Along the Med at Caesarea
Most people are surprised to learn that Napoleon not only visited Israel in 1799, but that he tried to conquer it too. Napoleon was only one of a long list of rulers that wanted Israel, including Seti of Egypt, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Xerxes, Cyrus, Alexander the Great, and various Caesars, to name a few. What is even more surprising is that Bonaparte’s attack was meant to be a liberation of the Jews from the Ottoman Empire and allow them to be a free state, not a conquest as others had done before him. In this regard Napoleon was a unique invader because of the French Revolution’s ideals.
In 1789, France had issued toleration laws (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) that allowed anyone, including the Jews, to worship and be citizens in France in theory. There was still opposition to it in Catholic Europe, but Napoleon’s conquests spread this idea of tolerance and equality far and wide, even to Israel. When Napoleon’s army entered Ancona, Italy, in 1797 the Jewish community was relegated to living in a small ghetto. A confused Napoleon asked why some people were wearing yellow bonnets and yellow armbands with the “Star of David” on it, and he was told it identified the Jews who were required to go back to their ghetto every evening.
Napoleon was shocked, and immediately ordered all the ghettos closed, armbands and bonnets removed, that the Jews could live wherever they wanted, and were free to practice their religion. He also closed the Jewish ghettoes in Rome, Venice, Padua, and Verona. After conquering Italy, with many enthusiastic Italian Jews joining his army, Napoleon successfully attacked Egypt in 1789 with 35,000 men in an effort to end British control of trade routes with India, and replace it with his own.
The Little General’s hat
The following year he brought 13,000 troops from Egypt overland into the Ottoman Turks’ Syria-Palestine to take control of the four critical port cities of Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre (Britain’s Horatio Nelson had destroyed most of his French fleet in Egypt). Acre was a critical choke point for trade with Damascus and he hoped to eventually go there after taking Jerusalem.
Gaza fell easily, but after a stubborn Jaffa held out for four days, and was brutally ravaged by the French for its obstinacy, Napoleon continued north and conquered Haifa. En route, another enemy hit him hard, one that ravaged the whole area equally–the bubonic plague. The Haifa Carmelite monastery became a hospital for them and his injured men. When Napoleon left here, the Turks took back the city and brutally killed the wounded and diseased French soldiers for the Jaffa atrocities.
Jerusalem evaded Napoleon’s conquest
Napoleon led his remaining troops on to the main prize, Acre. Bonaparte surrounded the city with three concentric rows of trenches and laid siege to it for almost two months. Six times the French attacked the huge walls, but could not take the city. The Turks, supported by British warships and stiffened by the savagery at Jaffa, barely held on. Napoleon finally decided to abandon the siege when he got intelligence that the plague was killing over 60 people a day inside and that a joint force of British and Turks were heading to Alexandria. With barely 8,000 soldiers left, and many deathly ill from the plague, he headed back to Egypt in defeat, burying his cannons or sinking them at sea in Tantura to free up carriages for the wounded and sick. Those who could not be transported were killed by the Turks. Despite this crushing defeat, one of very few, Bonaparte was portrayed as a conquering hero in his return to Paris.
Underwater excavations in Acre’s harbor have found countless cannonballs that bounced off the thick Crusader walls and more than 20 ships. The most recent one was dated to Napoleon’s failed siege of the city in 1799 and found by a British map that depicts the British navy fighting with Napoleon’s ships. In the drawing, the symbol of a sunken ship led to the discovery of this ship with a cannon ball in the hull, apparently shot on purpose to block the harbor from the French fleet.
The death of the Emperor
Napoleon later wrote of his 1799 campaign in Israel, comparing himself with Alexander the Great’s many triumphs and the Persian Immortals who won at Thermopylae, “(If I had) been able to take Acre, I would have put on a turban, I would have made my soldiers wear big Turkish trousers, and I would have exposed them to battle only in case of extreme necessity. I would have made them into a Sacred Battalion–my Immortals. I would have finished the war against the Turks with Arabic, Greek, and Armenian troops. Instead of a battle in Moravia, would have won a Battle of Issus, I would have made myself emperor of the East, and I would have returned to Paris by way of Constantinople.”