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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The story of Hayim Farhi - and the first Jewish-led army of modern times

A recent auction of American Judaica did very well, with many pieces getting triple the expected price.

One such item:
A beautifully bound copy of Joseph Schwarz’s Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine, Philadelphia, 1850. Translated by Isaac Leeser, this was Leeser’s personal copy accompanied by correspondence with the author. It realized a premium price of $68,880, more than tripling its estimate of $20,000-25,000

The book is available on Google Books and elsewhere, and it contains a fascinating story I was not aware of about Hayim Farhi of Acre.

Wikipedia has a much more readable account, so here is a mix of Wikipedia's and Schwartz's narratives:

Haim Farhi was born to a respected and ancient Jewish family in Damascus. His father Saul had established a banking business that flourished to the extent that it expanded to control Syria's finances, banking and foreign trade for nearly a century.[6][7]

He, and other family members worked as financial agents[8] (Turkish sarraf)[9] throughout the Damascus district, and contemporary sources often mention them as the 'real rulers of Syria'.[10]

They may also have mediated between the Jewish community and the law. They tried to alleviate the tax burden placed on the Jews of Safed. Haim Farhi succeeded his father as banker of the ruler of Damascus. He gained extensive influence with the Turkish government and became the adviser to Ahmad al-Jazzar, the ruler of Acre, probably thanks to his intrigues that led to the execution of the previous advisor, Mikhail Sakruj, a Christian merchant from Shfa'Amr.[11]

Al-Jazzar recognized his administrator's talents, acted upon his counsel, and provided relief, at Farhi's request, from the heavy taxation placed on the Jewish community.

Al-Jazzar was, nonetheless, a violent and cruel individual whose title 'al-Jazzar' means 'The Butcher'. He would often find a pretext to lash out in savage assaults and harm Farhi and others. In fact, al-Jazzar had his adviser's eye plucked out, cut off the tip of his nose, and severed his left ear.[12] A famous illustration of those days shows al-Jazzar sitting in judgment in front of his Jewish adviser, who is wearing an eye patch.

It was during the reign of al-Jazzar, in 1799, that the French general and future Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte tried to conquer the Damascus governorate. In February Napoleon and his army arrived from the south, captured Jaffa and massacred 2,000 Turkish prisoners. They then moved north, captured Haifa and the Jezreel Valley and laid siege to Acre. Al-Jazzar's troops, refusing to surrender, withstood the siege for one and a half months. A British naval force under the command of Admiral Sidney Smith came to the town's defense, and an artillery expert from the fleet, Antoine DePhelipoux, redeployed against Napoleon's forces artillery pieces which the British had intercepted from the French at sea.

Farhi played a key role in the city's defense. As al-Jazzar's adviser and right hand man, he directly supervised how the battle against the siege was run. At the culmination of the assault, the besieging forces managed to make a breach in the walls. After suffering many casualties to open an entry-point, Napoleon's soldiers found, on trying to penetrate the city, that Farhi and DePhelipoux had, in the meantime, built a second wall, several feet deeper within the city where al-Jazzar's garden was.

Discovery of this new construction convinced Napoleon and his men that the probability of their taking the city was minimal. The siege was raised and Napoleon withdrew to Egypt.

After the death of al-Jazzar in 1804, his son Sulayman Pasha succeeded to the Pashalik of Akko. Under him, the Jews enjoyed, according to one traveller, 'perfect religious freedom', and were relieved of the substantial fines they were frequently compelled to pay under al-Jazzar, and were obliged to pay only the customary kharadj.

Pharchi had a distinguished Mahomedan friend, who died suddenly, with his wife, and left quite a young child, only a few years old, called Abdalla, who was without any protectors, and was therefore educated in the house of the noble Pharchi, who viewed him as his own child, and had him instructed in all the necessary scientific branches; and in addition to this, Pharchi caused that Abdalla was appointed Pacha of Akko, after the decease of Seliman. He at first viewed Pharchi as his father, and followed his guidance to execute justice and equity in the land. But as early as one year after assuming the government, he commenced to act counter to this advice and instruction, and was reproved occasionally on this account by his venerable guardian. Abdalla now observed that he stood in his way, and that he would be a check on the exercise of his mere will and pleasure, and resolved therefore to get rid of him. He  endeavoured first secretly to accuse him of treason and other charges, to find thus an  opportunity to lay violent hands on him. The confidants of Pharchi revealed to him the terrible purpose of his ungrateful ward, and advised him to save himself by flight. But he declined  doing this, and he answered magnanimously that his flight would call down on all the Israelites of Palestine the greatest persecution, and might indeed cause their entire extermination, since the Pacha might be induced through his escaping, to wreak his fury on this innocent people. He added, that he was prepared for everything, and would bear patiently whatever might  occur, in order to save thereby, or at least to benefit in some degree, his own people.

Now it happened, on Thursday, the 28th of Ab, 5579 (August, 1817)
[1820 in Wikipedia], which the pious Pharchi kept as a fast day (as the eve of the New Moon of the month Elul), and as he was about to take his supper, that an officer with his soldiers suddenly entered his apartment; his death-warrant was read to him, in which he was condemned on account of treason, and with the offence that his private Synagogue was built higher than the mosque of Akko, and several other diabolical charges and crimes; and this sentence was instantly executed. 

The day following his house and court-yard were ransacked and plundered, and a large quantity of gold, money, silver, and other valuable articles were carried to the Pacha, the monster and parricide. The corpse of this martyr he did not even permit to be interred, but ordered it to be cast into the sea; and when, the day following, it was carried again on shore, he ordered it to be taken out far into the sea, and then to be thrown into the water. The pious widow of Pharchi fled in all haste towards Damascus, but died suddenly on the road, and was buried in Zafed; and suspicion was entertained that she had been poisoned by the furies who surrounded the Pacha.

Abdallah then compelled the Jews of Acre and Safed to pay in full all the back taxes they would have owed had they not been exempted, through Farhi's good offices, from paying over the years.


This deed of terror excited universal consternation and mortal fear in all Palestine, especially among the Israelites; and the parricide now showed himself openly as the persecutor of the Jews in the Holy Land, and exercised such acts of violence and abomination among them, as are not perpetrated by cannibals and savages.

Here, Schwartz details some more specific atrocities that Abdalla visited upon the Jewish community; read the original for details.

Already this is a gripping tale, showing great Jewish influence in the Ottoman Empire as well as great antipathy on the part of some leaders. The two stories of how Al Jazzar maimed Hayim Farhi while he was his adviser, and especially of how Abdallah almost immediately turned against his Jewish step-father as soon as he became Pasha, are fascinating and more than a little scary. It shows that even though Jews rose to political heights under Muslim rule, their hold on power was always tenuous and second-class.

But the next part is, in some ways, even more compelling:

In Damascus dwelt the three brothers of the martyr Pharchi; they were the most distinguished and honoured men of the whole surrounding country, not only through their wealth and their extensive commerce, which was carried on to all parts of the Orient, but also for their great influence in Constantinople and other large cities and towns, and they were likewise famed for their honest and noble conduct.* Their names were Seliman, Raphael, and the youngest Mosé Pharchi; the last mentioned died in 5600 (1840), through the torture inflicted by Serif Pacha, as one of the accused for the murder of Father Thomas, in which this excellent man was, among others, charged with having taken part in the slaughter of that old priest, to make use of his blood at the celebration of the Passover. When these men learned the deplorable death of their beloved brother, they resolved to be revenged on his murderer, even at the greatest sacrifices. Through their great influence at Constantinople they succeeded in obtaining a firman (a decree), signed by the Sheich al Aslam,† literally, the chief of the faith, authorizing them to take hostile measures against Abdalla. It was a small matter with them, on account of their immense wealth, to engage Seliman Pacha of Damascus, Mustapha Pacha of Aleppo, and two other minor Pachas, who were under the jurisdiction of these two principal ones, with their soldiers, to take the field against Abdalla. A large force having thus been collected, the expedition passed over the Jordan in the month of Nissan, 5581 (April, 1821). Abdalla marched out against the advancing Pachas; and a battle took place at the bridge over Jordan called Djisr abné Yacob, in which he was defeated, and he fled in haste, retreating to Akko. The brothers Pharchi now took possession of all Galilee, deposed the officers appointed by Abdalla, and appointed others in their place.


The victors next laid siege to Akko, where the famine rose to such a height, that a single egg was sold at 70 grush,‡ which at that time was near six dollars, and a sheep at 900 grush, or 78 dollars. The siege was continued for fourteen months, during which period the Pharchis supplied the place of the Pacha in the country, and acted as governors. But it was decreed that Abdalla should not yet meet his deserts, and he was permitted to have a few years more indulgence. He succeeded, through treachery, to have the worthy Seliman Pharchi poisoned, through which means he died suddenly in the month of Nissan, 5582 (April, 1822). Mustapha Pacha likewise showed, by his acts and conduct in battle, that he was not true to the cause in which he had embarked.

Raphael Pharchi was therefore induced, shortly after the decease of his elder brother, to withdraw with Seliman Pacha to Damascus. Mustapha, it is true, maintained the siege till the month of Sivan (June), when he also withdrew to his own government.
Three Jewish brothers gained permission from the Grand Mufti of Constantinople to lead an army to defeat the Muslim butcher of Acre! And, for a short time, Jews acted as governors over parts of what is now northern Israel!

The story shows the dichotomy of Jewish existence under Muslim rule. Certainly far better than under Christian Europe  - yet the Muslim jealousy of Jewish influence helped start a series of Arab massacres of Jews that began with the Damascus blood libel of 1840, in which Mose Farhi was one of the accused.

(pictures from the farhi.org website)