This Week in History: Napoleon is repelled from Acre

Frenchman’s plans for conquer are foiled by stone walls and British war ships, despite a vain attempt to win over local Jews with an early iteration of Zionism.

May 20, 2011 17:25
3 minute read.
A French print from 1806 glorifying Napoleon as th

NapoleonJews311. (photo credit: .)


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On May 21, 1799, following an arrogant two-month effort to conquer the ancient walled city of Acre, Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces succumbed to the plague, the Royal Navy, stone walls and the city’s defender, Jezzar Pasha. Conquering Acre had been a vital step in the 30-year-old first consul of France’s plans to spread his empire’s influence from Egypt to Syria and eventually through the Ottoman Empire’s heart, Constantinople. The notoriously small French general had faced little trouble in his conquests of Egypt was moving quickly northward until he reached the fortified port city of Acre, which would eventually repel him back to France.

In 1798, Napoleon had successfully conquered Egypt’s major cities. Intent on expanding his reach through to Syria, he began marching his armies northward. After a battle in el-Arish and an unchallenged short stopover in Gaza, the French forces took the port city of Jaffa where thousands were slaughtered on the fortress city’s shores. Some historians point to the savage killings there as a major motivating factor for the impenetrable resistance he later faced in Acre, where tales of the atrocity quickly spread.

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Quickly moving on from Jaffa, the French forces logged victories in Haifa, Mt. Tavor and the Carmel on their way to the prized and strategically vital port city of Acre. There, however, aware of his rapid advance and the bodies left in the wake of previous victories, the city’s Bosnian-born Ottoman ruler and defender, Jezzar Pasha was ready for the inevitable battle that helped shape Middle Eastern history and the fate of at least one fabled European military legend.

Reinforced by British forces led by Commodore Sidney Smith who brought with him a former classmate of Napoleon, Antoine DePhelipoux, Jezzar Pasha began preparations for the impending French advance on his city. Secondary walls were built behind the city’s main defenses and the Ottoman defenders were told of the brutal slaughter met by their counterparts in Jaffa who surrendered to Bonaparte’s forces.

When Napoleon’s forces finally arrived at the walls of Acre after a slight delay, they encountered walls much taller than the ladders they naively brought to climb over them. A naval blockade imposed by Commodore Smith slowed and prevented reinforcements and equipment from reaching Bonaparte’s forces, even seizing Napoleon’s cannons, which would quickly be turned against him. British Naval forces harassed the French on the shore. Faced with 5,000 Ottoman troops, 250 artillery cannons and the naval forces at sea, Napoleon was forced to abandon his plans for a rapid assault and instead began a siege of the well-defended city.

Finally receiving the artillery reinforcements he was long waiting for, on May 8, Napoleon began his largest push to penetrate the city. Two hundred grenadiers finally breached the high walls of Acre. When they encountered the secondary defenses that had been built, however, low morale spread through the ranks all the way up to Bonaparte himself, who at that point must have begun to sense his impending failure. The Frenchman would make one final vain push to conquer the stubborn city before lifting his siege and retreating from his grand aspirations to control the entire eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

But military forces were not the only tactics employed by Napoleon in his attempt to control Acre. The city’s ruler and commander, Jezzar Pasha, had a trusted Jewish advisor whom Bonaparte attempted to win over with a surprising declaration. On April 20, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had an order penned, declaring that when he conquered the territory, Jews, who he called the “rightful heirs of Palestine,” would inherit the land.

France and his army, Napoleon wrote to the Jews in what many today point to as one of the first iterations of modern Zionism, “offers to you at this very time, and contrary to all expectations, Israel's patrimony.” Haim Farhi, Jezzar Pasha’s advisor, was not, however, wooed by the French general’s promises of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.

Although it is widely believed that his intentions in penning the declaration were more influenced by a desire to incite the Jews living under and serving the Ottomans to betray them, Bonaparte did make other declarations implying sympathy for the Jewish people’s longing for the land of Israel. Albeit written in hindsight and over a year after his defeat in Acre, Napoleon wrote, “If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon.” As it is, however, the French general never had a chance to prove whether he was serious in these declarations or if they were simply tactical statements designed to ferment an insurrection by the Jews of Palestine.

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