Article by Ciaran Davis and Ammar Ebriahm. Edited and Researched by Hayley Arnold.
To say Muhammad Ali Pasha is a forgotten person in history may sound strange to an Egyptian since he is considered ‘founder of modern Egypt’. Ruler of Egypt and parts of Syria between 1805–1848, Muhammad Ali instigated reforms which fundamentally altered the Middle East. His historical impact has not been appreciated in the West, even though fellow Egyptians have received considerable attention. Scores of historical volumes are written about Gamal Abdel Nasser’s obstinacy against British imperialism, while Shakespeare’s epic love story of Cleopatra and Marc Antony is a constant fixture in Stratford. It is a shame Muhammad Ali does not get the same treatment because he was such an interesting figure. The variety of nicknames ascribed to Ali demonstrates the ambivalent nature of the man; some contemporaries called him Jinn’Ali, or ‘Ali the Genie’ because he seemed able to achieve anything. The Turks called him the ‘cloud catcher’ because he repressed the elusive Bedouin. In Egypt to today he is known as the ‘Father of the Nation’, although his legacy is more ambivalent than his triumphant title suggests.
Muhammad Ali was born in Kavala, a sea port in modern day Macedonian, in 1769 and had very little education. At the age of 18 he joined the military and that was to be the making of the man. He quickly rose to prominence and he was the head of a section of troops selected to protect Egypt from Napoleon. His parents were of Albanian origin and this fact marks the beginning of his rise to power. Albanians formed the core of the Ottoman Empire’s Army and contemporaries considered Muhammad Ali a great warrior. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu saw the Albanian soldiers that had embarked on Constantinople and she ‘admired their soldiery immensely’. They possessed the practice of besa, essentially an oath of loyalty that was absolute, they were infamous for their fighting skills and ‘would point to the eagles from which they descended.’ While Muhammad Ali’s life is characterised by incidents which paint him out to be cunning rather than loyal he certainly commanded respect, with some people reportedly left physically shaken after meeting him.
The British and Ottomans pushed the French out of Egypt and once the British left there was a power vacuum. The tough qualities attributed to Muhammad Ali enabled him to ruthlessly impose his will and gain power. He was a shrewd man who played the Mamluks and Ottomans against each other. After gaining the support of the Ulema, the religious elite of Egypt, he was able to establish himself as the governor of Egypt. The Mamluks were a military class who had ruled Egypt under Ottoman sovereignty. They were identified as a threat and in 1811 they were summoned to Cairo under the pretence of a celebration for his son’s military promotion. The majority of the Mamluks were murdered, in an event which became known as the massacre of the Citadel. In the courtyard of the Citadel in Cairo, the heads of the Mamluk leaders were cut off and their eyes were stuffed with straw, preventing any future Mamluk challenge
A key date in Muhammad Ali’s reign was 1807 when the British launched an attack against him. They were easily defeated by his 5000 strong Albanian force. Ali began to recognise the ascendancy of Europe in comparison to the Ottoman Empire and he thought that the way to protect his rule would be to modernise along Western lines. Muhammad Ali embarked upon a number of important modernisation projects, in 1820 he established the Bulaq printing press in order to create manuals and textbooks for his army and as the 19th century progressed, many Egyptians were sent to France to gain education. They returned to Egypt having been inspired by the French enlightenment and the printing press was utilised to create new theories on how to rejuvenate Islamic society, which became known as the Al-Nahda, or the Arabic renaissance.
Muhammad Ali placed great importance upon the cultivation of cotton which proved highly profitable in the fertile soil of the Nile delta and great expenditure went into building a textiles industry that could compete with that of Europe. However, underpinning all these modernising reforms was peasant conscription which caused great human suffering. The historian Khaled Fahmy has written about the brutal, uncompromising nature of the state Muhammad Ali was trying to create. To avoid serving in the army, men would often resort to self-mutilation; strong front teeth were needed in the 19th century in order to reload rifles, in order to avoid service men would rip them out. Muhammad Ali’s ruthless response, that the men should use their other teeth, is indicative of the cruel nature of his regime.
Muhammad Ali was a brutal, ruthless but most importantly pragmatic man. The reforms he passed were not for the improvement of his people’s lives, but rather to secure his power. His ambitious vision came at an unbearable human cost with thousands of peasants forced to leave their homes. He remains such an interesting, yet under-studied figure for historians because his rule represents an important shift in the history of the Arab world. The state he created was a radical departure from the decentralised Ottoman Empire that had preceded it. The ‘Father of Modern Egypt’ has left a morally ambiguous legacy, but the Al-Nadha and successful agricultural reforms are testament to how important his regime was.
- Muhammad Ali had 9 wives and many mistresses, he had 8 legitimate children but it is assumed that he actually fathered many more.
- The Ottoman-Turkish word Pasha is a political title which would be bestowed upon individuals by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Originally the title applied only to military commanders but it later came to distinguish any high official, or unofficial, person whom the court wished to honour.
- There is historiographical debate about Muhammad Ali Pasha’s claim to the title of ‘father of modern Egypt’. Whilst most accept it because of his being the first rule in Egypt since the Ottoman conquest in 1517 to concentrate its power in Egypt, others suggest that, since he was of Albanian origin, he was a conqueror who exploited Egyptian people and materials for his own ends.