Sunday, 15 February 2009

A Place called Gaza, part 5

The Ottoman rule of Gaza continued unabatedly throughout the 1600s and 1700s,
leading to steady increase in trade and commerce into Gaza, and making it an extremely important city and region of learning and finance. As the years rolled on, and sea transports became more effective, Gaza then began to decline as the route from Egypt to Syria by road was viewed as harsh and a poor second to sea travel via the Mediterranean. Gaza naturally suffered for this, however important trading wares were still delivered via the ports and the occasional land caravans. Another factor in the decline of roads, apart from journey time, was the prevalence of criminal bedioun tribes, who sought to exploit money and goods from the travelling caravans. Piracy was not as big a problem in the immediate region, certainly when compared to the activities of highway robbers.

As Gaza declined, political intrigues begun to dominate the Ottoman Empire, especially in relation to the French Empire and an impetuous general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon advocated in 1797 to engage in an attempted capture of Egypt and the Levant, so as to harm British trade interests in India. Britain at that time were trading with the Ottoman Empire through reselling goods sourced in India to the Ottomans via the Mediterrenean, in which revenues were then directed towards other imperialist activities such as the slave trade. Napoleons concept was to make the Mediterrenean, the Levant and North Africa secure so that no ships from Britain may sail there, thereby depleting their economy whilst simultenously bolstering that of France.

Napoleon landed in Alexandria and secured a memorable victory against Mamluk governors in which over 6,000 egyptian cavalry and infantry died. However, whilst Napoleon was securing important land victories, the ships that had sailed to carry the troops were destroyed by the British in a port. At the news of this the Ottomans led by Selim III immediately sent large battalions, feeling that Napoleon was finished. This was not strictly correct, as though the ships which had carried Napoleon were no longer there, they had secured the lands of Egypt successfully, a few minor rebellions excepted.

Whilst in Egypt, Napoleon had tried unsuccessfully to paint himself as a liberator, not a conqueror. He ensured that he made favourable statements about Islam in the press and at public speeches, which some na├»ve muslims today point towards as evidence of Napoleons alleged “conversion”. To see Napoleons aims, one only has to study the experience, in which he made various claims such as “all my soldiers will convert” in order to curry favour with the Egyptians. Perhaps the closest example is that of the invasion of Iraq, in which alien customs, traditions and others cloaked in islam have been thrust on the Iraqi people. One story of Napoleon in Egypt is his organising of a “grand ball” to bring muslims and French together. This plan was abandoned once no single muslim woman turned up to the ball.

In the meantime, the armies of the Ottomans were on their way. Napoleon caught wind of this, and elected to try and meet them in Syria, through which he needed to land at Gaza and other key points on the Palestine coast. Napoleons attempts failed however, and as he was forced into retreat he killed muslim prisoners as well as any injured from his own party so as not to slow progress.

Napoleon later fled from Egypt, leaving his troops behind. This is in such stark contrast to the early muslim generals such as Khalid ibn Walid(ra) and Usama ibn Zaid (ra), whom always led from the front. They had arranged a deal with the British and the Mamluk Ottomans (who at this point had formed an alliance ) in order to arrange a peaceful retreat, but this was reneged upon.

The French general successfully repelled the forces in 1800, however a young religious student at Al-Azhar by the name of Sulaiman Al-Halabi assassinated him by disguising as a beggar. Ironically it is reported that he carried out this act in order to alleviate his fathers poverty, for which the Ottomans agreed to forgive his father his debts. Al-Halabi was impaled and the body sent back to France as a warning to others.

Egypt after losing the French general was a power vacuum, with the French rule becoming increasingly untenable. France agreed a surrender, and all French personnel were evacuated by British ships, together with numerous treasures looted from the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings.

Though this article has mainly focussed on Egypt, it is important to understand the background to the conquering of Gaza by a rebel batallian of the Ottoman Empire led by Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1832, together with the political circumstances. This will be evaluated in the next article.

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