Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (496)
Victory at Acre
The 100th anniversary of the conquest of the Palestinian port of Acre was celebrated with great fanfare in Egypt in 1932. Al-Ahram took the credit for making Ibrahim Pasha's defeat of Acre a national celebration. One of its motives: history was safe to write about at a time when the prime minister was strongly critical of the press. However, as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes, few Egyptians had any intention of allowing the premier to spoil their observance of this famous conquest
At precisely 5.00pm on Friday, 27 May 1932, King Fouad appeared before the throngs gathered round the statue of Ibrahim Pasha in Opera Square. It was the centennial of the conquest of the famous Palestinian port of Acre at the hands of the subject of the statue: son of Mohamed Ali, father of the Khedive Ismail and grandfather of King Fouad.
Click to view caption
Acre in 1923. So impregnable was the port, the name became synonymous with extraordinary military achievements
The celebration was both official and popular. All Egyptian forces garrisoned in Cairo were on hand. Four infantry battalions, two cavalry battalions and two artillery companies were "all converged around Opera Square and along with them the students of the military and police academies". There was also a large civilian turnout, students from public and private schools, students and clergy from Al-Azhar, members of various workers and occupational syndicates and thousands of others, "crowded along the curbs and packed onto the balconies overlooking the square".
Kicking off festivities was Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi who said, "All advanced nations and emerging peoples are assiduous in commemorating the feats and glories they have accomplished over the years. In so doing, they both glorify their benefactors and register their gratitude to them. It is out of such vital and noble considerations that we take this opportunity, the passage of a hundred years since the conquest of Acre, to commemorate the glorious deed of the man whose statue we are standing next to. At this time on this day of the year 1832, the valiant conqueror Ibrahim seized fortifications that had long defied others. With this deed and with the heroism of his soldiers he recorded a great victory on the page of eternity."
Although Egyptians at the time generally did not set much store in what Sidqi said, on this occasion they were prepared to believe him. He had struck a powerful chord. So legendary was the impenetrability of the walls of the Palestinian port that in ensuing years, whenever an Arab commander scored a particularly impressive feat his admirers would exclaim, "It was as though he had conquered Acre!" Yet this is precisely what the peasant army under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, whose military genius was legion, had accomplished.
Egyptians would have been very conscious that their army had succeeded where even Napoleon had failed. In his entry in Aja'ib Al-Athar, or Wonder Relics, in May 1799, the famous Egyptian chronicler Abdel-Rahman El-Jabarti relates: "There has been no news of the French in Syria and of what they have done or what happened to them apart from unreliable reports that are not grounded in fact, except for the fact that the French attempted to storm Acre again and again, resorting to every ruse and device at their disposal, yet without attaining their objective."
El-Jabarti gives us a glimpse of the size of the Napoleonic force that had sought to breach the formidable walls of Acre. It took five hours for that procession of returning army, with its soldiers, drummers, pipers, horses, carts and women and children, to pass through Bab Al-Nasr. He continues: "The features of the incoming soldiers had changed remarkably. They had grown weak and frail from their great ordeal and from heat and exhaustion. Their siege of Acre had lasted 64 days, during which they had fought continuously day and night. But Ahmed Pasha, governor of Acre, was graced with great bravery and heroism and wrought their defeat."
Al-Ahram assumed credit for having inspired the commemoration of Ibrahim Pasha's defeat of Acre. One of its regular columns was "100 years ago today". On 18 February 1932, Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat initiated a special series in this column on "The conqueror Ibrahim and his conquest of Syria a hundred years ago in 1832." It comprised 36 episodes, the last of which appeared on 5 May 1932.
Not long before this, Al-Ahram featured a similar series on the Ahmed Orabi Revolution. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of that event, the series lasted from 7 October 1931 to 29 January the following year. One of Al-Ahram's main motives was that Sidqi's axe had been hovering dangerously over the nape of the press and it was safer to retreat into history. Still, the column proved highly successful which, more than any other factor, induced the newspaper to repeat the experience less than a month after the Orabi series concluded.
Little did the newspaper expect that the palace and the prime minister would seize upon the second series and transform it into a commemorative ceremony that would implicitly exalt the current regime. Whereas Dawoud Barakat had discussed Ibrahim Pasha's Syrian campaigns in general, the government focussed exclusively on the siege of Acre, ignoring in the process Syrian uprisings against the Egyptian conquerors and the intervention of foreign powers on behalf of the Ottoman sultan. It, therefore, seems appropriate to pick up on Barakat's account where government propaganda left off.
The first concern of the editor-in-chief in "A hundred years ago today" was to set straight some widespread beliefs about Ibrahim Pasha, whether to this commander's credit or not. In the latter category, it had been said that Ibrahim was not Mohamed Ali's son. The source of this story, Barakat relates, resided in the fact that the father had treated his son, after growing into a young adult, as an equal. "This led some of the more naïve men of state who were unaware of the facts of Ibrahim's birth to believe that he was not Mohamed Ali's son, but rather the son of his wife whom he adopted after his son Touson had died. Touson had commanded the campaign against the Wahabis and died of the plague. However, Mohamed Ali's historian refuted this assertion, saying that Mohamed Ali, after having acquired a great reputation as a warrior in his country, married a wealthy divorcee who begot him five sons, among whom were Ibrahim, Touson and Ismail. He described all who claimed otherwise as loathsome, impudent liars."
Barakat recounts a second story that, perhaps to demonstrate his objectivity, he asserted was pure legend. When Mohamed Ali decided to resume the war against the Wahabis following the death of Touson, "he summoned all his generals and government officials and informed them of his desire. Mohamed Ali then had a large carpet brought in, placed an apple in the centre and said, 'Whoever picks up that apple and hands it to me without setting foot on the carpet I will give him the command of the campaign.' All those present attempted to reach the apple but failed. Then came the turn of Ibrahim who was very short. All he did, however, was bend over, take the edge of the carpet in his hand and role it up until he reached the apple, which he picked up and handed to his father who gave him command of the army."
The second instalment describes the forces that confronted each other across the walls of Acre. On the Egyptian side were six regiments of infantry, four cavalry regiments armed with 40 field cannons and more than that number in artillery. "This was the first eastern army to follow the modern system," Barakat observes. "In fact, Ibrahim himself had received training as an ordinary soldier in a military training academy. Egypt at the time had built up an army of 100,000 soldiers who had received modern training, in addition to a large number of Arab cavalry fighters and warriors from the Egyptian tribes." The Egyptian fleet was comprised of five large ships and numerous smaller ones. "When the army surrounded Acre on land, the fleet cordoned the city off from the sea."
On the other side were 6,000 "strong and brave" soldiers and several European officer engineers under the command of the viceroy of Acre, Abdullah Pasha Al-Jazzar. However, more important were the "forbidding walls of the city, which were its most powerful defence".
Once Ibrahim had the city fully encircled by land and sea, he opened fire on it from all directions. On 9 and 10 December, he subjected it to intense bombardment. However, Barakat notes, "Bombs in those days consisted of little more than large balls of steel that do not explode, but rather pound and destroy." He continues, "The first day's bombing continued from dawn to nightfall. In that single day, the city was hit by 10,000 pellets and 3,000 cannon balls. It is said that a single Egyptian frigate fired some 3,700 cannon balls. Meanwhile, the garrison of Acre was using its ammunition with the greatest economy, aware that it would not be able to replenish its supplies quickly by land or by sea, unlike when Napoleon had laid siege to this city 32 years earlier."
Whatever his military advantages, Ibrahim's campaign was not a "picnic". Enemy bombardment had severely damaged several Egyptian ships, which were forced to return to Alexandria for repairs. In addition, as the siege continued, it became clear that Egyptian forces would have to call in the help of the emir of Jabal Lubnan, Bashir Al-Shihabi who in an earlier visit to Egypt had pledged to assist Ibrahim. Initially, however, the emir failed to respond, compelling the Egyptian commander to write to his father "who sent a messenger to Bashir reproaching him and warning that if he broke his pledge the Egyptian army would destroy his houses and plant straw in his fields".
Before the messenger reached Al-Shihabi, the Lebanese leader had left his base with 100 horsemen bound for Acre. "Ibrahim Pasha with his chiefs of staff went out to meet Al- Shihabi and ordered an artillery salute, after which the emir's forces entered the Egyptian camp in a grand procession. At this very time, Abdullah Pasha raised the white flag of surrender on the walls of Acre, in response to which Ibrahim sent in his messengers for negotiation. However, as they were negotiating over the terms of a truce, Abdullah Pasha broke off the talks because he had received a message from the sultan informing him that munitions were being rushed to Acre and that orders had been issued to other governors to gather their forces and speed to the defence of the city."
When each side re-equipped itself and fighting resumed, Emir Bashir sent to his father, Emir Khalil, asking him to gather as many Lebanese fighters as he could and join his son in battle. Simultaneously, Emir Al-Shihabi sent his son to Zahla to collect supplies for the Egyptian army. Throughout this period, Barakat writes, "Acre remained firm in its resistance." The Egyptian forces, on the other hand, were so worn down and frustrated by the rain and cold that Ibrahim temporarily lifted the siege and sent to Alexandria to summon Colonel Romay, the famed Italian commander. Romay arrived on 2 February and soon afterwards Ibrahim resumed the siege but employed different tactics.
At the beginning of March, Egyptian forces unleashed a new method of bombardment on the citadel. After 10 uninterrupted days of pounding, they succeeded in toppling the tower that protected the city gate and in bringing down a portion of the adjacent wall, which filled in part of the surrounding moat. "The Egyptians stormed that breach which had been opened by their artillery only to be confronted by the army of Abdullah Pasha. The opening was too small to fit more than 30 men; however, the Egyptians seized control of two cannons Abdullah had moved into that opening. Then, when Egyptian soldiers entered the city Abdullah's forces set off mines that had been planted in the ground and opened fire down at the Egyptians from the windows and rooftops. Fearful of disaster, Egyptian commanders ordered a retreat and thus the assault of 9 March drew to an unsuccessful close."
In spite of this retreat, Barakat was of the opinion that the city was in its death throes. Its garrison was reduced to 900 men, the city itself was riddled with disease and food was scarce. Meanwhile, the central government in Istanbul was doing nothing to come to its aid, "because its officials were more inclined to mutual acrimony than to cooperation and because its defeats in Homs and Tripoli had weakened and divided its forces".
At the same time, Mohamed Ali was more than confident; not that he made a secret of his contempt for the Ottoman sultan. Barakat relates that when international consuls came to congratulate the Egyptian viceroy on the occasion of Lesser Bairam that year they asked him about the progress of his campaign against Acre. Mohamed Ali responded, "Where are the armies of His Royal Highness the Sultan? Where are his great commanders? Is he the Pasha of Aleppo? No, the Supreme Porte had better think carefully before attacking my army."
Evidently, Istanbul did not take his warning seriously. When Ottoman forces under the command of Othman Pasha moved to recapture Tripoli, Aleppo and Homs, Ibrahim set off to engage them, leaving Bashir to safeguard the supply lines, and succeeded in defeating a force of 12,000 soldiers.
On 27 May, Egyptian forces resumed the assault on Acre, attacking it from three sides. The assault continued until noon, when it was called off for fear of the many mines reported by captives to have been buried throughout the city. But then Barakat relates: "Ibrahim, brandishing his sword, charged into the city at the head of his army. After much advancing and recoiling, thrusting forward and falling back, he and his regiment succeeded in seizing and securing one of the city's munitions warehouses." With an important source of their supplies cut off, "the garrison of Acre grew weak and despondent and the inhabitants became increasingly anxious and discontented. So they sent word to Abdullah Pasha that the time to surrender had come. They also sent a delegation to Ibrahim Pasha to ask for amnesty; Ibrahim responded that he would harm no one if they threw down their arms instantly. Abdullah feared that if he attempted to escape and was caught, the people would kill him. So he remained in his house until the morning of the following day, when Ibrahim sent a detachment to guard him as it escorted him out of the city. When he left, Abdullah tied a handkerchief around his neck as a sign of surrender and submission."
The scene of Abdullah's surrender to Ibrahim is moving. "When he arrived in the presence of Ibrahim, he prostrated himself on the ground. But Ibrahim took him in both hands and lifted him up, saying, 'You and I are equals. Although your offence to me is unforgivable, your affront to Mohamed Ali is greater and he is much more clement.' Abdullah's response was brief: 'That is the rule of fate.'"
Later that evening another poignant scene ensued. Ibrahim, renowned as much for his chivalry as he was for his valour, had succeeded in having soothed his erstwhile enemy enough for him to agree to dine with him. After dinner Abdullah announced that he would retire to bed, at which point Ibrahim said, "I trust you will sleep well tonight." Abdullah responded, "As well as I have slept on all previous nights." He then burst out, "Please, pasha, do not treat me like a woman. The defence of my city proves to you that I am not. My only mistake was that I had relied on the sultan whose honour, in my opinion, is no greater than that of a lady of slack morals. Had I known that sooner, I would have taken the necessary precautions and I would not have found myself at your mercy."
Barakat could not help but to express his admiration for the former ruler of Acre. In 1822, this powerful and excellent leader, he said, attempted to annex Damascus to the lands he ruled. "When neighbouring rulers banded together to fight him in order to prevent him from extending his power, he was forced to return to Acre. His enemies had surrounded the city and he feared that the sultan in Istanbul would blockade it by sea. In the end, however, he realised his desire through the payment of 60,000 purses (a purse at the time equaled 500 piastres). One of the causes of the hostility between him and Mohamed Ali was that he had borrowed this money from the Egyptian ruler and refused to pay it back. In addition, he allowed Acre to become a refuge for Mohamed Ali's opponents."
On 30 May, Ibrahim Pasha's famous captive was escorted on board a military ship bound for Alexandria. Upon his arrival three days later, Abdullah Al-Jazzar was greeted by an artillery salute and ushered into the presence of Mohamed Ali. "Escorted by two columns of archers, Al-Jazzar entered the chamber of Mohamed Ali, bowed before the Egyptian ruler and asked for mercy and forgiveness. Mohamed Ali shook Abdullah's hand and reassured him, sat down and asked Abdullah to sit next to him, and ordered tea and tobacco to be brought in. The chamber was filled with people pressing forward to get a glimpse of Abdullah Pasha, so Mohamed Ali ordered all to leave so that he could be alone with his captive. Abdullah was then taken to the guesthouse where he remained until he was released. In early January he travelled to Istanbul."
One can understand why Mohamed Ali was such a magnanimous captor. When news reached Egypt of Ibrahim's defeat of Acre he ordered the cannons on every citadel and fortress in the country to be fired three rounds per day for three days in succession "as a proclamation of joy over the victory". He also issued a general amnesty for all prisoners and exiles "with the exception of murderers and highway robbers". Nevertheless, the conquest had come at no small cost. Egyptian forces lost 512 soldiers and sustained 1,429 injuries although the toll on the other side was much greater.
Once reinforcements and supplies reached him from Egypt, Ibrahim set about consolidating his control over the Levantine coast, sending military forces to secure and administer other port cities such as Beirut and Sidon, and dispatching messengers throughout the area to exhort the people to expel Ottoman soldiers from their towns and cities. More significantly, Egypt was now officially responsible for the affairs of the Levant, to which testifies the following message from Ibrahim to the authorities in Jerusalem:
"As you know the Holy City contains many houses of worship and religious monuments to which Christian and Jewish sects undertake pilgrimages every year. These communities have complained to us of the harsh and unjust treatment they receive at your hands, of your contempt for their religion and of the arbitrary and exorbitant tolls and taxes you exact from them only to satisfy your greed and whims. Such base motives and deplorable practices are held in contempt by all righteous souls and cannot be tolerated. I, therefore, warn you of the consequences of subjecting those peoples to ill-treatment and urge you to open your arms to all priests, monks and deacons and all peoples of that Holy House from all denominations, be they Coptic, Roman Catholic or Armenian. I further demand that you do not prevent them from practising their religious rites and rituals, that you do not exact tolls and taxes from visitors to the River Jordan, that you do not obstruct pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and that you do not compel young officials to pay money. In obeying this order you will benefit yourselves; in not obeying you do yourselves injustice."
As this directive indicates, Ibrahim Pasha had a flare for sound government and an acute awareness of his duties towards his subjects. In this he contrasts strongly with the Ottoman authorities whose lack of this awareness led them to the Crimean War (1853-1856). The contrast with the current government of Israel is starker yet.
Ibrahim's conquest of Acre and Egypt's consequent control of the Levant would ultimately lead to a head-on collision between Cairo and Istanbul. Barakat recounts that the Ottoman sultan convened a council of leading religious advisers to whom he posed the following questions:
"What does the Shari'a say about obeying the Leader of the Faithful, the Caliph of the Prophet?"
The sultan's religious advisers responded: "It requires obedience and the full implementation of the Caliph's orders to the best of one's capacity."
"What penalty does the Shari'a prescribe against he who rebels against the authority of the Caliph, whom the Caliph had graced with his benevolence and favour? What shall be the punishment for he who has sewn hatred, awakened dormant strife, worked to tear apart the lands under his authority and perpetrated tyranny, oppression, bloodshed and destruction in the lands of the Muslim people?"
"He shall be stripped of all his ranks and positions and shall be given no further authority over the affairs of the Muslim people. He shall then be punished by being cast to savage beasts or to the predatory birds of the desert. Thus is his reward in this world and in the afterworld he shall meet ignominy and the all-consuming fire."
Not surprisingly, the council issued the following ruling: "Because it has been established that Mohamed Ali and his son Ibrahim have erred in their obedience to their sultan, they shall be rightfully punished. In accordance with the Shari'a, Mohamed Ali and his son shall be stripped of all ranks and religious positions."
In his closing lines to this instalment, Dawoud Barakat relates that when Mohamed Ali received the news of this ruling he broke into an uproarious laugh. As subsequent days would prove he had every cause to laugh.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.