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THE FACE OF MU’ALLEM YA’QUB HANNA, THE GREAT COPTIC HERO, BY THE FRENCH ARTIST VIVANT DENON وجه المعلم يعقوب (الجنرال يعقوب)، البطل المصري القبطي، بريشة الفنان الفرنسي فيفانت دينون

May 31, 2012

Figure 1: Vivant Denon (1747-1825) by his contemporary, Robert Lefèvre (Musée National du Château de Versailles).

Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon, or simply Vivant Denon, (1747 – 1825), was a French diplomat, artist and archaeologist. When Napoleon Bonaparte led his Expedition to Egypt in 1798, he invited Denon to accompany him as part of the Institut d’Égypte to carry out research. When in Egypt, Denon accompanied General Louis Desaix in his campaign in Upper Egypt (August 1798 – 29 May 1799) in pursuit of Murad Bey and his Mamluks who had fled south of Cairo following the Battle of the Pyramids. There, in Upper Egypt, protected by Desaix and the French troops, Denon made numerous sketches of Egyptian monuments, sights and personalities. When Napoleon abandoned Egypt on 23 August 1799, leaving General Kléber in command of the army, Denon left with him to France. When in Paris, he published, in 1802, the story of the French expedition,[i] and his discoveries in Egypt, in two volumes – Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les Campagnes du Général Bonaparte (Paris; P. Didot l’aîné; An X 1802). The book, which was soon to be translated into several European languages,[ii] had an atlas of engravings attached to it, made of 141 plates (planches), and included some of Denon’s most wonderful Egyptian sketches.[iii]


Figure 2: Dominique Vivant Denon French Archeologist in Egypt by Demarchi.

In the atlas attached to Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte one finds several portraits of Egypt’s inhabitants (Plates 104-111). One of the personalities, which Denon sketched while in Upper Egypt, was Ya’qub Hanna (1745–1801) – a man of exceptional life and qualities; and a national hero of the Copts.

Ya’qub (or Mu’allem Ya’qub)[iv] [v]was born in 1745 in Mallawi, a largely Coptic village, in Upper Egypt. When the French arrived in Egypt in 1798 he was fifty-three years of age, and had already had a daring and colourful past behind him. When young, he entered the service of Sulaiman (or Sulayman) Bey – a Mamluk of Ali Bey al-Kabir who ruled Egypt between 1763 and 1773, and who was appointed by the latter as kashif (governor) of the province of Asyut. Ali Bey rebelled against the Ottomans, allied himself to Russia, favoured European merchants in the country, and appointed some Copts and Syrian Christians to run his administration. Ya’qub was responsible for controlling the revenues and finances in Asyut region.  There he learned the military skills of the Mamluks, including horsemanship and cavalry tactics – something which Copts were rarely permitted to do.[vi] The benevolent and tolerant rule of Ali Bey was ended by Abu Dhahab, who publically accused Ali of being Christian at heart. Abu Dhahab died in 1775, to be followed by the dual control (or duumvirate) of two of Ali Bey’s Mamluks, Ibrahim and Murad. Their rule was characterised by constant fighting in between themselves, against other Mamluks, and also against Ottoman Viceroys; which devastated and impoverished the country, and laid it fertile for pestilence. In 1786, the Ottoman Empire attempted to regain control of Egypt.  Both Murad and Ibrahim Beys fled to Upper Egypt, and Capitan Hassan, the Turkish leader, installed Ismail Bey in their place.[vii] He then chased the two Mamluks southward, where at the village of Al-Manshah,[viii] near Asyut, the two armies met, and Murad’s superior tactics over the Turks’ won the day. We know, from various sources, that Mu’allem Ya’qub, who was forty one year at the time, fought on the side of Murad (and Sulaiman), and excelled in that battle, which sealed his reputation as “a fierce warrior and a man of great energy.”[ix]

Eventually, the tyrannical and irresponsible government of Ibrahim and Murad was terminated by Napoleon Bonaparte when he beat them at the Battle of the Pyramids[x] on July 21, 1798. Soon Mu’allem Ya’qub was introduced by Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari,[xi] the other great Copt, and head of his community at the time, to Napoleon Bonaparte as a man he could rely on his services. Ya’qub who hated both Turks and Mamluks for their misrule and oppression of the Egyptians, considered the French who defeated them as liberators; and so he did not hesitate to help. He later described his position in a poem:

Our love for the French is inevitable

For they liberated us from all harm and evil.[xii]

To Ya’qub, both Mamluks and Turks exploited true Egyptians – the Fellahin, whether Copts or Muslim – and ruined the country, which was once great as the monuments of Thebes bore witness to. There could have been no worse rule than theirs. “Any government [is] preferable to that of the Turks;” “Is not everything in the world preferable to Turkish despotism?”[xiii]  So, when the French arrived in Egypt Ya’qub a ray of hope for a possible resumption of Egypt’s long-lost independence, or at least the setting up of a just government, based on the principles of the French Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité. For the Copts, who had always suffered more under foreign Muslim rule, due to their Christian faith, the French offered religious freedom and a new social contract based on equality and respect.[xiv] All Copts felt the tyranny of the Turks and Mamluks; but their reaction to injustice varied. Some Copts sought salvation from their unjust rulers through supplications and the offering of prayers; others accepted their degradation in humility, believing that the lot of Christians ought to be martyrdom and suffering in this world; and yet another group of Copts attempted to mitigate their dreadful condition, and ward off the evil of their oppressors, by being charitable and generous with their money towards the powers that be. Ya’qub would have none of this – he looked for a radical solution: a national war of independence, particularly when the time was opportune and the conditions were ripe. He had no compulsion to feel loyal to the despotic Ottomans and Mamluks – his loyalty was to Egypt, and to its oppressed people. Muslim historians, such as Al-Jabarti[xv] and Al-Sawi,[xvi] saw in Ya’qub a traitor. Their criticism bears all the hallmark of anticoptism,[xvii] and is riddled with hypocrisy. They regarded the French as occupiers but could not see the Turks and Mamluks in the same light, for the simple reasons that these were Muslim while the French were nominally Christian. The fact that French rule was comparatively considerably much lighter, just and beneficial to Egypt was immaterial. Their loyalty was to the Ottoman Caliphate and Islam rather than to Egypt and the Egyptians. For this reasons their criticism must be seen as yet another exercise in Muslim prejudice.

 Figure 3: Map of Upper Egypt between Minya and Jirja, showing main towns and Coptic sites (adapted from: Lonely Planet).

After the Battle of the Pyramids, Ibrahim Bey escaped eastward and Murad Bey fled to Upper Egypt, where Bonaparte sent General Desaix to dislodge him. There, Mu’allem Ya’qub’s huge assistance to Desaix was fundamental. Ya’qub was appointed general steward of the Upper Egypt campaign. He did not act only as a financial director but also fought with the French as a soldier with much valour and distinction, particularly in the Battle of Ain Al-Qusiya, at the village of Al-Atamna, on 24 December 1798. Desaix presented Ya’qub with a special sword in a military ceremony at Bani Sa’ad, to reward him for his courage. When the Second Cairo Uprising (20 March – 21 April 1800) erupted, and Turks, Mamluks and fanatic Muslim mobs attacked the Coptic quarter in Azbakiyya[xviii], Cairo, Ya’qub defended the Copts with much ingenuity, and saved them and their Coptic Patriarchate from a certain destruction. Ya’qub later on formed the Coptic Legion, and was appointed Commander (Sari ‘Askar) of it by Kléber.[xix] When Menou succeeded Kléber, he promoted Ya’qub in March 1803 to the rank of brigadier-general. In that capacity he was set to assist General Belliard in the defence of Cairo against the Anglo-Turkish armies. When the French withdrew from Egypt, Ya’qub departed with them,[xx] but his attempts to liberate Egypt did not cease. He headed an Egyptian delegation that left to Europe with the French forces on August 10, 1801. His plan to throw away the despotic Ottomans through the creation on an Egyptian army, and the assistance of European powers, is detailed in what came to be known as the “project for the independence of Egypt, 1801”. As George A. Haddad puts it, it is “perhaps the first official project and plea for Egyptian independence in modern times”.[xxi] Ya’qub, however, did not survive to pursue his project – he died, on 16 August 1801, at sea; and his body was preserved to be later buried in Marseille, France. Thus ended the life of one of the bravest and ablest Copts in history. The gallantry, military excellence, and organisational skills of this extra-ordinary Copt did not go unnoticed – Napoleon Bonaparte, in a letter dated May 1801, and sent to Ya’qub, praised his courage, and encouraged him to persevere in the war, promising him promotion.

Vivant Denon who calls our hero, Malem Jacob,[xxii] mentions him after the occupation of Asyut,[xxiii] and just before the French army was about to occupy Jirja, capital of Upper Egypt at the time, on 29 December 1798. On the same day, the division passed by the village of Al-Manshah (Denon calls it ‘Minchia’),[xxiv] at which, back in 1786, Murad beat the Turkish leader Capitan Hassan – a battle in which Ya’qub, as we have already seen, distinguished himself. Denon tells us: “The next day[xxv] we returned along the Nile, and crossed the field of the battle, in which, during the last war between the Turks and the Mamluks, Assan-Basha[xxvi] was beaten by Murad-Bey, where the latter, with five thousands Mamluks, overthrew and routed eighteen thousand Turks and three thousand Mamluks.” Then he immediately adds, “Malem-Jacob, a Copt, who accompanied us as our steward, was a spectator of this battle, and had taken a share in it, and he explained to us all the particulars. He shewed us with what superiority of talent Murad had gained his advantage and profited by it. After this, Denon comments on the easy defeat of Murad now by the superior French army: “… the same Murad-Bey would now foam with anger, at being obliged to repass the same field of battle, flying before fifteen hundred [French] infantry.”[xxvii]

This is the only time Denon mentions Mu’allem Ya’qub in the body of his book. But we see Ya’qub again in Planche CVIII (Plate 108) of Denon’s atlas. That plate contains three separate drawings:

  • The top one shows an ichneumon, also known as the rat of Pharaoh, or the Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon).
  • The middle one shows two Coptic monks on the reader’s left, and then, on his right, Mu’allem Ya’qub (Malem Jacob).
  • The bottom one shows seven portraits – the first three, on the reader’s left, are Copts; then the rest are of Arab sheikhs.

Underneath, I reproduce the whole plate, and then focus on the portrait of Mu’allem Ya’qub, which is the subject of our study.[xxviii]

 Figure 4: Planche CVIII (108); p. 287-8


Figure 5: Face of Mu’allem Ya’qub.


Figure 6: Face of Mu’allem Ya’qub.

Vivant Denon, as all the French in the expedition, reserved a special respect for Mu’allem Ya’qub, this extraordinary Coptic character – this “brave man”, “this prodigy of his race”, as he describes him. We know that from the explanatory notes he attaches to Planche CVIII:

Malem Jacob… personnage distingué et d’un mérite remarquable ; il avoit fait les campagnes de Mourat-bey dans les guerres de ce bey contre les Turks , et en étoit fort estimé et fort regretté ; il avoit embrassé notre parti, et y a été constamment fidele ; il respectoit Desaix, et lui étoit très attaché ; il fit avec lui, comme intendant-général, toute l’expédition de la haute Égypte, et nous fut toujours d’une grande utilité : il jouissoit d’une fortune considérable, et d’une haute considération dans le pays ; il déployoit un faste oriental, qui étoit d’une opposition très remarquable avec la simplicité de son général. Lorsqu’il apprit qu’après la mort de Desaix on s’occupoit de lui élever un tombeau, il écrivit qu’à quelque somme que pussent s’élever les frais de ce monument, il s’engageoit à en payer le tiers, à condition qu’on inscriroit sur le mausolée que Malem Jacob, l’ami de Desaix, avoit toujours combattu près de lui. Il y a dans le sentiment de cette phrase autant de sensibilité que d’amour de la belle gloire. Ce brave homme, ce prodige de sa race, qui avoit suivi les Français dans leur retraite, mourut dans la traversée ; et les dernieres paroles qu’il prononça furent pour demander que son corps fût déposé dans le tombeau de Desaix.[xxix]

The English translation by the American Arthur Aikin of Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, to my knowledge, does not include Denon’s atlas of engravings, and so we don’t seem to have an English translation of Denon’s explanatory notes. The following is my own translation:

Malem Jacob… a distinguished character and remarkable man. He had served in the campaigns of Murad Bey in his wars against the Turks, and was highly esteemed and much regretted.[xxx] He embraced our party, and was always faithful. He respected Desaix, and was very attached to him. Desaix made him intendant-general of the Upper Egypt expedition,[xxxi] and we found him exceedingly useful.  He enjoyed a considerable fortune, and was highly regarded in the country. He displayed an oriental splendor, which was in a remarkable contrast with the simplicity of his general.[xxxii] When he learned, after the death of Desaix,[xxxiii] the plan to erect a monument for him, he pledged to pay one-third of its cost, requesting only that an inscription is made in the mausoleum recording that ‘Malem Jacob, the friend of Desaix, had always fought beside him’. There in that phrase sensitivity as much as love of the beautiful glory. This brave man, this prodigy of his race, who had followed the French in their retreat, died at sea, and the last words which he uttered were about permitting his body to be buried at Desaix’s tomb.

It is a pity that the drawing shows only Ya’qub’s right profile and not his full face. Even though, the portrait is able to show features of a strong man, who stands out in the crowd. He wears a skull-cap and a white turban. Copts were banned from wearing white turbans prior to the French expedition.[xxxiv] He has a straight nose, small mouth and a neat, handsome moustache and beard. One is impressed by his smiley countenance, which no doubt increased his appeal to Copts and other peoples around him. This is a smart, confident, brave man who is at peace with himself – a charismatic leader.

This drawing is the only original portrait of Mu’allem Ya’qub.[xxxv]  It is refreshing to know that it was made by no less than the brilliant French savant and artist Vivant Denon, who knew Ya’qub personally and held him in high esteem. Had it not been for Denon, we perhaps would not have known the face of one of our great national heroes – and what a face!

Face of Coptic dignity

Gallantry and pride

Prodigy of his race!

Eternal Egypt, and I, salute you, and say, Hail hero!


[i] Denon was the first artist to publish the story of the French expedition in Egypt.

[ii] It was translated into English in 1803 under the title Journey to the Lower and Upper Egypt. In the same year it was translated into German, and a few years later in Dutch, Italian and other languages.  It does not seem that the book has ever been translated into Arabic.

[iii] I have taken the pictures which I publish here from the Italian version of the book:

[iv] Mu’allem in Arabic language means ‘teacher’; and the title was often given to educated individuals who held important positions in the administration or society. The word ‘mu’allem’ is sometimes written as ‘Mu’allim’, ‘Mallem’ or ‘Moallem’. Mu’allem Ya’qub’s name is often spelled as Mu’allem Ya’coub (or Yacoub), Ya’coub the Copt, and Ya’coub al-Sa’idi. He is also called General Ya’coub (Ya’qub). As the reader will see, the French called him Mallem Jacob.

[v] For more on Mu’allem Ya’qub, the reader is advised to consult the following:

–          Anouar Louca: Ya’qub, General in the Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 7 (Macmillan; 1991).

–          Shafîq Ghurbâl: Le général Ya‘qûb, le chevalier Lascaris et le projet d’indépendance de l’Égypte en 1801. Traduit de l’arabe par Iman Farag. L’expédition de Bonaparte vue d’Égypte. Deuxième série | n° 1 /// 1999. p. 179-203.

–          Anouar Louca: Ya’qūb et les Lumières. Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée ;  Année   1989; Volume   52; Numéro   52-53; pp. 63-76.

–          George A. Haddad: A project for the Independence of Egypt, 1801. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 90; No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1970), pp. 169-183.

–          Al-Jabarti, ‘Abd al-Rahman. ‘Aja’ib al-Athar fi al-Tarajim wa al-Akhbar, Bulaq 1297/1879. 4 vols. Translation by A. Cardin.

–          Homsy, Gaston. Le Général Jacob et l’expédition de Bonaparte en Egypte, 1798-1801.  Marseilles, 1921.

–          Ahmad Hussain Al-Sawi: Al-mu’allem Ya’qub bayn al-haqiqa wal ustoura (المعلم يعقوب بين الأسطورة والحقيقة ) (Cairo; 1986).

–          The Coptic History Committee: Al-genera’al Yaqub wa’istiqlal Misr (الجنرال يعقوب وإستقلال مصر) (Cairo; 1935).

–          Louis Awad: Mashro’a al-istqlal al-awal (  مشروع الإستقلال الأول ) in Tarikh al-fikr al-masri al-hadith (  تاريخ  الفكر المصري الحديث ) (Cairo; 1969).

–           Shafiq Ghurbal: Al-ganral Ya’qub wal faris Laskaris wa mashro’a istiqlal masr fi sanat 1801 (الجنرال يعقوب والفارس لاسكاريس ومشروع إستقلال مصر في سنة ١٨٠١ ) (Cairo; 2009).

[vi] Under Islamic law, non-Muslims are strictly forbidden to carry arms or own horses, let alone riding them.

[vii] He ruled Egypt until 1791, when he died of plague, and the dual control of Ibrahim and Murad was resumed.

[viii] See n. xxiv.

[ix] George A. Haddad: A project for the Independence of Egypt, 1801; p. 169.

[x] Also called Battle of Embabeh.

[xi] For more on Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari, see my article: Dioscorus Boles (13 October 2011), Mu’allem Jirjis Al-Jawhari , Islam, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Copt’s Cashmere Turban (at On Coptic Nationalism).

[xii] From a poem written by Ya’qub upon receiving the news of the death of Desaix. Published by Ahmad Hussain Al-Sawi in his Al-mu’allem Ya’qub bayn al-haqiqa wal ustoura; pp. 37-44.

[xiii] See: George A. Haddad: A project for the Independence of Egypt, 1801.

[xiv] For more on that, read my article: Dioscorus Boles (17 October 2011), Napoleon Bonaparte’s Declaration to the Coptic Nation on 7 December 1798 – a New Social Contract (at On Coptic Nationalism).

[xv] Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti ( عبد الرحمن الجبرتي) (‎1753-1825) was a Somali Muslim scholar and historiuan, who spent most of his life in Cairo. He wrote a chronicle, ‘Aja’ib al-Athar fi al-Tarajim wa al-Akhbar (عجائب الاَثار في التراجم والاخبار), in which he covered the French expedition and the history of Murad Bey. In it he expressed intense anticoptism.

[xvi] Ahmad Hussain Al-Sawi, a modern Egyptian writer. He wrote his book: المعلم يعقوب بين الأسطورة والحقيقة (Cairo; 1986).

[xvii] Anticoptism is defined as the intense dislike and hate by the Egyptian Muslim of the Copts which leads him or her to express it in diver hostile ways, including written and verbal lies and insults, segregation, discrimination and other cruel treatment. The anticopt (المعادي للأقباط، الكاره للأقباط  ) is the Egyptian Muslim who harbours or practises antocoptism – i.e. an Egyptian Muslim who hates the Copts and this may lead him or her to hostile attitude towards them that may be expressed in literature, speech or actions of segregation, discrimination and other cruelty.  For more on that, read my article: Anticoptism (معاداة الأقباط, المعاداة للأقباط), the Antisemetism of Egypt at On Coptic Nationalism.

[xviii] For Azbakiyya, read Azbakiyya and Its Environs from Azbek to Ismail, 1476-1879 by Doris Behrens_Abouseif (Institut français d’archéologie orientale; Cairo; 1985).

[xix] The Coptic Legion consisted of some 2,000 Copts, who were recruited by Ya’qub from Upper Egypt.

[xx] Ya’qub left with several of his family members, friends and followers on the British ship Pallas.

[xxi] Page 169.

[xxii] Jacob (in French and English) is derived from the Latin Iacobus, which was from the Greek Ιακωβος (Iakobos). In Coptic the Greek form is adopted. All forms are of course derived from the original Hebrew name יַעֲקֹב (Ya’aqov), who is also called Israel. The Arabic form is almost similar to the Hebrew – يعقوب (Ya’qub). As Copts started to forget their language in the Middle Ages, and adopt Arabic, they gradually abandoned Coptic forms of names, and replaced them with Arabic equivalents, or corrupted the Coptic name in some other way.

[xxiii] Asyut was occupied on 25 December 1798. I use the dates given by Abdel Rahman al-Rifai’I, which are a date earlier than dates given by Denon. It is not clear to me how that difference has risen.

[xxiv] Abdel Rahman al-Rafi’i in his Tarikh al-harakah al-Qaw’miyya (تاريخ الحركة القومية) calls it Al-Manshah (المنشاة), as it is currently known. The Coptic History Committee in its book Al-genera’al Yaqub wa’istiqlal Misr (الجنرال يعقوب وإستقلال مصر) calls it al-Manshiyya (المنشية), similar to how Denon called it.

[xxv] He means, the next day after the evening in which they encamped at Balasfurah, which he calls Bonnasse Bura, another village in the way between Asyut and Jirja.

[xxvi] Capitan Hassan, the Turkish leader.

[xxvii] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country: and published under his immediate patronage by Vivant Denon; tr. Arthur Aikin. New York; printed by Heard and Forman for Samuel Campbell; January 1803. Volume II; p. 13. For the French original, see: Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les Campagnes du Général Bonaparte. Paris; P. Didot l’aîné; An X 1802; p. 100. For the benefit of the reader, I produce here the relevant equivalent French text: “Le 7, nous revînmes sur le Nil, et nous traversâmes le champ de bataille où, dans la derniere guerre des Turcs avec les Mamelouks, Assan pacha fut battu par Mourat bey, et où ce dernier, avec cinq mille Mamelouks, renversa et mit en fuite dix huit mille Turcs et trois mille Mamelouks. Malem-Jacob, le Cophte, qui nous accompagnoit comme intendant des finances, spectateur et acteur de cette bataille, nous en expliqua les details; il nous démontroit avec quelle supériorité de talent Mourat avoit pris ses avantages, et en avoit profité.”

[xxviii] The reader must be advised that all plates, and drawings, of Egyptian theme are interesting. I, however, deal here with Coptic subjects.

[xxix] Vivant Denon, Voyage dans la basse et la haute Égypte pendant les campagnes du général Bonaparte,
Paris, 1802; pp. 287-288.

[xxx] The word ‘regretted’ seems to be out of place here, but it seems the only translation that could be given for ‘regretté’. Readers fluent in French are invited to help providing a more accurate translation.

[xxxi] This raises an interesting point – was Ya’qub appointed by Bonaparte or Desaix to be the general steward of the French campaign in Upper Egypt.

[xxxii] Louis Desaix.

[xxxiii] Louis Desaix was killed in action at the battle of Marengo, Italy, on June 14, 1800.

[xxxiv] A white turban is considered in Islamic law as a sign of honour, and is permitted only to Muslims. Non-Muslims had to wear dark or black turbans, to dishonor them, but also to make them stand out for discrimination and insults by the Muslim public.

[xxxv] Later on, Denon’s portrait of Mu’allem Ya’qub was reproduced by Valentine Homsy in 1821, which we shall talk about in a separate article.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2012 7:42 pm

    I’ve been reading your latest three posts and i must say Mu’allem Ya’qub seems to be a major historical figure for the Copts, a man of vision and courage, a pitty he had to meet such an end.
    Thank you for showing this (unknown to me) part of Egyptian history.

  2. Dioscorus Boles permalink
    June 1, 2012 8:46 pm

    Thank you, Will, and thanks for your regular comments, which I appreciate greatly. You are right, Mu’allem Ya’qub was an extraordinary Copt and Egyptian. He has been unjustly treated by most Egyptians, but we know why that is the case. It remains for the Copts to get to know the man better and believe in him and his way when the nation needs to be defended. Many who are not Copts will identify with this man.



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