The siege of Jaffa was a military engagement between the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte and Ottoman forces under Ahmed al-Jazzar. On the 3 of March, 1799, the French laid siege to the city of Jaffa, which was under Ottoman control. It was fought from 3 to 7 March 1799. On the 7 March, French forces managed to capture the city.[3][4] For the pillaging of the city, the rape and murder of its civilian population by Napoleon's troops, and the execution of the Ottoman prisoners of war, the siege of Jaffa has been called "one of the most tragic episodes of [Napoleon's] Egyptian campaign."[5]

Siege of Jaffa
Part of the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria during the War of the Second Coalition

The painting Napoleon visiting the plague victims of Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros depicts the aftermath of this battle.
Date3–7 March 1799
Location32°02′43″N 34°46′11″E / 32.0453°N 34.7697°E / 32.0453; 34.7697
Result French victory
French First Republic French Republic

 Ottoman Empire

Commanders and leaders
French First Republic Napoleon Bonaparte
French First Republic Jean-Baptiste Kléber
Ottoman Empire Ahmed al-Jazzar
Ottoman Empire Abdallah Bey Executed
10,000 5,000 mostly Albanian troops
Casualties and losses
50 killed
200 wounded
2,000 killed[1][2]
2,100 prisoners executed[3][4]
Siege of Jaffa is located in Mediterranean
Siege of Jaffa
Location within Mediterranean
Siege of Jaffa is located in Earth
Siege of Jaffa
Siege of Jaffa (Earth)
  current battle
  Napoleon in command till 23 August 1799



Having taken control of Alexandria and Cairo and losing control of the territories under Cairo, despite having his ships destroyed, Napoleon Bonaparte was continuing his push on the Ottoman territories in the Middle East. Having captured an Ottoman fortress at El Arish just weeks before (February 17–20),[6] he was looking to cement his foothold in the Levant. In early March, his troops reached Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv-Jaffa).[3][4] Napoleon had to win Jaffa before he could advance any further, and the whole expedition's success depended on its capture. The city was one of Greater Syria's main mercantile centres and had a harbour that would provide vital shelter for the French fleet[3][4]



The fortress of the city of Jaffa was surrounded by 12-foot high walls, and extensive fortifications constructed by the Ottomans.[7] Ahmed al-Jazzar entrusted its defence to his troops, including 1,200 artillerymen. All the exterior works could be besieged and a breach was feasible. The siege began March 3 at noon and continued to March 7, when Bonaparte sent an officer and a trumpeter to Ahmed al-Jazzar with a message calling on him to surrender, saying, "he [Bonaparte] is moved by the evil that will befall the city if it subjects itself to this assault." In reply, Ahmed decapitated the messengers, displayed the head of one on the city walls,[8] and ordered a sortie.[9] The sortie was pushed back as early as the evening of the same day. The French managed to destroy one of the towers on the city fortifications, and despite resistance by its defenders, Jaffa was taken.

The murder of the French messengers led Napoleon, when the city fell, to allow his soldiers two days and two nights of slaughter, pillage and rape. It was a scene Bonaparte himself described as "all the horrors of war, which never appeared to me so hideous."[10] He also executed the Ottoman governor, Abdallah Bey.

Having taken the city, Bonaparte found himself with thousands of prisoners whose fate he had to decide. Not wishing to take on the burden of feeding the prisoners and fearing that if allowed to live they would simply rejoin the Ottoman army, Bonaparte no longer wished to honour the promises of his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais for prisoners' lives to be spared. Instead, he ordered that just 20 Ottoman officers would not be executed; the rest of the prisoners (according to some sources around 2,440, according to other sources 4,100), most of them Albanians, were to be taken to the seashore south of Jaffa and shot or stabbed to death with bayonets.[11] It took three days to accomplish this task.[12][4][3]

The moral and legal justification – or the lack of it – for Bonaparte's decision to execute the Ottoman prisoners was and is a matter of strong debate.[13] In their writings and memoirs, his officers' views ranged from reluctant approval to abhorrence. The most influential writing on the law of war at the time was Emer de Vattel's widely discussed treatise, The Laws of Nations (1758). In it, de Vattel (1714–1767) laid out the considerations involved in the sparing or executing soldiers of a defeated army, stating: "When one has such a large army of prisoners that it is impossible to feed them, or to guard them securely, does one have the right to put them to death, or must one send them back, at the risk of being overwhelmed by them on another occasion?" Vattel goes on to say that prisoners of war should be paroled and sent back to their country of origin.[14]

Bonaparte had had recent experience with that approach. Following his army's recent victory over Ottoman troops at El-Arrish, he'd released prisoners taken in battle, provided that they return to Damascus and not rejoin the pasha's forces in Jaffa or Acre, his two military objectives. Despite their assurances, the prisoners rejoined the pasha's army, as proved by the fact that many of the prisoners taken at Jaffa were recognized by the French as having been among those pardoned in the earlier battle. The main reason Bonaparte's defenders raise to justify executing the prisoners is that it would have put his troops at great risk: Bonaparte did not have sufficient troops to spare to escort the prisoners out of the war zone without endangering those who remained; the French didn't have enough food to feed them; plague was endemic in the region and was spreading among the troops and adding thousands more people to their ranks would have increased the risk of the disease spreading further. The final motivation Bonaparte had was that by showing no mercy to the enemy he would strike terror in the ranks of Ahmed al-Jazzar's troops.[15]


The monument to Napoleon's soldiers at Stella Maris Monastery.

Napoleon did allow hundreds of local citizens to leave the city, hoping that the news they would carry of Jaffa's fall would intimidate the defenders of the other cities in the Eyalet and Syria, causing them to surrender or flee. In fact, it had mixed results. It backfired when French troops attacked Acre, since the news of the Jaffa massacre made Acre's defenders fight all the more fiercely. Months later, when Bonaparte attacked Aboukir, the French reputation for showing no mercy caused many of the Ottoman soldiers to flee.[16]

Meanwhile, a plague epidemic caused by poor hygiene in the French headquarters in Ramla decimated the local population and the French army alike.[17] Overcome in the north of the country by the Ottomans, Napoleon abandoned Palestine. After his departure, the British, allied to the Ottomans and commanded by William Sidney Smith, rebuilt Jaffa's fortifications.[18]

In the years 1800 to 1814, after a new nine-month siege, Jaffa was again taken over by Napoleon's former opponent, Ahmed al-Jazzar, Acre's governor.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Micheal Clodfelter, Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and other numbers. p. 105 [ISBN missing]
  2. ^ Link
  3. ^ a b c d e "Memoirs of Napoleon", completed by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, p. 172
  4. ^ a b c d e Falk, Avner (2015). Napoleon Against Himself: A Psychobiography. Pitchstone Publishing. p. 185. ISBN 9781939578723.
  5. ^ Gueniffey, Patrice (2015). "Chapter 19: Jaffa". Bonaparte: 1769–1802 (1st ed.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 481.
  6. ^ Roberts, Andrew (2014). Napoleon: a life. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-02532-9.
  7. ^ Gueniffey 2015, p. 481.
  8. ^ Roberts 2014, pp. 188–189.
  9. ^ Commentaires de Napoléon Ier, Tome 3, pp. 42–43. Impr. impériale (Paris), 1867. 1867.
  10. ^ Roberts 2014, p. 189.
  11. ^ Roberts 2014, pp. 189–190.
  12. ^ Gueniffey 2015, pp. 482–483.
  13. ^ Gueniffey 2015, pp. 481–488.
  14. ^ Gueniffey 2015, p. 484.
  15. ^ Gueniffey 2015, pp. 480–488.
  16. ^ Gueniffey 2015, p. 488.
  17. ^ Jaffa: A City in Evolution Ruth Kark, Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem, 1990, pp. 8–9.
  18. ^ Roberts 2014, p. 192.