Roustam Raza (1781-1845), kidnapped as a child in the Caucasus and sold seven times, was trained in Egypt as a Mamluk but ended up as Napoleon Bonaparte’s bodyguard, valet and confidant for some fifteen years. The Memoirs of Roustam: Napoleon’s Mamluk Imperial Bodyguard (London: Bennet and Bloom, 2014), translated into English for the first time by Catherine Carpenter and edited with annotations and introduction by Ara Ghazarians, provides glimpses into the exciting and complicated life of this unusual and largely ignored figure. Roustam was made into a character in the works of many famous writers like Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and was painted by many artists.
Ghazarians, in a recent interview, declared that “because of our history, the Armenians were scattered all over the world. We had people serving different communities and countries at the highest levels, such as emperors, military commanders and ministers. Keeping this in mind, Roustam is one of the most unusual characters that I have come across. He was basically just a slave boy. Yet, with no education, social status or social stature, he became a confidante of the French emperor, Napoleon. Somehow he ended up in a position where he was taken seriously by many people.” Ghazarians added that there is some evidence that he helped his Armenian compatriots in Moscow and Venice by influencing Napoleon’s decisions in a positive way concerning, respectively, the Sourp Khach Church and the Mkhitarist monastery of San Lazzarro.
Recently, Ghazarians has encountered a number of incorrect references to Roustam on social media on the internet which claim that he is Georgian or even Azerbaijani, despite the fact that Roustam stated clearly in his own words that he was an Armenian from Karabagh.
Born in Tbilisi, Roustam was kidnapped in Ganja and eventually ended up in Cairo, circumcised with a Muslim name and trained as a Mamluk. The Mamluks were slaves who formed a military caste in Islamic societies, including in Egypt. Roustam rose quickly in the ranks and became the bodyguard of the influential Sheikh El-Bekri, the head of the Cairo divan. El-Bekri, in turn, gave him as a gift of friendship in August 1799 to Napoleon. Eighteen-years old, Roustam became the latter’s bodyguard and valet, and simultaneously served in the French Imperial Guard for five years. In 1806, Roustam married the daughter of one of Empress Josephine’s two valets-de-chambre, with Napoleon paying for the wedding.