Why we should care about the Desecration of the Yusuf Qaramanli tomb.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this shortly before the attack on the embassy in Libya.  I did not have time to do a spell check right away, and considered not publishing it when the attack happened. Unfortunately, when I heard about the attack, I was not surprised.  The controversial video on Youtube was not the cause of the attack, the West has long been known to write plays and other works that insult other religions.  It did not light a fuse, it only shifted the direction of an already burning fire.  As we can see, many of the tombs desecrated have stood the test of time, and their destruction marks a general attitude shift in that part of the world.

If you’ve even heard of Yosef Qaramanli in English, it might not have been nice things. Have you heard much about Thomas Jefferson? or American naval history? or read about the war of 1812? Then, you might have known that Yosef Qaramanli (also Caramalli, Caramanli or Karamanli, with a first name spelled as Joseph, Yusef and Yusuf) declared war against the United States in 1801.  You might have heard that he planned to set American POWs on fire, or that he killed one brother and exiled another.  From an American point of view, Yosef Qaramanli was not a nice guy.

If you studied Qaramanli through the perspective of British, French or Jewish history, he doesn’t seem to be a complete villain.

Yosef Qaramanli first rose to prominence through murdering his eldest brother, Hassan. Their middle brother, Achmed or Hamet, was apparently a friend of Yosef up till then, with both of them afraid that the eldest would murder them.  So, some say that Yosef acted in self defense, and that he didn’t plan to murder the other brother, Hamet.

The real motive for Yosef’s attack on Hassan could now be lost. The rubble in present day Tripoli seems to have destroyed all evidence of Yosef’s point of view.

So, we are left with accounts which seem like chauvinism and conspiracy theories.

Yosef, it is said by some of his enemies, conspired with a plump Jewess in the harem to gain the throne. This may be an anti-Semitic rumor, and it may be influenced by the fact that Yosef was more tolerant of the Jews than other Libyan rulers. Or, it could be just because the fat lady known as “Queen Ester” was a nasty gossip who was disliked by others. The Jewish historians who I’ve read seem to say that “Queen Ester” did plead the cause of her people, but any conspiracy seems to be limited to Yosef and discontented tribes from outside the city.  Yosef would probably not have spoken with Jewish women much, and I can find no evidence of Jewish discontent against his father Ali Qaramanli.

Even if the Jews of Tripoli were highly unlikely to be involved in any conspiracy, the Jews soon had a reason to side with Yosef.

Yosef’s attack on Hassan soon became part of a wider rebellion against his father, and Arab tribes took sides in the family dispute.  When news of the dispute reached the Ottoman capital, the Ottomans sent a fleet to bring “order” to the semi-independent province.  Only, this fleet of pirates brought with it greater tyranny.

Some of the biggest sufferers under Ali Bourghol (the rice eater), as he was called, or Ali the Algerian to others (though he is also said to be originally from Georgia) were Tripoli’s Jews. Hamet and his father Ali Qaramanli fled the capital to neighboring Tunis.  Yosef, who was already hiding out with rebel tribes in the suburbs, stayed in the area for a short time.

Ali Bourghol was barbaric in his treatment of the Jewish minority, including, apparently, burning alive the son of a rabbi. It is little wonder that the Jews of Tripoli remained loyal to the Qaramanli family and eagerly awaited the return of any Qaramanli.  Yosef was geographically closest, so naturally he seemed to gain most of this support.  Most of the rest of the city also supported the Qaramanlis, as Ali Bourghol and his “men” do not appear to be recorded positively in any history book.

The status of Libya at the time meant that it was unclear who the legitimate ruler was.   The Qaramanlis had controlled the province for over seventy years, and Ottoman rule in the area had long been weak.

Libya, or Tripoli as it was then called, was legally a Province of some sort, a part of the Ottoman empire. It’s legal status could be compared to an American state, with its governor (or Pasha) officially elected by local notables.  European philosophers of the time called it a “Republic.”

However, in practice, Tripoli had become a a kind of kingdom, a state that paid tribute to the Ottoman Porte but that decided it’s own affairs in issues of war and peace.  And, the leadership had become hereditary.  So, Yosef and Hamet, and their aging father Ali, saw the “kingdom” as their birth right.

Ali Qaramanli was growing too old to govern, and he had moments of moral weakness when Yosef rebelled. Hamet had run to Tunis at the sight of the Ottoman fleet. Although Yosef had already fled to outside the city, his flight from the kingdom was not as quick. Some say this meant that Yosef stayed to fight, but Yosef simply had a more secure location, a stronger foothold to fight from.

Yosef fled to Tunis where the family reconciled their differences.  The Qaramanlis soon returned with a Tunisian army.

At the time, Yosef appeared to be the strongest leader, and he took control of Tripoli when the Qaramanlis and Tunisians sent Bourghol and his Algerians back to sea. (Tunisia and Algeria, or Tunis and Algiers as they were then known, were also supposed to be part of the Ottoman empire. But, Algiers had long disputed territory with the other provinces, and was an enemy of Tunis.)

When Yosef took control, he treated the Jewish minority comparatively well. They didn’t have to dress completely in black, and they could trade more freely. There were hick-ups along the way, no doubt, when a passing fanatic may have convinced Yosef of a conspiracy theory, but according to Jewish accounts I have read of the history of Tripoli, Yosef’s rule was more fondly remembered.

Yosef was also a hero to some notables on both sides of the recent Libyan struggle, as he is credited with winning a war against the United States. For those who know American naval history, you may be familiar with the capture of the Philadelphia, with Eaton’s march on Derna, and with the official version that Jefferson didn’t want to take it the whole way. The Libyans learned a different version of history.   The son of one of Yosef Qaramanli’s cabinet members thought that the Americans wanted Derna as a base, and then abandoned it.

Now, Yosef Qaramanli’s family tomb has been desecrated.

Yosef Qaramanli became an unlikely hero to both Jewish Libyans and Gadaffi as well as an inspiration to some of Gadaffi’s opponents in Libya. The question is, who desecrated the tomb, and why did they do it?

The conspiracy theories abound.  British diplomats in Libya made friends with the sons of Yosef’s “black” wife, and it is likely that if her sons aren’t buried with the tomb, she still may be. And some say the desecrators are destroying all elements of black history, calling it pagan, citing other desecrations like the destruction of a Sufi tomb.  The initial Western representation of the war showed “African” mercenaries attacking Libyans, and the reaction to this propaganda seems to have resulted in intensifying racial hatred in some quarters.

As stated before, Yosef Qaramanli was seen by some as a friend of the Jews.  If this attack on the Qaramanli tomb were isolated, it could be seen to have an element of anti-antisemitism in it.

Another alternative view is that Yosef treated many Berber tribes terribly.  Some rose up against him in support of other members of the Qaramanli family (later including Yosef’s own sons).  After the Americans left in 1805, he massacred those who had taken their side, or that of his brother Hamet (aka Achmed). More massacres took place in 1811 and later.  Many of the surviving Berbers fled elsewhere, including neighboring countries like Chad, Egypt, Niger.  The desecration of the tombs could have been anger from all this.  (Ironically, the dispersal of these descendants seem to have been Gadaffi’s reasoning for intrigues in neighboring countries.  The media has served us a lot of conspiracy theories over the past two years, most of which can be easily discounted by a quick examination of historical data.)

Whatever the case, it is only part of a general destruction of Libya’s historic sights. The war (don’t call it an Arab Spring, it’s no longer a protest movement) has been brutal in ways that can only lead me to expect more bloodshed and trouble in the future. This hasn’t simply been about regime change or about wanting a better future.

Many of these sights have survived revolutions, wars, and whatever else the centuries have thrown at them. The Qaramanli burial site is relatively new compared to others. The hatred in the area appears to be unprecedented, the disrespect of the memory of others shows the country at a new low. Nato should think long and hard about who it is supporting in the wars in the middle east.

Bibliography:  If I listed all the sources that went in to this article, it would be much longer than the article.  However, three books in English which I recommend include “Jewish Life in Muslim Libya: Rivals and Relatives” by Harvey Goldberg; “General William Eaton: The Failure of an Idea” by Francis Rennell Rodd; and “Nest of Corsairs” by Seton Dearden.   While all three may have factual errors, they are great reads and present different viewpoints on the Qaramanli.

Video of the desecrated site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agHfAml18lI  (I have not seen the tomb myself, but I do believe that the correct site is depicted in the video.)


  1. this is fascinating interesting stuff, generally unknown. Why was US involved in the mediterranean, shortly after been created?

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