Muhammad Ali and Alexandria

Muhammad Ali and Alexandria

by Zahraa Adel Awed

Muhammad Ali in  Cairo

Egypt Feature Story Muhammad Ali and Alexandria by Zahraa Adel Awed One must recall that, while Muhammad Ali, often credited as the founder of modern Egypt, though of Turkish origin, grew up in Macedonia, the land that was also responsible for Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria, Egypt. Therefore, it might come as no surprise that Muhammad Ali may have had a special place for this Egyptian city in his heart, even though his pocketbook may have more inspired his efforts to revive the city from its grievous past.

Alexandria, after its golden years, and particularly during medieval times, suffered a horrid history. Between several major earthquakes, the plague and numerous attacks, including one in which it is said the entire population was carried off, by the time that Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, it was little more than a ghost town of 4,000 souls, limited to the old ancient Turkish City that is now El-Gomrock. This is where history books frequently end, but today we know that Alexandria has not only survived to be Egypt's second largest city, it is radiating with new glory.

It was Muhammad Ali who many attribute as Alexandria's savior, along with his descendants. Of course, in more recent times, we have seen Alexandria emerging as a new cultural center, but were it not for Muhammad Ali, there may not have been much of a foundation left to revive. When Muhammad Ali first arrived in Alexandria to survey his property, which is how he probably saw the city, he was shocked to find its treasury completely empty. By then, Rachid Rosetta had become the commercial center and principal port of the Egyptian North Coast, and therefore relegating Alexandria to an ever spiraling decline.

A coin mented in  Alexandria with the bust of Muhammad Ali

It was Muhammad Ali who borrowed twenty thousand rails from European commercial interests to put Alexandria nominally back on its feet. These funds were to be repaid from customs duties, and to facilitate an increase in commercial traffic, he ordered the digging of the El Mahmudiya Canal, which had long ago fallen into decay. That construction was undertaken by the French engineer, Coste, who completed the work in 1820. This, along with other infrastructure improvements, allowed Alexandria to soon replace Rosetta as the leading commercial center on the North Coast. Thereafter, we find the area referred to as El Mntia expanding rapidly, soon comprising new districts as revealed by various maps undertaken by the technical department of the municipality of Alexandria.

Muhammad Ali's  lighthouse in Alexandria

Certainly, in character with Muhammad Ali, a considerable amount of Alexandria's revival was derived from the king's military ambitions. He established Darussinaia Al-Kubra (Alexandria Maritime Arsenal) with the aim of building battleships for his naval fleet. To facilitate this end, he imported specialists from France, Italy and Malta to train his Egyptian workers in the modern art of shipbuilding. However, this also required him to develop and rehabilitate the Alexandria Harbor, where he was also responsible for erecting a lighthouse on the peninsula of Ras El Tin. Aided by a French engineer named Cerisy, he set up the largest dockyard of its kind in Egypt, which beyond building naval ships, also served as a training base for his new fleet. Furthermore, his plan to also equip these war ships added new arms factories to the area.

The old port at Ras  El-Tin, with the palace in the background

Additionally, he renovated the city walls that protected Alexandria, and also restored its forts, equipping them with the latest guns. This included the restoration of Fort Qaitbay, the oldest one on the coast, but included others along the coast line. With this vast investment in Alexandria, it was clearly necessary to modernize communications, so he also established telegram lines between Alexandria and Cairo.

Muhammad Ali welcomes foreign dignitaries to Alexandria

Now, as Alexandria once again began to prosper and increase in population, external trade began to develop once more. Foreign ships found their way to the new harbor. So it was that in 1810, the French engineer Linant of El Kanater El Kheireyea, reported that Alexandria was purely an Arabic city, where one seldom saw any European businessmen, but by 1848, the city had grown from a few thousand to a population of 143,000, including many foreigners who formed their own communities within the city and were actively participating in its development. Indeed, by that date, France, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria and others were represented by councils within Alexandria. In fact, Muhammad Ali established a policy of attracting British, French, Italian and Greeks to settle in Alexandria, which he himself had made his summer capital.

Muhammad Ali meets  with foreign dignitaries in Alexandria

At the outset of Muhammad Ali's reign in Egypt, he began reshaping the Egyptian agricultural economy. He established long-staple cotton as a major cash crop, and since British textile manufacturers were willing to pay good money for this cotton, Muhammad Ali ordered the majority of Egyptian peasants to cultivate cotton to the exclusion of most other crops. At harvest time, Muhammad Ali would buy up the entire crop himself, when he then sold at a mark-up to the textile manufacturers. By this means, he was able to turn the whole of Egypt's cotton production into his personal monopoly. Obviously, his new port facilities in Alexandria were of considerable benefit to that end.

Hence, commerce flourished in Alexandria. Now, wheat and cotton transactions took place in Alexandria, from which these commodities were exported. Muhammad Ali even experimented with new textile factories in Alexandria, so that cotton might be processed into cloth prior to its export, but this effort seems to have at first been unsuccessful. However, to facilitate this new commerce, Muhammad Ali also founded the Alexandria bank, which led to further economic expansion as well as currency control. Indeed, a wide range of trade activity began to take place between Alexandria and various European countries.

With all this growth of course came infrastructure improvements, such as a modern system to deliver potable water to all districts within the city. At the same time, he improved schools and hospitals, and moved old cemeteries out of the city, while otherwise reshaped the landscape of Alexandria.

Perhaps, not only because of his military interests, but also because of his desire for European influence, Muhammad Ali Pasha seems to have reigned considerable favor on the city of Alexandria.He carefully chose the governors of each new district, and created the Ornate Council, which was responsible for the beautification of Alexandria. Soon, there were new gardens and orchards within the city.

As these new foreigners arrived in Alexandria, be they Muslims, Christians or Jews, irregardless of their nationality, the city seems to have welcomed them, apparently as it always has. They set themselves up in districts such as el Anfoushy, Ras El-Tin and El Horreyya Avenue (Fouad Street), and they had a huge impact on the city, establishing language schools, new hospitals and other commercial as well as nonprofit facilities. They also brightened the city with parties and a new social order.

Bronze equestrian  statue of Muhammad Ali in Alexandria

Indeed, by the middle of the 19th century, Alexandria was well on its way to complete recovery. In fact, some scholars believe that it not only survived, but because of the many foreigners who now really dominated Alexandria, was responsible for also helping rehabilitate the entire country.

Muhammad Ali Pasha did seem to love this city, and it was here that he died on August 2nd, 1849, in an area known as Moharm Bek, which was named for his son-in-law, the first governor of Alexandria. Though his tomb may be found in his mosque at the Citadel (Cairo), perhaps his most famous statue, a bronze equestrian work by the French sculptor Jacquemont (commissioned in 1873), remains in Midan al Manchia (El Manchia Square), a central point in modern Alexandria.

Last Updated: December 11st, 2011