No matter where Napoleon Bonaparte went to bed – in the Paris Tuileries or in the royal palace in some of the European capitals – Mamluk Rustam always stood a guard near the doors of his bedroom.
Rustam as a teenager had been acquired by Napoleon in Egypt from Sheikh El-Bekri in August 1799. By origin, he was an Armenian who had been enslaved by the Turks and sold to Egypt.
Many of the officers who participated in the Egyptian expedition — Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, Murat, Bessières, and many others — also bought Mamluk servants, but only Rustam enjoyed all-European renown.
He learned French military bearing and, as far as he could, French frivolity and windiness. At the basis of his popularity was an unparalleled costume sewn in accordance with Isabey’s (French painter) paintings. He wore a caftan embroidered with gold, a velvet turban – also gilded – a magnificent saber on a chic band, and pistols behind a satin belt.
Rustam was brave, observant, and quick in services, just as one would expect from a Mamluk.
The interest in Rustam was strongly fueled by French magazines and general people. The leading Parisian magazine “Moniteur” printed the reviews of the “savage” on the premieres of dramas. Every painter who wanted to improve their business hurried to draw his portrait, which was then reproduced in thousands of engravings.
But getting attention from Rustam and inviting him to painting sessions wasn’t easy. The stepdaughter of Napoleon Hortense de Beauharnais once took advantage of Rustam falling off of his horse to solicit several sessions from the bedridden hero. And to keep him from boring, she sang songs to him.
Every tourist hurried to see the celebrity. “Rustam has a beautiful figure and a good-natured expression on his face,” one of them wrote in his travel diary, “His complexion is not very dark. He is tall and burly.”
Rustam was accustomed to his fame, but he didn’t lose his temper and retained his attractive naivete. His prestige survived until the fall of Napoleon, despite the ridiculous attempts of the royalists to attribute ferocity and the role of an executioner to him in the years of the French Emperor.
Rustam died in 1845, leaving behind interesting notes titled “My life next to Napoleon: Memoirs of the Mamluk Rustam Raza, an Armenian.”
© Sergey Tsvetkov