Today in Middle Eastern history: the Siege of Acre ends (1799)

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Napoleon’s siege of Acre, which lasted for two months from March 20 to May 21, 1799, was the high water mark of his eastern campaign. The French general (his years as emperor were still to come) had arrived in the eastern Mediterranean with a splash, capturing Malta on the way to a crushing victory against the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids in July 1798. He’d arrived in Egypt with plans to turn it into the centerpiece of a new French colonial empire, and the first step in a campaign of conquest the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Alexander the Great 2100 or so years earlier. Then he lost his fleet at the Battle of the Nile and, well, things went a little sideways.

Suddenly without naval support to sustain a lengthy conquest, Napoleon busied himself with consolidating his control over Egypt, which mostly meant acting like a pharaoh and feigning a lot of respect for Islam. This never really took, and in almost every corner of Egyptian society—the remaining Mamluks, peasants in the countryside, city dwellers in Cairo—there were consistent and often violent pockets of resistance to the French occupation. After putting down one particularly intense revolt in Cairo and then knocking off for a few days in late December, 1798, to tour Suez (the idea of building a canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea was one of Napoleon’s great ambitions for his Egyptian reign) and the Sinai (to check out the alleged site of the Biblical Mount Sinai), he got word that the Ottomans were preparing an invasion of Egypt.

The Ottomans figured that without his navy, Napoleon was more or less a sitting duck. They were obviously wrong, as everybody would learn a bit later, but the Ottoman plan was formidable—two large armies, one invading overland from Syria and the other invading by sea and landing on the Egyptian coast at either Abukir or Damietta. Napoleon’s army was obviously capable but it was also relatively small, and with no navy it had no hope of being reinforced from France. He knew he couldn’t defend against both of these armies, so he opted instead to take the initiative and invade Syria.

Napoleon’s first stop on his way north was Arish, which today is a relatively large (for Sinai) city and capital of Egypt’s North Sinai province but at the time was primarily a fortress. One of the Ottoman armies, under the governor of Sidon Jazzar Pasha, had seized the fortress and was preparing to move deeper into Egypt. Napoleon’s 13,000 or so man army left Cairo on February 5, 1799, arrived at Arish, and ran the Ottomans off. Jazzar Pasha fell back to the city of Jaffa, which is now part of Tel Aviv. Napoleon pursued. Not only was Jaffa on one of the main routes into Syria, it was a port city, and Napoleon had sent his largest siege guns north on whatever ships he could scrounge together, so he needed a place where they could be offloaded. So he laid siege to Jaffa on March 3 and make short work of it, the city falling on March 7.

It’s in the aftermath of Jaffa where things really went off the rails. After the city fell, Napoleon turned his soldiers loose for two full days to pillage and worse at will, while executing the Ottoman governor along with thousands (somewhere between around 2500 and around 4000 seems to be the consensus) of prisoners. There are several explanations offered for this brutality. Napoleon sent emissaries to Jaffa before the siege to demand its surrender, and by at least some accounts those emissaries wound up having their heads cut off. It’s possible Napoleon was angry over that, or just angry over Jaffa’s resistance. Later writers suggested that Napoleon had no choice but to execute those prisoners because he didn’t have the manpower to guard them and he couldn’t let them go because he’d just wind up fighting them again later. It’s even possible Napoleon meant the execution as a message to other Levantine cities to just surrender without resistance. Or maybe some combination of the above.

If Napoleon’s aim was to intimidate the rest of the Ottoman Levant then he was really off base, because word spread of the atrocities at Jaffa and wound up stiffening the resolve of defenders in cities further north. Cities like, say, Acre, the next major population center on the route to Syria, which the French army besieged on March 20. Our conqueror apparently estimated that he’d need only a couple of weeks to knock out Acre before moving on to the region’s biggest symbolic target, Jerusalem. Two months later his army packed up and headed back to Egypt, the whole effort having come to an ignominious end.

The Ottoman governor (technically of Sidon, but he ruled from Acre) was Jazzar Pasha. He’d learned one thing from Jaffa, as I noted above: there’s no point surrendering because Napoleon will execute you anyway. Word of all that French pillaging had presumably reached the citizens of Acre, and likely motivated their defense as well. And the Ottomans received a big assist at Acre, from a British fleet commanded by Commodore Sidney Smith that not only interdicted much of Napoleon’s siege artillery and supplies at sea, but also harassed the French army with offshore bombardment.

Napoleon tried to recruit an ally of his own, but his appeals to the semi-autonomous emir of Mount Lebanon, Bashir Shihab II, went unanswered. Bashir, who had no love for Jazzar Pasha, nevertheless opted to stay out of this fight, and even managed to appeal to Commodore Smith to get British support for his autonomy. This strengthened his position back at the Ottoman court in Istanbul, even if it did him no favors as far as his relationship with Jazzar Pasha was concerned. It’s hard to say that Bashir’s lack of support doomed Napoleon to failure, but the Shihab emirate was a budding regional power at this point so his assistance might well have proven decisive.

Jazzar Pasha was also helped by French royalist Antoine Le Picard de Phélippeaux, who had been a rival of Napoleon’s going all the way back to their school days at the École Militaire in Paris and who by this point had defected to Britain. De Phélippeaux helped repurpose those captured French cannons against Napoleon, and he oversaw, along with Jazzar Pasha’s deputy, Haim Farhi, the construction of an interior wall around Acre. The latter proved to be an unwelcome discovery when Napoleon’s army was able to open a breach in Acre’s outer wall in mid-April.

The Battle of Mount Tabor, painted in 1808 by French artist Louis-François Lejeune (Wikimedia Commons)

Mid-April really was the high point of the siege from the French perspective. Not only did they open that breach in Acre’s outer wall, but on April 16 a small French detachment under Jean-Baptiste Kléber defeated (with timely reinforcements led by Napoleon himself) a much larger Ottoman relief army at the Battle of Mount Tabor. However, the revelation of the second wall combined with a lack of supplies and the unwelcome arrival of plague in Napoleon’s camp to make any continuation of the siege impossible. He’d lost around 2000 soldiers from an army that numbered under 10,000 when the siege began. After a final attempt at breaching Acre’s walls on May 10, Napoleon lifted the siege and returned to Egypt. His great Eastern Adventure was nearing its end.