Napoleon Bonaparte's ambition to establish an empire in the East was crushed in 1799 at the Siege of Acre by Ahmed Jazzar Pasha.
On 20 May 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte lifted the siege of the city of Acre on the Mediterranean coast, in present-day Israel. The two-month siege that began in mid-March had turned into an insurmountable obstacle in Napoleon’s march through the Holy Land.
As many as eight repeated attempts to capture the city were fended off with fierce resistance put up by its defenders who had British naval support. Napoleon’s retreat marked a turning point in his Egyptian campaign and ended his dreams of establishing an empire in the East. Leading the defence of Acre was its Ottoman governor Ahmed Jazzar Pasha (Cezzar Ahmet Pasa).
Though his exact date of birth is uncertain, Ahmed Jazzar is believed to have been born around 1722. Bosnian intellectual Safvet-beg Basagic wrote that he was born in Fatnica, a village located around 70 kilometres from the historic city of Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina. He made his way to Istanbul and served under Hekimoglu Ali Pasha whom he followed to Egypt. There he began his political ascent and gained a reputation as an efficient enforcer. In 1775, he became governor of Sidon with headquarters in Acre. This was to be his base for the rest of his life.
Confident of yet another triumph, Napoleon’s private secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne wrote in Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte that the general had even set a precise date for the capture of Acre. He conveyed to his officers that this would be 25 April 1799.
In fact, Napoleon was to undertake repeated attempts to storm Acre for another month before deciding to retreat.
At Acre, the French general who had not yet turned thirty squared off with the ageing Ahmad Jazzar Pasha. By then the Pasha had established himself as a force to be reckoned with in this part of the Ottoman Empire.
Kamal S. Salibi writes that he set a record by remaining in the position of governor for 29 years. That this post was renewed on an annual basis for such a long period indicated both his relevance and resilience. His powerful standing, fueled by taxation and efficiency in governance, combined with loyalty to the Ottoman State made him a formidable figure.
The Pasha had the city fortified and had been particularly relying upon his core troops comprising fellow Bosnians, Albanians and other loyalists. His survival instincts had thus far served him well.
Already in his late seventies, he was to engage in a battle that would come to define his legacy. With British interests in stopping Napoleon converging with his own, the pasha benefited from Sir William Sidney Smith’s support.
Ahmad Jazzar Pasha left an indelible impression on Napoleon. Bourrienne wrote that in August 1798: “Bonaparte wished to open negotiations with the Pasha of Acre, nicknamed the Butcher. He offered Djezzar his friendship, sought his in return, and gave him the most consolatory assurances of the safety of his dominions…But Djezzar, confiding in his own strength and in the protection of the English, who had anticipated Bonaparte, was deaf to every overture, and would not even receive Beauvoisin, who was sent to him on the 22d of August. A second envoy was beheaded at Acre.”
The private secretary recorded the sense of threat felt by Napoleon, “for the remainder of the year (1798) Bonaparte dreaded nothing except an expedition from Gaza and El-Arish, of which the troops of Djezzar had already taken possession.”
Perhaps most telling was Napoleon’s ambition as enunciated to the same confidant after yet another failed attempt to capture Acre on 8 May 1799: “If I succeed, as I expect, I shall find in the town the pasha's treasures, and arms for 300,000 men…. I shall then march upon Damascus and Aleppo…. I shall arrive at Constantinople with large masses of soldiers. I shall overturn the Turkish empire, and found in the East a new and grand empire, which will fix my place in the records of posterity.”
A similar recollection was recorded by Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases in Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon (Vol. II) which has Napoleon stating “Possessed of St. Jean d’Acre, the French army would have flown to Damascus and Aleppo…I should have reached Constantinople and the Indies; I should have changed the face of the world.”
Ahmed Jazzar Pasha’s defiant and successful stand at Acre not only halted Napoleon’s march on to Damascus and Constantinople but also put an end to his dreams of an empire in the East.
Napoleon’s subsequent military campaigns, despite ultimately resulting in failures, earned him the longed-for place in the records of posterity. But long before Russia and Waterloo, Napoleon was handed a decisive early setback by a Bosnian-born Ottoman commander of Acre.
Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.
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