How I should like to visit Jerusalem some time.

Abraham Lincoln, in conversation with his wife

The theatre of the most memorable and stupendous events that have ever occurred in the annals of the world.

James Barclay, City of the Great King

No-where is the arch of heaven more pure, intense and cloudless than above the proud heights of Zion. Yet if the traveller can forget he is treading on the grave of the people from whom his religion has sprung, there is certainly no city he will sooner wish to leave.

W. H. Bartlett, Walks

Yes I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the Rt. Hon. Gentleman were living as savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.

Benjamin Disraeli, speech in the House of Commons

See what is done here in the name of religion!

Harriet Martineau, Eastern Life




There was nothing between Napoleon and the conquest of Jerusalem – except the Butcher, Ahmet Jazzar Pasha, the warlord of Ottoman Palestine. He had adopted the name Jazzar – Butcher – as a young man and had built his career on the principle that fear motivated men more than anything else.

The Butcher terrorized his territories by mutilating anyone suspected of the slightest disloyalty. An Englishman who visited him at his capital in Acre noticed that he was ‘surrounded by persons maimed and disfigured. The persons officiating or standing by the doors’ were all missing a limb, nose, ear or eye. His Jewish minister, Haim Farhi, ‘had been deprived of both an ear and an eye’ just to be sure. ‘The number of faces without noses and ears strikes everyone who has visited this part of Syria.’ The Butcher called them his ‘marked men’. He sometimes had his victims’ feet shod with horseshoes. He had walled up some local Christians alive pour encourager les autres and once gathered fifty corrupt officials, ordered them to strip naked, and had his troops hack them into pieces. When he suspected his harem of treason, he killed seven of his own wives, becoming notorious as ‘the tyrant of Acre, the Herod of his time, the terror of all surrounding nations, the story of Bluebeard realized’.

The Butcher impressed Europeans with his long white beard, his simple robes, the bejewelled dagger at his belt and his rather delicate habit of cutting flowers out of paper which he liked to give as presents. He radiated a macabre charm, telling visitors with a slight smirk: ‘I trust you found my name respected, even beloved, notwithstanding my severity.’ At night, he locked himself in his harem which starred eighteen Slavic blondes.* This old man now faced Napoleon in his prime. The French besieged Jaffa which was the port of Jerusalem and only 20 miles away. Jerusalem was in panic: the Families armed the Jerusalemites; a mob plundered Christian monasteries; the monks had to be imprisoned for their own safety. Outside the walls, General Damas asked Bonaparte for permission to attack the Holy City.1


Napoleon replied that he had to conquer Acre first and then ‘come in person and plant the tree of Liberty at the very spot where Christ suffered, and the first French soldier who fell in the attack would be buried in the Holy Sepulchre’. But Bonaparte and his troops clearly regarded their expedition against the Muslims as falling outside the rules of civilized conduct. When he stormed Jaffa, his ‘soldiers hacked to pieces, men and women – the sights were terrible’, wrote one of the French scientists, shocked by ‘the sound of shots, shrieks of women and fathers, piles of bodies, a daughter being raped on the cadaver of her mother, the smell of blood, the groans of the wounded, the shouts of victors quarrelling about loot’. Finally the French themselves rested, ‘sated by blood and gold, on top of a heap of dead’.

Before he marched on towards Acre, Bonaparte ordered the slaughter in cold blood of at least 2,440 but probably more like 4,000 of the Butcher’s troops, killing them in batches of 600 a day. On 18 March 1799, he laid siege to Acre, still under the command of the Butcher, whom Napoleon superciliously called ‘an old man whom I don’t know’. Yet Bluebeard and his 4,000 Afghans, Albanians and Moors resisted vigorously.

On 16 April, Napoleon defeated the Butcher’s cavalry and an Ottoman army at the Battle of Tabor Mountain. Afterwards, finding himself at Ramla, 25 miles from Jerusalem, he issued a pro-Zionist ‘Proclamation to the Jews’, mendaciously datelined, ‘General Headquarters, Jerusalem,20 April 1799’.

Bonaparte, Commander in Chief of the Armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine – the unique nation of Jews who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny. Arise then with gladness, ye exiled, and take unto yourselves Israel’s patrimony. The young army has made Jerusalem my headquarters and will within a few days transfer to Damascus so you can remain there [in Jerusalem] as ruler.

The official French gazette, Le Moniteur, claimed that Napoleon had ‘already armed a great number [of Jews] to re-establish ancient Jerusalem’, but Napoleon could not seize Zion until Acre was his2 and the Butcher was now reinforced by two Royal Navy ships-of-the-line under a maverick English commodore.


Sidney Smith, the son of an eloping heiress and an adventurer, was ‘good looking with tremendous moustaches and penetrating black eyes’. He had joined the navy at thirteen, fought the American rebels and then, when he was seconded to the Swedish navy, Catherine the Great’s Russians. The King of Sweden knighted him, so English rivals mocked him as the ‘Swedish knight’. After the French Revolution, Smith raided France, but was captured and imprisoned in the dreaded Temple. Dashingly he escaped, taunting Bonaparte, whom he particularly despised, in a series of public letters. Not everyone was convinced by Smith: he was, wrote one observer, an ‘enthusiast, restlessly active, extravagantly vain with no fixed purpose save that of persuading mankind that Sidney Smith was the most brilliant of chevaliers’. But if he was preposterous in normal life, he was heroic in a crisis.

Smith and the Butcher struck up a rapport. When the Englishman admired the gleaming Damascene sword that the Butcher kept beside him at all times, Jazzar boasted, ‘The one I carry never fails. It’s taken off dozens of heads.’ Smith wanted proof, whereupon the Butcher had an ox brought to him which he then beheaded with a single blow. Smith merged his eighty-eight sailors with the Butcher’s multinational garrison. Bonaparte launched three assaults on Acre but Smith and the Butcher managed to repel all three. As Ottoman reinforcements approached and the siege dragged into its third month, the French generals became restless.

On 21 May 1799, with 1,200 troops dead and 2,300 sick or wounded, Napoleon led the retreat towards Egypt. However, 800 French soldiers lay ill in Jaffa. As they would slow the retreat, Napoleon ordered his wounded to be killed by his own doctors. When the French medics refused, a Turkish doctor administered fatal doses of laudanum to the patients. No wonder the French general Jean-Baptiste Kléber reflected, ‘We have committed in the Holy Land enormous sins and great stupidities.’ Two thousand mounted Jerusalemites under the command of the city’s governor pursued and harassed the retreating French. When the peasant fighters of Nablus broke into Jaffa, Smith managed to prevent a massacre of Christians by summoning the Jerusalemites to restore order.

In Egypt, Napoleon, facing the reality of a disastrous campaign that could only be saved by shameless distortion of the truth, abandoned his men and sailed for home. General Kléber, left in command of Egypt, cursed Napoleon: ‘That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit.’ But in France Napoleon was hailed as a returning conqueror, soon to seize power from the Directory as first consul,* and a romantic song about his expedition – ‘Partant pour la Syrie’ – became the Bonapartist anthem.

The Christians of Jerusalem, particularly the Catholics, were in peril from Muslim reprisals. Addicted to grandiose gestures, Smith decided that only a show of English sangfroid would save his brethren. With permission from the Butcher and the sultan, he marched his sailors in dress uniform with beating drums from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Progressing through the streets, he hoisted the British flag over St Saviour’s Monastery, whose Franciscan superior declared that ‘every Christian in Jerusalem was under the greatest obligation to the English nation and particularly Smith by whose means they have been preserved from the merciless hand of Bonaparte’. In fact it was the Muslims whom they feared. Smith and his crew prayed at the Sepulchre, the first Frankish troops to enter Jerusalem since 1244.3

Sultan Selim III showered honours on the Butcher, who was appointed pasha of his native Bosnia as well as of Egypt and Damascus. After a short war with the pasha of Gaza, he again dominated Jerusalem and Palestine. But he had not mellowed, for he cut off his prime minister’s nose to spite a face that already lacked an ear and an eye. On his death in 1804, Palestine sank into chaos.

Yet Napoleon and Smith had made the Levant fashionable. Among the adventurers who now started to explore the East and recount their exploits in bestselling books that beguiled the West, the most influential was a French vicomte who in 1806 found Jerusalem bedevilled by fire, rebellion and rapine, at its lowest ebb since the Mongols.4

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