Many think of Muslims in Europe as a twentieth century phenomenon, but this book brings to life a lost community of Arabs who lived through war, revolution, and empire in early nineteenth century France. Ian Coller uncovers the surprising story of the several hundred men, women, and children—Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks, and others—who followed the French army back home after Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. Based on research in neglected archives, on the rediscovery of forgotten Franco-Arab authors, and on a diverse collection of visual materials, the book builds a rich picture of the first Arab France—its birth, rise, and sudden decline in the age of colonial expansion. As he excavates a community that was nearly erased from the historical record, Coller offers a new account of France itself in this pivotal period, one that transcends the binary framework through which we too often view history by revealing the deep roots of exchange between Europe and the Muslim world, and showing how Arab France was in fact integral to the dawn of modernity.
Arab France Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831
A Rough Crossing
In late August 1801, a fleet of British frigates set out from the port of Aboukir in Egypt. They were carrying the tattered remnants of the French Grande Armée, abandoned two years earlier by their commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, to fight on without much hope in Egypt, and at last given passage back to France by the treaty concluded with England and the Ottoman Porte. One night, just a few days into the crossing, a tragic scene unfolded on board one of these ships, a frigate named the Pallas. According to a letter conserved among the papers of the Commission d'Égypte, Ya'qub Hanna, an Egyptian Copt and the first non-French general in the French army, lay dying among the women of his family, watched by a grief-stricken crowd of men, women, and children. Although they had boarded the Pallas in Alexandria, they drew their origins from all over the Middle East, from Egypt, Syria, and even farther afield. They came from Georgia and the Caucasus, from Greece and Asia Minor, from southern Egypt and the Sudan, from Palestine and Mount Lebanon, from the Mediterranean cities of North Africa and from the great metropolis of Cairo. Their social origins were just as disparate: merchants and customs officials jumbled together with priests and artisans, soldiers and domestic servants. Most shared little beyond the Arabic language and an origin in the Islamicate society of the Ottoman lands. Their only other commonality was their decision to join the emigration to France led by General Ya'qub, now mortally ill.
"No scene could been more striking for an artist than this tragic tableau," wrote Nemir Effendi, the author of the letter. A painter, he continued,
would want to capture at once the group as a whole, and the details of the different moral sentiments that animated the onlookers. The variety of feelings can only be imagined-those of the English, the French, the Turks, the Copts, the Greeks, even a number of Italians. Their prayers opened the vault of the heavens for the dying man. Imagine then the despair of his mother, and his sisters, the tears of the beautiful Circassians and Georgians, the shouts of the Coptic and Turkish women, and the innocent composure of a child, his only daughter, still too young to comprehend her loss. Even heaven seemed to want to play its part in the mournful scene, with its far-off thunder and its flashes of lightning.
General Ya'qub died during the night. His final wish, Nemir wrote, was to be buried alongside his friend General Desaix. Ya'qub was a wealthy man and had contributed generously to Desaix's funeral monument in Paris; now he hoped to share it. Perhaps he hoped too that such a public recognition of French and Egyptian friendship would help assure a welcome in France for the people who had accompanied him. He had every reason to fear for their welfare. Most of them hardly spoke French, and they had little experience of life in Europe and no obvious means to support themselves and their families. But not all of them were unschooled in French manners, as Nemir's letter itself demonstrates. Nemir, who signed himself as the wakil, or agent, of the Légation d'Égypte, clearly understood the importance of sensibility and theatricality in postrevolutionary Europe, portraying a terrible and disruptive event as a moment of historic importance, redeeming loss or defeat through symbolism, much as contemporary history painters would do.
Nemir was writing from the lazaret of Marseille, where he and his companions were serving the compulsory forty days of their quarantine. Nemir insisted above all that arrangements should be made quickly for the "more than one hundred young men-Turks, Copts, Greeks, Abyssinians," and their families, who were about to enter the city of Marseille-several hundred people in all. But the political stakes were just as high. The self-styled "Egyptian Legation" on whose behalf Nemir addressed the minister expected an immediate invitation to Paris for discussions about their political project and their status in France. As we will see, they would wait for almost a decade for the permission to travel to the capital.
The "Egyptians" of General Ya'qub were poised to emerge into a different world. But we should take care not to indulge too readily the flights of imagination that this kind of "encounter" has tended to inspire. If French society was different in many ways from the Egypt these people had left behind, we should remember that the contrast between metropolitan and rural life in both France and Egypt was very stark in this period. Both societies contained a patchwork of regional cultures and dialects, with large cities still dependent for subsistence on the countryside, despite the beginnings of the industrial transformations that would have so great an impact later in the century. For an inhabitant of Cairo or Damascus, the city of Marseille would not have seemed so radically different, and, indeed, interconnections between these Mediterranean ports had existed for centuries. Paris, to be sure, as both a major metropolis and a cultural capital could perhaps be compared only to Istanbul among the cities of the Ottoman world. But even in Paris, as we shall see later, a limited Arab milieu was already in existence, in addition to a network of French officials who had served in the occupation of Egypt.
But this brings us to a major difference that these people would have to negotiate: not so much between France and Egypt as between the France they had imagined and the France that greeted them. It was only three years after the revolutionary settlement of 1795 when the Directory sent an army into Egypt to install the French Republic and its radical principles on the farther shore of the Mediterranean. In the same year, they sent an army to Ireland: its failure was immediate, whereas that in Egypt-and largely, to be sure, as a result of its talented commander-took three years to disintegrate. But the principles with which they set out were nonetheless the same: a radical conception of liberty, equality, and fraternity whose echoes had already been felt across the region. In Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Palestine, 1798 brought a great rupture with the deeply corporate and traditional nature of Ottoman society, just as 1789 had done in France. Just as in Europe, these ideas attracted some and repelled others. At least some part of the emigration of 1801 must be attributed to the effects of these ideas. And those who saw France through such a lens must have received a very sharp shock when they arrived in Marseille in 1801. The Revolution was over. Napoleon, it seemed, had departed Egypt eager to seize in France the kind of absolute power he had exercised in Cairo. The "refugees from Egypt" would have to make a swift and radical change of mentality from one system of power to another, just as they had done when the French took power in Cairo in 1798.
The loss of Egypt that gave rise to this emigration was quite a serious shock to the confidence of postrevolutionary France. It was extremely reassuring, then, to insist that France had snatched a cultural and intellectual victory from the jaws of defeat. The principal repository of this national vindication was the nineteen-volume Description de l'Égypte (fig. 3), the grand ouvrage of scholarship on ancient and modern Egypt published after the French defeat and evacuation: it is as much a substitute for as a description of a lost territory. The images contained in the work themselves filled several volumes in elephant folio: maps, vast panoramas, encyclopedic depictions of dress and ornament, and some individual portraits of important figures and types. One of these portraits shows a young man designated only as "an inhabitant of Damascus": the revolutionary cockade displayed defiantly on his turban gives us a hint of what these political transformations may have meant for those who chose to join the French. The young man's dark headwear distinguishes him, probably as a Christian, from the exclusively white-turbaned Muslims. His Ottoman clothing is modest and unornamented, yet elegant and voluminous enough to denote at least a middling degree of wealth. The nargileh, or water pipe, he is smoking also draws a certain contrast with the cheaper clay chibouk pipe of most Egyptians: its use was strongly associated with the coffeehouses, places of public sociability. He is beardless, in contrast to the other figures appearing in vignettes collected on the same page-ranging from a street violin player to a Muslim shaykh-but his bushy moustache nonetheless distinguishes him from the largely clean-shaven French.[Place figure 3 near here]
The caption informs us that his young man is an "inhabitant of Damascus," so his presence in Egypt is already a matter of change and mobility. In the picture, his raised right knee and left hand suggest a certain tension, a latent movement despite his attitude of repose. His wide gaze is directed at a point in the distance, with the slightly furrowed brow giving a pensiveness to his expression. Whether this portrait was sketched in Egypt, or in the later period when the Description was prepared for publication in Paris, it seems probable that the sitter was among those who joined the emigration of 1801. But the meaning of that tricolor cockade is more difficult to gauge-was it merely a marker of opportunistic partisanship, or does it indicate some more substantial ideological connection? Was it imposed, chosen, or merely an invention of the artist? Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the meaning of such symbols had been transformed in the brief span of the French occupation: three years that saw the devastating military defeat of the Mamluks, followed by the first great failure of the French army under Napoleon; two bloody uprisings, and the assassination of Napoleon's successor, General Kléber. These convulsions of violence not only embittered the relationships between French and Egyptian but rent great holes in the fabric of a religious coexistence that had endured over many centuries.
On 1 July 1801, exactly three years after the first arrival of the French army in Alexandria, the Egyptian historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti watched the preparations of the French army evacuating Cairo. Among the crowds of soldiers, he described the "Egyptian" men, women, and children who joined the exodus, leaving behind them homes, possessions, and family:
There were many Copts, European merchants, interpreters, and some Muslims who had cooperated with the French and were afraid to remain; there were also many Christians-Syrians and Greeks, such as Yanni, Bartholomew, Yusuf al-Hamawi; also 'Abd al-'Al, the agha.
Behind Jabarti's remarks we can detect the complexity of motives implied by the denomination of different factions according to their sectarian belonging, their occupation, or their history of collaboration. Despite the brevity of the occupation, its dynamics transformed the relations of power in Egyptian society, if not at the popular base, then certainly among certain elements of the elite, and above all for the minorities. Jabarti was careful not to suggest that all of these people were traitors and collaborators, an undifferentiated mass of people forced to flee because of their association with the French. It is important to recognize that the end of the French occupation of 1801 did not constitute a "national liberation" but rather the reestablishment of Ottoman imperial authority. In this context, some scores would certainly be settled, but the Ottoman government was anxious above all to ensure an orderly transition of power. In this regard, a general purge of collaborators would be entirely counterproductive, and the loss of important functionaries would only make the new government's task more difficult. Thus, as Jabarti's words suggest, if there were a few individuals among this crowd of emigrants who feared retribution for their acts under the French, the great majority chose this path for quite other motives. We may recognize two major frames for their choices: the changes wrought by the occupation itself, and the larger dynamics of change in the Mediterranean region, of which the French occupation was itself a part. In order to understand this moment of 1801, we must look back to the three years that preceded it, and the situation of people such as this young Damascene in 1798, when the French Grande Armée, the largest land army in the world, disembarked on the shores of Alexandria.
In our own era, dominated by a similarly ill-fated Middle Eastern incursion by a world power at the height of its self-confidence, it is perhaps hardly surprising that "Napoleon's Egypt" has reemerged as a favorite subject for historians of many stripes. The year 1798 has been identified by historians as an event of peculiar significance in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, even to the point of marking for some the "watershed" of modernity in the region. The presumption underlying this view is twofold: first, that the society that the French under Napoleon Bonaparte encountered in Egypt was stagnant, characterized by intellectual immobility, social rigidity, and economic paralysis; and second, that the French brought with them previously unknown ideas and social forms drawn from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, laying the foundations for the transformation that took place in Egypt under the dynasty of Muhammad 'Ali in the 1820s.
This claim regarding 1798 has come to look increasingly threadbare. In Darrell Dykstra's words, "The orientalist image of an unchanging Islamic society being galvanized by western secular energies has lost its persuasive power, and only the staunchest Bonapartist would cling to the old orthodoxy." The benefit of the historiographical shift away from this outdated and profoundly Eurocentric conception of the "civilizational encounter" is that more attention has been paid to the experiences of the occupied Egyptians and their concrete relations with the French occupiers, as well as to the larger historical transformations taking place in Egypt and the region, within both the dominant Muslim culture and those of religious and ethnic minorities. Henry Laurens has examined the origins of the French "expedition" in detail, connecting it more carefully to the currents of intellectual development from the Enlightenment to the Revolution. His comprehensive volume on the expedition has demonstrated very clearly the complexities of the French occupation, as a project that attempted to put in place many of the "modernizing" ideas drawn from the Revolution. Among historians of early nineteenth-century Egypt, Khaled Fahmy has provided the most salient riposte to the myth of Muhammad 'Ali as an "Egyptian Bonaparte' taking up where Napoleon left off. Fahmy's work, along with that of other historians, has restored the properly Ottoman and Islamic context of nineteenth-century Egyptian reform.
But the significance of 1798 needs to be revised, not negated. It is the larger narrative frame of the analysis, with the separations and divisions it has imposed, and the corollary fixation on the exoticism of difference, that has been most obfuscating to the historical account of this particular Euro-Ottoman encounter. Fortunately, more recent scholarship has helped dismantle these Manichaean "civilizational" conceptions of the relationship between European and Ottoman societies, investigating in much greater complexity the worlds that were profoundly interconnected by trade, politics, and cultural exchange, and even by political geography, throughout the early modern period. The ease with which Napoleon's army arrived in Egypt was a marker, not of a European miracle of progress, but of a Mediterranean proximity that must have seemed even more immediate to a young general from Corsica. But that very proximity, and its transformation into a perception of cultural distance, are constitutive elements of the story that would unfold from this point-key factors both in the origins of the Egyptian emigration and in its occlusion from the history of the Franco-Egyptian encounter.
In 1798, Egypt was a province of an empire that, over seven centuries, had expanded into a vast domain stretching from Anatolia to the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and deep into eastern Europe. Ottoman power fascinated and frightened Europeans: in 1517, and again in 1683, the Ottoman army reached the gates of Vienna and was only narrowly defeated on each occasion. After 1700, however, it became clear that Ottoman expansion in Europe had halted; and indeed the Ottoman Empire seemed to be faltering on several fronts. Its population had doubled in the course of two centuries, and the Sublime Porte in Istanbul-both the seat of the Islamic caliphate and the center of Ottoman political power-faced significant challenges in governing by the traditional means that had held the empire together for more than half a millennium. The fundamental role of Islam in cementing the legitimacy of Ottoman rule had provided a constant pressure to expand into the non-Muslim world, but it also served to constrain change within a powerfully theocentric vision of the world. Despite the frequent characterization of the Ottoman regime as despotic and arbitrary, the sultan could by no means ignore the will of his people, and above all the opinions of the religious intellectuals. In the early part of the century, several sultans were deposed in revolts led by populist figures who accused the Porte of neglecting the tasks imposed by Islam, or failing to deliver prosperity to the people. Karen Barkey has compared these political contestations from below to revolutionary events in nineteenth-century Europe: "Set in a different imperial context, 1703 and 1730 were the 1848 of the Ottoman Empire." This instability at the center created new dynamics in the outlying provinces of Syria, Greece, and North Africa.
In Egypt, as in other regions in the Levant and the Aegean, the eighteenth-century fragility of Ottoman suzerainty encouraged what Daniel Crecelius has called the "drift toward autonomy." As both Peter Gran and Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot have convincingly argued, Egypt was engaged in an indigenous process of political and intellectual transformation well before the arrival of the French in 1798. Powerful local figures sought to win increasing autonomy from the Ottoman system as Egypt became increasingly integrated into a global economy stretching from Asia into Europe and the Americas. The Ottoman Empire's focus on fighting a war with Russia, its northern neighbor, allowed these developments to proceed unchecked, until the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774 gave the Porte a freer hand to impose authority on its fractious provinces. In Egypt, the autonomy asserted by a series of powerful Mamluk beys, particularly Ali-Bey al-Kabir and Muhammad Abu-Dhahab, was ended by an Ottoman reoccupation of Cairo. In Arabic, the term mamluk means "owned," and in Egypt it signified an aristocratic class recruited by the purchase and training of slaves rather than by birth. For centuries, the Mamluks ruled Egypt in their own right. Since 1517, despite military submission to the Ottomans, they had retained their position as a ruling class under an Ottoman governor. But the reestablishment of Ottoman authority in 1787 did not put an end to the ongoing struggles between rival Mamluks such as Mourad-Bey and Ibrahim-Bey, whose bases were in the countryside outside Cairo. Ordinary Egyptians, and particularly the merchant class, including the "Franks" (residents of various European origins), bore the brunt of the internecine struggles that continued throughout this period, both through the interruption of trade caravans and the punishing taxes imposed by the warring beys.
Crecelius notes that in this period of dynamic instability, "Egypt assumed a central importance in European strategic planning that it has never lost." As naval power and seaborne trade became globally dominant, Egypt seemed to hold the key to expansion in Africa and Asia. If the Ottoman Empire were to give way like that of the Moguls in India, Egypt would be the richest prize. The importance of the Levant trade to the French, particularly given the severe economic difficulties of the late eighteenth century exacerbated by war and revolution, further accentuated France's interest. Egypt had long played a powerful role in the European imagination: from the Renaissance onward, cultural power in Europe drew increasingly upon the authority of antiquity, challenging the dominance of the medieval church. Most Europeans still saw Egypt as the origin of Greek and Roman culture, and thus as the originating point of a "civilization" that led ineluctably toward their own cultural development. This teleological conception of temporal development became central to European thought in the Enlightenment. In this sense, Egypt was not a distant and unknown land, but rather a key landscape for projecting both the past and the future of Europe. In 1735 the abbé le Mascrier, in his introduction to Maillet's earlier Description de l'Égypte, insisted that Egypt was as familiar an idea for the enlightened classes of Europe as Paris itself, a city that for some of his readers might also have remained a site of imagination and projection.
What this suggests is that the Orient/Occident dyad that Edward Said considered fundamental to European self-understanding was, if not absent, far less stable in this period than his argument would imply. Crucially for our understanding of the Egyptian experience of French occupation, some historians have seen in the Egyptian expedition less a capricious attempt to impose an established Western social model on the benighted East than a speculative "laboratory" for attempting many of the ideas of the Enlightenment outside of local European constraints. As Nicole and Jean Dhombres have observed, "The form of government to be established [in Egypt] could prefigure another form of government-that of France itself." In simple chronological terms, Napoleon traveled straight from Egypt-his first experience of direct rule-to Paris, where within a few months the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire would elevate him to the position of First Consul, the prelude to his seizure of absolute power in France. Louis Bergeron has noted that, during the years that followed, the most intimate circle of Napoleon's reforming officials and advisers in France and across his European empire remained those who had served in his first regime-the "Old Boys from Egypt."
Thus, if we must revise our overestimation of the importance of 1798 in the history of Egypt, the reverse is true in regard to the history of France and Europe. A more careful and detailed picture of the French confrontation with the dynamics of Ottoman Egyptian society, and all of its constituent elements, can contribute significantly to our understanding of the shaping of Napoleonic imperialism, and its reconstruction of postrevolutionary Europe. By providing a far more detailed picture of the shifting political, economic, and cultural relations between occupier and occupied, the work of André Raymond on the daily interactions of Egyptians and the French in Cairo strikes chords with studies by historians such as Stuart Woolf and Michael Broers of societies under occupation by Napoleon in Europe. Unfortunately, however, no study has yet sought to bring these different occupations into the same frame of reference-to map exactly how the experience of imperial rule in Egypt was transferred, or transformed, in the occupation of Italian, German, Spanish, or Illyrian provinces.
Egypt was one of the cradles of Napoleonic imperialism, but it should also be considered a critical testing-ground for the Bonapartist system of direct rule in France, as the French regime in Cairo served as the most immediate precursor of direct rule in France. From this vantage point we may view rather differently Napoleon's decision to bring with him to Egypt scores of technicians, scientists, and artists who eventually formed the first Institut d'Égypte. Edward Said's critique of Orientalism has encouraged historians to see from the very beginning of this intellectual project a European desire to use knowledge as a force for the subjugation of an "Orient" that it consistently depicted as passive and stagnant, in order to impose its dominating will. We have seen earlier in this chapter that such an analysis of the Description de l'Égypte, for example, loses its persuasive force when confronted with the complexities of the confrontation between the Ottoman system and the political culture of postrevolutionary France. Indeed, in divorcing the Napoleonic project in Egypt almost entirely from its material and historical conditions in postrevolutionary France, this analysis tends to reaffirm the ontological distinction between "Occident" and "Orient" that Said challenged. Daniel Roche has illuminated the French state's ongoing quest throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to order space and time in a new way, through clocks and roads, urban reconstruction and the management of rivers, assisted by an array of engineers, bureaucrats, and experts of all kinds. Dissociated from these larger processes of European modernity, "Orientalism" comes to appear as an ahistorical game of power constituted of pure self-referentiality. In fact, as Marie-Noëlle Bourguet has noted, if Napoleon failed to convince a single noted Orientalist to join the expedition, it was largely because his efforts were directed elsewhere, to the graduates of the École Polytechnique, who were "naturalists, mineralogists, topographers, mining engineers and civil engineers." Indeed, it was because of this almost total absence of Orientalist expertise that the French were forced to draw heavily upon local collaborators, particularly among Christians, Jews, and the resident Europeans, or "Franks." These were not, then, European "Orientalists," but members of long-established local communities with a knowledge of European languages and customs, perhaps closer to what Carter Findlay in another context has called the "Ottoman Occidentalist." But even this formulation does not express accurately the nature of these intermediary populations, whose role has largely been neglected in the history of the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world. Without them, no French administration could hope to survive even for a year or raise the necessary tax revenues to finance the military expedition, let alone unroll a modern postrevolutionary administration-complete with grand schemes of urban renovation, a research institute, a newspaper, a library, an archaeological museum, and other trappings of modernity. It seems quite certain that the French believed these innovations would so amaze the local population as to easily win their support for the new regime. The reality, of course, was much more complex.
The unrest within the Ottoman Empire was viewed in a very particular way in a Europe increasingly dominated by the political perspectives emerging from the French Revolution. Henry Laurens argued that revolutionary ideologues in general represented the Ottoman Empire as a bundle of oppressed "nationalities"-Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Arabs, and Hebrews-straining under the Ottoman yoke. This was often imagined as a parallel to the alleged despotism of the deposed French monarchy, and the majority of Ottoman subjects were viewed as kindred peoples themselves on the verge of revolution. Such an analysis of the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth century was largely inaccurate: as we have seen, many of the problems in Egypt were the result of the weakening of the central Ottoman power, and not of its despotic grip. And while the analogy between the Ottoman Porte and the French monarchy as forces suppressing the nation was often present in revolutionary rhetoric, we should not be too quick to assume that this view was universally held, or even predominant in French strategic planning. Indeed, Laurens himself emphasizes the significance of Bonaparte's changing "Islamic policy," and this is an aspect of revolutionary thinking that deserves much more attention than it has received. Part of the problem lies in the presumption that where ideas about "nation" and "liberty" were sincerely held by revolutionaries, the response to Islam was a purely cynical and preformulated one. Bonaparte himself encouraged this interpretation himself in his words to the Conseil d'État after his return to France from Egypt:
My policy is to govern men as the majority wish to be governed. That is, I believe, the best way to recognize the sovereignty of the people. It was by making myself a Catholic that I ended the war in Vendée, by making myself a Muslim that I established myself in Egypt, and by making myself an Ultramontanist that I won the hearts of the Italians. If I had to govern a Jewish people, I would rebuild the temple of Solomon.
But these words were only a belated attempt to make the confused and contradictory policy Bonaparte had put in place during his reign in Egypt-dictated by events as much as by decisions-seem logical and planned. At the beginning, Bonaparte sought by every means to win over the population rather than simply to conquer it. A printing press with Arabic type was seized from the Vatican Propaganda and from the very moment of the French landing was used to produce proclamations claiming that the French intention was to "liberate" the Egyptians from the tyranny of the Mamluk regime. Napoleon adopted local dress for a short period and initially encouraged his officers to marry locally and convert to Islam, thus giving substance to his declaration (in the Arabic, though not in the French, proclamation) that the French were "true Muslims." One of his generals, Baron Jacques Menou-later to command Egypt in Napoleon's absence-followed this suggestion, marrying Sitt Zobayda from Rosette, and adopting the name Abdallah-Jacques Menou. Bonaparte soon resumed his customary French uniform, however, and his distrust for Menou-whom he ultimately blamed for Egypt's loss-was well known.
The superficial Islamic pretensions of Bonaparte's occupation were rejected, even ridiculed, by the educated elite of Muslim society, a cross section of the population was inevitably drawn into the ambit of the French regime. In assembling a diwan (council) of notables in Cairo, Napoleon appointed a number of important sheikhs and 'ulama (religious teachers) into the central administration. He showed them considerable deference, attending their festivals and consulting them on matters of law and custom. The one matter upon which Bonaparte insisted, however, was the wearing of tricolor sashes and cockades, which denoted revolutionary partisanship rather than simple pragmatic collaboration. The Egyptian historian Jabarti, a considerable Muslim intellectual in his own right, described the resistance of the sheiks of the diwan to Napoleon's vestimentary demands: Jabarti described the sash as a sign of "obedience and submission" and a "token of affection" rather than a symbol of revolutionary equality. The sheikhs tore off these insignia and threw them to the ground the moment they emerged from the chamber of the diwan. Dress was an important social and religious signifier in Muslim society, and this visible imposition of French ideological principles was more troublesome to the sheikhs than the pragmatic realities of their collaboration with the French. The French newspaper Le Courrier de l'Égypte lamented this failure, invoking the memory of "the unfortunate Camille Desmoulins, who declared on 12 July 1789 that the tricolor cockade would soon make its way around the world." This lament for the symbols of radical equality vanquished by the pragmatics of empire would be echoed in France and Europe in the decade that followed.
The incident of the tricolor sash illustrates the investment of the French in the Muslim elite, upon whom Napoleon drew primarily in the first months of his project of administration. He claimed to have the blessing of the Ottoman Porte for liberating Egypt from the disastrous rule of the warring Mamluks, and an Islamic legitimacy based on what he falsely presumed to be the similarity between rationalist Deism and Islam. When the Egyptians discovered the falsity of the first pretension, having never credited the second, the result was a popular rallying of opposition to the French that created the conditions for a bloody revolt in Cairo during 1799. But the Muslim elite, many of whom were by now closely associated with the French administration, were more troubled by this threat of fitna (instability), which menaced their wealth and position and the good order of society, than by the presence of the foreign occupiers. After the uprising of 1799, however, the actions of French troops against mosques and holy places-for example, riding their horses into the revered al-Azhar Mosque and publicly defiling the Qur'an-pushed the Muslim notables toward opposition to the regime.
If Egypt was a "laboratory" for the development of Napoleonic administration and modernizing rationalism, it soon became clear that the experiment had failed. Through the ideological prism of the Revolution, the French imagined that their presence in Egypt would be welcomed by the mass of people, the oppressed peasants and the urban masses, while their superiority in science and the arts would win over the educated elite. In actuality it was from these two sources that the resistance to the occupation finally erupted. André Raymond reminds us that Muslim scholars felt themselves part of a centuries-old world of knowledge and science derived from the Qur'an and the medieval Arabic tradition-an epistemology that was all-encompassing and quite sufficient in itself. The origins of popular hostility were manifold. The French were squeezing the population for tax revenues, and requisitioning all mules and other transport animals-needed for carrying water and food into the city-for the expedition into Syria. The blockade by the British fleet had disastrous effects on the economy, pushing food prices to extreme levels. The urban fabric of the city was altered without regard for custom or religion, mosques desecrated and converted to other uses, gates torn down to enable access of troops. The presence of tens of thousands of foreign men in the city made prostitution rampant, rape not infrequent, and venereal disease epidemic.
Rather than resuscitating some long-buried "national" spirit of popular sovereignty, the French occupation created new divisions between a party of accommodation and a party of resistance and pushed the bulk of the population back toward the Ottoman system, whose impositions they had formerly resented. This division did not occur on strictly sectarian lines, but it quickly took on a sectarian coloring. The reasons for this were various. Egypt was an Ottoman society and thus functioned within the millet system, which devolved a certain autonomy to the various "nations" of the empire, defined in ethno-religious terms (Greeks/Orthodox, Armenians, Franks, etc.) as distinct from the umma, or community of Muslims. Under the Mamluk beys, certain Christian minorities had achieved an almost total monopoly on the financial dealings of the country, whether as "scribes" or account keepers in the case of the Copts or as customs officials and tax farmers in the case of the Greek Orthodox and particularly the Syrian Catholic minority. The Christians and Jews served an important purpose as groups outside the fabric of the powerful family loyalties and clan-based politics built into Muslim society. In the shifting climate of the late eighteenth century, certain Christian minorities had learned to adjust rapidly to changes in the nature of power and had profited significantly from their intermediary position.
The French were compelled to rely upon these same groups for financial administration, and equally as interpreters and intermediaries. The egalitarian and secular ideology of the French regime meant that the social restrictions on these groups, which had in some sense compensated for their financial power, were lifted, and their privileges were conspicuous to all. This deeply offended many religious Muslim intellectuals, who, like Jabarti, were horrified by what he described as "the elevation of the lowliest Copts, Syrian and Greek Orthodox Christians, and Jews." Jabarti reported that "they rode horses and adorned themselves with swords because of their service to the French; they strutted around haughtily, openly expressed obscenities, and derided the Muslims." There is little documentation of the response of ordinary Muslims, but it is not difficult to imagine their fury at the revelation of the economic power of these minorities, and the loss of their own symbolic ascendancy.
However, while reliant on local Christians to achieve any effective control over the country, the French tended to distrust them as a group. The administration tried to distance itself from an association that would undermine the attempt to present the French as the defenders of Islam and the scourge of Christianity. When Jirgis al-Jawhari, the chief Coptic functionary in Egypt both before and after the occupation, wrote to the French administration in 1798 demanding the full enfranchisement of Copts, as ancient and equal inhabitants of the country, Napoleon refused to grant his request. On his departure, Napoleon left clear instructions to his successor: "Whatever you do, the Christians will always be our friends. You should prevent them from becoming too insolent, so that the Turks should not have the same fanaticism against us as against the Christians, which will make their opposition to us irreconcilable. We have to put fanaticism to sleep until we can root it out." But Jabarti's analysis of the situation suggested the reverse. After the first uprising in Cairo, he reported:
The Syrian Christians and also a group of Greek Orthodox whose houses had been looted in al-Jawanahiya Quarter joined forces to complain to the chief of the French about the calamity that had afflicted them. They availed themselves of this opportunity to deal the Muslims a heavy blow, showing what was hidden in their hearts, as if they had shared in the vicissitudes of the French. But the Muslims had gone after them only because of their connections with the French.
Jabarti was very careful to distinguish consistently between the various groups of Christians, whether Copts, Syrian Catholics, or Greek Orthodox. The French, on the other hand, tended to lump Muslims into a single category of "Mahometans" or "Turks" and equally to treat Christians as an undifferentiated mass from which a few individuals could emerge on personal merit. The republican discourse of the French, with its modernizing commitment to rational egalitarianism, allowed little space for communitarian subtleties. In contrast, Jabarti, with his Ottoman sensibility, continued to respond to his social environment in terms of vertical groupings of family, lineage, sect, and corporation.
After Bonaparte's successor, General Kléber, was assassinated by a Syrian Muslim in June 1800, it was General Abdallah-Jacques Menou who took command. Fervently espousing the idea of retaining Egypt as a permanent colony of France, Menou intensified Napoleon's policy of co-optation of the Muslims and increasingly disassociated himself from the Christians, for whom he expressed the deepest revulsion:
I tell you, between you and me, that I have seen for myself since being in Egypt that the Christians are the vilest and most contemptible inhabitants of this country, and among the Christians the Syrians are in the front rank. Greedy, untrustworthy, cowardly, vindictive, and vile to the last degree-such is their true portrait.
Menou claimed that the Christians, far from adhering in any real way to the French ideology, perceived their new masters as "French Christian Mamluks substituting themselves for the Georgian and Muslim Mamluks." Menou insisted that the Syrian Catholics in particular were cynically working to assure their economic privileges with the new regime. He instituted rigorous surveillance of all their activities at Damietta and expressed equal determination to eliminate the Copts from their control of the country's finances.
Thus any assumption that there was an automatic confluence of interests between French and local Christians should be seriously challenged: cultural and ideological sympathies must be balanced against the unfolding dynamics of power. Moreover, the Christians did not form a single sectarian community: their status varied within Ottoman society, along with their geographic origins and the nature of their social and economic participation. It is worth enumerating some of these differences, because they played an important role, both in the origin of the emigration and in its destinies in France.
The Copts, though a small minority of only 10 to 15 percent of the population, were the oldest Christian group in Egypt-a Monophysite sect long predating the Muslim conquest and living for the most part in Middle and Upper Egypt. While a number of Copts had achieved elite status as scribes and account keepers, the vast majority were poor rural farmers. As an integral part of Egyptian society, they seem to have been little attracted to the French administration: Antoine Galland insisted that "they despise our customs and detest our principles." Bruce Masters suggests that "after almost a millennium of assimilation into the dominant Arabic culture, the Copts were culturally or physically indistinguishable from their Muslim neighbors." They celebrated common festivals and engaged in practices such as abstaining from pork and circumcising their children. But in certain circumstances this cultural proximity only accentuated the limits of social mobility. An ambitious young Copt could enter into the elite as a scribe or a financial administrator, but his dress, his manner of transport, and his deportment were delimited by the prescriptions of law and custom. He could not enter the ranks of the military or the powerful intellectual elite, which was exclusively Muslim in character, unless he chose to convert to Islam and thus effectively leave his own community.
The categories of confession and community were not fixed, particularly in the dynamic environment of late eighteenth-century Egypt. One young Copt, Hibat-Allah Fadlallah, became the protégé of his father's employer, the Mamluk bey Sulayman al-Kashif. Fadlallah entered the prestigious Islamic university of al-Azhar. However, such access was predicated on his conversion to Islam. At al-Azhar, Fadlallah received the best education available in Egypt, studying with the leading sheikhs, and rose to occupy a chair, and a post as secretary of the supreme council of dignitaries in Ottoman Egypt. By the time of the French conquest, Fadlallah, now Sheikh Muhammad al-Muhdi, was enormously wealthy and influential: he became secretary-general to the diwan created by Napoleon, and collaborated closely with the French savants, such as Jean-Joseph Marcel, who later published a collection of al-Muhdi's tales.
This success was only possible after conversion to Islam. Those who remained Christian could rise to positions of great prominence in Egypt, but their social status was considerably more fragile. It was only through his position among the high 'ulama that al-Muhdi achieved a degree of autonomy, which assured his position through several changes of regime. What al-Muhdi's case suggests is the strict limits on social mobility for those Copts who remained tied to their community and their religion, despite their close cultural ties with Muslim society and their long-established role in Egypt.
In contrast, the "Syrian" Christians traced their origins to the beginning of the eighteenth century in Damascus and Antioch, when they broke away from the Greek Orthodox Church to become "Uniate" with the Roman Catholic Church, becoming known as Melkites or "Greek Catholics." The schism that led to the formation of the community of Melkite Catholics occurred around 1724-25, when the local communities of Damascus elected and appointed their own Arabic-speaking, Catholic prelates in competition with the official Greek appointees of the patriarchate in Istanbul. The millet system of the Ottoman Empire guaranteed a certain autonomy for religious minorities: a separatist challenge from within a millet was also a challenge to the traditional order. The Uniate Christians looked to Catholic Europe, particularly France, for support. But Thomas Philipp has argued persuasively that the Melkite schism was not the result of missionary influence or trading privileges from European powers, but rather the movement toward regional autonomy, inflected strongly by Arabic language and culture. The Vatican permitted the Melkites to retain Arabic as a liturgical language almost two centuries before it allowed European Christians to receive sacraments in their own vernacular languages. Their liturgical use of the Arabic language promoted the establishment of the first Arabic printing press in the Ottoman Empire in 1706. Following Benedict Anderson, Masters sees in this a decisive element of the "print revolution" that made possible the "imagining" of a collective identity through "cultural Arabism." Philipp suggests that although "it would, of course, be premature to speak here of a nascent Arab nationalism ... certainly we can observe the growing strength of local groups, who, just because secular ideologies such as nationalism were still irrelevant, clothed their challenge to the central authorities in the traditional garb of dogmatic deviation."
A sense of cultural distinctiveness expressed through a confessional difference nurtured a strong and tightly knit Melkite community that was well placed to take advantage of the new commercial opportunities emerging through the burgeoning trade in commodities such as coffee and silk between Asia and Europe. At the same time, the decentralizing sympathies of the community brought them into close collaboration with many of the ambitious new political figures across a region that was experiencing a considerable flourishing of local powers, from the Shihabi emirs in Mount Lebanon to Zahir al-'Umar in northern Palestine. The Melkites rapidly expanded their networks across the region. Philipp explains that those who settled successfully in other cities would assist others to establish themselves: "Any Greek Catholic who had established a base for himself in a new place would inevitably draw other Greek Catholics after him and help to set them up."
This was notably the case in Egypt: during the years 1730 to 1780 Philipp estimates that about four thousand Syrian Christians migrated into Egypt. When the French arrived in 1798, they found the Melkites concentrated in the coastal cities, particularly Alexandria and Damietta, with well-established connections to Europe and European culture. They had almost entirely displaced the Jews as the privileged agents of the Mamluk rulers, in trading matters and sometimes in diplomacy between the various rulers they served. Philipp describes a meteoric Melkite rise to positions of wealth and power in Egypt. But the French occupation, rather than favoring the Melkites, in fact sent them into rapid decline. The British blockade interrupted trade almost completely, and the actions of General Menou increasingly stripped the Syrians of their lucrative role in the customs administration.
When Napoleon took his armies from Egypt into Palestine in 1799 in order to forestall an Ottoman advance through the Levant, the French came into contact with much larger populations of Palestinian Melkites. The rule of Zahir al-'Umar in the city of Acre had brought many Melkites to prominence, in particular the family of Ibrahim al-Sabbagh. But Zahir's fall was followed by the reestablishment of Ottoman control under the Bosnian Mamluk Ahmad al-Jazzar, who eliminated all the Catholics from his administration, often by violent means, replacing them with Orthodox Christians and Jews. When Napoleon besieged the city of Acre many Christians from the surrounding region joined the French forces, probably hoping for a reinstatement of the highly favorable regime they had experienced under Zahir. French declarations also made much of "le patriotisme arabe": Napoleon weighed heavily in his later account of his military campaigns on his support for the "Arab nation" against the "Turks." Of course, such Arab nationalism had no base in Ottoman society: "Arab" descendance was a matter of genealogy, not politics, of family rather than nation. But it is nonetheless likely that more fertile soil for such national ideas could be found among the Christian Arabs in Palestine and Syria.
Several entire local communities of Christians joined the French army, particularly in the villages around Shfa 'Amr in the Nablus mountains. When the siege was abandoned, these groups had little choice but to depart for Egypt with the French army. There is every reason to believe that they were fleeing the certain vengeance of al-Jazzar. The weakness of the Melkite communities in geographical Syria was due to their lack of strong links with Istanbul-unlike the Jews who retained significant influence and connections in the Ottoman capital. The Melkite community was thus more at the mercy of its immediate political alliances with local rulers: in this case, Napoleon.
But politics may not have been the sole motivation for this exodus. In his book on Acre, Philipp notes that French merchants in Acre consistently expressed their fears of competition from local Arab merchants, particularly the cotton merchants from Shfa 'Amr, and blamed them for provoking difficulties with the administration that resulted in the exile of French traders from the city:
A local commercial class, beginning to compete with the French commercial establishment, may have hoped to liberate itself from the foreign merchants. The French merchants certainly took this possibility very seriously. They warned in 1786 that some "marchands Arabes d'Acre" may get ideas and try to establish their own commercial connections in Marseilles.
Antun Qassis Fir'aun was a member of an influential Melkite family who became chief customs official, first in Damietta, the base of the Melkite presence in Egypt, and then in Cairo in 1775. In 1784 he left Egypt for the Tuscan city of Livorno, probably to avoid the increasing extortions of the warring beys in Egypt. A Melkite Arab community had begun to establish itself alongside the considerable Jewish and Greek communities in Italy, with expanding networks across the Mediterranean.
The key point here is that the Copts and the Melkites represented two significant and different forces of social change in eighteenth-century Egypt: social mobility and geographical mobility. But these two forces remained quite separate, and in many senses contradictory. For the Copts, mobility remained very much anchored in the political context of Egypt and Egyptian society, and their struggles were carried out against the vertical limitations placed upon their "corporation." For the Syrian Christians, mobility was an expression of a new cultural identification and a commercial expansion spreading out across the Mediterranean. The nexus of these two forces would no doubt be a significant point of change. They met in the figure of the Coptic notable Ya'qub Hanna, when he broke with tradition to marry the daughter of Syrian Christians.
Ya'qub was a highly respected Copt in Egyptian society: like his father, he was given the title Mu'allim (learned), an honorific that indicates the high importance given to intellectual prowess within Muslim society. Born in 1745, Ya'qub occupied a high position in the town of Assiout before the French conquest. Assiout was a town in Middle Egypt with substantial Muslim and Coptic populations. Its agricultural economy was supplemented by the commission on the large trading caravans that brought goods and slaves twice a year from Darfur. Like Fadlallah/al-Muhdi, Ya'qub was promoted by the provincial governor Suleiman Bey, who encouraged him to learn to ride and wield a sword like a Mamluk. But unless he converted to Islam, he could not expect to rise any higher within the Egyptian elite or to take any active role in the military.
Ya'qub did not take the path of al-Muhdi in leaving his religion and his community. But in 1782, at the age of 37, after the death of his first wife, he married Maryam Ni'mat-Allah Babutshi, a Syrian Catholic. This caused as great, if not greater disturbance in the Coptic community than the conversion of al-Muhdi. The Coptic patriarch refused to bless the marriage, but Ya'qub persevered nonetheless. The Copts certainly feared and distrusted the sensational advance of the Syrian Catholics in Egypt. Through his marriage, Ya'qub allied the force of indigenous Coptic social status to the geographical mobility and commercial dynamism of the Syrian Catholics. His wife, Maryam, though a far less well-documented figure, was clearly a strong and independent woman, as later events would indicate.
For an influential notable like Ya'qub, the French occupation was both an opportunity and a danger. At the behest of Jirjis al-Jawhari, Ya'qub was appointed to accompany General Desaix's advance into Upper Egypt, where for the first time he bore arms in battle, something expressly forbidden to religious minorities by Islamic law. Thus hewas far from Cairo at the time of the first uprising in 1799. Ya'qub developed a warm friendship with Desaix during the campaign, but his experience of the French administration on returning to Cairo was profoundly ambivalent. General Kléber's attempts to extort ever greater revenues from all the communities combined with the smoldering anger of the Muslim population to create an explosive situation. In March 1800, a handful of Ottoman troops slipped into Cairo, and their exhortations ignited a second uprising in the city.
This time, the fury of the population turned quickly toward the local Christians, and the Coptic quarter was attacked by armed crowds. Many Coptic notables fled to the Ottoman camp after paying for safe conduct from the besieging forces. But rather than adopting this traditional posture of flight or passivity in the face of persecution, Ya'qub acted to defend the quarter, raising barricades and organizing the young men of the community on military lines during the twenty days of siege. The uprising was finally repressed with violence by the French troops. The result was a hardening of hostility and the elimination of the Copts' role as intermediaries between the French and Egyptian Muslim society. This polarization was as dangerous for the Muslim 'ulama, or religious notables, who were accused of "hypocrisy" by Kléber in having failed to condemn the uprising, as it was for the Christians, who were threatened by an upsurge of violence against them. Ya'qub was given the task of raising a fine of ten million francs from all classes of the population. To fortify the depleting French ranks, Ya'qub was also instructed to form a Légion Copte within the French forces. According to Jabarti, "A group of Copts was assembled, given French uniforms, and officers were appointed to instruct and train them in the art of warfare." Jabarti expressed an unusually visceral distaste for their physical transformation under Ya'qub's orders:
Ya'qub ... assembled young Copts, made them shave their beards, and dressed them in garb like that of the French army but with a different headgear, a hat with a piece of the ugliest black sheepskin fur. Into the bargain they were ugly, swarthy and malodorous.
The vision of the French artist Delpech, who recorded the uniforms of the Grande Armée, seems to have been little different (fig. 4). The Coptic auxiliary is depicted as swarthy and begrimed, seated on rocky ground with a bandaged hand and a sullen expression. His eyes seem to glower at a fixed point, and his body is tense and uncomfortable, as though he has been compelled into this situation against his will. In the distance, two French soldiers are barely visible, as though to mark the Coptic soldier's distance from the action. The artist, who might be expected to celebrate this addition to the French forces, seems to caricature rather cruelly the participation of this unfortunate soldier. [Place figure 4 near here.]
The formation of the Légion Copte was not in itself an innovation: foreign auxiliaries were used by most eighteenth-century armies, and the French enrolled soldiers from other countries under occupation. A number of Muslim Mamluk soldiers and Greek sailors had joined the French early in the campaign, and a unit of around fifty-five Janissaires Syriens was recruited from among those who joined the French during the siege of Acre in 1799. Similarly, a Légion Grecque was created in September 1800. But the Coptic Legion was more significant: it numbered at least a thousand men, drawn from Upper Egypt, under the command of its own Coptic general. This considerable armed force represented a radical alteration to the traditional social balance in Egypt. Thus, when the French finally capitulated to the combined British and Ottoman forces, Ya'qub and his soldiers were faced with a sharp choice.
Under Article XIII of the treaty signed by General Belliard with the British and Ottoman commanders on 27 June 1801, the security of those Egyptians who had cooperated with the French was explicitly guaranteed. Of course, such articles were not always respected, and a number of individuals were persecuted or killed. But there is no evidence at all of generalized retribution. Copts such as al-Jawhari, along with key Muslim officials such as al-Muhdi and Sheikh al-Bacri, were recruited by the new administration and continued to hold high office. However, the treaty contained a new article not included in the cease-fire document of 1800. It provided for any resident of Egypt who chose to leave his or her homeland to be allowed to do so, without prejudice to property or to family members remaining behind. Notices in Arabic and French signed by General Belliard informing the public of these two special provisions were posted in the streets of Cairo.
The second of these provisions seems to have been made at the behest of Ya'qub, now a general in the French army; it is an indication of the transformative effects of the uprising of March 1800. Ya'qub had made the decision to leave Egypt with the French. But he soon faced resistance from his own soldiers, who did not wish to leave their homes and families, as Jabarti recounted:
That same day, Ibrahim Bey sent a safe-conduct for Copt notables. They came out to greet (the Ottomans), and then returned to their homes. But Ya'qub with bag and baggage crossed to the island of al-Rawda. He also assembled the Copt soldiers but many of them fled and went into hiding. Their women and relatives gathered, and weeping and lamenting, went to the qa'im maqam [i.e., General Belliard], pleading that their men be permitted to remain with their families and children, that they were poor, mere craftsmen-carpenters, mason, jewellers, etc. He promised to instruct Ya'qub not to force unwilling Copts to join him on the voyage.
Although Ya'qub had been able to assemble a force of Copts and dress them as a national army, it was impossible to convince the bulk of these soldiers to leave Egypt, where their ties to the land and culture were so strong. Even among those who did leave, many later changed their minds. Jabarti adds that even before the ships departed from Aboukir, "some of the Copt soldiers who had gone with the French lagged behind and returned to Cairo." According to the correspondence of the Armée d'Orient, the first estimates of the population expected to leave for France were "1500 to 1800 Greeks, Copts or Egyptians." But General Belliard's final figures for the emigration were 438 Copts, 221 Greeks, and 93 Mamluks-altogether 752 men-and an uncounted number of women and children. A group numbering only 230 is recorded to have disembarked at the lazaret of Marseille in October of the same year, or 1 Vendémiaire, An IX. The others may have boarded other ships in smaller groups, turned back, or traveled by other routes-through Greece or Italy, for example.
The discovery by Shafiq Ghurbal in the 1920s of the correspondence of Ya'qub with the British and French foreign ministries revealed for the first time the political project that lay behind Ya'qub's decision to leave Egypt for France. With the assistance of Theodore Lascaris de Vintimille, a Piedmontese Italian and a former Knight of Malta who had joined the French and taken a role in the land administration, Ya'qub had drawn up a detailed plan for reinvading Egypt. He was reported to have rejected overtures by the Ottoman governor of Egypt, who sought to retain him in the new administration, making him "the most brilliant offers," according to a French officer who was present at the meeting. The rupture, it seemed, was simply too great.
Ya'qub's project involved what George Haddad calls a "chimerical" plan to enlist the support of the Mamluk Mourad Bey and the Arab tribes of the desert to defend Upper Egypt against the Ottoman forces while a force led by Ya'qub, and backed by European naval strength, attacked from the coast. General Menou rejected the plan out of hand, citing his "lack of confidence" in Ya'qub as the motive. We have seen evidence of Menou's prejudicial assessment of the Christians, but it is likely also that he understood that French colonial interests were not the overriding priorities for these Egyptians. Nonetheless, Menou's dream of holding onto a French colony in Egypt could still encourage a willingness to carry a large number of Egyptians on the crowded ships bringing their soldiers back to France.
Of the letters discovered by Ghurbal, one was a letter from Lascaris to the captain of the Pallas, the British ship on which Ya'qub and his followers embarked, enclosing the notes of the "principal articles of our political meetings on board his ship"; these notes set out the basis for requesting Great Britain to agree should the Legation succeed in convincing France to support an independent Egypt. To the ship's captain, Ya'qub had made it clear that his alliance with the French stemmed from his commitment to his own political purposes. Captain Edmonds wrote to the Admiralty:
The Pallas under my Command received on board in Egypt a Copte-a man of excellent character and great weight as one of the Chiefs of that Sect in Egypt-he was made General of brigade in the French service to secure his assistance to them, some little attention of mine to this unfortunate exile induced him in conversation to speak of his Country-he declared (in his mind) any Government was preferable to that of the Turkish, that he had joined the French from a patriotic wish of ameliorating the hardships of his countrymen, the French had deceived them and at that time the Egyptians despised the French as they did before the Turks.
Ya'qub and his followers, who styled themselves the "Egyptian Legation," insisted that an independent Egyptian nation would benefit the European powers by preventing the unceasing competition for such a prized military and commercial interest. In the same document, they quoted the words of the Mamluk Murad Bey: "Because everyone wants to possess it, [Egypt] will be the object of their eternal discord." Although they appealed to a common European ideological opposition to "Turkish despotism," their references were resolutely indigenous. They continued with a call for a government that would be "just, severe, and national"-quoting not France or Britain, but the reign of Sheikh Humam, a famous Arab leader of Upper Egypt who had struggled against the Mamluks during the eighteenth century. Michael Winter has identified the rule of Humam as "the zenith of Arab power" in Egypt. Building on this indigenous vision, they emphasized in particular that the national government would not be simply a sectarian one:
We should not forget to say here that Egypt, divided as it is into several sects, disposes of simple ways to oppose them to one another in order to balance them, and that the Egyptian Legation keeps in touch with them all without partiality, through ramifications that are so extensive that they are and will be completely unknown to the Turkish government in Egypt, which is a necessary precaution towards the permanently suspicious despotism which would not hesitate to sacrifice even the last of the independent brothers if it could identify them. Those who came with the army defy its rage, but such is not the same with our brothers in Egypt; they are under the sword and the stick; they have to dissimulate and appear as the most zealous slaves of the Sublime Porte.
Ya'qub's letter was submitted to Lord Keith, commander in chief of the British navy, by way of the ship's captain, Joseph Edmonds. A similar submission was dispatched to Talleyrand, the minister of foreign relations under the Consulate. The Legation was seeking support from both France and Britain, with a sophisticated awareness of the relations between the two powers, and the differences in their political repertoire. To the British, they emphasized the notions of utility and pragmatism in trade and administration, insisting that "it will not be in this case a revolution made by the spirit of enlightenment or by the fermentation of opposing political principles, but a change occasioned by absolute necessity in a community of peaceful and ignorant men." This practical, utilitarian language stood in stark contrast to the florid rhetoric of their petition to the French:
In the past ages of the world, in those uncertain and distant epochs when France, hardly emerging from the hands of nature, presented perhaps nothing but ice and forests, Egypt, already flourishing and civilized gave lessons to the first Greek legislators. But such is the natural cycle of events that those same Egyptians, who were so enlightened, are coming to France under your immortal consulate to be informed about the customs of a people they love, and to know by what unknown device one could consolidate the military triumphs of a newly born Republic through new political triumphs.
The Legation was playing a skillful game to gain their independence, employing the appropriate rhetoric to win the support of both major European powers. It is clear from the first that the Egyptians did not consider their own interests as identical with those of the French. Despite an obvious recognition of the political realities of their situation, the Egyptians clearly opposed the imperial projects of both sides, except insofar as such projects might shelter their own movement toward independence.
The sophistication of the political vocabulary in these letters has led a number of historians to question who really wrote them. Henry Laurens insists that they could have been written only by Lascaris:
The range of themes discussed show that they were written by the former Knight of Malta. Their vocabulary is that of the political economy of the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of civilization [that] was the ideological justification of Bonaparte's action in Egypt. It is very difficult to know what Ya'qub really thought. The important thing is that for the first time here one can attribute an Occidental political vocabulary to an Oriental. It will take two decades before Muhammad Ali uses in turn the concept of civilization.
I believe Laurens is wrong to attribute this discourse so readily to the only "European" among Ya'qub's Legation. A clear distinction can be observed between Lascaris's correspondence and the ideas of Ya'qub: the Knight of Malta consistently drew not on the concept of civilization, but on that of colonization. He reminded Menou-a fervent partisan of l'Égypte française-of the benefits that would accrue to France in retaining a foothold in Egypt. Nowhere did such an idea appear in the letters of the Egyptian Legation; at no point did they raise the idea of retaining or restoring Egypt as a French colony. Instead, they drew upon the Enlightenment model of civilization in order to remind the French of what they owed to Egypt in a cultural and historical sense. Above all, their project was framed in terms that invoked the libertarian-revolutionary conception of the nation.
In assuming that the vocabulary of these documents must be "Occidental," Laurens perpetuates the assumption that the ideas that characterize modernity were born in the West and were transferred outward through European expansion, an assumption that has been challenged by Dipesh Chakrabarty among others. Some postcolonial critics have also interpreted the occupation in similar ways, suggesting that the indigenous adoption of a modernizing vocabulary must be interpreted as either "mimicry" or, as Laurens implies, ventriloquism. It is precisely this assumption that a better understanding of Ya'qub and the emigration allows us to challenge. The documents of the "Egyptian Legation" were signed, not by Lascaris, but by Nemir Effendi. We must take seriously the possibility that the ostensibly subaltern voices of the occupied-albeit drawn from among the wealthiest and best-educated Cairene elite-could speak articulately of their own national aspirations. If they drew upon the ideas of "civilization" in their correspondence with the French, and on commercial pragmatism in their dealings with the British, these responses should be recognized as tactical rhetorical moves rather than mimicry or wholesale adoption of "Occidental" models.
Ya'qub was a powerful political figure who had developed his own idea of national unity and the struggle for independence, in a dialogue with the French model, but drawn equally from the experience of local semiautonomous leaders such as Sheikh Humam, during the period of relaxation of Ottoman control over Egypt. He drew together the vital forces of social and geographical mobility that characterized this period of change across the Ottoman world, and provided a central focal point for the aspirations of Syrian Catholics, Egyptian Copts, and those elements of the Muslim elite who sought independence from Ottoman imperial control.
But only a few days into the crossing, Ya'qub became ill and died. What did this tragic event mean for the hundreds of Egyptians and Syrians on board the Pallas en route for Marseille? The chief unifying factor of the emigration was suddenly removed, and those who were left behind might well be expected to disintegrate into their quite disparate group identities: sectarian, regional, economic, linguistic, ethnic. Nemir, in his description, reminds us of just how various these identities were: Turk, Copt, Circassian, Italian, Greek. The emigration had lost its most effective claim to French support as a national movement in exile. Nemir chose to present the moment of Ya'qub's death in his letter, but his manner of presenting that moment sought to turn loss into plenitude. Christopher Prendergast, in his discussion of Napoleonic history painting, emphasizes the importance of the choice of narrative moment in the construction of the "great man" as part of a patriotic narrative of the nation. In his tableau, Nemir did not seek simply to report a singular event, but to convey its meaning, its "before" and "after," in a single frame. He projected a common "patriotic" feeling that could unify not only the disparate populations of the emigration, but even the natural world of the sea, the thunder and the lightning. These elements were intended to accentuate the "historical" nature of the moment, with its intense convergence of feeling, like a moment of sacrifice that gives birth to a national unity. He seemed to address his words to some future moment in which this loss would find its fulfillment in the completion of a national project, a project whose ultimate collapse we must explore in the next chapter.
This moment of ostensible emotional unity, if such indeed took place on board the Pallas, would prove ephemeral, if not altogether false. The boat was sailing away from the land where the national ambitions of its passengers were anchored, taking them into an uncertain exile. The figure of the dying Ya'qub, at the center of Nemir's tableau, had little to offer in the way of positive political meaning: his words did not set out any future trajectory beyond the immediate arrangements for his burial, and even these small hopes would be disappointed. The only other individual figure who appears in this tableau of types is Ya'qub's daughter, a child who was still "too young to feel all the significance of her loss." If her innocent confusion about this event provides a dissonant element in the scene, it is one that characterizes more accurately its underlying meaning. In a patriarchal society, the presence of an only daughter also signified the absence of male heirs to carry on Ya'qub's dynastic heritage. In reality, then, Ya'qub's death was an absolutely unforeseen disaster that left the emigration shocked and vulnerable. When these people emerged from the quarantine in Marseille a few weeks later, they would confront a postrevolutionary France on the brink of an equally surprising lurch toward authoritarianism and empire.