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September 21, 2018


Moallem Guerguis Koft; a pencil on paper drawing by Michel Rigo (kept at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris)

In a previous study titled “MU’ALLEM JIRJIS AL-JAWHARI, ISLAM, NAPLEON BONAPARTE AND THE COPT’S CASHMERE TURBAN (13 October 2011), I presented for the first time the illustrative depiction of Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari by the French painter Michel Rigo. Al-Jawhari, a Christian saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church (feast on 17 Tut), was the chief archon of the Copts كبير الأراخنة and minister of finance during the French Expedition in Egypt (1798 – 1801). He was appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte by an order dated 30 July 1798, only a few days after the decisive Battle of the Pyramids, on 21 July, in which Napoleon destroyed the power of the oppressive Mamlukes in Egypt. His official title was l’Intendant Général de l’Égypte (kabeer al-mubashirin, in Arabic كبير المباشرين; General Steward of Egypt).

When in Egypt, Bonaparte asked Rigo to paint al-Jawhari; and Rigo, who was a member of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts – a body of learned French people, that included mathematicians, astronomers, civil engineers, geographers, architects and artists – obliged.

Rigo first made a pencil on paper drawing; and with other drawings of leading Muslim notaries, he exhibited these in the salon of the French Commander-in-chief. They were seen and admired by Egyptians, including al-Jawhari himself. When back in Paris, in 1801, he made oil on canvas portraits from the drawings he had made in Cairo, and exhibited them at the Salon, Paris, from 1804-1810.

The pencil on paper original portrait of Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari is 42 cm in height and 34 cm in length; and is currently kept at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, in its Collection Particulière section, with other portraits of leading Egyptian politicians of the time, all grouped under “Element d’une série de portraits de chefs égyptiens”. Jirjis al-Jawahri’s portrait is titled “Moallem Guerguis Koft (Cheikh Maalem Guerguis ou Guerguess El-Gohari)”. In it we see Al-Jawhari (head, shoulders and chest), smoking an elegant, ornamented chibouk, which he holds in his left hand. Al-Jawhari cuts a striking figure: the face is smart and bulky but thinner than what the later oil on canvass portraits show (see below); the forehead is broad; the eye brows are tidy and long; the eyes are oblong; the nose is narrow, straight and a bit curved; the mouth is small and thin-lipped; the moustache and beard are neat. He puts on a splendid garment and wears a large turban embroidered with filigree; and he throws over his left shoulder a similarly filigreed shawl, which is ornamented at the end by little Coptic crosses. Al Jawhari comes across as an honest, sincere, intelligent and competent man. Furthermore, he does not hide his Christian and Coptic identity – he shows it by the crosses on his shawl that he proudly throws over his left shoulder. These are the attributes which I should imagine elevated him to the position of leadership within his Coptic community, and made him trustworthy and successful with Egypt’s various rulers of the time.

I think this original black and white, pencil on paper, portrait captures the features and personality of Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari more accurately than the later coloured, oil on canvass, portraits of him. It appears that there are various versions of the oil on canvas portraits. I have identified four of them kept at the Château de Malmaison (in the city of Rueil-Malmaison), the Château de Versailles (in Versailles), the Château de Grosbois (in Boissy-Saint-Léger), and in the German Embassy in Paris. The first two I could obtain, which I reproduce below:

First, the one kept at the Château de Malmaison: 


Portrait du cheikh Guerguess El-Gohari (? – 1809); oil on canvas by Michel Rigo (kept at the Château de Malmaison)

This portrait is 80 cm in height and 66 cm in length, and is given the title: “Portrait du cheikh Guerguess El-Gohari (? – 1809)” (Portrait of Sheikh Guerguess El-Gohari). Of the two oil on canvass portraits available to us, this seems to be the closest to the original pencil on paper drawing; however, there is no mistake that he is here depicted puffier than in the original and lacking in the lively features that one finds in the original drawing. Perhaps the striking feature of this picture, which is not shown in the original drawing, is that it shows al-Jawhari’s oriental rich costume in all its splendour, with a beautiful ornamented cashmere turban that reflects his officially recognised position of honour, respect and authority within the State under French rule.

Second, the one kept at the Château de Versailles:


Portrait du Cheikh Gawharî Georges, intendant des impôts de l’Egypte au moment de l’Expédition d’Egypte en 1798/1800; oil on canvas by Michel Rigo (kept at the Château de Versailles)

This portrait of al-Jawhari is titled, “Portrait du Cheikh Gawharî Georges, intendant des impôts de l’Egypte au moment de l’Expédition d’Egypte en 1798/1800” (Portrait of Sheikh Gawhar George, steward of tax of Egypt at the Egyptian Expedition in 1798/1800). It measures 79.5 cm in height and 62.5 cm in length. This is perhaps the least accurate in reflecting the real physiognomy of Jirjis al-Jawhari – the face is now almost round; the body obese (fingers short and bulky); the colour pale; the face expression vacant and less lively. One can see that the folds in his clothing are poorly and hastily painted. The chibouk, which looks thick-stemmed and plain, is now held with the right hand. The shawl shows some decoration; but the cashmere turban, even though it is brighter in matching with the general tone of the portrait, is less detailed in its filigree.


But, in this article, I am interested in studying further al-Jawhari’s face. The keen observer will find that there is, in the three portraits above, differences between the left and the right sides of al-Jawhari’s face. These differences in his facial features can be explained by two medical conditions:

First, Left Bell’s palsy. This is a medical condition in which the seventh cranial nerve (facial nerve) on one side[1] is affected, leading to the individual losing the ability to control and move his or her facial muscles on that side. This leads to a general droop on one side of the face. Facial expression is limited: when smiling, the individual can’t pull the corner of his mouth up which creates a contrasting difference with the normal side; when frowning, the individual cannot furrow his brow on the affected side, which affect his ability to express fully his disapproval, displeasure or to appear concentrating. The upper eye lid droops, making the eye in the affected side look narrower, with limited blinking and closing of the eye, and having no tears. The individual also loses his taste sensation in the anterior two-thirds of the tongue on the affected side, and will also have no salivation on that side. Some individuals complain of pain in the ear on the affected side with increased sensitivity to sound.


Illustration of left facial palsy. The unaffected side pulls the weakened side towards it. (From H. B. Chawla, Ophthalmology: A Symptom-based Approach (London, 1999)

The facial features of al-Jawhari – as in Rigo’s drawing and paintings – suggest that al-Jawhari did suffered from left Bell’s palsy, or complete paralysis of the left seventh cranial nerve. This is seen in the general drooping of the left side of his face: the loss of wrinkles on the left side of his brow; the narrow left eye due to its drooping upper eye lid; the flattening of the left nasolabial fold; the drop in the left corner of the mouth.

Causes of the complete paralysis of the Facial Nerve are generally unknown; but it is sometimes caused by identified conditions such as viral infections, diabetes mellitus, head injury, etc. In the majority of cases it resolves after several weeks or months; but it can be permanent, particularly when caused by diabetes or head injury.

We do not know if al-Jawhari had transient left Bell’s palsy or a permanent one at the time Rigo drew his torso. If permanent, and considering the size of al-Jawhari, it might have been that al-Jawhari suffered with diabetes, and that his Bell’s palsy was part of it. This, however, is just a speculation.

Second, squint in the right eye most probably due to the right oculomotor nerve palsy. A squint (strabismus) is a condition when one eye looks directly at you while the other eye (the squinted eye) looks outward, inward, upward or downward. The position of the eye is controlled by six muscles.[2] Sometimes the strabismus is caused by problems in these muscles; other times it is the vision centre in the brain[3]; and yet on other times one or the other of the three cranial nerves[4] that innervate the six muscles is to blame.


Illustration of right oculomotor nerve palsy. (From H. B. Chawla, Ophthalmology: A Symptom-based Approach (London, 1999)

If you look at al-Jawhari’s eyes, you will see that his left eye looks straight at you while the right eye is deviated and displaced outward and downward. This pattern of squint is caused by paralysis of the oculomotor nerve, or the third cranial nerve. The paralysis of this nerve causes also drooping of the eye lid, which in al-Jawhari’s case is not very obvious. That is because patients with this condition usually try to compensate by frowning (the furrow on the right side of his forehead) by lifting their eyebrow on the affected side.[5]  The condition causes also dilatation of the pupil on the affected side, but this is not always case (in these cases, the oculomotor palsy is called ‘pupil-sparing’). We cannot see this in the face of al-Jawhari, probably because his oculomotor palsy is pupil-sparing or because Rigo didn’t pay the dilated pupil much attention and depict it in his work. Some people with oculomotor nerve palsy are born with it but others get it later in life, usually from conditions such as diabetes mellitus and trauma to the head.

There is no way that we can tell that al-Jawhari was born with a squint or that he developed that later. In both conditions (facial nerve palsy and oculomotor nerve palsy) diabetes is a cause in some individuals. It is plausible then that al-Jawhari suffered with diabetes mellitus; but, again, this is only a speculation.

This study is unique in the sense that, as much as I know, it is the first study that identifies a medical condition, certainly of a Copt from the past, based solely on his facial features in a portrait. I have suggested that Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari possibly suffered from diabetes mellitus, a condition that can affect the vascular system and lead to loss of function of the third and seventh cranial nerves. This, of course, cannot be proven beyond doubt.



[1] It can rarely affect both sides.

[2] These are the lateral rectus, medial rectus, superior rectus, inferior rectus, superior oblique, and inferior obligue.

[3] The visual centres in the brain control binocular vision; i.e. the ability to maintain visual focus on an object with two eyes, creating a single visual image.

[4] These are the oculomotor (third cranial nerve), the trochlear (fourth cranial nerve), and the abducens (six cranial nerve). The abducents controls the lateral rectus; the trochlear controls the superior oblique muscle; and the rest of the external ocular muscles are controlled by the oculomotor.

[5] There is no frowning on the left side of the forehead because the facial nerve paralysis on that side prevents that; hence the drooping of the left eye is comparatively obvious.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Myerson permalink
    September 23, 2018 9:56 pm

    This is a brilliant medical study based on a work of art. It reminds me of Freud’s using another work of art (Dostoyevsky’s novels) to deduce the fact that Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy was psychosomatic (his description of the illness being purely literary and not “jiving” with real epilepsy). The fact that a Copt was entrusted with governing Egypt for the French is amazing and something I did not know. Napoleon was a keen judge of character and would have based his choice purely on merit. Thank you for this brilliant article. I learned a great deal from it.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      September 23, 2018 10:30 pm

      Thank you!

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