A STORY OF BRAVE COPTIC RESISTANCE AGAINST THE MAMELUKES OF EGYPT IN 1798 AD قصة مقاومة قبطية ضد المماليك في ١٧٩٨ لم تُعْرَف من قبل كما يرويها الفرنسي دومينيك فيفان دينون
THE STORY, WHICH HITHERTO HAS BEEN LITTLE KNOWN, WAS RELAYED TO US BY THE FRENCH DOMINIQUE VIVANT DENON. COPTIC NATIONALISM BRINGS YOU THE STORY OF THE BRAVE COPTIC MEN FROM MALLAWI, TUKH, DAYR MAWAS, TANUF, DAYROUT, AL QUSIYYAH AREA IN UPPER EGYPT.
Figure 1: One of the brave Upper Egyptian Copts who fought the Mamelukes in Upper Egypt, in December 1798 AD (sketch by Vivant Denon).[i]
As I was reading Dominique Vivant Denon’s fascinating book, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les Campagnes du Général Bonaparte, I came across a very interesting story of brave Coptic resistance which I would like to share with my readers. General Louis Desaix’s Campaign in Upper Egypt in pursuit of Murad Bey and his Mamelukes was steadily advancing. The French troops spent the night of the 22nd December 1798 in Mallawi, the birth place of Mu’allem Ya’qub, who was accompanying the campaign as its general steward. In the morning of the 23rd, they marched out of Mallawi on their way to Al-Qusiyyah, which they reached on the same day, spending their night in it. They had to march over Tukh, Tanuf and Dayrout before they reached Al-Qusiyya. The whole area was and still is a land of high Coptic concentration. As four thousand French troops marched forward, more than eight thousand Mamelukes kept fleeing before them. After the painful beating Murad and his Mamelukes had had from General Desaix in the battle of Sediman, on 7 October 1798, they avoided coming face to face with the French again, constantly keeping a fair distance in between, in this occasion nearly twelve miles. As they were crossing the country southward in their flight from the French, they devastated the land[ii] and oppressed the Egyptian fellahin (peasants), Copts and Muslims, as they tried to squeeze the last penny out of them before the arrival of the French. As usual, the Christian Copts bore the brunt of the tyranny and extortions. It is here that Denon tells us the story of some Copts (he labels them une députation, c’étaient des Chrétiens [a deputation, a party of Christians]) who came up to the French camp, in the evening of the 23 December 1798, raising a flag of alliance (en signe d’alliance):
Le 23, nous continuâmes de suivre les Mamelouks: ils étaient toujours à quatre lieues de distance; nous ne pouvions rien gagner sur eux: ils dévastaient autant qu’ils pouvaient le pays qu’ils laissaient entre nous. Vers le soir nous vîmes arriver une députation avec des drapeaux en signe d’alliance; c’étaient des Chrétiens auxquels ils avaient demandé une contribution de cent chameaux; et, ces malheureux n’ayant pu les leur donner, ils avaient tué soixante des leurs; un tel procédé ayant irrité les Chrétiens, ils avaient de leur côté tué huit Mamelouks, dont ils nous proposaient de nous apporter les têtes: ils parlaient tous à la fois, répétaient cent fois les mêmes expressions; mais heureusement pour nos oreilles l’audience se donnait dans un champ de luzerne, ce qui offrit un rafraîchissement à la députation, qui se mit à manger de l’herbe comme d’un mets délicieux dont on craint de perdre l’occasion de se rassasier.[iii]
Arthur Aikin, the American translator of Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte,[iv] gives the English version of the above passage, which I reproduce here with some editing to make it clearer:
On the next day, December 23rd,[v] we continued our pursuit of the Mamelukes, who kept themselves always about four leagues[vi] off us, and so we could not catch up with, and defeat, them. Wherever they went they devastated the country behind them. Towards the evening we saw a deputation with a flag of alliance coming up to our camp. It was a party of Christians, from whom the Mamelukes had demanded a requisition of one hundred camels. As these unfortunates were not able to comply with the demand due to their poverty, the Mamelukes had barbarously murdered sixty of their people. They in return, highly exasperated, had killed eight of the Mamelukes, whose heads they offered to bring us. They all spoke at once, repeating the same words a hundred times; but fortunately for our ears, the hearing was given in a field of alfalfa, which offered refreshment to the deputation, who began to eat the grass as if it were a delicacy they were afraid of losing.[vii]
It is a story that reminds us of the excessive greed, injustice and brutality of the Mamelukes, who ruled Egypt and lorded over its fellahin, both Coptic and Muslim, for centuries.[viii] In their flight from the French, the Mamelukes demanded from the Coptic peasants of the area a requisition of one hundred camels which they were not in a position to provide. As the poor Copts could not comply, the Mamelukes massacred sixty of their people. In response, the Copts, who fought back, killed eight Mamelukes. That was something almost unheard of in Egypt in the period. Mamelukes were regarded with fear in Egypt for their extreme cruelty, and so were rarely resisted by Egyptians. Watching the haughtiness and oppression of the Mamelukes in 1778, and the passivity of the Egyptians and acquiescence in their misery, Claude-Étienne Savary, a French traveller in Egypt, wrote:
“I could not help being surprised at seeing so numerous a body of men voluntarily submitting themselves to seven or eight thousand foreigners, who have no other employment than their destruction. But the natives of Egypt, gentle and peaceable, without force, and without energy, seemed destined to eternal bondage.
But for ages under the yoke of despotism they suffer every sort of misery, without lifting up their heads.”[ix]
One can sense in the story of the Copts which Denon has told us in his book something new, something extraordinary. Here we have Copts from Upper Egypt fighting and, in the process, killing Mamelukes in order to defend their people. We must remember that this fight preceded Mu’allem Ya’qub’s valiant fight against the Mamelukes in the Battle of Ain Al-Qusiyyah (24 December 1798). There is no doubt that this is a story of remarkable Coptic defiance, resistance and courage which register something novel. But what else can this interesting story, hitherto little known, tell us?
Anwar Louca in his excellent article in The Coptic Encyclopedia, “General Ya’qub”, tells us that the Coptic Legion, which Ya’qub had formed and headed in 1800-1801, was “born of the need for self-defense”.[x] Other historians agree, and can add that almost all instances of Coptic armed resistance under Muslim rule had been defensive in the face of Muslim oppression and assaults. Ya’qub formed his army – we can call it Coptic defence force – when Turks, Mamelukes and other fanatic Muslims attacked the Coptic quarter in Azbakiyya, Cairo, and other areas, and killed so many Copts, during the Second Cairo Uprising (20 March – 21 April, 1800). This was not the first time Copts had revolted against Muslim attacks and injustice. The first two centuries of Arab rule witnessed successive revolts by the Copts, culminating in what is often termed “the last great Coptic revolt”. In 830-832 AD, Copts of the Bashmur area in the northern part of the Nile Delta launched a resistance campaign against the Abbasids after they could not tolerate their oppression anymore. The History of the Coptic Patriarchs describes the calamity from which Copts suffered in the early days of the patriarchate of Anba Yusab (Joseph: 831 – 849):
“Satan … stirred up, at the beginning of Abba Joseph’s pontificate, a great war in the eastern and western parts of Egypt, which led to universal plunder and slaughter. For there was much fighting throughout the country. In the words of the prophet Amos: ‘This is what the Lord, the Ruler, says. There shall be lamentation in all places’.
… Thus Satan did not cease to stir up wars and murder. [And] in spite of the troubles from which the people were suffering, [tax overseers] persisted in demanding the taxes without mercy, and men were increasingly and incalculably distressed. Their greatest trouble arose from the extortion practised by the … overseers of taxes; for what they could not pay was required of them. After this the merciful God by his righteous judgment sent down a great dearth upon Egypt, so that wheat reached the price of one dinar for five waibahs. Many of the women and infants and young people, and of the old and the middle-aged, died of starvation, in fact of the whole population a countless number, through the severity of the famine. And the overseer of taxes was doing harm to the people in every place. And most of the Bashmurite Christians were severely chastised, like the Israelites; so that at last they even sold their own children to pay their taxes, because they were greatly distressed. For they were tied to the mills and beaten, so that they should work the mills like cattle…. So, after long and wearisome days, death put an end to their sufferings.
But afterward the Bashmurites, seeing that they had no means of escape, and at the same time that no troops could enter their country on account of the abundance of marshes which it contained, and because none was acquainted with the roads except themselves, began to rebel and to refuse to pay the taxes. And they came to an agreement and plotted together over this matter.”[xi]
The Bashmuric revolts were indeed great, but they were not the last. Copts continued to resist their enemies – but their resistance continued to display the same pattern. The story of the Upper Egyptian Copts which Vivant Denon conveyed to us in his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte only confirms that. It tells us, first, that armed Coptic resistance to injustice never died. It also tells us that although the Copts might have easily submitted to foreign rule, even the worst of them, they, nevertheless, rose up in revolt against it when the oppression exceeded a point beyond which their tolerance expired. This point was exceeded whenever they were exposed to extreme taxation or torture, or when their lives and those of their dearest were put under imminent threat. In these desperate situations the Copts took whatever arms they could acquire and fought their more powerful enemies – in what can be described as desperate courage.
But – and here is the third observation on Coptic resistance – armed Coptic resistance has been sporadic, localised, limited, poorly organised, ill-conducted, and unsupported by a nationalist narrative or a political philosophy that justified rebellion, except perhaps under General Ya’qub’s leadership. It is not surprising then that Coptic revolts achieved little. In the words of Anwar Louca: “Without any real political plan or any national leadership, without any organized armed force, and in the face of a strong, experienced army, these spasmodic revolts were an indication of desperate courage.” Desperate courage and little success seem to be the lot of the Coptic nation; but the brave Coptic men throughout our history who impulsively fought their despotic foreign rulers were, nevertheless, great, even if some could describe their fighting as rash. We must remember and honour them while we learn lessons from mistakes we had made in resisting our oppressors.
And now to return to the Upper Egyptian Copts who one day in December 1798 gathered their courage and valiantly fought the ferocious Mamelukes. The identities of these heroes are little known. However, we are fortunate that Vivant Denon immortalised one of them in one of his sketches. As soon as Denon told us the story of the Coptic deputation, he added: “Without dismounting, I began to sketch one of the deputies just as he had finished his speech (harangue)”.[xii] That sketch he published in the atlas which he attached to his book as Planche CI (Plate 101). Planche contains nine drawings of different individuals, the six of which depicts our Coptic hero. Denon titles the sketch: “A peasant from Upper Egypt eating the first shoots of alfalfa.”[xiii] I have reproduced this drawing above. The Copt, whose back-view only appears, seems tall, lean and muscular. He holds shoots of alfalfa in his left hand, and he is eating some. That was most probably his first meal (Denon calls it un rafraîchissement [refreshment]) after a long time in flight and hunger.
No one knows what had happened to that Coptic deputation. They must have found protection in the French, and their lives were perhaps secured until at least the French left Egypt in August 1801. Did they join Mu’allem Ya’qub when he formed his Coptic Legion in 1800? Did they go with him to France after the withdrawal of the French in 1801?[xiv] No one knows, and perhaps we shall never know. And such is our history – much that had happened, and heroically so, is not recorded, and so is lost to future generations. But the Coptic nation must remember the story of that Coptic deputation that fought the Mamelukes when fighting was right and the call of the brave.
How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (17 June 2012), A STORY OF BRAVE COPTIC RESISTANCE AGAINST THE MAMELUKES OF EGYPT IN 1798 AD, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/a-story-of-brave-coptic-resistance-against-the-mamelukes-of-egypt-in-1798-ad/
[i] Planche CI (Plate 101) [For more on it, see n. xiii]. The reader must ignore the little sketches of the two figurines and the coupling of the camel which Denon included as part of the background of Fig. 6 of Plate 101 – they belong to different parts of the book which have nothing to do with the story of the Coptic rebels.
[ii] We know from Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte that they devastated and burnt several villages, churches and monasteries; including the Red and White Monasteries, close to Sohag.
[iii] Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte: pendant les campagnes du Général Bonaparte (Paris, Didot, 1802); pp. 94-5.
[iv] 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, 1803).
[v] The translator adds an extra date to all dates given by Vivant Denon, without explaining why. On this occasion, he gives the date as 24th December. I have used the right date as in the original French.
[vi] A unit of distance that was used in the past which is equal to 3 miles (4.8 kilometres).
[vii] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt; p. 206. For those who are interested in Arthur Aikin’s translation, I reproduce it here as it is: “On the next day, December 24th, we continued our pursuit of the Mamelukes; they always kept about four leagues off us, and we could never gain ground upon them. Towards the evening we saw a deputation with a flag of alliance coming up to our camp. It was a party of Christians, from whom the Mamelukes had demanded a requisition of an hundred camels, and these poor wretches not having it in their power to comply with the demand, the enemy had barbarously killed sixty of their people. They in return, highly exasperated, had slain eight of the Mamelukes, whose heads they offered to bring us. They all spoke at once, repeating perpetually the same expressions: but fortunately for our ears, the audience was given in a field of Lucerne, which offered a seasonable refreshment to the deputation, who began to devour the crop greedily, as if it were a dainty which they were afraid of losing. Whilest sitting on horseback, I sketched the figure of one of the deputies just as he had finished his harangue. (See Plate X. Fig. 6)” (page 206).
[viii] The Mamelukes ruled Egypt (1250–1517). Even when the Ottomans occupied Egypt, the Mamelukes continued as a ruling military caste. They were massacred by Muhammad Ali in 1811, but many escaped.
[ix] Letters on Egypt, containing a parallel between the manners of its ancient and modern inhabitants, its commerce, agriculture, government and religion, with the descent of Louis IX at Damietta, by Savary, Claude Etienne
(London, 1786); Volume I; p. 210.
[x] The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 7, (CE:2349b-2353a), by Macmillan, in 1991 (Digital Publisher Claremont Graduate University).
[xi] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria (1910) Part 4: Mennas I – Joseph (849 AD); Patrologia Orientalis 10; Arabic test edited, translated, and annotated by B. Evetts; pp. 485-7.
[xii] “Sans descendre de cheval, je me mis aussi à dessiner un député comme il venait d’interrompre sa harangue.” Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte; p. 95.
[xiii] My own translation. The original French gives it as follows: “N° 6. Un paysan de la haute Égypte, mangeant la premiere pousse de la luzerne (voyez le journal, tome I, page 283) ; à droite, deux santons ; à gauche, l’accouplement du chameau (voyez tome II, pag. 238)”. The English translation is given as follows: “No. 6. A peasant from Upper Egypt, the first eating alfalfa grows (see the journal, volume I, page 283), right, two figurines; left, the coupling of the camel (see Volume II, p. 238).” I did not translate the full annotation of Fig. 6 as the rest clearly deal with different matters not related to our Coptic character or story.
[xiv] General Ya’qub, of course, did not reach France, as we know. He died on the way on board the Ballas on 16 August 1801.