GENERAL YA‘QUB (1745-1801)

Financial commissioner, then military leader, a mu‘allim become a general, Ya‘qub died young, and we have little information about his remarkable career. His role is thus debated: collaborator in the French occupation of Egypt, or pioneer of national independence? His contemporary al-Jabarti— who was a member of the diwan that collaborated with the French— presents him as a revanchist defender of the Coptic minority, a view repeated more than a century and a half later in the polemical writings of Muslim extremists. This is in contrast with the modernist ideology ascribed to him by Louis ‘Awad.

In 1924 Georges Douin brought to light the 1801 project for the independence of Egypt, attributed to Ya‘qub, from documents in the British Foreign Office. Copts here early manifestations of the same nationalism they had shown, along with their Muslim compatriots, in the revolution of 1919. However, with the proclamation of a constitutional government at Cairo under King Fouad, the reality of this project was played down by a man with a grudge, the French-speaking Greek journalist Alexander Hadjivassiliou, who used the pseudonym Auriant.

‘Abd al-Rahman al-Rafi‘i does not mention Ya‘qub in his of the National Movement, no doubt to avoid alluding to a confessional conflict; but in a thick booklet the historian Shafiq Ghurbal demonstrates the mature political sense of Ya‘qub, who could visualize the objective foundations of a viable independence when more popular leaders (‘Umar Makram, al-Mahruqi, al-Sadat, certain dervishes) did not go beyond a sterile and ephemeral demagogy. The only biography of Ya‘qub, written in 1921 by Gaston Homsy, one of his descendants in Marseilles, is chiefly concerned with establishing the glories of a provincial family.

For the study of the genesis and destiny of the Coptic Legion, the principal sources are the French archives: those of the Ministry of External Relations in Paris and particularly those of the Service historique de l’Armée de Terre at Vincennes, as well as the departmental and municipal archives in Marseilles.

Ya‘qub (Yacoub, Jacob) was born at Mallawi in 1745. All we know of his civic status are the names of his parents: Maryam Tawfiq Ghazal and Mu‘allim Hanna, an abbreviation of Yuhanna (John). We do not know whether his father was a bookkeeper, in the tradition of the Coptic scribes who kept the records of the land survey, or a merchant. Mallawi had a famous market that supplied a region of Middle Egypt with corn, spices, molasses, oil, linen, and cotton fabrics. It was also the center of a lucrative small principality that belonged to the chief of Mecca’s pilgrim caravan, Amir al-Hajj, the highest dignitary in the Mamluk hierarchy after Shaykh al- Balad, the commandant of Cairo.

His representative, a sirdar, at once a civil and a military governor, was aided by a Coptic bureaucracy in the main task of raising the annual tribute in grain, which was transported via Cairo, Suez, and the Red Sea to Arabia. Though there is no precise information about Ya‘qub’s upbringing, his subsequent activities testify to experience as a merchant and as a scribe. His originality was in the integration of these two domains of economic life, contrary to the customary separation of those professions, which reserved trade for foreigners—Europeans or people under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire—and reserved the administration of fiscal policy to the Copts.

Ya‘qub crossed these boundaries, beginning with his post as commissioner general of Sulayman Bey, kashif (governor) of the province of Asyut. Sulayman was one of eighteen new Mamluks promoted by ‘Ali Bey al-Kabir, who had just seized Egypt from Turkish domination (1767) and wished to establish his authority through a staff of his own. Ya‘qub, assisted by a hierarchy of scribes, managed the bey’s establishment and the territory held in rent.

Al-Jabarti calls attention to the astute exploitation of this muqata’ah (land rented out): waterwheels irrigated the orchards, and extensive pastures allowed the raising of large flocks of sheep. Their wool was shorn and spun by peasants liable to statutory labor and was woven for the benefit of the bey, who sold the weavers’ work to tailors and clothes merchants. The initiative of the mubashir (commissioner general) was responsible for this economic rationalization, aimed at an exchange economy. The wide range of the Asyut market favored the development of his business.

An ancient desert port on the Nile, Asyut added to the bey’s rural resources those of the customhouse, which dealt with the boats in transit on the river, and rights over the merchandise brought by the important caravans of Darfur: four or five thousand camels, led twice every year by two or three hundred people. Ya‘qub presided over the tax collectors, evaluated the transactions, and, no doubt, invested capital in this intercontinental traffic. In exchange for African products the caravans carried fabrics from Asyut, silks and soap from Syria, cloths and iron goods from Europe, and rice from the Delta.

After the of his first wife, in 1782 Ya‘qub married Maryam Ni‘mat-Allah Babutshi, daughter of a Syrian Christian from Aleppo. This intrusion of a Syrian into a Coptic family reflects the spread of Syrian merchants over Egypt between 1776 and 1798. ‘Ali Bey al-Kabir had approved this expansion as early as 1769 by wrestling the rent of the customs dues from the to give it to the Catholic Syrians Mikha’il Fakhr and Yusuf Bitar al-Halabi. No doubt this was with the intention of winning the financial resources of their community at a time when he was launching his costly annexation policy.

In the pashaliks of Syria, which ‘Ali Bey coveted, the Greek Catholic community had dissented from the local Melchite orthodoxy and had ostensibly attached itself to Rome in order to avert Ottoman exactions; at the same time they retained the Arabic language in worship in order to safeguard autonomy. Welcomed to economic activity by a Muslim power, the Greek Catholic community thus defended the prosperity it had gained in trade. This occurred notably at Aleppo, a station on the route between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, which received and redistributed articles manufactured in Europe, raw materials from Asia, and the products of its own vast hinterland.

While a Uniate diaspora, often from Aleppo, installed itself in Livorno (Leghorn) or or Trieste in the interests of an expanding east-west trade, in Egypt the common lot of Christian minorities in the Ottoman provinces was recurring persecution and brought together the great Syrian customs officers as well as the Coptic financial commissioners. Ya‘qub dealt with Anton Cassis Pharaon, the chief customs officer, and the Venetian Carlo Rossetti, a future consul of Austria.

The commercial houses of Cairo and Aleppo jointly monopolized the movement of merchandise between Europe and the commercial ports of the East. Marriages sanctified commercial alliances, and before the last decade of the eighteenth century, the network of credit established between Syrian and European traders was extended, discreetly, to the upper stratum of the Copts. The Syrians lived in Cairo between the Coptic quarter and the Frank, in which they frequented two Catholic churches, thus ensuring in residential terms the links they had in business.

The Coptic patriarch refused to bless Ya‘qub’s marriage, which he felt to be a desertion to Aleppo and synonymous with the Catholic advance in Egypt in the eighteenth century. But the movement toward modern times brought the lines of confessional separation to a new reality. The cathedral of the Coptic patriarchate in Cairo was built in 1800 on ground offered by Ya‘qub, a year before his death, and his widow contributed generously to the building of the Greek Catholic church in Marseilles.

On the surface, the political system was dominated by the distant Ottoman sultan and by the local rivalries of the Mamluks. In practice, the scribes of the Coptic minority exercised a degree of effective power. Ya‘qub carried this situation of the Copts to its limits. He had great assurance because his roots were in Upper Egypt, where the real fulcrum of political power was. The Mamluk chiefs sought refuge there with powerful allies in order to renew their forces, the better to conquer Cairo. After the settlement of the Hawwarah bedouin to the south, the beys of Jirja enjoyed an autonomy that brought Upper Egypt the prosperity built up under its last amir, Hammam, whose rule ‘Ali Bey had destroyed in 1769. Yaqub was present at Al Bey’s lightning ascent and at many events in the struggle between the Mamluks after his death.

Except for his status as a member of a minority, Ya‘qub possessed all the attributes of command, as he was brilliantly to show during the three years of the French expedition. In August 1798 a fellow Copt, JIRJIS AL-JAWHARI, the commissioner general under Napoleon, appointed him to accompany General Desaix’s division against the fleeing beys in the south. Charged with the revictualing of these troops and the organization of the camps, he also distinguished himself by feats of prowess on the battlefield—especially at ‘Ayn al-Qusiyyah, where his quick reaction saved the advance guard from a fatal ambush.

For this exploit Desaix awarded him a sword of honor. His superiority to his former masters was recognized. The Mamluks, seeking his mediation with the French, wrote through Sulayman Bey that if the general of the division wished to lay down his arms, Murad Bey would yield to him a province in Upper Egypt or furnish him with vessels to travel to France. Ya‘qub advised them to ask for peace themselves, and was to prove him right. It was Murad Bey who, concluding with General Kléber the treaty of 5 April 1800, had to accept the condition of governing the province of Jirja “with the charge of paying to the French Republic the miri [land tax] due to the sovereign of Egypt.”

During the eighteen months of this campaign, Ya‘qub assessed the reversal that was taking place and that he had thought basically settled, since he had received the French in Upper Egypt as his guests. From January 1799 it fell to him, starting from Desaix’s headquarters at Jirja, to organize the postal service necessary to link the garrisons scattered over the region.

A month after Napoleon’s departure for France, General Kléber faced a catastrophic financial situation. He had to discharge the arrears in the troops’ pay. Upon returning to Cairo in September 1799, Ya‘qub was charged with accelerating the raising of contributions.

The Turks had just broken the treaty of al-‘Arish, and while Kléber was doing battle with them at Heliopolis, some of their cavalry slipped into Cairo and roused the population. The Coptic quarter was the target for attacks by an enraged led by Hasan Bey al-Jiddawi. Instead of fleeing to Old Cairo and begging the protection of the Turks, as some rich Copts did, Ya‘qub barricaded himself and defended his quarter during twenty days of siege.

On 17 April 1800, Kléber decreed that all Copts should remain in their quarter, those who had fled to Old Cairo being forced to return to their homes. If its house had been burned or otherwise destroyed, a family was to be received into the nearest house. Ya‘qub was charged with the execution of the order and was given the title agha of the Coptic nation. He was to have a guard of thirty French troops for his personal security and to ensure French respect for his authority.

The Coptic Legion was an outcome of this resistance, and is thus distinguished from other “auxiliary” units grouped within the French army by Napoleon, who had been cut off from his base (1 August 1798) by the destruction of his fleet at Aboukir (Abu Qir) and compelled to recruit on the spot. The Coptic Legion was born of the need for self-defense and gave expression to a national vocation. Ya‘qub had a fortress built, with towers and ramparts like those encircling the city. In Cairo and in Upper Egypt he recruited young Copts, whom French instructors trained. The legion was to consist of six companies, to be augmented as a sufficient number of men presented themselves. The figure of 800 given by the chronicler Nicolas Turc is approximate. On 23 September 1800 there were 896 men, including officers, which seems to be the largest number attained.

Ya‘qub died suddenly of dysentery on 17 August 1801. He was buried in Marseilles.


Documents in archives

  • Public Record Office, London. F. O. 78, Turkey, vol. 33. Archives     du    ministère     des     Relations     Extérieures,     Paris. Correspondance politique, Turquie, vols. 203, 204, 205, 206, 208, 218.
  • Archives Nationales, Paris. Série AFiv.
  • Service historique de l’armée de terre, Vincennes. Orientalis (1798- 1815); Army of the Orient: correspondance, situations, registers. Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseilles. 200 876, 892. L 338.
  • Archives communales, Marseilles. Etat civil; land survey; Egyptian refugees.

Books and articles

  • Atiya, A. S. A of Eastern Christianity. London, 1968. Auriant. “Maallem Yakoub, dit le ‘Général Jacob,’ commandant la Legion Copte (1798-1801).” L’Acropole, 6 (1931): 137-146.
  • . La vie du chevalier Théodore Lascaris ou l’Imposteur malgré lui. Paris, 1940.
  • ‘Awad, L. Al-Mu’aththirat al-Ajnabiyyah fi al-Adab al-‘Arabi al- Hadith 2, al-Fikr al-Siyasi wa al-Ijtima‘i. Cairo, 1966.
  • Bachatly, C. “Un membre oriental du premier Institut d’Egypte: Don Raphaël (1759-1831).” Bulletin de l’Institut d’Egypte, 17, 2 (1934-1935): 237-260.
  • Belliard, A.-D. Mémoires du comte Belliard publiés par Vinet. Paris, 1842.
  • Chevalier, M. La politique financière de l’Expédition d’Egypte (1798-1801) (Cahiers d’histoire égyptienne. 7-8). June 1955-July 1956.
  • Dehérain, H. L’Egypte turque. Pachas et Mamelouks du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle. L’Expedition du général Bonaparte (Histoire de la Nation Egyptienne 5). Paris, 1934.
  • Douin, G. L’Egypte indépendante. Projet de 1801. Cairo, 1924.
  • Gibb, H. A. R., and Harold Bowen. Islamic society and the West. 2 vols. Oxford, 1950-1957.
  • Gozlan, L. “Les Réfugiés Egyptiens à Marseille.” La Revue Contemporaine (January 1866): 31-47.
  • Guemard, G. “Les auxiliaries de l’armée de en Egypte.” Bulletin de l’Institut d’Egypte 19 (1926): 1-17.
  • Haddad, G. A. “A Project for the Independence of Egypt, 1801.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 90, no. 2 (1970): 169-183.
  • Haddad, R. M. Syrian Christians in Muslim Society. Princeton, 1970.
  • Hourani, A. H. “The Changing Face of the Fertile Crescent in the XVIIIth century.” Studia Islamica 8 (1957):89-122.
  • . “The Syrians in Egypt in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” In Colloque international sur l’histoire du Caire, pp. 221-233 1969.
  • Al-Jabarti, ‘Abd al-Rahman. ‘Aja’ib al-Athar fi al-Tarajim wa al- Akhbar, Bulaq 1297/1879. 4 vols. Translation by A. Cardin.
  • Kayata, P. Monographie de l’église grecque catholique de Marseille. Marseilles, 1901.
  • Kishk, M. J. Wa Dakhalat al-Khayl al-Azhar. Beirut, 1971.
  • Louca, A. Voyageurs et écrivains égyptiens en France au XIXe siècle. Paris, 1970.
  • . “Militaires coptes en Egypte au XIXe siècle.” In Minorités, techniques et métiers. Aix-en-Provence, 1980.
  • . “Les cinquante jours à Marseille de Rifa‘ah al-Tahtawi”. In L’Orient des Provençaux dans l’histoire. Marseilles, 1982.
  • . “Les sources marseillaises de l’Orient romantique.” In Le miroir égyptien. Marseilles 1984, pp. 243-257.
  • ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Rafi‘i. Tarikh al-Harakah al-Qawmiyyah, 2 vols. Cairo, 1938.
  • Raymond, A. Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIe siècle, 2 vols. Damascus, 1973.
  • Reynaud, G. “Les données de l’état civil et du cadastre (1801-1833).” In L’Orient des Provençaux dans l’histoire. Marseilles, 1982.
  • Saman, E. “L’église Saint-Nicolas de Myre de Marseille et les collaborateurs orientaux de Bonaparte.” Marseilles revue municipale 124 (1981): 50-59.
  • Savant, J. Les Mamelouks de Napoléon. Paris, 1949.
  • Turc, N. Chronique d’Egypte (1798-1804), trans. G. Wiet. Cairo, 1950.
  • Volney, C. F. Chasseboeuf comte de. Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte [1782-1785]. Published by Jean Gaulmier. Paris-La Haye, 1959.