Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar: Britain’s colourful ally against Napoleon

Napoleon in disarray following the Siege of Acre.

Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar (‎ca. 1720–30s – 1804) was the Acre-based Ottoman governor of Sidon Eyalet from 1776 until his death in 1804. Of obscure Bosnian origin, he was a ruthless man who rose to power in his own right after a successful career as chief enforcer and assassin for Ali Bey al-Kabir, the Mamluk leader in Egypt. In 1799, with the help of the British navy, al-Jazzar defended Acre from Napoleon, forcing him to withdraw from Palestine in disarray. His successful defense of Acre earned him enormous prestige and made him well known in Europe. The following decidedly lurid first-hand account of the Pasha is taken from Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia and Africa by Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822), published in London by T. Cadell and W. Davies in 1816. Clarke was a clergyman, mineralogist and traveller, and a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. Following the capitulation of Alexandria during the Napoleonic Wars,  he was a key figure in securing for England the statues, sarcophagi, maps, manuscripts and other antiquities which had been earmarked for France by French antiquarians.

Soon after we arrived, we went on shore with the Captain, to visit Djezzar Pasha, whom Baron de Tott found at Acre, and described as a horrible tyrant above twenty years prior to our coming. Having acted as interpreter for Captain Culverhouse, in all his interviews with this extraordinary man, and occasionally as his confidential agent, when he was not himself present, the author had favourable opportunities of studying Djezzar’s character. At that time, shut up in his fortress at Acre, he defied the whole power of Turkey, despised the Vizier, and derided the menaces of the Capudan Pasha; although he always affected to venerate the title and the authority of the Sultan. His mere name carried terror with it over all the Holy Land, the most lawless tribes of Arabs expressing their awe and obeisance whensoever it was uttered. His appellation, Djezzar, as explained by himself, signified butcher; but of this name, notwithstanding its avowed allusion to the slaughters committed by him, he was evidently vain. Baron de Tott says that he entombed alive a number of persons of the Greek communion, when he rebuilt the walls of Berytus, now called Berooty; al-Jazzar , to defend it from the invasion of the Russians. The heads of those unfortunate victims were then to be seen. [Beirut; the site of the immurement is well known. Al-Jazzar had bricked up the Greeks in such a way that their heads were protruding from the wall.]

Al-Jazzar ponders the fate of a criminal brought for trial. Note the functionary holding the charge sheet, who has lost an eye and is therefore clearly a “marked man”, who had previously fallen foul of al-Jazzar as described in Clarke’s account.

He was his own minister, chancellor, treasurer, and secretary; often his own cook and gardener; and not unfrequently both judge and executioner in the same instant. Yet there were persons who had acted, and still occasionally officiated, in these several capacities, standing by the door of his apartment; some without a nose, others without an arm, with one ear only, or one eye; “marked men” as he termed them; persons bearing signs of their having been instructed to serve their master with fidelity. Through such an assemblage we were conducted to the door of a small chamber, in a lofty part of his castle, over-looking the port-. A Jeiu, who had been his private secretary, met us, and desired us to wait in an open court or garden before this door, until Djezzar was informed of our coming. This man, for some breach of trust, had been deprived of an ear and an eye at the same time. Many wretched objects, similarly disfigured, might be observed daily in the streets of Acre. At one period of the Pasha’s life, having reason to suspect the fidelity of his wives, he put seven of them to death with his own hands. It was after his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca; the Janissaries, during his absence, having obtained access to the harem.

If his history be ever written, it will have all the air of a romance. His real name is Achmed. He is a native of Bosnia, and speaks the Sclavonian language better than any other. It is impossible to give here a detail of his numerous adventures. At an early period of his life, he sold himself to a slave-merchant in Constantinople; and being purchased by Ali Bey, in Egypt, he rose from the humble situation of a Mamluke slave, to the post of Governor of Cairo. In this situation, he distinguished himself by the most rigorous execution of justice, and realized the stories related of Oriental Caliphs, by mingling, in disguise, with the inhabitants of the city, and thus making himself master of all that was said concerning himself, or transacted by his officers. The author received this information from Djezzar himself; together with the fact of his having been once Governor of Cairo. He has generally been known only from his situation as Pasha of Seide and Acre. He described his Pashalic, in 1784, as the emporism of Damascus and all the interior parts of Syria. The gates of his frontier  towns had regular guards. His cavalry amounted to nine hundred Bosnian and Arnaiit horsemen. By sea, he had a frigate, two galiots, and a xebeck. His revenue amounted to four hundred thousand pounds. His expenses were principally confined to his gardens, his baths, and his women. In his old age he grew very avaricious.

The interior of his mysterious palace, inhabited by his women, juor, to use the Oriental mode of expression, the harem of his seraglio, is accessible only to himself. Early in every evening he regularly retired to this place, through three massive doors, every one of which he closed and barred with his own hands. To have knocked at the outer door after he had retired, or even to enter the seraglio, was an offence that would have been punished with death. No person in Acre knew the number of his women, but from the circumstance of a certain number of covers being daily placed in a kind of wheel or turning cylinder, so contrived as to convey dishes to the interior, without any possibility of observing the person who received them. He had from time to time received presents of female slaves; these bad been sent into his harem, but afterwards, whether they were alive or dead, no one knew except himself. They entered never to go out again; and, thus immured, were cut off from all knowledge of world, except what he thought proper to communicate. If any of them were ill, he brought a physician to a hole in the wall of the harem, through which the sick person was allowed to thrust her arm; the Pasha himself holding the hand of the physician during the time her pulse was examined. If any of them died, the event was kept as secret as when he massacred them with his own hands. When he retired to his harem, he carried with him a number of watch-papers, which he had amused himself by cutting with scissars during the day, as toys to distribute among them. He was above sixty years old at the time of our arrival, but vain of the vigour he still retained at that advanced age. He frequently boasted of his extraordinary strength; and used to bare his arm, in order to exhibit his brawny muscles. Sometimes, in conversation with strangers, he would suddenly leap upright from his seat, to shew his activity. He possessed eighteen white women in 1784; and the luxury allowed them, according to Volney, was most enormous. This may be doubted; extravagance of any kind, except in cruelty, being inconsistent with Djezzar’s character.

The Irish adventurer Buck Whaley noted that al-Jazzar had the “face of an assassin, his neck short, his eyes black, small, and sunk in his head … his features most strongly expressive of the barbarous ferocity of his mind”. A more charitable view of al-Jazzar comes from Jean-Pierre Renaudot, French vice-consul at Acre in the 1780s. Renaudot saw him as “a mix of vice and virtue … He wants to lord it over all, to judge everything, and his judgements always reflect the state of his soul. He is sometimes just, great and generous, at other times furious and bloody, He stabs with one hand and gives his own blood with the other”.

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