Muhammad Ali's Cairo

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When the French departed Egypt in 1801, the Ottoman sultan appointed a new governor of Egypt, a man by the name of Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali is one of those mythical figures whose origins are now shrouded in mystery. He was born in a town in what is now northern Greece, from roughly the same area that Alexander the Great came from. He has been referred to as an Albanian, a Macedonian, and a Turk. His ethnic background is unimportant: he was a Muslim, and he spoke Turkish. He had first been to Egypt as part of the sultan's armies, and had been evacuated in advance of the French arrival. While in Constantinople, Muhammad Ali won the favor of the sultan, and won the appointment as governor.

Muhammad Ali, however, had other, grander ideas than serving as mere governor of a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire. For about the first four years of his rule, he played nice: he did everything the sultan asked, kept the mamluks happy, and calmed the Egyptians after the French had evacuated.

Then in 1805, Muhammad Ali began to take steps to eliminate his main competition to power: the mamluks. Everything in Egypt that wasn't controlled directly by the Ottomans was controlled by the mamluks, and the governor of Egypt traditionally had let the mamluks do as they pleased. Muhammad Ali, however, wanted the mamluks to do as he pleased.

Moh Ali Mosque

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali was built over 24 years, from 1824-48, and it was modelled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The mosque made a statement of Muhammad Ali's independance from the Ottoman Sultan.

Having learned that there was a mamluk plot against him (as was common against the Ottoman rulers of Egypt), Muhammad Ali turned the tables, and made a public spectacle of those who had risen against him. He had the mamluk beys who had betrayed him decapitated and sent their heads to Constantinople as a sign that he meant business.

An uneasy peace lasted for the next six years. The mamluks were used to violence, and so took the time to regroup and plan their next strategy. They were patient, and so was Muhammad Ali. Finally, in 1811, Muhammad Ali decided to extend a peace offering to the remaining mamluk beys. He invited them all to dinner at his grand new palace on the Citadel, where he treated them to a lavish banquet that included rich food, flowing wine, and dancing girls. There they all swore cooperation to each other, for the good of Egypt. As the beys came out of the citadel, Muhammad Ali's guards locked them between two of the defense ramparts, leaving them defenseless. His guards stood on top of the walls and fired their muskets down on the mamluks, and massacred them all.

Over the next few days, all of the mamluks property: their palaces, country estates, and belongings were repossessed by the Egyptian government in the name of Muhammad Ali. He was now the sole source of power in Egypt. Though he was careful to pay homage to the sultan in Constantinople, he was now effectively the sovereign ruler of an independent country.

Muhammad Ali had a vision. He was concerned that the armies of the Ottomans were losing battles to the Europeans. He knew that the Europeans had superior military techniques and weaponry, and that this was the reason why large territories were being lost to European domination. Muhammad Ali was determined that this should not happen to Egypt.

Muhammad Ali began to build a strong, well-trained army. He brought in Europeans as advisors, Europeans who were private citizens, whose allegiance was to Muhammad Ali, not to their leaders at home. The Egyptian army became powerful, and became a threat to the Ottoman armies. At one point, the sultan at Constantinople became concerned about Egypt's newfound power, and made threatening moves to quell the Egyptians. Muhammad Ali sent his son, Ibrahim Pasha, with the Egyptian army to teach the Ottomans a lesson. The Ottomans backed down when Ibrahim's forces came within marching distance of Constantinople, and the Ottoman scouts reported that the Egyptians would have little trouble occupying the capitol.

Moh Ali Mosque

Muhammad Ali built his mosque to be the biggest in Egypt, and one of the largest in the world, which at the time of completion, it was. Muhammad Ali is now buried beneath the mosque.


Muhammad Ali built his mosque on the Citadel, which was still the home of the ruling family at the time. The Citadel is seen here from the Madrassa of Sultan Hassan.

At Muhammad Ali's encouragement, in 1838 the sultan allowed for the first time direct trade between the provinces of the Empire and foreign merchants. Egypt's industries, which had been stagnating, were suddenly revitalized. However, this sudden opening to the Europeans meant that the Europeans played a larger part in Egyptian internal affairs. First on hand were the British and the French, who supplied the funds needed to modernize the country, but who also wanted a hand in these projects.

Muhammad Ali's reign came to an end when, as an old man, he began to grow more and more insane. By 1841, other members of the family were actively running the country on his behalf, although the old man would still make public appearances. On his death in 1849, he was succeeded as ruler of Egypt by his son, Abbas. Abbas took things more slowly than his father, although he did grant the British the railway concession, which opened up the entire country to modern, efficient transport. For the first time, the Nile River ceased to be the chief means of travel throughout the country.

Abbas died in 1854, and was succeeded by his uncle, Said. Said was primarily known for being fat and lazy, and did little to run Egyptian affairs. There are two things that he is remembered for. First, he was the first ruler of Egypt to adopt the title "Khedive," although it was not officially the title of the ruler until his successor, Ismail, came to power. Said's second achievment was the planning and concession for a canal running from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. It would become known for the town at its southern end, Suez.

Because the Suez Canal plays such a vital role in Egyptian politics from here on, it is necessary to review the terms under which the canal was built, and how it was to be run. The Egyptians lacked the ability to finance the building of such large projects as the Suez Canal, and the Egyptian railway system. They would seek outside lenders, who were usually British or French. The British lent the money for the railway construction, and the French lent the money for the canal construction under the same terms: a British company had to build the railway, and a French company would build the canal. Those companies would then operate the railway and the canal, collect the profits, and use them to pay off the Egyptian debt. In theory, this would work nicely. In practice, however, the lenders charged interest rates that were so high that the profits would barely pay off the interest that accumulated, and the principal would rarely be touched at all. In effect, the Egyptians would never get out of debt.


The Citadel has always been heavily fortified since it was built by Salah al-Din in the 1200s. The walls have been replaced many times. These date from the Ottoman era.

Police Museum

Today, the Citadel is still used for military functions, and much of it is not open to the public. Here, one of the old palaces has been converted into the Police Museum.

This situation became even worse under the reign of Said's successor, Ismail (1863-1879). During Ismail's reign, the American civil war broke out, and the Europeans, the British in particular, were deprived of their main source of cotton. It turned out that the Egyptian delta was the perfect place to grow cotton, and soon the Egyptian economy was booming. Large amounts of money were coming into Egypt, and Ismail had ideas about how it should be spent.

Ismail boldly declared that Egypt would leave the Orient behind and join the countries of Europe, and he began spending large sums of money in an effort to turn Cairo into a European city. The city expanded to the west, away from the traditional core of the city, to the banks of the Nile. There, Ismail built wide boulevards, huge public squares, large palaces for himself, and lined the streets with gas streetlights, trees, gardens, and an opera house.

In 1869, the Suez Canal was finished, and Ismail planned a huge celebration, to which he invited the crowned heads of Europe. He was pleased when the Empress Eugenie of France accepted the invitation, and he built her a lavish palace on Gezira island where she would stay during her visit. He also built a road from the port of Giza to the fabled pyramids, so that she could ride the whole way in her carriage. Both are still in use: the palace is now a luxury hotel, and the road has become Pyramids Road, one of the main east-west highways in Giza.

What Ismail neglected in his grand plan was the areas where most of the people of Egypt actually lived. He expected that most of the people would move to his new areas, and then the most important historical buildings would be preserved, while the rest of the old city would be pulled down. This never happened.

The problem was this: after the civil war ended, American cotton production resumed. Cotton prices fell, and suddenly the Egyptians weren't making as much money as they had been in the past. Egypt could not afford to pay off its loans, and soon began to default. Ismail's grand vision of an Egypt fit to join the countries of Europe vanished under the reality of an Egypt that could not pay off its debt.

Frustrated by Ismail's inability to solve the problem, the Europeans pulled strings at the Egyptian court and forced him off the throne in 1879. For a brief moment, Egypt became a democracy, but within 18 months, Ismail's son, Tewfiq, had been named Khedive, who oversaw a parliament that acted as a rubber stamp. The Egyptians saw Tewfiq as a traitor: instead of governing Egypt for the Egyptians, he was governing for the Europeans, taking their advice, and ignoring that of his Egyptian advisors. In late 1881, an army officer-turned-parliamentarian named Colonel Urabi led a revolt against Tewfiq's government, and threatened to end the whole monarchical system. This alarmed the Europeans because they felt that, as ineffective as Tewfiq was, he could be controlled. Urabi, they felt, could not.

Abdin Palace

Among the additions to Ismail's new city was Abdin Palace, which housed members of the Khedival family up to the time of King Farouk's deposition in 1952.

In 1882, the French and British landed at Alexandria, and launched a short-lived attack on Urabi's forces. Urabi was defeated and sent into exile, and the Europeans replaced Tewfiq on his throne. Though they did not officially annex Egypt, the real power now rested in the hands of the British consul-general at Cairo, and not in the hands of the Khedive. Egypt had ceased to be an independent country.

All photographs copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose



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