Posts filed under 'Egypt'

1906: Four Egyptians for the Denshawai Incident

Add comment June 28th, 2017 Headsman

If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 — and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats — then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters.

-George Bernard Shaw

On this date in 1906, four Egyptian villagers were hanged by the British after a UK soldier died in riot begun by a pigeon hunt.

The Denshawai Incident — which is still to this day commemorated by its own museum — as an isolated event was one of those little local indignities that comprise a foreign military occupation. By the intersection of highhandedness on the one side and accumulated anger on the other it would become what George Bernard Shaw dubbed “the Denshawai Horror.”

On June 13, a mere 15 days before the executions in this post, a gaggle of bored Tommies* set out hunting pigeons in the Nile Delta. This was for the locals an irksome pastime inasmuch as the villagers raised these tame birds in brick towers for agrarian use — as Shaw noted:

Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for the hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place!

On this occasion, protesting villagers dared a little more resistance than was usual and before long a gun had discharged in the struggle, injuring several and felling a local woman (she survived, though onlookers took her wound for a mortal one in the moment). As if by metaphor, somewhere in the mayhem, somebody’s wheat caught fire.

Having clumsily escalated the disturbance that their presence had provoked, the Brits at length had to flee a small riot: one of their number died in the flight, the cause never clearly ascertained but attributed by a doctor to “heat apoplexy caused or aggravated by concussion of the brain.”** Several others were collared by the villagers, who abused them but did not kill them.

As Shaw notes, in a domestic English context it might have been the gendarmes who were punished for mismanaging the situation to the detriment of the public peace.

But the English occupation of Egypt disdained the hearts-and-minds approach, preferring bile and spleen. Fifty-two(!) villagers came up on charges of murder(!!) for the heatstroked officer, and the punishments meted out by a British-controlled court† seemingly aimed to maximize rancor with the understanding that cruelty was the only language the native could comprehend.

The husband of the woman shot by the hunting party, Shaw fulminated in an incandescent essay against imperialism,

in consideration of the injury to his wife, was only sentenced to penalty servitude for life … No such sentimentality was shewn to Hassan Mahfouz. An Egyptian pigeon farmer who objects to British sport; threatens British officers and gentlemen when they shoot his pigeons; and actually hits those officers with a substantial stick, is clearly a ruffian to be made an example of.

Penal servitude was not enough for a man of 60 who looked 70, and might not have lived to suffer five years of it. So Hassan was hanged; but as a special mark of consideration for his family, he was hanged in full view of his own house, with his wives and children and grandchildren enjoying the spectacle from the roof. And lest this privilege should excite jealousy in other households, three other Denshavians were hanged with him … ages of the four hanged men respectively, 60, 50, 22 and 20.

Hanging, however, is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts. So, as they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure work and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging (“slowly turning round and round on himself,” as the local papers described it), thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each: eleven more than the utmost permitted by the law of Moses in times which our Army of Occupation no doubt considers barbarous. But they Moses conceived his law as being what he called the law of God, and not simply an instrument for the gratification of his own cruelty and terror.

It is unspeakably reassuring to learn from the British official reports laid before parliament that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions,” that “all possible humanity was shewn in carrying them out,” and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.” As this last testimonial apparently does not refer to the victims, they are evidently officially considered not to have been concerned in the proceedings at all. Finally, Lord Cromer certifies that the Englishman in charge of the proceedings is “a singularly humane man, and is very popular amongst the natives of Egypt by reason of the great sympathy he has always shewn for them.” It will be seen that Parliamentary Papers, Nos. 3 and 4., Egypt, 1906, are not lacking in unconscious humor. The official walrus pledges himself in every case for the kindliness of the official carpenter.


Edinburgh Evening News, June 29, 1906

Shaw’s determination to humanize the “natives” by analogy to English country squires unsurprisingly stands in stark contrast to the dominant thrust of domestic reportage — which consistently describes the affair as an unprovoked attack or (still better) an outrage. Shaw, however, was far from alone in his sentiment: many British elites were discomfited by the harsh and arbitrary treatment meted out in the imperial hinterlands. Another writer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, bemoaned the “abominable case” and took up an editorial pen in the Egyptians’ defense — albeit more in hope than expectation, for as he confided to his diary, “English feeling on these matters has become absolutely callous, and I believe if Cromer ordered a dozen of the villagers to be crucified or impaled, no serious objection would be made to it here.” And he was right to despair.

Still, gentlemen of a liberal conscience have the luxury down the decades of forgetting the individual atrocities of empire.‡

Few in the West recognized the allusion when, following 2005 bombings in London by Islamic terrorists, Ayman al-Zawahiri “announced that Britain was one of Islam’s worst enemies; it had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims across the ages, from Palestine to Afghanistan, Delhi to Denshawai.” (Source)

But it had by that time been long since that the chickens of Denshawai had come home to roost. In his autobiography, Egyptian nationalist president Anwar Sadat mused on the formative influence worked upon his childhood by the sacrifice of one of the Denshawai martyrs.

[T]he ballad which affected me most deeply was probably that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. I recall my mother reciting it to me as I lay stretched out on top of our huge rustic oven, half-asleep while my younger brothers (and our rabbits) had all fallen asleep. It appealed to me afresh every time I listened to it. Denshway was only three miles away and the ballad dealt with a real incident … Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them.

I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep, which perhaps made the story sink into my subconscious. My imagination roamed free. I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran.

His wish would come as near to fruition as wishes do. Sadat had the honor of announcing to the world the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 that would expel the British occupation … and thirty years later, of also giving his life for Egypt.

* Not Dickens nor Kubrick could not have bested the names of shooting party participants Captain Bull (the eventual fatality) or Brevet-Major Pine-Coffin.

** That is, running away from a bombardment of stones. It appears to be permanently obscure (and subject to partisan slanting) precisely how these factors weighed together at the moment of Bull’s death. The diagnosis is quoted in the London Times, June 25, 1906.

† The tribunal featured mixed Egyptian and British personnel, notably including Boutros Ghali, future Egyptian Prime Minister and grandfather of the eventual United Nations head Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

‡ At least, of their own empire. According to Aliens — Uneingeburgerte: German and Austrian Writers in Exile, the Third Reich produced a German-language play about the Denshawai incident by adapting Shaw’s account.

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1945: Eliyahu Bet-Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim, Lord Moyne’s assassins

Add comment March 22nd, 2017 Headsman

British-occupied Egypt on this date in 1945 hanged two young Jewish assassins for slaying the British plenipotentiary to the Middle East.

Walter Edward Guinness was heir to the barley beer fortune and a Tory politician of near 40 years’ standing. “Lord Moyne”, to call him (as history does, and as we will henceforward) by his aristocratic honorific, allied with his former rival Winston Churchill in the 1930s as a staunch foe of placating Hitler, eventually serving several roles in Churchill’s wartime government.*

The last and perforce most famous was Resident Minister of State in Cairo from January 1944, where he directed British affairs in North Africa, Persia, and the Middle East, crucially including Mandatory Palestine.

Such a figure must necessarily represent many things to different subjects, but to Zionists he represented the hostility to their project of both his own person and (more importantly) of London. While there is endless nitpicking about the man’s precise degree of disfavor for Jewish people or interests, “Lord Moyne was the highest British official in the Middle East,” in the words of Yitzhak Shamir, the emigre terrorist who orchestrated the hit and would one day become Prime Minister of Israel. “Because we fought against the British in this area, we took him for a target. This was the main reason for his assassination.” Nothing personal. (Maybe a little personal.)

On November 6, 1944, two of Shamir’s young cadres in the late Avraham Stern‘s militantly anti-British Lehi network, Eliyahu Bet-Zuri (Ben Suri) and Eliyahu Hakim, ambushed Moyne as his limousine pulled up at his villa, and shot him dead with pistols. (They also killed Moyne’s driver, a Lance Corporal named Arthur Fuller.) Once their affiliations became apparent it was Jewry’s turn to bask in the collective censorious scowl that minorities everywhere can anticipate given any perceived ethnic affinity to the latest atrocity’s author. These sortings-out from the London Times would do almost word for word for whatever horror tomorrow’s news might bring.


London Times, Nov. 10, 1944


London Times, Jan. 29, 1945

Similarly, Lord Moyne’s killers took every pain to link their martyrdom to Jewish/Zionist patriotism, no matter any moderate rabbi’s attempt to wash his hands of it.

Raised in Mandatory Palestine, both Bet-Zuri and Hakim spoke Arabic but insisted on speaking only Hebrew in the Cairo court. They went to the gallows singing the hymn “Hatikvah” — later to become Israel’s national anthem.

In the near term, their deed hardened hearts: “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of an assassin’s pistol, and the labors for its future produce a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, then many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past,” Churchill snarled to Parliament.

But in fact the British reconsideration was soon seen to run counter to the dangerous meddling policing these “gangsters” would have demanded. Within only a few years London struck its colors in the Levant. Bet-Zuri’s and Hakim’s cause triumphed, and they too with it: as Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir arranged for the hanged men’s remains to be repatriated from Egypt; today, both rest in honor at Mount Herzl.

* There was a personal side to Lord Moyne’s anti-Naziism: his son, Bryan, had been abandoned by his socialite wife Diana Mitford … who became Diana Mosley in 1936 when she married British Union of Fascists chief Oswald Mosley, in a ceremony held at Joseph Goebbels‘ home no less.

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1925: The Egyptian assassins of British Gen. Lee Stack

Add comment August 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1925, “seven men were led from their cells and executed at intervals of 40 minutes,” reported the Evening Independent — all for the assassination the of the British proconsul governing Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt had theoretical sovereignty at this point, but under British occupation — a tense situation that had frequently spawned deadly riots. It’s hardly surprising in such an atmosphere that the British high military commander Sir Lee Stack was gunned down along with his driver and an aide motoring through Cairo.


This photo captures only a staged reconstruction of Stack’s murder, not the actual shooting.

The British did not take kindly to this anti-colonial propaganda of the deed. In a furious diplomatic note handed by Lawrence of Arabia supporting character Edmund Allenby to the pro-independence Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul* they accused Egypt’s native leaders of “a campaign of hostility to British rights and British subjects in Egypt and Sudan, founded upon a heedless ingratitude for benefits conferred by Great Britain, not discouraged by Your Excellency’s Government.”

Indeed, His Excellency’s Government would only outlive the murdered sirdad by five days, for Zaghloul resigned (but urging calm) in the face of London’s demands to “vigorously suppress all popular political demonstrations,” a £500,000 fine levied on Egypt, and the seizure of customs houses.

Meanwhile, there was the most immediate reprisal of all: the search for Stack’s assassins. Sydney Smith, a self-educated New Zealander and pioneer of forensic science, had a star turn in the investigation by positively connecting the firearms and the bullets** to some of the suspects.

Smith published an analysis of this affair that became one of the foundational texts of the emerging firearm forensics field — and not incidentally helped to propel Smith’s own fame to household-name levels.

* Zaghloul had formerly been imprisoned by the British for his nationalist agitation.

** The bullet points had been hand-flattened by the shooters in an attempt to make them into dumdum (expanding) projectiles.

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1800: Suleiman al-Halabi, assassin of General Kleber

2 comments June 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.

Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.

Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.

But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.

Suleiman al-Halabi (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Syrian Kurd hailing from Aleppo. (“al-Halabi” means “of Aleppo”)

He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.

The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the every corner of earth.

But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.

The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.

The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.

As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,

The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.

(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)

Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.

According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)

* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.

** Napoleon brought a corps of scientists and intellectuals along on his invasion, kicking off the modern Egyptology craze. His mission also uncovered the Rosetta Stone — although that artifact now resides in the British Museum because of the aforementioned naval blockade.

† According to Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War, phrenologists hailed Suleiman’s skull as an outstanding exemplar of criminality and fanaticism.

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2010: Jihan Mohammed Ali and Atef Rohyum Abd El Al Rohyum, lovers

2 comments March 10th, 2011 Headsman

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As of this date last year, the latterly deposed Hosni Mubarak still held power of life and death over subjects.

And on this date in 2010, he used it to turn thumbs-down to both Jihan Mohammed Ali and Atef Rohyum Abd El Al Rohyum.

Those two were condemned for the 2004 murder of Jihan’s husband, but Jihan apparently claimed to have acted alone, involving her lover only as an after-the-fact accessory to move the body.

(You know what they say … friends help you move. Good friends help you move bodies.)

Atef’s attempts to parlay this information into a new trial or some form of executive mercy fell on deaf ears, prompting a fruitless Amnesty International appeal that Egypt was risking a wrongful execution.

The two were executed on the same day, though not executed together; Jihan hanged in al-Kanater prison outside Cairo, while Atef was put to death in Isti’naf prison.

We suspect that ex-President Mubarak’s regrets, if any, run more to the prosaic opportunities missed in the maintenance and exploitation of power. But given the events of recent months, maybe his soul and his regime alike could have profited from fewer revengeful spirits like Atef.

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2006: Two Egyptians who just wanted to watch the game

Add comment December 11th, 2010 Headsman

Nineteen-year-old shoe-shiner Hosni Ramadan Mahmoud Ahmed and his friend Ramadan Abu Al-Magd Azab were hanged in Qena, Egypt on this date in 2006 for murdering Ahmed’s two-year-old stepdaughter.

“Apparently infuriated that the crying baby was disrupting their viewing of a football match on television,” read the crime blotter. “Ahmed smashed the two year old’s head against a wall and electrocuted her.

“The two men then dumped her body in a nearby school.”


Egypt football fans would like to enjoy the game in peace. (cc) image from blogdroed.

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1955: Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar

1 comment January 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1955, two Egyptian Jews enrolled by Israeli intelligence as saboteurs were hanged in Cairo.

Marzouk (left) and Azar, from this page.

The strange and disturbing “Lavon affair” — or “Esek habish,” the “shameful affair” — has never had a completely satisfying explanation.

It broke in 1954, when Egypt arrested a ring comprised of Egyptian Jews who had bombed locations in Alexandria and Cairo, including an American diplomatic post, in an apparent false flag operation meant to be attributed to the radical Muslim Brotherhood. (The apparent operation had a recent precedent.)

The germ and the goal of this project have been fodder for speculation ever since; the most commonly accepted theory is that it was intended to trigger western intervention or pressure on Egypt that would prevent Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal.

Initially blamed on the Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, unrelated court testimony in 1960 would reveal that he was a fall guy.

But in any guise, the hangings this day in Cairo prompted national mourning in Israel and an immediate political shakeup whose dimensions might as well have sprung from this morning’s paper:

The dovish government of Moshe Sharett fell; hawkish founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was recalled from retirement in a Negev kibbutz; and Israel launched a reprisal raid at Gaza. Little more than two years later, Israel and Egypt would contest control of the Suez on the battlefield.

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1960: The assassins of Hazza Majali

4 comments December 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1960 — just two days after they had been sentenced — Saleh Safadi, Mohammed Hindawi, Lt. Husham Dabbas, and Karim Shaqra were hanged in Amman’s Hussein Mosque Square for assassinating Jordan’s prime minister earlier that year.

The marquee casualty of Jordan’s standoff against Nasserite Egypt, Hazza Majali might have just been a footnote to the story. According to King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life,

[i]t may be that the bomb plot which cost Hazza Majali his life was also aimed at the King himself. The first bomb, which killed the prime minister, was followed by a second explosion at the scene less than forty minutes later. Had the King followed through on his initial intention to visit the bomb site, he might well have been caught in the second blast.

Though the bombings didn’t get King Hussein, they claimed 11 other lives besides Majali’s.

The assassins’ conspiracy traced back to neighboring Syria, which at that time was (briefly) unified with Egypt as the United Arab Republic. Syria and Jordan have found plenty of reasons to bicker over the years, and the former’s alliance here with Nasser‘s pan-Arabism added a pointed ideological critique of Jordan’s throwback Hashemite dynasty.*

Syria and the UAR were busily subverting U.S.-backed Jordan, and in this venture they enjoyed dangerously considerable popular support within Jordan; Majali in particular was “regarded by some Jordanians — and particularly Palestine refugees — as a virtual tool of the Western powers.” (New York Times, Aug. 30, 1960)

So it was a dangerous situation, and King Hussein did well to escape those years un-blown-up himself.

Several weeks of brinksmanship followed Majali’s assassination, with Jordanian troops massed on the Syrian border. Matters stopped short of outright war, but Nasser, Syria, and the UAR were all explicitly accused of this operation and others at the resulting trial of the assassins in December: the plot was supposed to have originated in Damascus, been paid for in Damascus, and used bombs shipped from Damascus.

Eleven in all were condemned to death, but seven of those sentences were given in absentia to suspects who had absconded to Nasser’s dominions.

* In response to the Egypt-Syria union, the kindred Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq had formed the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. That arrangement was even shorter-lived than the UAR, because the Iraqi Hashemites were almost immediately overthrown. You can get Jordan’s official take on those perilous years here.

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1818: Abdullah ibn Saud, last ruler of the first Saudi state

3 comments December 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1818, the last ruler of the first state established by the Al Saud who rule the modern state of Saudi Arabia lost his head to the Ottoman Sultan.

The Ottoman state and its (largely independent) vassal Egypt begged to dispute the Wahhabi tribe’s authority in the Arabian peninsula (and its proclivity for raiding Ottoman caravans) and made war on the House of Saud throughout the 1810’s.

The Battle of ad-Dir’iyah in 1818 settled the matter, with our day’s principal Abdullah I surrendering to the Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha.

We pick up the action from the third-hand, well-after-the-fact reports of the London Times. This, printed on Jan. 16 1819 under the “German Papers” heading:

FROM THE TURKISH FRONTIERS, DEC. 16.

The last victory over the Wechabites puts an end to the war at once. Ibrahim Pacha, who commanded the Turkish army, sends the captive Abdallah to Constantinople, but he first had his head shaved, and all his teeth pulled out.

On Feb. 6, the Times channeled the Dutch and Flanders mail:

Intelligence from Constantinople, dated the 24th December, states, that the Chief of the Wechabites, Abdallah, and his Iman, were brought prisoners into that capital on the 16th of the same month. After being led, in chains, through the principal streets, they were taken to prison and put to the torture. On the following morning, they were brought before the Sultan and beheaded. Their naked bodies were exposed during three days, and then delivered to the populace.

In addition to Abdullah himself, this affair finished off the city of Diriyah as a Saudi capital.

But of course, the Saud and their state were just getting started.

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30 B.C.E: Caesarion, “Little Caesar”

9 comments August 27th, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Like father like son … unfortunately, in this case.

It was around this date that Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, “Caesarion” to his pals, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, was put to death by orders of the autocratic Octavian.

Cleopatra and Caesarion walk like Egyptians at the temple of Dendera, Egypt.

Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) was the only known son of Julius Caesar. Octavian, whose claim to power proceeded from his status as Caesar’s adoptive son, became the Emperor Augustus after eliminating the dangerous rivalry of his “brother”.

While most of us at the age of three were putting Matchbox cars in our mouths and eating macaroni and cheese, little Ptolemy XV was co-ruler of Egypt with his famous mom. King in name only, he must have seen his mother still grieving because of Caesar’s assassination March 15, 44 B.C.

The little tyke, though born in Egypt, spent the first couple of years in Rome with Caesar and his mother. Then his dad was stabbed, repeatedly, and Cleopatra took the boy home to Egypt. Proclaimed “King of Kings,” little Caesarion couldn’t realize at his young age the power struggles roiling around him and his mother.

Indeed, things were a little tense outside the family home. (And inside.)

There was some wrestling going on, and not Greco-Roman. No, there were men who wanted power. Lots of power.

There was Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover and a Roman General. He was Julius Caesar’s second cousin.

There was the patrician Marcus Lepidus, Caesar’s, for lack of a better word, deputy dictator.

Then, the aforementioned Octavian (Julius Caesar was his great uncle).

Together, the three were the Second Triumvirate, a dream team of Roman political heavyweights. Supreme rule they had. Ambition, sometimes, makes a mess of things. Only one of the three would stand victorious at the end, and there’d be casualties, like Caesarion.

Lepidus was driven into exile to Circeii. At least he died peacefully years later, securely ensconced as the Triumvir You’re Most Likely To Forget.

Conflict between Octavian and Antony climaxed at the Battle of Actium, one of history’s signal events.* (Its anniversary is next week, September 2.)

Octavian won the battle.

Antony escaped to Egypt, but as Octavian’s legions closed in the following year, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. He died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra’s arms would be cold with death soon after when she committed her famous (supposed) suicide-by-asp on August 12, 30 B.C.


“Death of Cleopatra”, by Edmonia Lewis. (Commentary.)

Before the Queen died, she sent her son Caesarion away from the political tumult.

Now 17, Caesarion bolted to the Red Sea port city of Berenice. Things were looking bleak for the young man. Octavian controlled Alexandria in early August, annexing Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony died. His mother died. His father had been dead most of his young life. And now Octavian — making an offer he couldn’t refuse — was asking for the lad, the closest living blood relation to Caesar, to come to Alexandria. He was to be spared. There was nothing to fear. Mercy would be heaped upon Caesarion.

It was not to be. “Two Caesars are too many,” Octavian declared … so Caesarion was subtracted. No documentation has been discovered about his death; because of his young age, it is thought he died of strangulation.

Octavian assumed absolute power, became known as Augustus, and died of illness August 19, AD 14. While Augustus, during his reign, was proclaimed a god by the Senate, Caesar’s only known son became a footnote in history, long dead and buried.

* More on the Battle of Actium here and here, and at this episode from the highly recommended The History of Rome podcast. -ed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Children,Egypt,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Roman Empire,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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