almost the same age as Napoleon, and possibly more original and daring. Desaix had all of Napoleon’s skill and energy, but little of his near mystical ambition and self-regard. He accompanied Napoleon on the expedition to Egypt, before dying in Italy in 1800. In late 1798 he set out from Cairo to chase one of the previous rulers of Egypt, Murad Bey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Imbaba. Desaix was to travel as far south as the first cataract, at the head of the first European army to do so since the Romans. The Mamlukes outnumbered and outgunned Desaix, and knew the country better. Yet he won every encounter with brilliant military tactics and the unswerving dedication and love of his troops. His feats of generalship remain little noted.  It was during this campaign that he made the acquaintance of another remarkable man, Mu’allam Ya’qub. Ya’qub was Murad’s deputy and tax collector; not an unusual profession for a Copt at the time. Murad was “Sheik Al Hajj”, but it was Ya’qub who managed the complex task of organizing the caravans to Mecca, some from as far away as West Africa. It was Desaix who persuaded Ya’qub to switch sides, and he proved a great asset. He ran an intelligence network on the movements and location of the Mamluke armies. He sealed the Red Sea ports against the influx of warriors from Arabia, who flocked to the promise of killing infidels, but stayed to pillage Egyptians of all religions. Sometime between 1799 and 1801 Ya’qub cooked up a daring and wholly new idea; creating a nation-state out of Egypt, totally unconnected to any empire and lacking any affiliation to a larger Muslim or Arab identity. He formed a “Coptic Legion”, boarded a ship for Europe in 1801 to argue for an independant Egypt in the courts of Europe, but died soon after. His legion would distinguish itself in the Napoleonic wars and its descendants would continue to live in France to this day.

Ya’qub’s friend Desaix made three seminal contributions to Egypt, a country he seemed to like well-enough but without the hysterical passions of Napoleon. First he thinned the ranks of the Mamluke warlords and their militias, making it possible for Muhammad Ali to eradicate them a little more than a decade later. The credit for ridding Egypt of the vicious military caste that ruled over it for over 500 years and nearly brought total destruction on it, goes to both the French soldier and the Albanian Wali. Second, he brought forth a vision of governance unknown to Egyptians at the time. Napoleon enjoyed the title of “Al Sultan Al Kebir” (the Great Ruler), while the peasants of the countryside gave Desaix the title “Al Sultan Al ‘Adil” (The Just Ruler). Desaix’ vision of capable government and justice administered without regard to wealth or religion remains an elusive but inviting reality in today’s Egypt. Finally Desaix gave protection and support to many Savants, especially the artist Vivant Denon, who made the first reliable and extensive sketches of Egyptian antiquities. When he arrived back in Cairo in the heat of July 1799, the Savant could do little but speak of the greatness of what he saw and the fact that it preceded European civilization by centuries. In Denon and Ya’qub we detect the first stirrings of an Egyptian nationalism that held the nation to be an exceptional phenomenon, and the visible and indelible markings of religion and language as merely superficial aspects of a deeper essential self (2). That vision holds some promise but also a dark underbelly, and to this date it remains neither able to fulfill the promise nor capable of totally riding itself of its sense of injury and anger.

As the region remakes itself it is worth considering the lessons of more than two centuries ago, although we should gird ourselves for a likely disappointment.

— Maged Atiya

1- As collated by Paul Strathern in “Napoleon in Egypt

2- Louis ‘Awad did much to revive Ya’qub’s reputation. Islamists are fond of pointing out his defense of the Coptic quarter of Cairo against the mob as evidence of his “sectarian agenda”.


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