See a map of the Cairo area at this time

As with all things in history, the reign of the Mamluks eventually came to an end, and that end was helped along greatly by the Mamluks themselves. By the beginning of the 16th century, the political infighting among the Mamluks over who would get to be the one in charge, and would appoint his friends to the positions of power, had so weakened the actual government so that one good threat from outside would finish them off. The threat came in the form of the Ottoman Turks.

By 1516, the Ottoman Turks were a powerful force in the region. They had gotten their start in southern Anatolia, the area that constitutes most of modern-day Turkey. Their superior military strategy made them one of the most powerful armies in the world at that time. They had conquered most of Anatolia, had crossed the Aegean Sea to conquer parts of the Balkans, and, in 1453, they came back to put the jewel in their crown: Constantinople, which they renamed Istanbul. Having consolidated their power in Asia Minor, the Ottomans looked to the Islamic world, and began moving into Syria, with intentions of occuping Jerusalem, and then moving on to Egypt and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

At this time, the Ottomans were led by a particularly fierce sultan named Selim I, also known as "Selim the Grim." He was called this because, before he became sultan, he had murdered as many of his male relatives as he could so he would have no competition for the throne. He had led his armies into Syria, and the mamluks, realizing that their position in Egypt was being threatened, sent their armies out to stop the Ottomans. A battle ensued, and the mamluks suffered heavy losses.


Though the Ottomans plundered much of Cairo, they did build dazzling monuments in their own style. This is the tiled cupola of the mosque of Sulayman Pasha on the Citadel, built in 1528.

Selim's armies arrived at the gates of Cairo in February 1517. A last Mamluk force tried to stop the invasion, but they met a nasty end. Ever one to display his might through grisly shows of force, Selim ordered the 800 Mamluks who had been captured beheaded: their bodies were thrown in the Nile, while their heads were placed on spikes to decorate his camp. The last of the Mamluk generals who resisted the invasion was hung from Bab Zuwayla at the city's southern end. His ghost reportedly still haunts the upper reaches of the gate.

The Ottomans plundered the city and took everything of value back to Istanbul. Cairo was reduced from a grand capital to a provincial town, whose leaders were to serve a sultan who spoke a different language and lived far away.

They discovered if they were willing to serve the sultan in Istanbul as they had served the Mamluk sultan, their connections would be unchanged. They could still control the government and hold the positions of power. For the next three hundred years, the Mamluks continued to make up a good portion of the ruling class.

Eventually, things changes under the Ottomans. The focus was shifted away from Egypt. The grand mosques, the centers of learning, the military and political power, all of these things were now centered around Istanbul, not Cairo. Ottoman domination of the eastern Mediterranean had sent the Europeans out to find a new way to get to Asia. In the 15th century, they discovered the sea route around Africa to Asia, which meant that Egypt was no longer an important trading center. Egypt was essentially cut off from the rest of the world.

Egypt was relatively unimportant during this time, and so its culture and society stagnated. However, all of this was to change dramatically in 1798.

The action now shifts to a new stage: Europe. A short history lesson is needed to help us understand what happens next. There were, at this point, three major powers in Europe: England, France and Spain, and all of them were having problems with their empires. The British had, of course, lost a good chunk of their North American possessions, which became the United States of America in 1781. France had possessions in North America, but they weren't as developed as the British holdings, and were a strain on the French economy. For this reason, France sold a large portion of its North American territory to the United States in 1803. Spain at the time was fairly well off: it owned nearly all of what is now South and Central America.

Bayt al-Razzaz

The Mamluks who stayed behind built lavish houses for themselves to mark their status as the source of power in Egypt. This is one such house, Bayt al-Razzaz, now in ruins.

Bayt al-Razzaz

Mashrabiyya screens such as this were used to provide privacy while allowing breezes to circulate, as well as allowing the occupants to see out.

In 1765, Britain had set up a territory in the Bengal region of India, and the British East India Company was in the process of expanding authority into other parts of the region. Britain and France had fought for domination of India for nearly a century. In 1763, the British succeeded in forcing the French East India Company out of India, but French interest in the Indian trade had not gone away. In 1789, the French monarchy fell in a popular revolution, and France's new leaders were convinced that they could regain French dominance of the seas.

The Europeans were interested in India, because its spices, silk, tea, sugar, and other commodities were highly prized. The country that controlled the trade routes to India would be very rich indeed, and in a better position to control India itself. While the British had succeeded in forcing the French out of India, other players were on the scene: Portugal, which had taken the Goa province as a colony and also had a door into China at Macao; and the Netherlands, which had not only Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but was also making significant inroads into the East Indies (Indonesia).

France desperately wanted back in on the Indian trade, and a young army officer named Napoleon Bonaparte thought he knew how this could be accomplished. He studied the maps and history books and found stories of a canal from the days of ancient Egypt, one that led from the pharaonic capital at Memphis to the Red Sea. Napoleon's knowledge of geography was extensive, and he knew that the shortest route from Europe to India ran through Egypt. Since Egypt was a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, he knew it was vulnerable. Faced with the prospect of having a popular general at home unemployed, the French government readily agreed to Napoleon's plan.

In 1798, the French army, headed by Napoleon, set out for Egypt. They encountered little resistance as they landed at Alexandria and marched up the Nile to take Cairo. While the French confidently strolled around Egypt, their situation was precarious at best. Though Napoleon himself was quite respectful of Islam and proclaimed himself to be freeing the Muslims of Egypt from the tyranny of the Ottoman sultan, the French soldiers were less respectful, and soon began supporting the Egyptian Christian population. In addition to this, the French force had been followed by an English naval fleet, which had sunk most of the French ships after the landing at Alexandria. The French were trapped in Egypt.

Bab al-Wazir

The road leading to Bab al-Wazir, at the foot of the citadel, contains some of the houses of the wealthier and more influential mamluks of the Ottoman period.

In all, the French spent nearly 3 years in Egypt, finally leaving by agreement with the English in 1801. However, the expedition to Egypt was not just of a military nature. The French brought with them scientists, cartographers, botanists, zoologists, linguists, archaeologists and others, who spent the time in Egypt detailing the country's plants and animals, drawing maps, and recording details of buildings old and new. The finished study, called the Description of Egypt, was one of the boldest scientific projects ever undertaken. The project inspired the imaginations of Europe's scientific elite, and ignited interest in ancient Egypt. This was further inspired when a stone was discovered at Rashid in the Nile Delta, a place that the French called Rosetta. The Rosetta Stone, as it is known, provided the key to unlocking the language of the pharaohs, and brought scientific interest in ancient Egypt to fever pitch. Over the next century, scientists would search the length and breadth of Egypt in hopes of making a great discovery of a cache of royal treasure from the pharaohs.

What happened next in the history of modern Egypt is almost as remarkable.

All photographs copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose



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