by wjw on October 18, 2014

aljazzarHenry and Daniela took us to Acco today, the ancient city known in Crusader times as St Jean d’Acre.  The old city is still surrounded by massive (mostly Ottoman) fortifications, and the huge stone headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, with its vast echoing gothic halls and conspiratorial underground tunnels, still survives (mostly because it was buried in sand and rubble till the 20th century).

I find myself without the time for a proper appreciation of the town and its history, but I thought I’d mention one site, the al-Jazzar Mosque, and the extraordinary character who built it.

Ahmed al-Jazzar Pasha was born a Bosnian Christian, but had to leave town because he was caught sleeping with his brother’s wife.  He turned up penniless in Egypt, where he sold himself into slavery, was converted to Islam, turned into a eunuch, and became the governor’s hit man.  Being castrated must have really pissed him off, because as he rose in the Ottoman military he developed a reputation for ferocious cruelty, and the nickname al-Jazzar, which means “the Slicer” but is usually translated as “the Butcher.”

(In fairness, the Ottoman empire was coming a bit unglued during this period, and the Sultan was looking for loyal soldiers who would maintain imperial authority by any means.)

Anyway, al-Jazzar ended up governor of Damascus, and set up his headquarters in Acco just in time for Napoleon Bonaparte to come knocking.  In 1799 Napoleon was advancing onward from his successful Egyptian campaign, intending to break Syria and Iraq free from his Ottoman enemies, and lunge like Alexander for the Oxus, knocking the British out of India and setting himself up as a pan-Oriental monarch.  Or, as the Big N himself put it, “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…and returned to France by way of Constantinople.”

Al-Jazzar saved the world from the sight of Napoleon in a turban by handing him his first— and for a long time, only— defeat; and Napoleon scurried back home, and had to be satisfied only with the conquest of most of Europe.

Al-Jazzar then continued his successful career, perpetrating massacres of Jews, Christians, rebels, and anyone else that looked at him funny, and died full of honors in his eighties.  He had wives but, being a eunuch, no children, and his heir was a slave named Suleiman who he’d freed.  All through his career he was advised by his right-hand man, a Jew from Damascus named Haim Farkhi.

Al-Jazzar did building projects, an aqueduct, a Turkish bath, and most notably the mosque named after him.  The mosque has Italian marble salvaged from Roman and Byzantine ruins, a clock giving the times of prayer, a couple lovely fountains, and a Christian cross displayed prominently over the mihrab (since Muslims revere the Prophet Jesus).  There are balconies used by women for prayer rather than the area toward the rear of the mosque, and this was apparently a suggestion of Haim Farkhi, and is a feature derived from synagogues.  (Al-Jazzar adopted the suggestion, but cut off Farkhi’s nose and ear anyway.  He also removed one of Farkhi’s eyes.  A jolly old soul, the Butcher.  Farkhi continued in his service anyway.)

Al-Jazzar and his successor Suleiman are buried in the mosque, and it remains the largest in Israel outside of Jerusalem.  In a safe somewhere in the structure is a hair from the beard of Mohammad, not viewed by the public .  There is also a large electric display showing the times of prayer, as well as the time of sunrise, when (as the fellow who showed us around said) Muslims are forbidden to pray, because sunrise is when the Satan-worshippers pray.  (This was a fact unknown to me till today, and the very few people I knew who professed to worship Satan were never awake at that hour anyway.  Perhaps instead of Satan-worshippers we are to read sun-worshipping pagans.)

This was my last full day in Israel, and I’d like to thank Henry and Ella and Daniela for their extraordinary kindness and hospitality over the last ten days.  Thanks to them we saw a lot more of the country than we could possibly have seen otherwise, and we would have been far less enriched by our experience here.

Ahmad Mouness Al-Jazzar March 29, 2017 at 5:31 pm

Being an adopted descendant of the the Muslim “Vlad Raddic”, or so the records state, and that was one thing our lot were very good at, family, I find it bordering on insulting that The butcher of Acre is not a well known historical figure in British history. After all, had he not helped Sir Sydney Smith chase Napoleon’s fleet into the waiting arms of Nelson, the history of this fair isle may well have been quite different.
According to records held in Syria, the House of Hanover did not keep their end of the bargain struck for his help. After all he was not a man to do anything for nothing!
But, forgetting all else, building a mosque on top of the tomb of John the Baptist and having himself buried there has to be one of the most strategical and tactical master strokes of all time !
For all his ” foibles “, the man was not stupid, and even though I’m not a genetic descendent (‘if he really was a eunuch’), I’m proud to bear his name. Ahmad Mouness Moutaman Sharif bin Ali Mohammed Ahmad Al-Jazzar.

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