Ali Bey el Abbassi’s Visit to Jerusalem in 1807 (Part One)

Ali Bey el Abbassi’s Visit to Jerusalem in 1807 (Part Two)

Ali Bey el Abbassi (1767-1818) was the fifth known European non-Muslim to secretly visit Makkah and perform the hajj pilgrimage. He did so in 1807, after which he proceeded to visit Palestine as well. In this chapter, several critical observations on his visit to the holy city of Jerusalem and some of its environs, will be made.

It is generally believed that Ali Bey was a Spanish scientist, explorer, soldier and spy. His original Spanish name was Domenec Francesc Jordi Badia i Leblich. He supported and worked for the Bonapartist ideology and administration, associated with the political thought and work of Napoleon Bonaparte and his successors.

When France invaded Spain in 1808, and was subsequently ruled by Joseph I, Napoleon’s elder brother, Ali Bey fully supported and collaborated with the occupiers. He was made intendant (administrative official) first of Segovia then of Cordoba. However, following the defeat and withdrawal of France from Spain in 1813, Ali Bey had to flee too. He fled to and settled in France.

Between 1803 and 1807, Ali Bey traversed much of the Muslim world. His ultimate objective was the hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, which he, disguised, successfully performed in 1807. Due to the unfavourable political climate in the Hijaz region, he was prevented from visiting Madinah. It was these travels that made Ali Bey famous, warranting him an undeletable place in the history of the early modern Muslim-European (Orient-Occident) relations.

The efforts resulted in a book titled “Travels of Ali Bey in Morocco, Tripoli, Cyprus, Egypt, Arabia, Syria and Turkey between the years 1803 and 1807” (written by himself). The book has two volumes. It was first published in French in 1814. An English translation followed two years later, in 1816.

Who was Ali Bey?

Ali Bey was an enigma. Little is certain about him. He mysteriously burst onto the scientific and historical scene, lived out dramatically his life as a sumptuous mystery, and in the end disappeared from the world stage as mysteriously as he had arrived and had lived. What is typically held about him could yet be part of a public and perhaps greatest delusion. It could be a mirage and the greatest stunt.

Was Ali Bey a Muslim? What were his origins? Was he a Jew? Was he a Christian who in the name of scientific exploration and inquiry visited Makkah and ostensibly performed hajj? Was he a spy whose visit to Makkah was part of a broader agenda intended for the possible creation of a new world order? Was he a real personality, after all?

The questions keep pouring. One cannot help but consider that the circumstance was premeditated. In his celebrated book “Travels of Ali Bey”, Ali Bey gives away extremely little about himself and his case. And whenever he does, he seems not as though clearing the air, but rather as though adding further to the ambiguity.

Ali Bey says that after spending many years in the Christian states, he determined at last to visit Muslim (Mahometan) countries. The purpose of his visit was tripartite: to engage in performing a pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca); to observe the manners, customs and nature of the countries through which he should pass; and to make his laborious journeys of some utility to the country which he will eventually select for his abode.

He also reveals that before that, while in the Christian states, he was studying the sciences of nature, and the arts most useful to people (man and mankind) in their societies, whatever be their faiths or the religions of their hearts.

The Mystery of Ali Bey

One of many possibilities relating to the personality and case of Ali Bey is that he was a Muslim. But this in itself poses a mystery. Whether he was from Aleppo, Syria (as he admitted first to the captain of the port of Tangier, Morocco, where he had arrived from London via Cadiz, and second to the Sultan, i.e., Sharif, of Makkah) or of Moroccan origin but of Spanish education, which some people supposed on account of his actual life activities – is anybody’s guess.

For example, he vaguely claimed that he was from Aleppo and that he had left that country long time ago when he was still young, albeit without any elaboration as to his former and subsequent relationships with his country of origin, and if he had a chance to do so, he proved as evasive as ever. When the Sharif of Makkah asked him where he had gone and had been following his migration from Aleppo, Ali Bey desisted from divulging any clues. He only remarked: “I related my history to him (the Sharif)”.

The author’s name itself is confusing. It was deliberately concocted as such in order to create vagueness, and whenever necessary, to afford opportunities for manoeuvres and manipulations. The name “Ali Bey el-Abbassi” could mean at once much and nothing. It could be merely an acronym or a symbol. It is an incomplete name, much like a moniker.

“Ali” is one of the most common names in Islamic culture; “Bey” is an honorific title given either officially or informally to people of superior lineages and socio-political ranks; while “el Abbassi” is the nisba (relative) adjective and indicates the man’s pretension to the lineage of the Abbasid caliphs and their erstwhile caliphate.

It was only once that the author said he was the son of a certain Othman Bey, when he was bragging against a presumptuous governor of Jeddah who “was a negro, named Ouisir, and had been a slave to the Sultan Scheriff of Mecca.” Mentioning that he was the son of Othman Bey only once, and doing so in an awkward situation, could be one of those calculated – and anticipated - manoeuvres and manipulations.

In the course of his travels, Ali Bey managed to acquire many more honorific titles by which he was known in “Mahometan countries”. Some were assured due to his projected status, and others were acquired due to his “devotion” and “piety”. These titles stand out: “religious”, “the prince”, “learned”, “jurist or doctor of the law”, “of the blood of Prophet Muhammad”, “pilgrim”, “of the race of the Abbasids” and “servant of the holy mosque in Makkah”.

Ali Bey explicitly claimed to be a Muslim, calling Islam “my religion”. However, that - most probably - was not the case. Denying that Ali Bey in reality was a Muslim, Augustus Ralli in his book “Christians at Mecca” affirmed that such a thing was an illusion, and that Ali Bey retained in his book that illusion.

Ali Bey is also said to have been a spy. The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries were a turning point in the history of Islamic nations and Islamic civilization at large. The period also marked a watershed in the Muslim-European (Orient-Occident) relations.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns in the Ottoman-controlled territories of Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801 changed everything. The campaigns were conducted for some short-term and, if possible, also long-term political, military, economic and scientific purposes.

Napoleon’s main nemesis was the British and their vast expansionist and imperialist programs. Everything else was contingent on that, one way or another, including the French relations with the Ottomans. The two were bound by the Franco-Ottoman alliance that had been formed in 1536. The alliance lasted for more than two and a half centuries until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. No sooner had the aggression materialized, than one of the oldest alliances collapsed and caused France and the Ottomans to be at daggers drawn. Subsequently, a new alliance, involving Great Britain, Russia and Ottoman Empire, was formed in 1798. Its aim was to face up to the French threats.

The job of Ali Bey was to penetrate the top brass of the leading territories of the Muslim world and to find out how people thought and behaved vis-à-vis the latest political developments locally and abroad. The prime targets were the Ottomans – and indirectly the function of the British. As far as the Hijaz region was concerned, Ali Bey was also interested in exploring the strengths and weaknesses, and the potential opportunities and threats, of the Wahhabi movement, and whether it could be used for advancing the French designs in the region.

That the Wahhabis were at loggerheads with the Ottomans was a positive thing. Having a common enemy could serve as a unifying force for the otherwise incongruous French and Wahhabi interests. As a result, Ali Bey was frequently inclined to critique the Ottomans and extend friendly gestures towards the Wahhabis, as if attempting to establish a rapport with the latter.

An Enigma

Ali Bey's journey through most of the central Muslim lands was significant. It mattered because his travels inaugurated a new phase in travel literature. It also represented a new chapter in the evolution of the world order and how the ongoing changes were affecting the Muslim world. Distances were becoming shorter, interactions between people and their diverse cultures more intense and purposeful, and the flow of ideas more rapid and unobstructed.

Ali Bey was an ambassador of this new age. He was a personification of the European enlightenment and its revolutionary thought. He received a liberal education, and later improved his knowledge by studying medicine, astronomy and mineralogy. As a scientist with mysterious goals and missions, he had a strong compulsion to travel both locally and abroad, surpassing the levels of mere adventure and excitement.

Against the newly emerged European standards of liberalism, democracy and civilization, championed by the success of the French Revolution, Ali Bey aimed to uncover, explore and evaluate the innermost secrets of the Muslim world. He also wanted to learn about the thought patterns of people, to what extent those were compatible with the new European values, and whether the findings will support the global colonization and empire-building projects.

With the above comments in mind, here are five observations derived from Ali Bey's accounts of his journey to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.

First: Ali Bey’s scientism oozed arrogance

One of the aspects of Ali Bey’s travel mission was scientific. According to Edward Said, the difference between representations of the Orient before the last third of the 18th century and those after it is that the range of representation expanded enormously in the later period. After Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, Europe came to know the Orient more scientifically and to live in it with greater authority and discipline than ever before.

The same epoch was one which Edward Said calls “modern Orientalism”. “With Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt processes were set in motion between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives” (Edward Said, Orientalism).

David George Hogarth, while writing about Ali Bey and his travels in his book “The Penetration of Arabia”, said that Ali Bey’s “professed object was scientific observation, and for that task he was singularly well qualified by knowledge of Arabic, of instruments, and of geology and botany. But much remains mysterious about him. He came from and returned to obscurity in his oriental guise.”

As a scientist, Ali Bey carried several indispensable scientific instruments with him, one of which however was later broken and the other stolen. The one that was broken was a hygrometer (an instrument used in meteorological science to measure the humidity or amount of water vapour in the air), which was accidentally broken by the captain of a ship before Ali Bey’s departure for Makkah.

The instrument that was stolen was a chronometer (an extremely accurate clock used in scientific experiments, navigation and astronomical observations). It was stolen at Mina during the hajj pilgrimage. Initially, Ali Bey’s writing-desk, books, papers, and some clothes, had been stolen. His writing-desk contained his chronometer, some jewels and other trifles, his great seal, and several astronomical observations and drawings.

Later, he was able to recover the writing-desk, books and papers. However, the chronometer, jewels, and the tables of logarithms, which were bound and which the thieves mistook for a Qur’an in the dark, were missing. Ali Bey acknowledged that those two accidents and the unfortunate outcomes that followed prevented him from maximizing his scientific work.

There were also some instruments that Ali Bay had left in Egypt when he travelled to Makkah and Jerusalem for his pilgrimages. That, too, proved a hindrance. His portrayal of Jerusalem included a mention of his inability to make astronomical observations due to his instruments being left behind in Egypt.

With regard to Ali Bey’s description of the al-Aqsa mosque complex, the al-Aqsa mosque itself and the Dome of the Rock, the first thing Ali Bey said - rather conceitedly - was that he was the first to provide a detailed account of the three wonders. The reason for that was two-fold: first, because the Muslims were neither interested nor able to execute the job, and second, because the Christians, whether locals or visitors, who were expected to and should have been able to do so, were not allowed to enter those architectural wonders.

Ali Bey wrote: “As no detailed description has been hitherto given of the Mussulman Temple at Jerusalem, because the Mussulmen are generally not prepared for such a task, and the Christians are not permitted to enter it, I shall now endeavour to give some idea of this magnificent monument of architecture, which ought to interest the learned, whether followers of Moses, or Jesus Christ, or of Mouhhammed.

As a constant friend to truth, I ought to premise, that I had only time to make five visits to the Temple; these were however long, and so well employed, that I can certify the accuracy of my descriptions and drawings, without, however, laying claim to geometrical precision in all the details.”

A couple of conclusions can be deduced from this statement. First, Ali Bey was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific truth, relying exclusively on observation and experimentation as the means to achieve it. It was only this scientific method that could lead to empirical or evidence-based knowledge. By extension, it has also been implied that empiricism is the only form of knowledge that faces opposition from either limited access and means (in this case epitomized by the Christians) or lack of motivation and capability (epitomized by the Muslims).

And second, overcoming both sets of impediments, Ali Bey, who symbolized the beginning of a new scientific era marked by the age of reason, came to the rescue, furnishing the world with the only and most comprehensive description of the three Muslim architectural phenomena in Jerusalem. His approach resonated with an epistemological style that aimed to liberate the past, rectify the present, and pave the way for a brighter future.

However, the notion that Ali Bey was the sole individual to provide a thorough account of the three edifices in Jerusalem, and that no Muslim could have accomplished this, is false. By making this claim, Ali Bey demonstrated that he was as much ignorant as arrogant. The latter probably got into his head, as is often the case with supporters of military and cultural colonialism and advocates of "the mission to civilize", who are unwilling to see or recognize the achievements of their victims. While it is all about the colonizers and those who have been mandated to civilize the “other”, it is absolutely nothing about the victims.

Ali Bey should have known that many Muslim geographers and explorers had previously described the same architectural wonders in Jerusalem centuries before him. Their descriptions were equally elaborate and accurate, if not more so. The giants of Islamic civilization who performed the task were: Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Maqdisi (d. 990), Naser Khosraw (d. 1088) and Abu Abdullah Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 1229). They did so in their respective seminal works: “The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions”, “Book of Travels”, and “Dictionary of Countries.”

The contributions of those Muslim scholars were thoroughly scientific, no less methodical than those of their subsequent Muslim or non-Muslim counterparts. By way of illustration, before describing the al-Aqsa mosque, as part of his general description of Jerusalem, Naser Khosraw stated in his “Book of Travels”: “I wanted to measure the dimensions of this sanctuary, but I thought that first I should get a general idea of the plan and layout, after which I could make my measurements. For a long time I wandered about the area, looking at it from different vantages.” Naser Khosraw truly lived up to his promise, as his descriptions were impeccably systematic and unmatched.

Moreover, Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Maqdisi was a native of Jerusalem, hence his name, for Jerusalem is most commonly known in Arabic as al-Quds and Bayt al-Maqdis. He proudly claimed that Jerusalem was his city, his home. Not only did he think and write about Jerusalem within the framework of his groundbreaking geographical undertakings, but he also held it dear to his heart and embraced it in his being. He and the city of Jerusalem became a single existential entity.

Thus, one can compare these qualifications of Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Maqdisi with those of Ali Bey who during his relatively short stay in Jerusalem had only time to make five visits to the al-Aqsa mosque complex. In passing, Ali Bey spent 26 days in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, from July 23, 1807, to August 19, 1807. During that period, he had to visit and document the whole city of Jerusalem and a number of surrounding environs, all of which contained numerous important Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites and shrines.

In addition, Ali Bey also confessed that he never was any where so beset and importuned as at Jerusalem. He was the only pilgrim there at the time, so he was always surrounded with the officers of the al-Aqsa complex, who had nothing else to do. He was likewise accompanied everywhere. The fine garden belonging to his dwelling was almost always filled with people, virtually divesting him of solitude, peace and leisure. These circumstances prevented him from giving that extent to his remarks upon Jerusalem and its landmarks, which he could have wished to do.

Second: Ali Bey was a spy for Napoleon

He was working under the French government. However, to be fair to Ali Bey, it must be admitted that he was the first scholar to produce the scientific drawings and layouts of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. He also produced a drawing and layout of the mosque in Hebron (a city about 30 km from Jerusalem) that contained the sepulchres of Prophet Ibrahim and his family, a layout of a Gothic church in Jerusalem (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) with the tomb of Jesus Christ.

A drawing of the natural background of the city of Acre (about 130 km from Jerusalem), a drawing of a mountain of Nazareth where “the Jews conducted Jesus Christ, to precipitate him to the bottom, but he rendered himself invisible”, and a drawing of the northern extremity of the Sea of Galilee.

Ali Bey was additionally the first to produce scientific drawings and plans of Makkah’s holy mosque and its holy places. Indeed, the prevailing and rapidly-growing science of geography was significantly enriched by the scientific yield of Ali Bey. Illustrations, sketches and measurements were given because they could explain to the reader the general dispositions of buildings, objects and sites better than all the written descriptions, in conformity with the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Most of Ali Bey’s observations, descriptions and drawings were authoritatively accurate and complete. He was regarded as a benchmark and a point of reference. Some of the subsequent authorities in the fields of travel literature, geography and ethnography of the Middle East - such as the Swiss John Lewis Burckhardt (d. 1817) and his book “Travels in Arabia” and the Englishman Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890) and his book “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah” - made use of Ali Bey's accurate scientific findings and drew upon his results.

At any rate, what Ali Bey did was the continuation – or at least the echo - of Napoleon’s scientific and colonial project in Egypt (1798-1801). As a small digression, When Napoleon departed from France, his military units were only part of the conquering forces. In addition to the armed forces, Napoleon was accompanied by the scientific and cultural apparatus, for which the conquest of Egypt actually came to be known.

Time and again, the political, economic and military features of the invasion of Egypt were eclipsed by those pertaining to the mission civilisatrice (mission to civilize). That is to say, a mission to conquer, subdue and colonize was rendered subservient to a mission to enlighten, cultivate and civilize.

Role of Ali Bey in Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign

According to Alice L. Conklin, “one purpose of the Institut (d’Egypte) was to lend its varied expertise to the conquerors, so that the French might effectively subdue the local populations and successfully exploit the land. Engineers, Islamicists, printers, natural scientists, artists, mathematicians, and astronomers were all to study conditions in Egypt, then place their knowledge at the service of the invading generals.

These experts were also to bring the accumulated knowledge and skills of the West to the peoples of Egypt, while enriching that knowledge with information about the region and its celebrated past that had been lost since its descent into despotism and barbarism” (Alice L.

Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930). Apart from war, fortifications, taxation, government, the organisation of the divans and trade, art and science also preoccupied Napoleon’s immediate attention. That is how the mentioned Institut d’Egypte in Cairo came about. Napoleon’s private secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet De Bourrienne, wrote that the Institute was established on the 21st of August, 1798 - while Napoleon entered Cairo on the 24th of July, 1798. That means that it took Napoleon slightly less than a month to launch the academy.

The Institute was identified as one of the arts and sciences, and the private secretary of Napoleon was himself subsequently appointed as a member of its management team. The private secretary encapsulated the rationale for the establishment of the academy in the sense that Napoleon thereby “wished to present an example of his ideas of civilisation.” That the creation of the Institute could not wait suggests how pressing the idea of the civilization mission was. It was on a par with the military mission.

Espionage, Colonial Ambitions, and Geopolitical Intrigues

One of the most remarkable achievements of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, in the intellectual and cultural fields, was the composition and publication of the Description de l'Égypte (Description of Egypt), which was a series of publications that catalogued all known aspects of ancient and modern Egypt. There were as many as 167 scholars that accompanied Napoleon.

They were from different scientific areas and were led by Baron Dominique Vivant Denon (d. 1825), a French artist, scholar and archaeologist. They accompanied the army to every corner of the country. On these journeys they studied every aspect of the life of Egypt and its peoples.

Their studies paved the way for the science of Egyptology (Description de l'Égypte: 1802-1822, National Library of Scotland).

Ali Bey was likely part of these elaborate mechanisms and networks of the French, functioning as an informant and connoisseur of geopolitics. In short, he was a spy. That Ali Bey was a spy for Napoleon’s government is maintained by William John Bankes (d. 1855) - an English politician, Egyptologist and explorer - in his editorial preface to Giovani Finati’s work titled “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati”, and by David George Hogarth (d. 1927) in his book “The Penetration of Arabia.”

It stands to reason that Ali Bey’s assignment was affiliated with acquiring expertise to support the growing colonial ambitions of France and Europe as a whole. For the future colonial campaigns, the goal was to ensure that native communities would be easily and efficiently subjugated, allowing for successful exploitation of their territories.

It was within the same context that Ali Bey also talked about the few strengths and many weaknesses of the defence systems of the city of Jerusalem. The impression he gives is one of competence and specialization. He yet seems to provide a blueprint for an assault strategy that could guarantee the capture of the city. Undoubtedly, if this information could be made available to the public, we can only imagine what secret revelations Ali Bey had in store for his French imperialistic overlords.

Ali Bey wrote in his book of travels: “With the exception of a few Turkish soldiers, Jerusalem has no other defenders than the Mussulman inhabitants, who muster about 2000 men fit to carry arms. The city is surrounded with walls of a considerable height, surmounted by battlements, with square towers, the whole well-built of free stone; but incapable of resisting cannon on account of their want of thickness.

There are six gates… As the citadel is built against the western wall, there is no gate to the exterior on that side. I have already remarked that the greatest part of the area of Jerusalem is encompassed with precipices. On the other points the want of this species of natural entrenchment has been supplied by a ditch dug at the foot of the wall.

Upon a first view of this place, surrounded with precipices and regular walls in good condition, crowned with a great number of pieces of artillery, with its citadel of a handsome and solid construction, encompassed with its ditches, and well provided with the means of defence; possessing within a population, which appears to present a great number of defenders; a stranger is tempted to look upon it as an impregnable place; but when he examines attentively its position, the first illusion disappears, and he remains convinced that it is a post incapable of sustaining a severe assault because, on account of the topography of the land, it has no means of preventing the approaches of an enemy; and on the other hand, it is commanded at the distance of a gun-shot by the Djebel Tor, or Mount of Olives.”

Come what may, Ali Bey's approach and output signalled the first seeds of Western colonialism in the land of Jerusalem and Palestine in general. The seeds were nurtured for the next 110 years, until 1916 when Britain colonized Palestine. The latter then served as a starting point for the initiation of an illegitimate project to establish the state of Israel, which was realized in 1948.

That means that he evil of the Zionist Israel was made possible due to the existence of the evil of the British colonial project in Palestine, with the latter being the driving force and the former the resulting outcome. Whereas the British colonial venture in Palestine, in turn, was a result of the intertwined efforts of orientalism and the "mission to civilize," which were initially introduced by Napoleon during his time in Egypt and furthered by Ali Bey, the former’s emissary, in Palestine.

However, despite Ali Bey's actions having no direct influence on the rise of Zionism and the establishment of Israel as its emblem and receptacle, it can be argued that they did indirectly contribute to the development of several unfortunate events that ultimately played a role in the formation of the Jewish state. Inasmuch as Israel was established by the West, with Britain in the lead, Ali Bey could potentially be implicated as a willing participant in the Western colonial and expansionist endeavours. Without these, Israel's formation and longevity would have been impossible.

Finally, it should be kept in mind that the 1916 pact between Britain and France, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, was the pivotal factor in shaping the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, including Palestine. According to the agreement, the Arab lands that hitherto were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire were to be divided into British and French spheres of influence. After that, all roads leading to the colonization of Palestine and subsequently the creation of Israel lay open.

Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.