Sultan Napoleon I
There was nothing auspicious about the birth of Napoleone di Buonaparte in 1769 on Corsica. Born to a poor family on a poor island (although the family considered itself to be local aristocracy) the young man was largely brought up by his mother, who forced him to undergo severe hardship to toughen him up. It was sheer happenstance that directed him towards a military career and he was lucky enough to secure a position in a French military school in 1784.
It isn’t actually clear if Napoleon actually possessed any magic. France never developed a testing system for magic until 1825 and, owing to the prevalent religious opinions of the time, many French magicians kept their heads down or fled to Britain. Some reports make it clear that Napoleon in fact possessed a limited amount of Charm, although this may well be exaggerated. When he wanted to be convincing, he could be extremely convincing – and he held the loyalty of many of his followers throughout his entire life. Charm may have played a role in his development, but others who commanded equal amounts of loyalty had no Charm to aid them.
Despite hostile propaganda, Napoleon played no role in the long period of unrest that gripped France, ending with the Battle of Paris in which the French Army brutally crushed the rebellious French underclass and allowed King Louis to start a reign of terror. However, as a Corsican (Corsica having been seized by the British during a moment of French weakness) Napoleon was expelled from the École Militaire. The reasoning has been lost to time, but is generally believed to be because the Corsican population (including some relations of the young Napoleon) enthusiastically welcomed the British invasion. It seems likely that the general historical record is accurate and Napoleon never actually returned to his homeland. Instead, he joined a small convoy of former French students and officers who were making their way to Turkey.
The Ottoman Empire (often conflated with the Turks in European writings of the time, although the Ottomans were as much a multicultural entity as the British Empire) was going through troubled times. What had once seemed certain dominance of the (known) world was slowly giving way to military decay. The once-great institutes of the Janissaries, the civil service and even the religious authorities were giving way to sloth and heading towards collapse. Turkey – once feared throughout the Mediterrian – had suffered a series of defeats that suggested that its power was on the wane. Those who tried to reform the state found it an extremely difficult (and sometimes lethal) task as they were opposing entrenched interests of both a military and religious nature.
Precisely how Napoleon came into contact with Sultan Selim III (1789–1809) is uncertain. It seems likely that Selim, who wanted to copy the improvements made by Peter the Great (known as Peter the Mad in Turkey) to the Russian military, would seek out the Frenchmen who had been trained in one of the world’s more famous military academies. The young Napoleon soon found himself in charge of creating a reformed military force that would, originally, complement the Janissaries. It was at this point, according to his official biographer, that he converted to Islam. Precisely how seriously he took the conversion is unknown, but he soon acquired three wives (including a relative of the Sultan himself) and was talking with apparent conviction on the value of Islam towards a reformed military. His first book – The Prophet and the Army of Allah – was written in 1797.
Put simply, Napoleon’s argument was that the Prophet’s campaigns against the infidels in the Arabian peninsula showed lessons for the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. Learning from the Prophet’s successes meant studying the reasons for the Prophet’s successes – and of his failures. This made him a number of highly-placed enemies among the religious elite, who tended to prefer simplistic answers to such issues, rather than open a debate on the finer points of Islamic history that might start Muslims thinking about the current state of Islamic society. It also brought him a new friend in the form of Imam Abdul Al-Hamada, whose belief that many of the clerics were flouting the true nature of Islam made him a worrying factor for the religious elite. Indeed, his blistering denunciations of them as innovators had made him even more enemies than the young Napoleon.
By 1808, Napoleon’s reformed army – although smaller than the Janissaries – had a fair claim to being the most powerful and capable Islamic army on the planet. Napoleon commanded it in the battles between Russia and Turkey in 1804-1807 and rapidly earned a reputation as a good and capable commander. His actions stamped out the revolts in Serbia and Greece before either one could make serious headway, but his reluctance to trust in Allah (or so the conservative factions charged) made him more enemies back in Turkey. When he returned to Constantinople in 1809, he was targeted for assassination by the Janissaries, who had been spurred on by the religious elite, along with the Sultan himself. Napoleon’s life was saved, however, by what was later interpreted as the direct intervention of Allah. His bodyguards cut him free of the ambush and helped him to escape to the army camp near the city. There, he discovered that the Sultan – his patron – had been murdered and that the religious elite were in control.
A weaker man might have hesitated, but Napoleon acted at once. His army marched on Constantinople at once, gathering support from other reformers as he moved. The conservative factions appeared to believe that they could merely order the soldiers to stop and they would, but Napoleon knew his men better than that (and besides, many of the men had heard harrowing tales of what the Janissaries intended to do to their captives, once they surrendered.) The Battle of Constantinople – sometimes referred to as the Second Siege – lasted barely two days and ended with Napoleon’s troops breaking into the Palace and capturing the ringleaders of the coup. Napoleon promptly ordered them executed, along with most of the captured Janissaries. Precisely how many people died in the bloody aftermath of the coup is not recorded, but by the time it was over Napoleon was the unquestioned Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
He didn’t allow this opportunity to go to waste. Most of the religious elite that had added to the Empire’s stagnation were butchered over the following weeks and months. The Janissaries were broken and disbanded, many sent to remote colonies instead of being allowed to remain near the centre of power. In their place, Napoleon expanded his own army – the Army of Allah – and instituted a program of conscription and gradual reform. He also founded the official clerical school in Constantinople; all Mullahs would have to be certified by the school before they were allowed to practice. Mullahs who spoke out against the Sultan were removed, condemned as infidels and executed.
Many of the changes Napoleon made were positive. He disliked slavery and ended the practice throughout most of the Empire (although, needing men for labour battalions, he often used his enemies as serfs). The position of Jews and Christians within the Empire was much improved; he removed the hated religious tax and stripped the complex laws of the Ottoman Empire down as far as possible. It wasn’t long before Turkey was on its way to producing weapons and other equipment for war. Flying columns of the Army of Allah soon secured Mecca against Arab raiders and safeguarded the Holy City from barbarians. He even started reforming the Ottoman Navy, although he was under no illusions as to how long it would last in the teeth of a vastly superior British Navy.
The British war against the Barbary Pirates provided Napoleon with a chance to prepare his own plans for Ottoman ‘provinces’ and their over-mighty governors. In 1830, he personally led the Army of Allah through Palestine and into Egypt, which was still ruled by the Mamelukes. They claimed to be subordinate to the Sultan, but in reality answered to no one, apart from their leaders. Napoleon allowed them to challenge the Army of Allah and then smashed them with staggering ruthlessness. For all their barbarity, they were no match for what was, effectively, a modern army. The occupation of Egypt, the breaking of the Cairo mob and the establishment of a new government lasted less than a month, although refugee Mamelukes would continue to cause trouble in the south for the next thirty years. Napoleon’s armies took vast numbers of prisoners and sent them to work on the planned Suez Canal. Most of them didn’t live to complete their sentences.
With the humbled Barbary States paying homage to the Sultan, Napoleon was able to thrust his control out along the North African coastline. His armies crushed slavers, burned out pirate nests and eventually secured control of North Africa. Reformists followed in their wake, introducing modern methods to the population and slowly reforming the states. Those who protested too loudly were transported to the work camps of Suez. By 1835, Napoleon could justly claim that he had reinvigorated the Ottoman Empire. And he was far from finished.