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Muhammad Ali Pasha


Muhammad Ali Pasha

by Jimmy Dunn and Zahraa Adel Awed


Muhammad Ali Pasha and his family ruled Egypt for more than 147 years, and today they remain very much a part of modern Alexandria and its culture. Their names appear everywhere, on streets, buildings and other architectural sites. Muhammad Ali Pasha is considered by many to be the founder of modern Egypt. Though he came to Egypt as a Turkish army officer in 1800, he rose to rule Egypt, and his decedents continued to do so until the last king of Egypt, Ahmed Fouad II, abdicated his rule in 1952 by royal decree No. 65-1952.

The former king then boarded his yacht, el Mahroussa, and on July 26th, 1952, left Egypt for France.Allegedly, his father, King Farouk was once reported to have said, "There will soon be only five kings left: The kings of England, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs".

A much younger Muhammad Ali, in this drawing by Chris Hellier, is referred to as Mehmet Ali Pasha

Mohammad Ali Pasha, the first and most famous of this line of Egyptian kings was actually born in Kavala, a small Macedonian seaport on the coast of the Aegean, what is now known as Greece, in 1769. At that time, Kavala was a part of the Ottoman Empire. The son of the local police chief, his father, Ibrahim Agha, when Mohammad Ali was still quite young, and so the boy was taken in to service by the governor of the city, where much of his early training took place.

He was Turkish by origin and Turkish speaking, yet trained in a European province of the Ottoman Empire, so he brought with him political skills honed in the century-long conflict between the three great empires that disputed control of the Balkans. Commonly called Mehmet Ali, as a young man he worked for a while as a tobacco merchant, before taking a commission in the Ottoman Army.

The Battle of the Pyramids by Wojciech Kossak in the National Museum, Warsaw

Muhammad Ali's family was large, with a number of wives and mistresses. The wives that we know of include Amina Nosrati, his first and apparently a divorced woman, by whom he would father five children, including his successor Ibrahim, along with two other sons and two daughters, Ayn al Hayat, from whom he would fathered only one child, Mohammed Saiid, Namchaz, from whom he fathered only one child, Ziba Khadiga, from whom he fathered one child. However, there were many other wives and mistresses, and many other children. Indeed, his family is well beyond the scope of this article.

It is noteworthy that Napoleon Bonaparte was born in the same year as Mohammad Ali, for it was he would actually set the stage for Mohammad Ali's rise to power in Egypt. In 1798, Egypt was an Ottoman province ruled by the Mamluks. However, in that year, Napoleon invaded Egypt and conquered the Mumluk army at the Battle of the Pyramids. This short occupation of Egypt by the French had a very lasting effect on the country and for that matter, on Egyptology, but after a sea battle with the English off Egypt's Mediterranean coast, Napoleon was forced to withdraw back to France. Some of his military forces remained to occupy the country, but they too were soon withdrawn, leaving behind a power vacuum in Egypt.

Muhammad Ali by Sir David Wilkie

Afterwards, the Ottoman Sultan sent a military expedition to Egypt in order to reoccupy the land, but there was considerable ethnic and political division within their ranks, which prevented them from operating effectively for very long. Then, when the troops' salaries were delayed, many of them mutinied, turning to raids on the local countryside which the scattered remains of the Mamluks were unable to control.

It was Muhammad Ali, at the time a young officer in the Albanian contingent of the expeditionary forces, who managed to step in and take command of this dire situation. Muhammad Ali was a member of the Ottoman forces left behind in charge of the city of Cairo. However, on his way to the top, Muhammad Ali changed sides several times, sometimes supporting the Mamluks against the Ottomans, and sometimes the Ottomans against the Mamluks. Yet, he knew that if he wanted to rule Egypt, which he did, he would have to contend with the Mamluks who were still the feudal owners of the land. The land had remained the real source of power and wealth in Egypt. Napoleon had changed much, but he hadn't changed that.

Albanian patrol in Cairo during the early 1870s

By building up a power base amongst village leaders, clerics and the wealthy merchants in Cairo, and by killing or expelling three successive governors sent from Istanbul, he managed to have himself appointed as the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt in 1805. This was the year that he began his real assault on the Mamluks. In one of their attempts to defend themselves, the Mamluks had forced their way into the city to fight Muhammad Ali, but his Albanians killed or captured most of them. This was the first serious blow to the Mamluks. However, in the course of this clash, the Ottoman forces had also pillaged Cairo, and it got so bad that the populace rose in revolt against the Ottoman governor. Despite his involvement with the Albanians, who had participated in the pillaging, Muhammad Ali was the only apparent enemy of both the Ottomans and the Mamluks, so he was "elected" pasha almost by public assent, and from there, became viceroy, though he actually began to look upon the country as his own. He would continue to rule Egypt until his death in 1849.

Another drawing of Muhammad Ali as Pasha

Nevertheless, his battle to hold on to power in Egypt continued for some time afterwards. He spent the first years fending off attempts to depose him, while at the same time extending his authority over the whole of Egypt. Indeed, at one point early on in 1807, the British, who were still in favor of Mamluk leadership in Egypt, attacked him, but he was very clever, and his five thousand Albanians, who were far better soldiers than the Turkish Ottomans, cut the British to pieces. This placed him for the most part in an impregnable position, and by 1808, he was strong enough to seize all of Egypt

A drawing of a Mamluk soldier in battle

However, much of his early troubles arose from the remnants of the Mamluk regime, who were a ruthless lot that had ruled Egypt for many years. Their cause had now been further weakened in the aftermath of the British attack. In one of the most infamous, as well as ingenious episodes of his reign, Muhammad Ali once and forever broke the power of the Mamluks over Egypt by massacring their leaders. Having already worn down their forces after years of raids and skirmishes, in 1811 he invited five hundred of their amirs and leaders to a feast celebrating the appointment of his son, Tusun Pasha, as leader of the army being sent against the Wahhabi rebellion in Arabia. high walls, attacking them from above. The Mamluks, trapped below, were so packed in that they had no escape from the merciless fusillade which poured down on them.

The Mosque built by Muhammad Ali within the Citadel

On March 1, the Mamluks led by Shahin Bey marched in the military procession of Muhammad Ali's celebration as one of the rearguard elements. As they rode out of the Citadel down the narrow little hill to the gate of Azab, which opened out into Roumaliya Square, the huge doors of the gate were suddenly slammed shut in front of them, so that they were trapped in a narrow file with high walls on either side and a detachment of Albanian soldiers behind them. The moment the gates closed, Muhammad Ali's soldiers mounted the

It was a brutal end to what was really a brutal regime, and afterwards, Muhammad Ali was free to pursue a more advantageous agenda. It was Mohammad Ali who established the long-staple cotton as a cash crop in Egypt that is today famous throughout the world. It was perhaps, more than for any other reason, what allowed him to bring Egypt into the modern era, though many years later, the collapse of the cotton market would also spell the downfall of his descendants. Indeed, Muhammad Ali ordered the majority of Egyptian peasants to cultivate cotton rather than any other crops.

Mamluk Amirs

Mohammad Ali would then buy all of the cotton from these farmers, mark it up, and in turn sell it to the textile manufacturers. Thus, for many years, cotton production became a major sponsor of the state economy, and of the royal treasury in particular.

Modernization frequently arrives on the heals of military spending, as it has in more modern times and as it did during the reign of Mohammad Ali. He recognized that the sort of military forces he had been a part of at one time, expeditionary recruits assigned to units based on shared ethnic or regional loyalty, was not a reliable military force in the long term. He had personal experience fighting the French in 1799, and was able to observe their superior style of combat in the field. The Ottoman forces had been no match for the close-order, well-drilled musketry combined with artillery and cavalry support that had easily defeated the less disciplined, more individual Mamluk forces in Egypt.

Furthermore, he was very well aware of the inherent problems of a military caste system such as the Mamluks or the Janissaries, who tended to accumulate enough power to challenge the authority of their lords, and the European military model seemed to offer a viable alternative. He may have also been inspired by an earlier, though short lived attempt at military modernization by Sultan Selim III, who had created a European style force of disciplined troops, trained by a German officer.

Egyptian recruits crossing the Desert and led by Albanian officers

They had performed well, but in that instance the Janissaries, who the troops were meant to replace, realized the implications of this new style and responded by overthrowing Selim in 1823. However, Mohammad Ali, having disposed of the Mamluk, had no such threat to his plans.

He began his military modernization by conscripting Upper Egyptian peasants to train in the Napoleonic fighting style under a French officer named Colonel Seve (Suleyman Pasha). These new troops were called nizam jadid, which may simply be translated as "new system". After their training, they performed well by putting down various insurrections in Egypt, including one in the vicinity of their home districts, which was very encouraging and probably would have never been successful using the old methods. Prior to this modernization, the troops would have almost certainly revolted in favor of the local rulers.

The Battle of Navarino by Carneray

In 1827, Muhammad Ali Pasha's new fighting force was given it's first major test. At the request of Sultan Mahmud II, he sent his nizami troops against the Greeks in the Greek War of Independence. They were commanded by his able son, Ibrahim Pasha. Unfortunately, for reasons outside of his new military system, this venture did not turn out well for Muhammad Ali, and it ended with a falling out between him and Sultan Mahmud II. Muhammad Ali had also raised a navy, at great cost, as most of the ships had to be purchased abroad. Great Britain, France and Russia had all taken the side of the Greek rebels, and had positioned a huge combined naval force at Navarino Bay, in order to challenge the Ottoman navy. Muhammad Ali understood the threat that this posed, and he pleaded with the Sultan to mediate a negotiated peace, thus allowing Greek independence. However, the Sultan would have none of this, and therefore Muhammad Ali reluctantly sent his navy against the European fleet. Thus ensued the Battle of Navarino on October 20th, 1827, ending in disaster for the Ottoman navy, as most of their ships were destroyed in a few hours of fighting. Afterwards, Muhammad Ali would never again mount a major military engagement on behalf of the Sultan.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Greek War of Independence, Muhammad Ali was able to asses the strengths and weaknesses of his troops in a major military engagement. Indeed, his ground troops had performed well, though the Ottoman commanders of these forces proved to be inept in the field. Furthermore, he also recognized the need for a more broad modernization of forces. While his ground forces were becoming well trained in European military combat, his naval forces mostly remained antiquated.

Muhammad Ali systematically addressed these problems. He founded a staff college and hired French officers to train his Ottoman leaders in the most modern military sciences. He also disposed of his older forces all together, conscripting more peasants to fill the ranks of a much larger nizam jadid.

By 1831, Muhammad Ali had built up a sizable and well trained nizami army. Like many of the the kings of Egypt before him, dating far back into the pharaonic era, he too had a desire to control Greater Syria for its strategic value as well as for its rich natural resources. He would, once again, attempt to control the region that Tuthmosis III had conquered, but that in the long term would always remain elusive to Egyptian rulers.

A statue of Ibrahim by Charles Cordier, now located in Opera Square in Cairo

(it should be noted that Muhammad Ali also gained control of much of the Sudan) In that year, he ordered Ibrahim Pasha to invade Syria on the pretext of repatriating about 6,000 peasants who had fled Egypt in order to avoid conscription into the military. These forces indeed overran Syria, capturing Acre after a six month siege, and then marched north into Anatolia. There, Ibrahim Pasha devastated the ottoman army of the Grand Vizier at the Battle of Konya, which left no military obstacle between the Egyptian forces and Istanbul itself.

Now, it was clear that Muhammad Ali, as viceroy of Egypt, was evidently intent on seizing control of the whole Ottoman Empire, a situation that so alarmed Mahmud II that he accepted Russia's offer of military aid (much to the consternation of the British and French Governments). This resulted in the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi, which allowed Muhammad Ali to retain the territories of Crete (then known as Candia) and the Hijaz, in return for his withdrawal from Anatolia. Ibrahim Pasha would also be appointed wali of Syria.

Sultan Mahmud II

However, Muhammad Ali remained unhappy with the terms of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi, and so in 1839, once again went to war against the Sultan's forces. Ibrahim Pasha met the Sultan's forces on the Syrian frontier and as before, soundly defeated them at the Battle of Nezib near Urfa. To make matters worse, Mahmud II died almost immediately after the battle, leaving his sixteen year old son, Abd-ul-Mejid in control of the Ottoman Empire.

Unfortunately for Muhammad Ali, he and his commander Ibrahim Pasha, began to argue over their plans. While Ibrahim sought an outright win against Istanbul in order to demand the imperial seat, Muhammad Ali was more cautious, seeking only to consolidate his holdings with numerous concessions of territory and political autonomy for himself and his family. But as often is the case when a military campaign stalls, this interlude allowed the new Sultan and his advisors a chance to seek support, which was rewarded by a multilateral European intervention which included a British Naval blockade of the Nile Delta. Then after the British landed in Syria and defeated Ibrahim's forces at Beirut, Muhammad Ali was forced to give up all of his holdings in Syria. Indeed, in the Treaty of London, Muhammad Ali was forced to limit the size of his army to 18,000 troops, and give up his navy entirely. In return, he did receive one great concession. He and his descendants would enjoy hereditary rule over the province of Egypt, and unheard of status for an Ottoman viceroy.

The final eradication of Mamluk power and influence did open the way for a long series of reforms, which had the dual purpose of re-establishing central authority and swelling the treasury. While Muhammad Ali clearly had military ambitions, his modernization of the military was perhaps the fuel of other modernization projects. Certainly some efforts, such as modernization of uniform and munitions factories, along with a shipbuilding foundry in Alexandria were directly related to his military ambitions. One might also argue that his road and canal projects, and even a new teaching hospital could have been justified for military reasons.

A court scene as depicted by David Roberts of Muhammad Ali in Alexandria

Yet, it would also seem as though he did indeed have some real interest in brining all of Egypt into the modern era, though much like any land owner might seek to improve his own property. Indeed, soon Muhammad Ali had personal control of most, if not all of the land in Egypt, and he set about reforming the fiscal structure of the country. Local government was reformed by two edicts, of 1826 and 1833, which divided the country into a much tighter network of administrative units than before. The central authority, at the same time, was set up into specialized bureaus to handle its various administrative functions, many of which later became ministries. By 1830, the introduction of a number of new departments for schools, factories, public buildings, city police and so on, created an institutional state structure that remained mostly unchanged until the end of the 19th century.

A drawing of the marriage of Muhammad Ali's daughter and Kiamil Pasha in Cairo in 1846

Much of this had the effect of transforming the rural economy and at the same time allowing Cairo to capitalize on its position as the national capital. Basically, the city benefited from an increased yield in the countryside, where civil order at long last prevailed. Some would say that the face of Cairo actually changed very little under the rule of Muhammad Ali, but in fact, it was the reforms that brought Egypt into the modern era, and perhaps slowly, along with many other influences, the look of the major Egyptian cities changed as well.

On important influence was the mania Muhammad Ali had for foreigners, and under his rule, the Europeans began to pour into the city. It became a golden age for tourism, as these travelers turned into tourists, but they also brought with them considerable European influences, and this is another reason that Egypt was transformed into a member of the modern world during his reign.

Indeed, Muhammad Ali took very little interest in urban planning, and his reign was marked by few great initiatives in this regard. Nevertheless, Cairo, for example, did begin to take on a new look, at least later in his reign, as his new style of government and the many Europeans began to shape its future.

Ibrahim Pasha, the eldest son of Muhammad Ali Pasha

All of this European traffic also had a profound effect on antiquities as well, though not always a good one. Of course, the science had to really develop much at this early stage, and most of those many of those who came to Egypt that were interested in antiquities were really more interested in the profit that could me made. Nevertheless, this was a rich period of discoveries and the real beginning of Egyptology.

After he secured hereditary rule for his family, Muhammad Ali ruled quietly until 1848, when he was deposed on account of senility. He was succeeded by Ibrahim Pasha, but Ibrahim himself was very ill, and died only a few months later. Muhammad Ali briefly succeeded his own son, until his grandson, 'Abbas, assumed the office. Muhammad Ali died insane in August 2, 1849, and was buried in the imposing mosque he had commissioned, the Muhammad Ali Mosque, in the Citadel of Cairo.

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