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Did Napoleon Really Behead 400 Ghawazee?

by Ivor


A number of belly dance web sites around the Internet report that in 1798 Napoleon arranged for 400 Ghawazee dancers in Egypt to be beheaded and their bodies thrown into the Nile.

I've noticed from the internet that while nearly all the belly dance resources refer to the women as "dancers" or "Ghawazee", all the military history resources refer to them as "prostitutes". Somewhere a connection has been made that every prostitute in Cairo must have been a dancer or Ghawazee. Is that a fair assumption to make? Is this a case of belly dancers wanting the story to be an example of dancer persecution? When was this link first made? The Gilded Serpent web site has a reprint of articles on the Ghawazee written by Edwina Nearing in 1976-77(1), but the author doesn’t mention the incident. However, the book Serpent of the Nile published in 1990(2), does make the connection.

As far as I've read, prostitution in Cairo at the time (1799) wasn't approved of, but was tolerated as long as it was out of sight and the prostitutes paid their taxes. There were even lists kept to ensure they could be tallied(3). Accounts mention the Ghawazee as prostitutes, but also indicate they weren’t the only prostitutes(4). The French called the prostitutes “femmes publiques” – public women – maybe a reflection that they weren’t kept in private, at home, but were seen on the streets.

The start of the story stems from illness in the French barracks near Cairo, blamed on the soldiers consorting with prostitutes. General Dugua, the Governor of Cairo, wrote to Napoleon in June 1799 saying that the commander at Bulaq barracks was complaining about the amount of prostitutes who were spreading disease. In the letter, Dugua requests advice on what to do, but says he will consult the Aga of the Janissaries (chief of Cairo police) about finding a solution without using the ‘Turkish method’. However, he writes again a few days later exclaiming that the amount of prostitutes is so high it would be necessary to drown them in order to eliminate the problem. Napoleon’s answer was to let the Aga deal with it(5).

The ‘Turkish method’ was drowning in a sack. Western sources record that women were drowned in a sack, or cut up and thrown in the Nile as punishment for illicit sex, and was the customary punishment in Egypt(6). Drowning in a sack was called the Turkish method because it was viewed as part of the law in the Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire, of which Egypt was a part.

So what happened? I’ve found three sources written by people who were in Cairo at the time that mention the aftermath of the problem. One source says that those prostitutes caught with the French soldiers were put in sacks and drowned(7). One source, whilst mentioning the problem, claims that the French were reluctant to use this method, and instead sent a medical officer to put the barrack’s sanitation in order(8). Another says the Egyptian officials carried it out, and uses the story to show how civilised Napoleon was towards women as compared to the Muslims. Apparently Napoleon asked the Aga how he had solved the problem of prostitutes spreading venereal disease among the soldiers, to which the Aga replied that the women had been decapitated, put in sacks and thrown in the Nile. Napoleon was outraged at this and had the remaining infected women put in newly established hospitals to be cured(9). However, other accounts written by people there at the time don’t mention the incident at all(10), and none of them give any indication as to the numbers involved.

The first reference to the number 400 I found is from a work of 1963(11), but the writer’s referenced sources for the story do not use that number, or any other.

I would still like to see if Arab sources mention the incident. One French/Arab source does say that the French soldiers killed prostitutes and threw them down wells to conceal the crime(12) but doesn’t connect it to any particular event. I haven’t seen Auriant’s work, published 1943, but it concerns Flaubert’s encounters with the dancer Koutchouk-Hanem in Egypt 1849-1850.

So, were 400 Ghawazee beheaded and thrown into the Nile on the orders of Napoleon? Based on the research I have done so far, I would say, "No."

Were an unspecified number of prostitutes put in sacks and thrown in the Nile, following normal (though still horrific) Egyptian practise? I would say, "Probably yes."



End Notes

  1. Sirat Al-Ghawazi by Edwina Nearing for the Gilded Serpent
  2. Wendy Buonaventura, Serpent of the Nile: women and dance in the Arab world, Interlink Books, 1990, p.60
  3. Edward Lane, The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Everyman, 1966 (written 1835), p.123; Clement de la Jonquiere, L’Expedition d’Egypte 1798-1801 Vol.5, Elibron, 2006 (1899 facsimile), p.232 footnote
  4. Ibid., pp.379, 388 footnote; Guillaume-Andre Villoteau, De l'Etat Actuel de l'Art Musical en Égypte, Paris, 1826 Vol.1 p.179
  5. Clement de la Jonquiere, L’Expedition d’Egypte 1798-1801 Vol.5, Elibron, 2006 (1899 facsimile), pp.231-232
  6. Op cit. pp.202-203, 309; Antonie Galland, Tableau de l’Égypte Pendant le Séjour de l’Armée Française, Paris, 1804 Vol.1 p.161; M*** (comte.), Journal d'un Dragon d'Égypte (14th Dragons), E. Dubois, 1899, pp.102-103; Antoine Barthelemy Clot-Bey, Apercu General sur l'Egypte, 1840 p.958; Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, The Memoirs of Napoleon, London 1893 (1st published 1829-1831), Vol.3, Ch.16.
  7. Antonie Galland, Tableau de l’Égypte pendant le séjour de l’armée française, Paris, 1804 Vol.1 p.171
  8. M*** (comte.), Journal d'un Dragon d'Égypte (14th Dragons), E. Dubois, 1899 pp.102-103
  9. Augustin Daniel Belliard, Historie Scientifique et Militaire de l’Expedition Francaise en Egypte, Paris 1830-36, Vol.IV, pp.112-115
  10. Google Books has a wealth of original texts online from the Napoleonic Expedition. Most of my sources are from that site. Unfortunately I didn’t note all the ones that don’t mention the event.
  11. J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, Fireship Press, 2009 (1st pub 1963), p.175
  12. Niqùlà ibn Yusuf al-Turk, (trans.Desgranges), Histoire de l'Expédition des Français en Égypte, Imp. Royale, 1839



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About the Author

Ivor enjoys all forms of dance, and started belly dancing in 2004. Based in Somerset, UK, he dances with Raheesha's Desert Divas, and as BellyBob with the BellyBabes, who give demonstrations and talks to anyone who will sit still long enough. He has a BSC in Sociology and Social Policy, and is currently on a teacher training course at college. When not dancing his other hobbies include croquet, archery, African drumming, family history, and working in a library.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kathryn Goddard.





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