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.
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 everycornerofearth.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And in fact, Philemon the Actor’s martyrdom would have occurred towards the very end of the reign which saw the very last major anti-Christian persecutions. Already by this time, the young man whose sword arm would bear Christianity to its political triumph was a major political figure in the Empire.
The very next year, Constantine received the imperial purple, and over the ensuing years overcame his partners and rivals in that station to win unchallenged hegemony over the Roman World.
Laurels for Philemon and many others of his ilk would soon be policy for the empire that had put him to death, as celebration (perhaps exaggeration) of such travails cemented the newfound legitimacy of the formerly illicit religion elevated by Constantine.
Fifteen years ago, a Libyan-born dissident of American nationality was abducted from a human rights conference in Cairo.
The fate or current whereabouts of Mansour Kikhia remain unknown to this day — although one widely-suspected scenario (and the conclusion of a CIA report on the incident) is that he was spirited to Libya and secretly executed early in 1994.
While other speculation has had Kikhia being held alive, the insulin-dependent diabetic would have been in a bad way absent the sort of painstaking medical attention he would not likely have been receiving from his captors.
The former Libyan foreign minister and United Nations ambassador, who had broken with dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi in 1980, was in Egypt to participate in an Arab Organization of Human Rights conference. The date he vanished from his hotel, last seen in the company of unknown Egyptian men driving vehicles with Mukhabarat markings, was December 10, 1993 — the 45th anniversary of the seminal modern human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Several distinguished Middle Eastern scholars wrote an open letter shortly after Kikhia’s disappearance imploring
Arabs, Americans with an interest in the Arab world and human rights organizations not to rest until he regains his freedom. Nothing could be worse than to let the governments concerned think he will be forgotten.
If not “forgotten” in the strictest sense — see some links of the bulletins issued over the years to keep alive his memory — the governments concerned sure seem to have paid no price for having disappeared Mansour Kikhia.
On this date in 1966, author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb was hanged for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state.
Qutb — whose names can be transliterated many ways (Saïd, Syed, Seyyid, Sayid, or Sayed; Koteb, Kotb, Qutub or Kutb) — was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century, and helped shape the ideas of Osama bin Laden.
A traditionally-minded Muslim civil servant in a westernizing Egypt, Qutb’s journey to radicalism is traditionally dated to his late 1940’s study abroad in the U.S. at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, where the decadence, materialism, and lax morality of the global hegemon saw him seeing existential evil in the everyday all around him:
The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.
Qutb left Greeley, Colo., in 1950 with a master’s degree and an intention to mount an Islamic revolution in his home country that would implement sharia and keep shapely thighs safely under wraps. (Qutb never married, bemoaning the scanty pickings of pure fish in the sea. He may have faced the gallows a virgin.)
He hooked up with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, landed in Egypt’s famously savage prisons (future president Anwar Sadat was one of his judges), and the experience of torture hardened his commitment to a vanguard-led revolution. He kept up his prolific writing output, penning perhaps his most notable work, Milestones (the text was later used against him at his capital trial).
Qutb’s release in 1964 was only for a few months, before Egyptian security got wind of a new Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the government and rounded up Qutb as the supposed ringleader — or just railroaded him because it didn’t like where he was going with passages like
there are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily imagine that his martyr’s death did not squelch his movement, but greatened his stature to admiring eyes.
But it was hardly a direct path into an un-critiqued hall of martyrs in an undifferentiated “radical Islam”. While Qutb had his own influence in Egypt, Cairo has managed to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutbism, however, was exported to Saudi Arabia — which intentionally imported it for various practical and geopolitical reasons — where it flourished, often in a fractious relationship with official Saudi Wahhabism.
One of Qutb’s students was the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the hanged intellectual greatly influenced Zawahiri’s own path into radicalism and to al-Qaeda. Since September 11, of course, the path Qutb himself followed has become of much more pressing interest to the West as well as within the Muslim world.