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March 3, 2016

"Praetor-Urbanus;" - inauguration of the Coptic Mayor of Cairo, preceded by the Procureur de la Commune', by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey, published 12 March 1799 - NPG D12684 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

In 2009, I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London to have a look at the above hand-coloured etching, titled “‘Praetor-Urbanus:’ – inauguration of the Coptic Mayor of Cairo, preceded by the Procureur de la Commune” which fascinated me enormously. It was made by the British famous caricaturist James Gillray (1756 – 1815), and published by Hannah Humphrey on published 12 March 1799.[1] [2] The Library of Congress, which possesses an original plate too, gives a description of the plate in these words: “An obese, Copt [the Praetor Urbanus], holding a mace or staff, rides an ass which, though led processionally by a Copt [the Prosecutor de la Commune][3], proceeds on account of the bayonet with which a grinning French soldier stabs its hind quarters.”[4]

Caricaturists caricature others to create a comic or grotesque effect by exaggerating certain striking characteristics,[5] and by this they ridicule them. This has always been a fair endeavour in the field of politics, particularly when one deals with powerful and nasty politicians. However, it sometimes becomes a bit tasteless and unjustifiably offensive.

Who is the “obese, Copt, holding a mace or staff, and riding an ass” – that ridiculous, barefooted, very dark “Copt” with a small goatee beard who does not look like a Copt at all; who wears outrageous long, beady ear ring; and who absurdly wears a French uniform, badly fitted, and with larger than life Tricolore feathered-hat? There were many prominent Coptic leaders who collaborated with the French against the Mamluks and Turks who had ruled Egypt for hundreds of years, destroying it and oppressing its natives, particularly the Christian Copts. For a long time I wondered if Gillray’s Praetor Urbanus was Mu’allem Yaqub[6] or perhaps Jirjis al-Jawhari[7]. But the date of the publication of the etching – 12 March 1799 – excludes Mu’allem Yaqub, since Yaqub left Cairo shortly after Bonaparte and his army entered it (23 July 1798) to accompany in August General Desaix in his Upper Egyptian Campaign, and did not return back to Cairo until June 1799. During that period, Yaqub had no role in Cairo. Jirjis, on the other hand, stayed in Cairo almost all the time during that period; however, we know that Jirjis served as General Steward for Bonaparte.

The Coptic man in the etching is called Praetor Urbanus. What does that mean? Praetors, who were first introduced by the Romans, were public officers. There were many types of praetors, some military and others civil; and the praetor urbanus was a magistrate who presided in civil cases between citizens – he could take judicial decisions but could not legislate: in other words, the ‘praetor urbanus’ was a civil cases judge. This arrangement was taken by the European nations, including the French. When Egypt fell to the French, Napoleon embarked on introducing the advanced French systems of judiciary into Egypt to replace its archaic and defective Sharia courts that ruled in every single matter, led by Muslim sheikhs from the main four Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence[8] and applied Sharia laws. Barely six weeks had passed since he had entered Cairo, Bonaparte established, on 10 September 1798, civil courts, called Commercial Courts or Disputes Courts, to rule in civil disputes between merchants and between the general public; and the Cairo Court was made up of six Muslim merchants and six Copts, and a Copt, Mu’allem Malati (Meletius), was appointed as its head. This was hitherto something unheard of: a Copt to reside at the head of a court that ruled in commercial and other civil disputes between all, regardless of their religion.

We don’t know much about Mu’allem Malati save that he was renowned to be a wise, just and learned man. Before the French occupation, he worked as a scribe for the prominent Mamluk, Ayub Bey al-Difterdar, who was killed in the Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July 1798. He stayed in his position as Chief Judge of the Cairo Disputes Court until General Menou[9] took over from Kléber [10], after the assassination of the latter in June 1800. Menou, who converted to Islam and married a Muslim woman, reverted Egypt back to its previous status, and discharged all Copts appointed by Bonaparte in the divans and courts, and amongst them was Malati. When the British forced the French to surrender and withdraw from Egypt in August-September 1801, and Egypt was once again in the hand of the Turks and Mamluks, the Ottoman governor Tahir Pasha killed Malati, beheaded him, and threw his head at Bab Zuweila in Cairo on 19 May 1803 AD (27 Muharram 1218 AH).[11] The Coptic Church recognised his death as martyrdom, and celebrates it yearly on the 12 Pashons.

So, Gillray’s Praetor Urbanus was Mu’allem Malati, since he was the Chief Judge residing on civil cases. The British knew about events in Egypt as they blockaded Egypt after the Battle of Aboukir Bay (1-3 August 1798)[12] to prevent any reinforcements, supplies or communication between the French in Egypt and France; and were able to intercept many French dispatches from Egypt. We read in the plate that Gillray made, “etched by J. Gillray from the original intercepted drawing”. It seems that the French artists[13] of the Campaign made a drawing of the occasion on which Mu’allem Malati was appointed Chief Judge; and it is this that Gillray used and caricatured to produce his appalling cartoon. We don’t know if the original has been preserved, and one hopes that it will one day resurface. Perhaps it is kept in the British Archives in London.

Britain and France were in war with each other, and Egypt was a bone of contention between the two: Britain backed the Mamluks and Turks who were oppressing the Copts and other Egyptians to spite the French who were fighting them. Each of Britain and France were fighting for their national interest – and if Britain’s interest was to bring back the status quo ante; i.e. the rule of the hateful Mamluks and Turks, so be it. The Copts and the Fellahin did not matter. And Britain’s loyal cartoonist, Gillray, could make fun of the oppressed Coptic Christian minority because its interests happened to cross with the interests of Britain – religious solidarity, human rights, freedom, equality and good governance, which the Mamluks and Turks never knew, did not count. One can still see the same situation repeating itself in the Middle East of today with many European powers. That explains Gillray’s Praetor Urbanus – it is deeply offensive to the Copts but one can understand how it came about in a period when not only national interests determined caricature but prejudices too.



[1] The plate size is 25.5 cm x 37.5 cm on 26.8 cm x 38.9 cm paper size.

[2] The National Portrait Gallery purchased in 1947 and designated it NPG D12684.

[3] The Prosecutor de la Commune is equivalent to the General (or Public) Prosecutor. Here, Gillray also makes fun of the Copt, who was guiding the donkey of the Praetor Urbanus, holding a staff of authority, and wearing French insignia. Donkeys of important people in Egypt at that period were guided by men who cleared the roads off people as they ran before the donkey barefooted.

[4] See here.

[5] See: Oxford English Dictionary.

[6] See: Anuar Louca, General Yaqub in Coptic Encyclopedia (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[7] See: Harald Motzki, Jirjis al-Jawhari in Coptic Encyclopedia (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[8] The Hanafi, Maliki, Shafiʿi and Hanbali schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

[9] Jacques-François de Menou, later Abdallah de Menou after his conversion to Islam (1750 – 1810). He headed the French Army in Egypt from the assassination of Kléber on until the surrender to the British on 30 August 1801.

[10] Jean-Baptiste Kléber (1753 – 1800). He was head of the French Army in Egypt after the departure of Bonaparte towards the end of 1799 until his assassination in Cairo on 14 June 1800.

[11] See: عبد الرحمن الرافعى، تاريخ الحركة القومية، الجزء الأول والثانى (القاهرة، دار المعارف، ط٦، ١٩٨٧). Also, see: ايريس حبيب المصري، قصة الكنيسة القبطية، الكتاب الرابع (القاهرة، ط٦، ٢٠٠٨).

[12] Also called the Battle of the Nile.

[13] Vivian Denon went with Bonaparte to Egypt, but during that period, he accomapanied Desaix in his campaign in Upper Egypt. Other French artists who accompanied the French Army in Egypt were Dutertre, Portal, Caquet and Perê.

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