Mass Graves Found in Jaffa Date to Invasion by Napoleon

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Part of an 18th century wall at Roslan St in Jaffa: At the foundation of the wall, bones from 40 individuals were discovered
Part of the 18th century wall on Roslan St, Jaffa: At the foundation of the wall, bones from 40 people were foundCredit: Tsila Sagiv, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

Excavations in Jaffa have uncovered the disarticulated remains of about 40 bodies in two mass graves dating to the late 18th century. The bodies could be of Ottoman soldiers massacred by French troops in 1799. Or, they could be the victims of epidemics that swept through Palestine at the time, who were disinterred by Turkish builders erecting new walls after Napoleon gave up and withdrew from the city.

“The grave has a fairly even division of men, women and children, from infancy to post-60 years old, which is what you would find civilian cemeteries of the time," Dr. Yoav Arbel, directing the dig for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Haaretz.

The main cache of bones was found during a salvage excavation in the Kishle, the Ottoman police compound in Jaffa. A second concentration was uncovered near an 18th century fortification unearthed at the southern end of Roslan Street, right by the Mediterranean Sea. The wall, 1.30 meters thick, was built over foundation arches, a hallmark of large-scale Ottoman construction in Jaffa in from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.

A cannon apparently lost by Napoleon, found beneath the Jaffa flea marketCredit: Pavel Wolberg

How Napoleon reached Jaffa: Dreams of the Orient

As the Ottoman Empire weakened in the late 18th century, the rival powers of Europe began to chew over the "Eastern Question": who would inherit what, if and when the Turkish empire fell apart.

At the time, the Ottoman empire encompassed Eastern Europe, the North African coast including Egypt, and Palestine, but they hadn't much of a navy. The British controlled none of that territory but they did control the Mediterranean Sea.

The great powers of Europe were dying to wrest Egypt from the Ottomans, who had conquered it from the Mamluks in 1517, leaving them to rule as vassals paying tax to the sultan in Istanbul.

The young Napoleon also wanted Egypt, in fact, to conquer the Levantine coast from Egypt to Syria.  Come May 1798, he sailed for Egypt, leading a force of 54,000 soldiers and a corps of scientists. He and his ships managed to evade Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson and on June 11, the unimpeded French captured Malta, from where they launched the invasion of Egypt.

The Ottoman Empire at its peak, 1683 AD: Napoleon badly wanted to conquer the Levant, but bogged down in Jaffa.Credit: Chamboz, elaboration by Haaretz, Wikimedia Commons

Landing safely near Alexandria on July 2, 1798, the French army conquered the city, then set out for Cairo. On July 21, they met a vast force led by Murad Bey, commander of the Mamluk army.  Some 2,000 Mamluks died that day, compared with  29 French, and on July 24, Napoleon rode triumphantly into Cairo.

While Napoleon was busy conquering Egypt and fighting the Mamluks by the pyramids, on August 2, 1798, Nelson was busy destroying the French fleet anchoring in Alexandria, effectively cutting off the French force from the motherland.

French military buttons found in Jaffa from Napoleon conquestCredit: Mariana Salzberger, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Undismayed by the loss of his fleet, which meant he couldn't reinforce his troops in Egypt with new soldiers or arms, or import food, but with Egypt under his belt, Napoleon set off to conquer Palestine, hoping to strike at the Ottomans who controlled it, before they could attack him. (He left  some garrisons behind in Egypt to guard the new French regime.)

Crossing the Sinai

Cannonballs dating to the 18th century, found in Jaffa, from Napoleonic warCredit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

On February 6, 1799, the French army crossed into the Sinai Desert.

The march through the Sinai would be terrible. The troops were forced to slay their camels and donkeys to survive, and some reportedly ate wild dogs.

After a delay at the unexpectedly well-defended Al Arish coastal fortress,  they finally reached Gaza and conquered it on February 25 after a mere skirmish with Turkish and Mamluk forces. The Turkish soldiers fled north toward Jaffa; the Mamluks escaped inland to the east. The French took about 2,000 enemy soldiers as prisoners. 

The Corsican now faced the inconvenience of having 2,000 POWs at a point when it was difficult to find food for his own troops. To their astonishment, he released them, after they swore not to take up arms against the French.

The French then pressed on into Ottoman Palestine. But the captured Turkish officers saw Bonaparte’s act of mercy as a sign of womanish weakness. In their minds, there were only two alternatives for prisoners: slavery or death.

Part of an 18th century round tower and a wall from the Kishle, Jaffa.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The Jaffa massacre

On March 3, the French army reached the fortified hilltop city of Jaffa. The Ottoman fortress with its 1.3-meter thick walls constituted a formidable challenge.

French military buttons found in Jaffa from Napoleon conquest Credit: Moshe Hartal, Israel Antiquities Authority

As the French and Turks struggled, the Turks collected the heads of fallen French infantry soldiers, and placed the severed heads on poles above the walls. On March 7, Bonaparte sent an officer bearing a flag of truce to negotiate Jaffa's surrender. The Turks opened the city gates and let the officer through.  Minutes later his head was raised on a pole.

A Napoleon coin, minted in 1858, found in debris taken from Temple Mount, JerusalemCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

The furious Napoleon ordered a general assault. He remained outside the city, where he was told that 3,000 Ottoman soldiers were willing to surrender if their lives would be spared.

But further outraging the emperor, among the captives were soldiers who had been caught in Al Arish, Gaza and Ramla, and who had promised never to take up arms against the French again.

Again, the French were having difficulty provisioning their own troops, let alone prisoners of war. Also, Napoleon didn't want to stretch his already outnumbered soldiers by making them guard the captives. But he didn't want them rejoining the enemy ranks.

Years later, exiled on the island of Saint Helena, Napoleon wrote: "to have acted otherwise than as I did, would probably have caused the destruction of my whole armyI therefore ordered that the prisoners taken at El Arish, who in defiance of their capitulation, had been found bearing arms against me, should be selected out and shot. The rest, amounting to a considerable number, were spared."

We do not know if Napoleon slaughtered all 3,000 Turkish prisoners at Jaffa or only men who resumed fighting him after their release, as he tells us. There is no archaeological evidence to support the mass slaughter described in the memoirs of Napoleons secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, who never missed an opportunity to stain the Corsican's reputation.

The booty the French found in Jaffa included small vessels anchored in its harbor, and also cannons, that would shortly prove useful.

The Old City of Jaffa (today), aerial view.Credit: Tal Cohen

Vision of Palestine

After conquering Jaffa in March, the French army marched north along the coast, suffering from heat, mosquitoes and disease – and the plague, which broke out in Palestine.

Even after the infected were isolated in a monastery, bubonic plague continued to spread among the rank and file, demoralizing the army. One day, to boost morale, Napoleon and the chief physician René-Nicolas Dufriche Desgenettes  went from sickbed to sickbed, comforting the stricken soldiers.  The same day he wrote a letter to the Ottoman governor in Acre, demanding he surrender.

18th-century Acre was the de facto capital and main trading port of the Holy Land. Via Acre, one could acquire medicinal rhubarb from the river Volga, Tibetan musk, cinnamon and pepper, nutmeg, cloves, aloe and camphor, ivory from India and Africa, and Arabian dates. More importantly, if the French could capture the ancient port city, the way to Damascus lay open.

The body of a French soldier in Napoleon's invasion force, decapitated by Turkish forces in 1799, in Acre, Israel.Credit: Moshe Hartal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Advancing rapidly, on March 17, en route to Acre, Bonaparte's army conquered Haifa, where they built a hospital to treat the plague.

By the way, Napoleon had a plan once he had captured Acre: to proclaim Palestine a sovereign Jewish state. When the statesman David Ben-Gurion delivered his famous speech to the UN in 1947, imploring them to recognize a Jewish state, he reminded them of Bonaparte’s vision.

The siege of Acre

On March 19, Bonaparte laid siege to Acre, which was governed by the 70-year- old Ahmad Pasha "al-Jazzar," meaning "the butcher" – a reference to noses, ears, eyes, hands and feet he had severed from Christians and enemies. The French encountered stiff resistance from the pasha, and suffered from heavy bombardment from six British ships anchored in the bay.

The French field artillery had not yet reached Acre, but a foiled British attempt to recapture Haifa had left the French with a 32- pounder cannon. With that and the light artillery the French had seized in Jaffa, Bonaparte bombarded Acre on March 28 – but within hours, the French cannons were rendered useless. Showing his contempt for Bonaparte, Jezzar avenged the few hits inside Acre by executing 40 Christian residents of the city.

For weeks the French tried to storm the fortress. Their casualties were awful.

“The skeletal remains of those unknown poor simple soldiers who came from Europe and died in trenches during the Acre siege in horrible circumstances are a sample of the total absence of human value. The corpses remained in the field to rot unburied and the Turks occasionally beheaded bodies to prove their 'bravery' and display the head atop the walls," Dr. Ariel Berman, director of the excavations, told Haaretz, adding that the ultra-Orthodox authorities claimed that some of the deceased soldiers were Jewish, and demanded the remains (stored in bags at the IAA basement) be reburied immediately.

“We solved it by asking the French Consul in Haifa to arrange an official military ceremony in a new place. Some French officers even came from Lebanon,” Berman told Haaretz.

On April 30, field artillery reached Acre, but it was too little, too late. A week later a fleet of 30 ships was spotted on the horizon, and when the French learned that the fleet sailed the Turkish colors, their spirit broke.

The long march back

The French cannons fell silent on May 17 and the retreat south began on May 30.  It was a lamentable ordeal. Returning to Egypt, the army passed wounded and plague-stricken Frenchmen.

Writing his mother, soldier André Peyrusse describes: "Those desperate people filled the air with their screams and crying. Those who believed that they were abandoned ripped their bandages and rolled on the ground in pain and despair."

Napoleon evacuated 2,000 wounded and plague-stricken Frenchmen. Knowing anyone captured would be tortured and killed, he ordered opium given to soldiers too feeble to take along, so they could overdose themselves and die in peace.

Whatever hardships they French suffered in Palestine, Bonaparte, shrewd in the ways of propaganda, made sure that there would be no doubt in the eyes of the Egyptians who the real victors were.

On June 14, 1799, to throbbing drumbeats, the soldiers marched through Cairo’s winding streets, holding captured Turkish standards aloft for all to see, smiling and waving to the dazzled crowds. When the sun-bronzed warriors passed through the Gate of Victory (Bab-el-Nael), they palm fronds placed in their path in token of their triumph. Only Alexander the Great could have equaled the pomp and circumstance Bonaparte put up.

Historians have spent the last 200 years arguing whether the expedition to Holy Land was a debacle or not.

At least Napoleon foiled the Ottoman plan, concocted with the British, to destroy him in Egypt.  But he failed to conquer Palestine, let alone Acre; the French would only retain control over Egypt until 1801, when the British invaded from the sea, landing in Alexandria, as just as Napoleon had. And during his Mediterranean adventure, Napoleon lost 5,000 soldiers, albeit most from the plague.

At least France's scientific gains were immense. The Egyptian Institute was founded on August 22, 1799. French scientists, engineers, technicians, geographers and surveyors who had accompanied Bonaparte birthed Egyptology, archaeology, modern mapping, and medicine. The archaeological wonders of Egypt were measured and drawn. Jean-François Champollion, a child of his time, made the first interpretation of the Rosetta stone, enabling the decipherment of hieroglyphics.

Meanwhile, in 1799, Napoleon had retreated from the Sinai back to Egypt, tail between legs. The British still ruled the waves, so there was no hope of reinforcement from France. His original force was inevitably depleted and Napoleon desperately needed fresh forces to maintain control of Egypt. In his despair he thought to replace infantry soldiers with slaves. And thus Bonaparte reached out to the notorious slave trader in Sudan, the Sultan of Darfour.

"In the name of God the Clement and Merciful! There is no other God, and Mohammed is his prophet! To the Sultan of Darfour, Abd el-Rahman, servant of the two Holy Cities, Caliph of the glorious prophet of God, Master of the Worlds," Napoleon wrote.

"I have received your letter and understood its contents. I was absent, when you caravan arrived, having been in Syria to punish and destroy our enemies. I beg you to send, by the first caravan, 2,000 black slaves over sixteen years of age, strong and vigorous. I will purchase them on my own account.

Order your caravan to come at once, and not stop on the way. I am giving instructions for its safe conduct throughout the journey."

Evidently, the requested slave caravan never arrived. There never was a colored slave regiment in Bonaparte’s army.

On August 25, 1799, Napoleon left Egypt for France, never to return. He was appointed first consul of the newly established French Republic on the 14th of December 1799. He was just 30 years old.