Egypt: History - Ottoman Turk Period

Ottoman Turk Period

Under the Ottomans, Egypt was divided into twenty-four districts and each had its own Mamluk bey, who was formerly called an emir. Each of these beys were governed by the sultan in Istanbul. The Mamluk beys surrounded themselves with slaves who collected taxes for them and had baronial authority. Tributes had to be paid to the Turks as well.

The Ottoman ruler, Sultan Selim liked to keep trouble brewing between the Mamluk beys so that he could keep them divided and controlled. So they kept on fighting among themselves. The leader who was on top, so to speak, was called the Sheikh al Balad, which means "chief of the country". There were times where the Sheikh became more powerful than the sultan in Istanbul, although this only happened when the Turks had their attentions elsewhere, which was actually quite often. The Turks had set about stopping revolts in their empire or spreading their empire even further into the west. The were even able to reach the Danube and plundered every Venetian ship they ran across in the Mediterranean.

Cairo still remained an important city because of the wheat that fed the people of Istanbul, however Venice was almost destroyed. Cairo became, once again, a port for fruits and grains that headed for Islam, instead of Europe. Life in Cairo was again filled with plunderings, assassinations and killing in the streets. The rivalries among the Mamluks were compounded when more types of Mamluks were installed in the Citadel; the Azabs and Janissaries. There were times where the different groups would hold themselves up in the different mosques and fire cannons at each other across the city. The city was to be ruled by the governor with his own men, but this became very difficult to do because the local problems were not important enough to worry the colonial loyalists. Tributes were collected by the Turks in the ports, but the Mamluks took most of the money before the tribute was levied. The ordinary person was left with almost nothing. The peasant was completely exploited.

In 1695, a famine struck Cairo and the people demonstrated outside the Citadel. The pasha refused to acknowledge them and even tried to run them off. The crowd was finally able to break into the stores and took bread and other foods. Finally the revolt got so bad that the pasha was replaced by another pasha that had been sent from the Porte. A self-proclaimed saint, he arrived in the city in 1698 and set up a cafe behind the fountain of al Mou'men. He let the men and women dance freely all day and night. The people greatly enjoyed this until the soldiers arrived and beheaded the saint at the Citadel.

For many years, Cairo was divided into two factions, the Kassemites and the Fikarites. The division was originally created deliberately by Sultan Selim between the Kassemites, who were the Mamluks of Egypt and the Fikarites, who were the Turkish Janissaries. Eventually the Sadites and Haramites were divided with half of them supporting the Kassemites and the other half supporting the Fikarites. Sometimes these conflicts affected the whole city and many people lost their lives in silly battles that accomplished absolutely nothing.

The only good thing that occurred during this time is that the scholars did not give up. Cairo had the reputation of deteriorating intellectually during this time, but that was not the case. The common disrespect for the rulers bound them together. There was almost always mockery of the rulers by the people. The mosques managed to keep everyone committed passionately. In 1705 the river was low and the people went to Mukattam Hills to pray for deliverance. The Sheikh Hasan al Hadji was completely disgusted by this display.

Mohammed Amin Pasha was governor during the period in which some of Cairo's merchants were Moslems, however many were Jews and Copts. Many of them were very wealthy. The Ottomans used Copts as their clerks and civil servants. Some of the more prosperous Copts were allowed by Mohammed Amin Pasha to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their caravan had many women and children and they had taken a lot of their possessions with them. They set up camp not far outside of Cairo, but while they were there Amin Pasha had encouraged some Moslem zealots to rob the Copts. They attacked their caravan and then looted the homes in the area as well.

Some of the Turkish rulers were not as bad as others. Osman Bey Zulficar was rather intelligent as was Ridwan al Gelfi. Al Gelfi was the chief of the corps of Azabs who were the Turkish mercenaries. He built several beautiful homes. However, his tastes were not on the same scale of excess as al Hakim or Kafour. He did manage to leave a good impression on Cairo. The only monument of his that remains is a gate on the Citadel called Bab el Azab. It was behind this gate that Mohammed Ali massacred the last of the Mamluks in 1811. He died after being shot by assassins while he was being shaved. He didn't die in the chair, but he managed to get away on his horse and run to the countryside. He died from his wounds.

According to some historians during 1798, a laborer earned about one-seventh of a piaster per day. This came to be about 50 piasters in a year. The leading Mamluk, Murad Bey, took in fifteen hundred piasters every day out of the mint for his daily expenses. The situation in Egypt got to be so bad that the Coptic villages in Upper Egypt refused to pay their taxes. Apparently no one tried to collect from them either.

The Turkish manners and ways of life seemed to make no impression on the Egyptians. They did not use the Turkish language and the people of Cairo managed to keep their own identity. The ruling families did adopt some of the Turkish habits, but by and large the city remained Egyptian. The Turks built mosques but they preferred the public mosque called a masjid, to the college mosque called a madrasa. The Byzantine style was preferred to the traditional Arabian style. The mosques were usually smaller and their artistic creativity was less, not because of a lack of skill, but because of a lack of money.

In the year between 1796 and 1797, the Egyptians revolted against the Turks. They wanted something to be done about the unbearable taxes and the economic misery that had been oppressing them for so long. One of the Egyptian Mamluks, Ali Bey, occupied Cairo and sent the Turkish pasha back to Porte. He then attacked Arabia and Syria and defeated them soundly. He was called the caliph of Mecca, which made Egypt an essentially independent state within the Ottoman Empire.

Ali Bey was eventually murdered and Ibrahim, who was another Mamluk along with Murad Bey took over the rule of Egypt. It was during this time that Napoleon arrived on the coast of Alexandria. The Mamluks were not strong enough to fight both the French and the Turks at the same time. Murad would not believe it when he was told that Napoleon had arrived. When he finally believed it, he invited Napoleon to come to Cairo. A man named Rosetti, who was the Tuscan consul, was told by Murad to give each of the French soldiers a handful of silver when they arrived and to ask them to leave because Murad had no desire to kill them. Rosetti then tried to explain to Murad who exactly Napoleon was. Murad knew nothing of Europe or the history, so when the French started their advance on Cairo, Murad sent out ten thousand Mamluks and thirty thousand irregulars, who were mostly Albanians, Negroes, Bedouins and Egyptians, to fight Napoleons forty thousand veteran troops.

In a suburb of Cairo called Imbaba, the French and the Mamluks fought it out. The battle was very bloody on both sides. The veteran French soldiers maneuvered all over the place and eventually got the Mamluks in a crossfire. The citizens of Cairo watched the smoke and dust rise over the city and the sounds of rifle shots and cannon filling the air. At the end of it all, the Mamluks were beaten and they left the city. Murad Bey rushed to his palace at Giza and gathered up as much of his fortune as he could in about fifteen minutes. He ordered his soldiers to burn all of the military's gunpowder and gunboats along with any other ammunition that were along the river at Giza. He then left the city.

The people of Cairo mistakenly thought the French had set their city on fire. They began to pack their belongings and fled as quickly as they could. They really had no place to go and many of them were attacked by the Bedouins as they left the city. The killings and pillagings began even before the French ever arrived in the city. Several of the sheikhs of Cairo met at Azhar and wrote a letter to Napoleon to negotiate the surrender of the city. The people felt betrayed and deserted and became very angry. They broke into the palaces of Murad and Ibrahim and set them afire. It was on a Wednesday that Napoleon rode into the city and and took possession of the city.

Back to History of Egypt

See also Ottoman Turk Rulers

Last Updated: January 25th, 2012