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Muhammad Ali: Founder of Modern Egypt

Friday, July 8, 2011

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Muhammad Ali Mosque was built on an area in Cairo called the Citadel. The Citadel of Cairo was built during Saladinís rule in Egypt between 1176-1183 as a royal residence and military barracks. Over the years, the Citadel served the same purpose under the Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman, and Khedival rules of Egypt from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. From the 19th century until 1946, it was used by the British troops as a military barracks.

Additions done to the Citadel include al-Nasir Muhammad mosque (early Bahri Mamluk period), 16th Century Suleyman Pasha mosque (first Ottoman period), 19th century Muhammad Ali Mosque (founder of modern state of Egypt). Muhammad Ali Mosque was built between 1828 and 1848. The mosque was built large enough to be visible from all throughout Cairo. Today, it is still the most visible monument in Cairo.

Muhammad Ali (1769 Ė August 2, 1849) was born in Kavala, a small Macedonian seaport on the coast of the Aegean Sea in eastern Macedonia, Greece. He is of Albanian descent of Turkish up-bringing. His first job as a young man was a tobacco merchant before he joined the Ottoman Army.

At the time, the Mamluks often challenged the Ottoman rule in Egypt since the Ottomans invaded Egypt in 1517. In the late 18th century, as the Ottoman power began to decline, the Mamluks formed a serious threat to Ottoman rule in Egypt. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt by first attacking Alexandria. They easily took over the city which was lightly fortified. The French army then proceeded to Cairo and was faced only with the Mamluk army. The Mamluks at the time still had the reputation of being fierce warriors; however, as the battle of the Pyramids showed, their use of old tactics and equipped with swords and arrows were no match to the French squares equipped with cannons and guns. In one wave after another, the fearless Mamluk army raced to their death until the Mamluk army was completely decimated by the French army. At the end of the day, the French only lost 80 soldiers as opposed to the tens of thousands of Mamluk casualties. This battle seriously weakened the Mamluks militarily and they never were able to regain their military strength. When the British burned the French navy docked at Alexandria, this created a military vacuum and cleared the way for the Ottomans to recapture Egypt.

After the Ottomans recaptured Egypt, they discovered considerable ethnic and political divisions that prevented to rule the land effectively. Furthermore, when the salaries of soldiers were delayed, they raided the countryside, which was previously protected by the Mamluks. This was a period marked with anarchy and strife in Egyptian history

At the time, Muhammad Ali was part of the Ottoman force sent to Egypt. He slowly rose through the ranks by sometimes supporting the Mamluks and other times the Ottomans. He even had several viceroys sent to Egypt from Istanbul secretly killed until he was himself appointed the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt in 1805. Almost immediately, the weakened Mamluk army marched to attack Muhammad Ali and his Albanian army. The battle occurred in the city of Cairo, where the Mamluks were soundly defeated by Muhammad Aliís forces. This was the first of three serious blows to the Mamluks dealt by Muhammad Ali. In 1807, the British, which favored a Mamluk leadership in Egypt, attacked Muhammad Aliís forces; however, he was quickly able to defeat the British forces. This placed him at a very strong and respected position supported by the people that enabled him to effectively rule the country. In the final and most fatal blow to the Mamluks, Muhammad Ali invited all their leaders (500 people) to a banquet to honor the selection of his son Tusun Pasha as the leader of the army to crush the Wahabbi rebellion in the Arabian peninsula. As the Mamluks were exiting the Citadel, they walked down to the narrow gate of Azab, and the huge door was shut in front of them Muhammad Ali`s forces shot them all to death.

Muhammad Ali then proceeded to modernize the economy and army. He was responsible for building Egyptís cotton industry. Indeed he has encouraged all farmers to grow the cotton crop exclusively, bought all the cotton from the farmers, then sold it to textile manufacturers at a considerable markup. This alone was responsible for an incredibly large source of income to the nation. This remained to be the case until the collapse of the cotton industry when American cotton flooded the market when the American civil war ended in 1865.

Muhammad Ali had noticed the new style of the French army and their outstanding success against the Mamluks. He proceeded to modernize the army by using the French model under the training of the French Colonel Seve (later known as Suleyman Pasha when he converted to Islam). The Ottoman Sultan at the time, Sultan Selim III, also attempted to modernize the army. However, the Janissaries (warrior cast) felt that they were being replaced, overthrew Sultan Selim III. On the other hand, Muhammad Ali, who has completely defeated the Mamluks, did not have a threat of any military cast system. This shows that although a military cast system can initially be used to benefit the state, it usually grows in power and wealth over the years and eventually becomes a threat to the state it is protecting.

Muhammad Aliís new army has proven to be very effective in defeating minor uprisings in villages. Under the previous warrior cast system, the local soldiers would have supported the local leaders. This was the first real test of the new armyís cohesiveness. During the Greek war of independence, the Ottoman ruler Sultan Mahmud II requested the aid of Muhammad Aliís navy in Greece. At first, the Egyptian soldiers landed in the Peloponnese in Greece and were able to quell the uprising and capture the Missolonghi fortress. Due to the Ottomanís unwillingness to negotiate a truce, the combined forces of the British, French, and Russian navies sunk the Egyptian and Ottoman fleets at the Battle of Navarino. The result was a disaster for the Egyptian navy. Muhammad Ali was infuriated by the outcome and he would never again come to the aid of the Ottoman ruler.

Muhammad Ali was determined to learn from the mistakes of the Battle of Navarino. He hired French officers to train his army in the most modern military sciences. Convinced with the effectiveness of his new army, he retired all old elements of his army that consisted of Albanians and Mamluks and began conscripting peasants for a much more modern and larger army. Muhammad Ali at this point was most interested in having a considerable army to ensure his independence of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1831, Muhammad Ali began to invade Al-Sham (Greater Syria) where he was able to overtake all major cities in less than a year. The head of the army was Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Aliís oldest son. He soundly defeated the Ottoman army in the Battle of Konya, Anatolia in December 21, 1832. At this point there was no significant military force between Muhammad Aliís army and Istanbul itself. However, the threat of an alliance between Russia and the Ottoman Empire forced Muhammad Ali to withdraw all his forces from Anatolia as agreed under the Treaty of Kutahia. Under this treaty, Muhammad Ali would keep his territory in Syria and Mecca, but he is only to be recognized as a governor, not as a sovereign leader.

Muhammad Ali grew unhappy with the terms of the treaty, so he went to war against the Sultanís forces and defeating them again in the Battle of Nezib near Urfa. Sultan Mahmud II died almost at the same time, leaving a 16 year old son in control of the troubled Ottoman Empire. At this point, Muhammad Ali once again had the opportunity to take over the Ottoman Empire. To entice him further, the entire Ottoman fleet defected to him at the port of Alexandria, who they were certain that he would take over the Ottoman Empire. Instead, he chose not to advance further. A conflict between Muhammad Ali and his general and son Ibrahim Pasha resulted in a stall in the military campaign, which allowed the British to land in Beiruit where Ibrahimís forces were defeated.

Under the Treaty of London, Muhammad Ali was to give up all his holdings in Syria, reduce his army to 18,000 troops, scrap his entire navy, but was given one great concession: autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, which is all of what Muhammad Ali originally.

On the road to modernizing his army, Muhammad Aliís efforts helped to modernize Egypt in a number of ways. New hospitals emerged in Egypt eliminating the bubonic plague and reducing cholera outbreaks. Several roads and canals were built. He founded the first Arabic Islamic printed press. A shipbuilding foundry in Alexandria was built. During his reign, Egypt became flooded with tourists and foreign merchants who were attracted to the new bustling cities of Egypt. Indeed the city of Alexandria grew from 4,000 people before his rule to 143,000 people by the end of his rule in 1848. It was during his reign that Alexandria became a major trading port for the cotton industry to Europe, an industry which Egypt still enjoys prominence up to this day. Many Europeans settled in Alexandria, (mostly British, Greek, and Italians) to seek economic fortunes as they act as retailers between cotton farmers and European textile manufacturers.

Muhammad Ali Mosque, with its general scheme consists of a square sanctuary covered by a central dome flanked by four half-domes, in the distinct Ottoman imperial style. The scale of the mosque rivals that of Ottoman Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. The mosque along with the adjoining courtyard is larger than the Suleymaniye in Istanbul. The mosque`s minarets are higher than any other Ottoman mosque. The decoration styles have distinct European influence, which was typical of Ottoman architecture at the time. The largest central dome has large circular inscribings of the four Caliphs in Islam: Abu-Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali. On the rear (North) wall of the courtyard, a bluish-green clock sits that was donated by the French King Louis-Philippe in exchange for Pharaonic obelisk from Luxor that still stands in the Place de Concorde in Paris. Considering that the clock never worked, the French probably got the better deal.


  • [1] Dobrowolska, Agnieszka et al, Muhammad Ali Pasha and His Sabil, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press 2004.
  • [2] Williams, Caroline, Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press 2002.
  • [3] Haag, Michael. The Rough Guide: History of Egypt, London: 2003, Rough Guides Ltd.

  • Keywords: Cairo, Egypt, mosque, Muhammad Ali

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