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Mehmed Ali Pasha and Ibrahim through the eyes of an Egyptian historian

Historian Khaled Fahmy, who teaches at Cambridge and has studies the history of Mehmed Ali Pasha and his son Ibrahim, speaks to LiFo on the occasion of his participation in the “1821: The Known-Unknown Revolution” conference.

This is an English translation of an interview with Vassili Siyouti which appeared in Lifo Magazine on 11 November 2021.

Meeting of General Maizonos with Ibrahim Pasha in Navarino in September 1828 (by Jean-Charles Langlois, 1838).

A different conference on the Greek revolution of 1821 is being held these days (December 9-12) at the Law School and the Cultural Center of the Municipality of Athens. The aim of the organizers is to highlight the perspectives that have been enlightened by official history and to focus, among other things, “on the popular history of the revolution, on the aspirations of the oppressed peoples and minorities, on the ethnic and linguistic diversity that formed the revolutionary raw material.”

One of the most important and interesting speakers at the conference is the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy, who teaches in Cambridge and has studied the story of Mehmet Ali Pasha of Egypt and his son Ibrahim, who is identified with the destruction of the Peloponnese. with his army.

Khaled Fahmy is Professor of Contemporary Arabic Studies at the University of Cambridge and author of the book “Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt”, which has been translated into Greek. In this interview we try to illuminate two faces of the Ottoman Empire through the eyes of an Egyptian historian.

Mehmet Ali Pasha, as he is known in Greece, was born in Kavala and went on to become the governor of Egypt and one of the most powerful personalities of the Ottoman Empire. In 1825 his son, Ibrahim Pasha, by his order landed with his army in the Peloponnese to quell the Greek revolution. After continuous victories, Ibrahim’s Egyptian fleet was defeated in the naval battle of Navarino in 1827 and left Greece, leaving behind a great disaster.

Had Mehmed Ali stayed in Kavala, he most probably would have ended up as a village thug (which is what he was as a teenager) or as a tobacco merchant (which is what he had become after he married Emine). The dramatic transformation in his character that saw him become one of the most important politicians in the Ottoman Empire, and, even more, a statesman of international repute, happened as a result of him moving to Egypt.

-Muhammad Ali of Egypt is known in Greece as Mehmet Ali Pasha and I have read from you that in Ottoman history he is known as Kavalali Mehmed Ali, the name that refers to the place where he was born, Kavala. In Greek history he is a negative person, especially his son Ibrahim, whose name has been associated with the destruction he caused in the Peloponnese in his attempt to suppress the Greek revolution for independence. Anyone seeking to learn more about him, however, will be surprised to find Greek texts even portraying him as a philhellene. What kind of personality is Mehmed Ali for you? 

Mehmet Ali is one of the most complex Ottoman statesmen of the 19th century. It may also be true to say that his reputation was not limited to the Ottoman world but extended to Europe, and it would not be far-fetched to compare his political acumen to that of the British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister, Lord Palmerson, the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich, and even Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom he was often compared. 

Born in Kavala in 1770, he arrived in Egypt in 1801 as part of a large Ottoman force gathered from the Balkans to evict the French from Egypt. Four years later, in 1805, the Ottoman sultan appointed him as governor of Egypt, a position he held until his fatal illness 43 years later. Throughout this long reign, his Kavalan origins were as important as his Egyptian power base together with his deep familiarity with, and involvement in, Ottoman affairs. 

An astute judge of character with a deep sense of self-confidence and self-importance, he always bided his time never rushing immaturely or missing an opportunity. He was calm under stress, generous with his allies, frugal in his tastes, and in possession of an unmistakable charm. Yet, he was also ruthless with his enemies, never forgetting an insult no matter how trivial. In the few occasions he lost his temper, his wrath knew no limits. What occasionally appeared as serene calmness concealed a shrewd mind busy weaving devilish plots. Above all, it was his inexhaustible energy, his indefatigable attention to detail, and his ability to see the larger picture that were his most defining characteristics.

Mehmed Ali by Auguste Couder

Why did you decide to deal with him and choose him from so many other historical personalities?

Despite these unique features that would attract the attention of any biographer, I was not initially drawn to him. Instead, 35 years ago, when I started working on the history of Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century, I chose to work on an institution and not a personality, no matter how colorful this personality might be. Accordingly, I spent many years working on the conscript army that Mehmed Ali founded nearly mid-way though his long career. This study which was the basis of my PhD dissertation from Oxford, and which was later published as a book, All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt (1997), made me realize the magnitude of the suffering experienced by millions of Egyptians living under his rule. I argued that the thousands of Egyptian peasants who served in this army suffered untold miseries and came to loathe the Pasha and everything he stood for. Only then did I feel ready to tackle Mehmed Ali and attempt to probe his character. My biography on Mehmed Ali first appeared in English in 2008, and I am now working on an expanded Arabic translation of it. Over these long years during which I worked on this biography, I think I came to understand him and appreciate the complexity of his character. However, I don’t think I am any closer to liking him.

-What were his origins? Is it known how his family was found in Kavala? 

There are many theories and variations about the family origins, but the most authoritative one is the one recounted by Ibrahim himself to a French advisor in 1833. In that interview, Ibrahim said that he had heard from his father that his father (i.e. Mehmed Ali’s father) had hailed from central Anatolia, and specifically from Konya, and that the family had settled in Kavala some two or three generations earlier, i.e. by the beginning of the 18th century. So ethnically, they were Anatolian Turks, although, if we dig even further, the family might have originated in eastern Anatolia and that they settled in Konya to escape a family feud. It is these much deeper origins that give credence to another theory that there is some Kurdish blood in the family.

On his mother’s side, Mehmed Ali is connected to Nikiforos in Drama, which is his mother’s birthplace. Interestingly, Nikiforos is also where his wife, Emine, came from. The story goes that Mehmed Ali’s maternal uncle, who was the governor of Kavala, heard about Emine and introduced Mehmed Ali to her. She had been married to another man, but became a widow before the marriage had been consummated leaving her with a sizeable inheritance. 

How did he, an uneducated man from Kavala, reach so high in the Ottoman Empire?

Had Mehmed Ali stayed in Kavala, he most probably would have ended up as a village thug (which is what he was as a teenager) or as a tobacco merchant (which is what he had become after he married Emine). The dramatic transformation in his character that saw him become one of the most important politicians in the Ottoman Empire, and, even more, a statesman of international repute, happened as a result of him moving to Egypt. It is in Egypt that Mehmed Ali built for himself a power base that enabled him to play such a central role in world affairs in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s.  He did this by gradually inviting members of his immediate family, distant relatives, and fellow Kavallans to settle in his adopted country and to help him make out of Egypt a centre of power that challenged Istanbul.

At the core of his endeavors was the tight control he and his administration had over Egypt’s manpower, which he harnessed in such a way as to build a powerful army. It is this army that enabled him to expand his influence over much of the sultan’s territories, and it is this army that was also the impetus for other deeper transformations that Egypt witnessed. 

With this powerful army, Mehmed Ali interfered in Crete, Morea, Hijaz, Yemen, and, most importantly, in Syria. The Syrian Campaign which lasted from 1831 to 1840, saw the Egyptian army defeating the Ottoman armies four times, and did not stop except when Ibrahim Pasha, leading this Egyptian army, crossed the Taurus Mountains into Anatolia, marched onto Istanbul and triggering an acute crisis that only enhanced the position of Mehmed Ali within the Ottoman Empire.

Unknown artist (mid 19th-early 20th century), The Exodus of Messolonghi. Oil on canvas, 89×66 cm. National Bank of Greece SA Copy of a work by Theodoros Vryzakis.

Although he lacked education, you have written that he acquired education on his own and managed to become a capable politician, who often fascinated Europeans, something that interested and sought him. How did he do that?

Mehmed Ali was an intelligent, curious man. He was in constant touch with European merchants, travelers and diplomats to whom he frequently gave audience in his palace in Alexandria. Being a mere vali (i.e. provincial governor), rather than an independent ruler, he was not allowed to have ambassadors in Europe, and these frequent European visitors were an important source of information on European affairs. Many of them were fortune seekers, if not outright scoundrels. But being the astute judge of character that he was, Mehmed Ali always managed to milk them of all useful information they might have held, while leaving them entertained and believing that they had had fun in the “Orient”.

Above all, Mehmed Ali had very good advisors who informed him of Ottoman and European affairs. His agent in Istanbul, Mehmed Najib Effendi, was very influential in the Ottoman capital and fed him with information of all that was taking place in the corridors of power there. His Armenian advisor of foreign affairs, Boghus Yousofian, was an astute diplomat/merchant, who was a polyglot (mastering French, Italian, Ottoman and Arabic) and advising the Pasha on European affairs. His Chef de Cabinet, the Greek Sami Bey, was also feeding him accurate information of all that was  happening in Egypt. Finally, in 1821, Mehmed Ali founded a printing press in Bulaq in northwestern Cairo. This press published gems of classical Arabic literature, medical and scientific textbooks for the Pasha’s many polytechnics, as well as a government newspaper. In addition, it also published Turkish translations of biographies of European politicians including Catherine the Great and Napoleon, and the Pasha was an avid reader of these biographies, and occasionally interfered in the editorial policy of the press, choosing books to be translated and turning down others. In a famous incident, he turned down a suggestion to translate Machiavelli’s The Prince saying that there is nothing in that book that he did not already know.

Did he meet resistance in Egypt?

When he arrived in Egypt, the French army of occupation was suffering from various setbacks, and soon departed after a little less than three years of occupation. (Bonaparte had earlier left his men when he realized that the campaign was doomed). The Ottomans had sent two expeditions to recapture their prized province, one by land through Syria, and the other by sea, which is the one that Mehmed Ali joined. In addition, the old Mamluk warriors were clamoring to return to their rural estates and to rebuild their exhausted forces after three years of fighting. Thus, the scene to which Mehmed Ali arrived in Egypt was a divided, chaotic scene of a country ravaged by years of internal fighting, foreign invasion, draught and the plague.It is this situation that Mehmed Ali seized to build his power base. Using his small Kavallian contingent, which was part of much larger Albanian force, he soon expanded his power base playing off one faction against the other. At the beginning, the local population in Cairo turned to him thinking he can put an end to the internecine fighting. After placating them, he turned to the Mamaluks, the warrior class of Egypt, and literally massacred them in a terrible incident on 1 March 1811. From this moment onwards he effectively became the sole master of the country. All popular opposition became futile.

Did he really want to imitate Napoleon as some say? 

There are two people with whom Mehmed Ali with was fond of comparing himself. He often said that like Alexander the Great, he, too, was a Macedonian hailing from norther Greece and ending up governing Egypt. And like the Ptolomies, his regime was based in Egypt but directed to the Mediterranean. They built the famous Museum of Alexandria, and he built many educational institutions throughout the country, in addition to the Bulaq Press. And while they monopolized the cultivation of sesame and exported its oil to the Mediterranean world, he monopolized cotton and exported it to the factories of Liverpool and Manchester.The second man to whom he compared himself was Napoleon. He often said that they were born in the same year, which, strictly speaking, was not true, as Napoleon was born in 1769, while Mehmed Ali is now believed to have been born in 1770.

In France, especially during the July Monarchy, and more specifically, during the national fervor surrounding the repatriation of the French Emperor’s remains from St Helena to be buried in the Hotel des Invalides, Mehmed Ali’s popularity was at its peak in France, and many people compared him to Napoleon especially in his defiant stance toward Great Britain. And in the intense negotiations of that year, 1840, to resolve the second Syrian Crisis when Mehmed Ali’s army came very close to destroying the Ottoman Empire, he is reported to have said that he would never allow Europe to treat him the way it treated Napoleon 25 years earlier. And he was proven right: he was not exiled, and spent the last nine years of his life enjoying the fruits of his labor.

-Was he possessed by religious fanaticism? 

Mehmed Ali was many things, but he definitely was not a religious fanatic. He was a devout Muslim, it is true, and performed the Islamic rituals regularly. (He became a haj after performing the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1813). But he was tolerant of all religious communities. When his troops occupied Syria and Palestine, he lifted the tax on Jewish pilgrims arriving from Russia to Jerusalem. When he paid a visit to Sudan in 1838, he allowed the different Christian denominations to build a church in Khartoum, the first ever church to be built there. His administration was full of Christians of all denominations. Mention has already been made to the Armenian Boghus Yousofian, his Foreign Affairs Minister. His personal physician was Gaetani Bey, an Italian Catholic. The chief medical officer of his army was a French Catholic, Antoine Barthelemy Clot-Bey. And the Coptic and Jewish Egyptians were never persecuted against, and their suffering never exceeded that of their fellow Muslim compatriots.

Ibrahim Pasha

-How do you explain, after the role he and his son Ibrahim played against the Greek revolution and the destruction of the Peloponnese, such a good relationship with the Greek community in Egypt?  

Mehmed Ali sent his army to Crete (1822) and to the Peloponnese (1824) to subdue what was seen as a revolt against the Ottoman Sultan. His son, Ibrahim, was appointed as commander-in-chief of this recently formed army. The aim was to subdue the rebellion at any cost to prove his worth in front of the Ottoman sultan. He believed that this was a war that had to be fought with ferocity and overwhelming force.

But back home (and Mehmed Ali never went to the Peloponnese himself; it was his son who fought there), Mehmed Ali conducted the war diplomatically. And being the shrewd politician and the clever merchant that he was, he realized the importance of trade, and the crucial significance of keeping Alexandria as a bustling port. It is here that he courted the Greek community. When the war ended, Mehmed Ali invited many more Greeks to settle in Egypt and extended to them his protection and offered them many privileges.

-Was Mohamed Ali negative towards the Greek uprising and towards the Greeks before he received an order from the Sublime Porte

Mehmed Ali was very reluctant to go to Greece in the first place. He feared that joining the sultan’s effort to subdue the revolt would deplete his financial resources. His army, in addition, was untested having been formed only two years prior. (The first conscription orders date from February 1822). A huge revolt had erupted in Upper Egypt in 1822 following the onset of conscription, and another one in Lower Egypt, for the same reason; therefore, his power base in Egypt was not secure. So answering the Sultan’s call was risky. But not answering it carried with it the risk of being declared a rebel himself. So Mehmed Ali had neither negative nor positive feeling towards the Greek uprising. His calculation was strategic and had to do with Istanbul and the viziers there, many of whom wanted to get rid of him the way they got rid of Ali Pasha of Yanina. But once, he decided to answer his sovereign’s call, there would be no half-solutions. The full wrath of his new army would be unleashed on the hapless Greeks as it had been used against the rebels in Egypt. (The 1822 uprising in Upper Egypt involved 20,000 men and women, 3,000 of them were killed by the end of it).

Like every aspect of Mehmed Ali’s character, his legacy in Egypt is complex. It is true that he built the institutions that made Egypt modern: the army, the navy, the bureaucracy, the polytechnics, the printing press. At the same time, Egyptians suffered under his reign in a horrible way. The heavy taxation, the long and painful corvee, the monopolies system, and above all the conscription policy made their lives miserable. So yes, he was the founder of modern Egypt, an Egypt where Egyptians are meant to suffer.

-Why was Ibrahim so violent in the Peloponnese? Why did he go so far as to burn settlements, olive trees, and even destroy fruit trees? 

Ibrahim was a clever military commander. He was as violent as he was shrewd. He started his military career as a teenager when he finished off the remnants of the Mamluks who had escaped the infamous Massacre of 1811. For many months, he chased them in Upper Egypt all the way to Nubia. In the way, he burned crops, looted property, and killed men. A few years later, in 1816, his father sent him to Arabia to subdue the Wahhabi rebellion against the Ottoman sultan (The Wahhabis are a Muslim puritanical sect). His shrewd tactics and close attention to questions of logistics and supply helped him lay a successful siege on Dar’iyya, the capital of the Wahhabis and their Saudi allies. In 1818, he razed the city to the ground, and had the Saudi leader sent to Cairo and from there to Istanbul where he was beheaded, his body left to rot for days.

So what Ibrahim did in the Peloponnese was not without precedent. And subsequently, in the 1830s, Ibrahim was to repeat these atrocities on a large scale. 

What distinguished the war in Morea from other campaigns that Ibrahim fought it was the fact that he did not have a free hand. For right from the beginning of his father’s involvement in the Greek War, Ibrahim found himself having to work with an Ottoman commander who had an old enmity with his father. This was Husrev Pasha, the Capudan Pasha, i.e. the Commander of the Ottoman fleet. The enmity between Husrev and Mehmed Ali goes all the way back to 1803, when Mehmed Ali expelled him from Egypt and seized the wealthy province himself. Twenty years later, the two men found themselves entrusted by their common suzerain, the Ottoman Sultan, with one task: subduing the Greek rebellion. So when Ibrahim was dispatched by his father, he found himself having to work with an old family friend. In crucial moments of the fight (e.g. after the capture of Psara in August 1824, and then in the lead up to the siege of Missolonghi in 1826), Ibrahim believed that Husrev was not coordinating his efforts with him and that he (i.e. Husrev) was actually planning to frustrate his efforts in order to prove to his sultan that only he can finish off the job. So, in short, Ibrahim, while being ruthless by nature, and having a long bloody history behind him, found himself having to fight the war in the Peloponnese under very adverse conditions. This is not to justify the horrible atrocities he committed there, but to put them in their historical context.

Eugene Delacroix, Greece in the ruins of Missolonghi, 1827.

-As for Moria, some say that he wanted to expel its inhabitants and bring Egyptians to settle it. Is this true? Did he have such a plan? 

No, I have not come across any evidence for this in the Egyptian Archives. Mehmed Ali always believed that Egypt was underpopulated, and that his numerous projects required a large labor force. So the idea of moving fellahin from Egypt where they were desperately needed and settle them in Greece makes little sense.

-Muhammad Ali is considered the founder of modern Egypt, something we Greeks do not know much about. Did he play a positive or negative role in your opinion for the Egyptians?

Like every aspect of Mehmed Ali’s character, his legacy in Egypt is complex. It is true that he built the institutions that made Egypt modern: the army, the navy, the bureaucracy, the polytechnics, the printing press. At the same time, Egyptians suffered under his reign in a horrible way. The heavy taxation, the long and painful corvee, the monopolies system, and above all the conscription policy made their lives miserable. So yes, he was the founder of modern Egypt, an Egypt where Egyptians are meant to suffer.

I read in one of your interviews that you talked about the health reforms that he made, including the smallpox vaccination, which the Egyptian farmers accepted because they understood that it was something in their favour. I found it very impressive that there was some kind of vaccines in place by then and that he managed to convince them. I’d like you to tell me a little bit about that. 

Today in Greece, you know, we have a lot of people in Greece who don’t believe in vaccines. The same thing is happening in Europe, of course. 

The variole against smallpox was discovered at the end of the 18th century. And the many doctors working for the Pasha, Europeans and Egyptians alike, had no problem producing enough material to vaccinate the children. The problem was not in the science. The problem was it the logistics: How can the authorities identify these children in the absence of a census? And even after identifying these children using heads of villages and heads of neighborhoods how could the authorities deliver them to the vaccination centers on time? What was the protocol of giving the vaccinated children a certificate proving vaccination? Who exactly would administer the vaccination: the physicians sent from Cairo, the provincial doctors, the village barber-surgeons, or the local midwives? It is by finding creative answers to these questions that the modern Egyptian public health system was created. It is worthwhile to note in this respect that the first attempt to introduce smallpox vaccination on a large scale was actually done in Crete in the mid 1830s (the Egyptian army occupied Crete from 1822 to 1840).

-Ibrahim compared to his father was a less powerful and important personality; How would you characterize him? What is his historical footprint?

I think I answered this question above when commenting on his brutality in the Peloponnese. What I can add here is that Ibrahim’s main problem is that he had Mehmed Ali as a father. Psychologically, it isn’t easy to have a father like Mehmed Ali, ever exacting, ever demanding, constantly blaming his subordinates of laxity and ineptitude. With Ibrahim, Mehmed Ali had, in addition, a deep fear of suspicion that he might use the army against him. So this was not an easy relationship, to say the least. It would make a very gripping play (or movie).

-When did you go to Kavala for the first time? Did you go there before you wrote your book? Was it what you expected? Does this city have historical secrets that we don’t know about? 

I first went to Kavala in 2006, if I remember correctly. I went there to meet Ms. Anna Missirian, who had just finished the mammoth task of renovating the magnificent education complex that Mehmed Ali had built in his hometown. Ms. Missirian sought my opinion as someone who studied Mehmed Ali and was familiar with his reign. When I visited Kavals, I was taken by its beauty. I was also deeply impressed by the superb restoration work that was done to the Imaret (this is the name of complex, which in Ottoman Turkish means “soup kitchen”, i.e. a place that offers free food for the poor and needy). In addition to the many historical sites in Kavala and its environs (including Philippi), I think the Imaret is a fine example of Ottoman architecture, and the restoration work that Ms. Missirian supervised (under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Culture) is of the highest caliber, rivalling that undertaken in many Ottoman monuments including in Turkey itself.

-And one last question. As a historian, how do you see Greece’s relationship with Egypt as it has come up to the present day, as Greece wants Egypt to be its ally in the Eastern Mediterranean and it clearly shows it?

I believe geo-political partnerships come and go. They are mercurial and change from one period to the other, and are often tied to the fates of rulers, who, as we know, also come and go. Much more durable is genuine friendship between the peoples. Egyptians have a very close affinity to Greeks, and I have never met a Greek who did not have some nice words to say about Egypt. Out of all the foreign communities who lived in Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries and who enriched its economic, artistic and cultural life, the Greek community was the closest to Egyptians.

At the height of the Suez Crisis in 1956, for example, and following the nationalization of the canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, all European pilots working in the Canal were withdrawn by their respective governments. The aim was to trigger a blockage and increase the pressure on the Egyptians and make them appear as if they cannot run the Canal. But the Greek pilots stayed and helped Egyptians ensure smooth navigation in the canal. Egyptians have never forgotten this gesture of genuine friendship and goodwill. 

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