top of page
  • Writer's pictureAbbas Hilmi

The Great Mohamed Ali Pasha (1769-1849)

In this short essay the author tries to explain the motivation and reasons for Mohamed Ali's behaviour and how it affected his tremendous achievements.

We go back Formal portrait of Mohamed Ali in the possession of the author's the traditional notion of his family origins and his upbringing in order to try and understand his extraordinary openness to the West and to non Muslim religions.

Under his rule Egypt was transformed from a failed Ottoman province into an extremely well organised, prosperous and powerful regional state. He achieved incredible results through wise and determined administration, but also with the help and assistance of a large foreign community he invited to participate in this exhilarating endeavour.

His legacy is still very rich today, but often misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is a modest attempt at putting this record straight.


Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik in one of his many books, Emine Tugay in "Three Centuries" (the dynasty ruled for roughly two centuries and she goes back another to the family origins) and Nevine Yousry in "Kismet" all refer to the family originating in a village in Eastern Turkey called Ilic. In one of his many letters to his son Ibrahim Pasha, Mohamed Ali refers to Izzet Pasha the Ottoman admiral of the fleet who defected to Mohamed Ali as someone "from our region". Izzet Pasha was born in the district which includes the village of Ilic.

King Farouk commissioned a historical research team and asked them to document the family origins, but they failed. Their main problem was that all the local documents were housed at the Vilayet (provincial) capital of Erzincan and the town was wiped out by a very powerful earthquake in 1922. The local record office collapsed and caught fire, nothing could be rescued.

The author and his family went recently on a pilgrimage to the mythical village fully expecting a dull little agglomeration, but the opposite was the truth. We found a dynamic and expanding little town set in a dramatically beautiful mountain rage. We expect that Mohamed Ali's ancestors left Ilic roughly one hundred years before his birth. In those days in particular life up on those mountains must have been harsh particularly during the winter months and must have bred tough and determined sons. These traits were still visible in Mohamed Ali himself.

It is sometimes pointed out that Ilic has today a mixed population of Turks and Kurds and that Mohamed Ali's ancestors might have been Kurds. However the great Kurdish migration towards that region came in the late Eighteenth Century as a result of raging wars, by which time the great man's ancestors had already left. In their days the population was either Armenian or Turkish. The former being the original inhabitants and the latter arriving with the Secukide invasion. Mohamed Ali's family were therefore Turks with strong links to Armenians. This trait remained again with Mohamed Ali when he became Pasha of Egypt and surrounded himself with several Armenian advisors. This was unprecedented among Ottoman Pashas.

The family tradition also mentions that the people who left Ilic were horse traders. Armenians were mostly merchants and needed horses, mules and other pack animals to carry out their trade, there probably lies the origins of their cooperation. The Ilic ancestors headed with their animals to Konya that great trading centre and Karavansaray. In those days Konya was the starting point of the silk route. Caravans went to Samarkand, Buchara and beyond all the way to China. The new arrivals from Ilic were probably quite astute and soon became merchants in their own right.

In one of his letters, Ibrahim Pasha appears to refer to a blood feud being the reason for their departure from Konya. This might have been one of the reasons, but the author suspects that competition was fierce in Konya and they probably sought to broaden their trade. Many years later the family imported many workers for the tobacco trade in Kavala. This workforce was referred to commonly as "Konyalis". This suggests that the family maintained ties with that city and it is not uncommon for merchant families to leave members of the family manning various trading posts thus facilitating the movement of goods from one to the other.

Whatever the reason, the family moved on from Konya to Edirne (Andrinople in French or Andrinopolis in Greek) which was the main trading centre with Europe. Edirne had been an Ottoman capital city before the fall of Constantinople. Various Sultans remained very attached to Edirne and preferred to reside there although the Capital had become Istanbul. In spite of terrible damage during the Balkans wars, the city remains today extremely attractive and is endowed with magnificent monuments. The family prospered in what was then a vibrant and bustling city and eventually bought most of the best tobacco growing land in Kavala.

To this day Kavala which is now in Northern Greece, grows the best quality "Turkish" type tobacco anywhere in the world. The fact that the family's main activity was to trade with Europe meant that they were fully aware of the tremendous technical advances beyond their borders. This also explains why Mohamed Ali turned immediately to Europeans in orders to resolve the problems he was confronted with in Egypt.

Mohamed Ali's great grandfather, Ibrahim Aga was the first to move to Kavala. As with most large trading families it is very likely that the relatively least well off was sent to look after their newly acquired valuable property. He on the other hand sought and got the Ottoman position of "Yol agsi". He was thus in charge of maintaining the roads at his expense as well as a small band of armed men to ward off bandits, while he was allowed to levy tolls on the viaduct leading to the town and on bridges. The family had set foot on the first rung of the Ottoman hierarchical ladder. Once again they must have done well as Mohamed Ali's uncle, Toussoun Mehmet Aga (his father's brother) became Muhtar of Kavala, or mayor in modern parlance. Mohamed Ali's father also named Ibrahim, in fact died while Mohamed Ali was young (it is not clear what his age was) and he was brought up by his uncle the Muhtar, although the latter probably had little to do with his nephew's upbringing.

Zeyneb Hatun, Mohamed Ali's mother was from a small town North of Kavala called Nusret. She was a Muslim and the daughter of a local landowner, this points to the fact that she might have been an ethnic Albanian as was most of the Muslim population in this part of the Balkans. Mohamed Ali was orphaned as we saw earlier and his mother brought him up probably largely with the help of her family. The result was that he spoke fluent Albanian which allowed him later on in life to declare to his Albanian troops that he was one of them. He could even point to another village of origin (other than Ilic) which was Zamlak in Albania. A regiment from Zamlak was stationed on an island on the Nile opposite Mohamed Ali's Shoubra Palace, this island is today considered to be one of Cairo's more desirable districts and is called Zamalek.

Even though he was not of paternal Albanian descent as such he was clearly very comfortable with them. In fact his mother the formidable Zeyneb Hatun found him a very suitable wife. She was Emine the daughter of Hadji Hussein Aga, a "Corbacibasi" or Colonel (approximately) of the Janissaries. He had retired, bought land and married locally, probably to another lady of Albanian origin. Janissaries were mostly of European origins, Serbian, Romanians etc., but had lost their cultural roots when they were taken into service and he almost certainly blended into his wife's family and became part of their community.

Hadji Hussein Aga was appointed in 1791 the "Mutesellim"( deputy lieutenant governor and local collector of taxes and tithes) ie. The local representative of the Governor of Salonica, the province to which Kavala belonged. (1)

It is almost certainly his Corbacibasi father in law who found Mohamed Ali his commission in the Ottoman navy, probably attached to the Kavala harbour. When the time for the Egyptian expedition came they chose another retired senior Albanian officer to command the force, Abubekir Bey who was murdered in the streets of Cairo. This gives another illustration of the many aspects of Mohamed Ali's complex personality.

Mohamed Ali as we saw spoke fluently Turkish and Albanian, but he also spoke Greek and Italian which were the naval languages Ottomans sailors found useful to know. We can speculate that he had a good knowledge of the Koran which endeared him to the Sheikhs and Ulemas of Cairo, this suggests that he knew classical Arabic although he could not at first speak the language.

Mohamed Ali's fondness of Europeans appears to have started early in his life. He is reported to have worked as a young man for a French tobacco merchant in Kavala named Francois Lion who originated from Marseille. Mohamed Ali seems to have kept fond memories of his first employer to the point that he invited him to Egypt once he had become Pasha, but the poor man died as he was setting off on his trip. (2)

Mohamed Ali described himself as illiterate in conversation with several people. What he almost certainly meant was that he had no knowledge of the colourful and rich Ottoman court language and aged forty he decided to take lessons and learn it. On the other hand he could not have been illiterate in the literal sense and be commissioned as an Ottoman naval officer. In fact he was quite a linguist and obviously a bright and gifted young man even before he left his native Kavala.

He also described himself as poor, which he probably felt he was. His father had died leaving him little, his family although well off were obviously not very generous towards him. Nonetheless he came from a wealthy family and to describe him as some have done as a penniless adventurer is quite false. His mentality and his mercantile background and upbringing made him act and behave as would an astute merchant and not a brash adventurer.


Napoleon as we all know lead the French conquest of Egypt. By doing so he destroyed to cozy life of middle eastern merchants. One can imagine Mohamed Ali's family probably losing up to approximately one third,or more of their trade when they could no longer ship their tobacco to Egypt which was always a very important commercial hub for the whole region. Many other merchants found themselves in the same predicament, such as the wood merchants, Egypt has always been a very large wood importer since the Pharaohs with no local forests to speak of. The grain merchants and many others made up the rest of the consortium. Added to this the wars in Europe must have greatly hampered the business of Mohamed Ali's rich cousins from Edirne.

The merchants petitioned the Sultan, Selim III, begging him to take back the province of Egypt. The Sultan was sympathetic but unable to help, the whole of the Ottoman army was summoned to fight an Imperial Russian onslaught. This was a war which the Ottomans simply could not afford to lose. Instead the Sultan issued Marching Orders which were unique in their kind. Salih Kuhan Bey who was in charge of the Top Kapi archives had unearthed this remarkable document in the 1970's, the document is undoubtedly still there. It is as Salih Kurhan described, a Zafer Izni or per mission to march, as against a Zafer Emri which is the customary and detailed order to march. In other words the Sultan allowed these merchants to finance and mount the Egyptian campaign at their expense.

This explains many things. The fact that there were no regular troops and that this consortium of merchants retained mercenary troops who were made up mostly of the Albanian regiments. These men came on the promise of being richly rewarded once Egypt was taken back. Similarly Bosnians came and their blue eyed descendants are still today in Kasr Ibrim in the middle of lake Nasser. Also the boats they came on were commercial boats manned by Greeks and were not part of the Ottoman navy. The first expedition failed and Mohamed Ali almost drowned off Egypt's Northern coast, but having spent so much money, blood and effort,they decided to finish the job and came for a second and final expedition.

The whole Egyptian enterprise was thus a commercial venture, which paid off when according to Sharia Law the people who free a Muslim province from non Muslim rule are entitled to a bounty. We read that Mohamed Ali "helped himself" to vast properties. In fact the distribution was entirely legal and every land allocation was recorded in the Sharia Courts. The beneficiaries other than Mohamed Ali and his family were to be all who helped retake Egypt and defeat the Mamlouks. In other words fellow merchants, the Albanians, the Bosnians and various Arab tribes who joined the battle.

Napoleon had abandoned his troops in Egypt once Nelson had destroyed the French fleet in the Bay of Abu Kir. The man in charge at the time of the second counter attack was General Menoux, or Abdallah Menoux as he liked to be referred to in an attempt to "go native", but to no avail, he was killed and the disheartened French soldiers proved to be no match for the wild men of the Balkans.

The Sultan appointed Khurshid Pasha as governor or Vali of Egypt. The Pasha made himself immediately unpopular by trying to impose new taxes and failing to restore law and order. To make things worse, as we saw earlier the experienced and respected Abu Bekir Bey who commanded the victorious "consortium" troops was assassinated in the streets of Old Cairo by an unknown assailant, leaving the young Mohamed Ali in command of the troops.

The situation was getting more and more desperate every day with an economic and security collapse in the country. This is when the Sheikh El Sadat, Sheikh Omar Makram and other leading clerics met to discuss the situation with Mohamed Ali. The clerics were totally dissatisfied with the appointed Ottoman governor and came to ask the young commander for his help and support. The only thing which would have convinced them of his suitability was his knowledge of Sharia Law, that he promised to uphold it and he probably impressed them with his knowledge of the Koran. This is what must have distinguished him radically from Khurshid Pasha.

The next day there were huge popular demonstrations in the streets of Cairo demanding that Mohamed Ali be installed as governor. After several days of upheaval the Sultan acceded to the popular demand and appointed Mohamed Ali, Pasha of Egypt. This was the first time that an Ottoman Pasha was appointed in answer to the people's request.


From 17th May, 1805 until his death on 2nd August, 1849 Mohamed Ali Pasha ruled Egypt except for a brief period of nine months when, because of ill health he handed over to his son Ibrahim Pasha who died of an untimely death in 1848, so that Mohamed Ali took back the reigns of power only to die himself shortly afterwards. No ruler in modern Egyptian history remained at the helm for so long.

He was appointed Pasha at a desperate time. Egypt had just been invaded by the French which resulted in even greater chaos than before with rival Mamlouk Beys fighting bloody battles among themselves and extracting heavy and unfair tolls from the Egyptian peasantry as can be read in Afaf L.S.Marsot's excellent book on Mohamed Ali. He in fact managed to change the situation around in a relatively short space of time and this can be attributed to two traits in his psychological make-up, his mercantile background and openness to Western ideas.

For good reason he was constantly on the defensive. He realised that in order to be accepted and respected he had to create a powerful army and in order to support such a military establishment Egypt had to have a strong and prosperous economy.

Primarily Mohamed Ali supported civilian local national industries, crafts and trades. For example the army requires boots. The leather industry was expanded primarily using traditional tanning methods. All sorts of crafts were encouraged such as carpentry, relying as much as possible on local woods used in mashrabias and the like. Metal work was required, forging, stamping, making nails and bolts. The Pasha took an interest in everything including the dying industry, spinning and weaving with hand looms. Building crafts were soon booming using stone and some white mud bricks. Firearms were made based on the use of gun powder. Once again Mohamed Ali's main purpose was military. The army as we saw needed boots, uniforms and they wore the Ottoman fez, but when not enough local craftsmen could be found, Mohamed Ali brought over several fez makers from Tunis who promptly set up shop in Cairo.

The army required men and he enlisted Egyptians and to make up numbers he brought in Nubians mainly from the Sudan with mixed success. He then had to import Circassian officers in order to discipline those new recruits.

Mohamed Ali was aware that he needed to transfer new technologies to Egypt and he invited anyone to come to Egypt and submit their new ideas or inventions. He created an open door policy to visitors.

The Boulak foundry was created by Maltese immigrants. Starting in 1809 Mohamed Ali was assembling in Boulak boats which were prefabricated and imported in pieces. By 1826 he was ordering boats in Livorno and in Marseille. (3)

He helped innovative foreigners to establish themselves in Egypt such as the many Italian craftsmen who came. He managed to convince a French group to set up a rifle factory, while the British set up a cannon factory. Mohamed Ali soon had about two hundred factories working in Egypt which up till then had been an essentially agricultural country. He created a diverse and thriving economy.

In order to ensure that his reforms were understood and have the means to communicate with the Egyptian people at large he created a consultative assembly where he appointed notables from each region of Egypt. He issued them with a fundamental charter in 1825, which he followed in 1837 with a law called the "Siyasetnameh" and it is safe to assert that the charter and the law can be considered to form the first Constitution of the Egyptian state in modern times.

As we indicated earlier, Mohamed Ali was always on the defensive. He tried to gain the favours of his sovereign who was by then the Sultan Mahmoud II, by launching two expeditions to Arabia and regain control of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina which had fallen pray to the Wahabys. His young son Toussoun liberated the Hijaz and Mohamed Ali then joined his son in order to perform the holy pilgrimage and continue the campaign which he did with some success until the plague struck the Egyptian army. His young son Toussoun was infected with the disease and returned only to die in Egypt. Mohamed Ali was distraught and for a while inconsolable. He built a Sibil (water fountain) and Madrasa (Koranic school) in memory of Toussoun Pasha and then sent his eldest son Ibrahim Pasha to head the second campaign against the Wahabys. This time Ibrahim reached Deriya their capital which he raised to the ground and took all the surviving Saouds prisoner, the sons of the tribal chieftain Ibn El Saoud who followed the sayings of the Sheikh Abdel Wahab hence the so called Wahabys. On his return to Egypt the Sultan ordered that all the Saouds be sent to Constantinople and certain death. Ibrahim disobeyed and refrained from sending the youngest member of the family who was in his early teens although the young man had obviously been fighting. Ibrahim kept him in his palace educated him and later on sent him back to his native Province of Najd. His name was Tourki Ibn Al Saoud and all the present Saoudi royal family are his descendants.

The immediate effect of the Arabian campaign was to earn the favours of Mahmoud II who bestowed largesses on Mohamed Ali Pasha including the island of Thasos in Greece opposite Mohamed Ali's birthplace in Kavala.

Mohamed Ali transferred the revenue from Thasos to the charitable foundation he set up in Kavala called the Imaret. The Imaret included a soup kitchen which fed locals regardless of creed and a teaching institution which soon became the largest and best of it's kind in the Balkans which at that time was entirely part of the Ottoman Empire.

Mahmoud II in fact at times tried to emulate Mohamed Ali's reforms with what he called the "Nizam El Jedid", but it was soon obvious that Mohamed Ali was far more successful than the Sultan and from that moment on Mohamed Ali became a rival in the eyes of the Sultan.

Mohamed Ali spared no effort to diffuse any confrontation and the Sultan became more and more determined to be rid of his rebellious vassal as he saw Mohamed Ali. Conflict became inevitable.(4)

The Sultan ordered his Grand Vizir to march on Egypt. Having taken wind of this Ibrahim Pasha marched on St John of Acre, the gateway to Palestine and beyond, which Napoleon had failed to take. Ibrahim Pasha entered St. John of Acre on 27th May, 1832 and the Grand Vizir was stopped in his tracks. Mohamed Ali was trying all along to broker some sort of reconciliation but to no avail and Ibrahim pressed on to take Palestine and later Syria where the Ottomans continued to threaten the Egyptian forces. Mohamed Ali procrastinated but eventually allowed Ibrahim to take Konya which commands Anatolia. Ibrahim wanted to press on while he had the advantage but Mohamed Ali delayed once again and the Ottomans gathered all the troops they could muster and confronted Ibrahim Pasha with far superior forces, but once again Ibrahim defeated and routed the Ottoman forces. Later on when they found out that the Ottomans were regrouping their defeated forces at Kutahyia in a desperate effort to create a last stand before Istanbul and if successful march on the Egyptian forces. Ibrahim prevailed on his father and took the initiative, marching with his troops on Kutahyia where they decisively defeated the remnants of the Ottoman army, leaving the Ottoman Empire totally defenceless from thereon against the victorious Egyptian army. Ibrahim Pasha emerged as one of the wold's great military commanders and who incredibly never lost a single military battle during his life.

Mohamed Ali did not want to press on and take Istanbul and eventually preferred to sign the treaty of Constantinople on 3 May 1833 which confirmed the triumph of Mohamed Ali and where the Sultan recognised that Mohamed Ali had sovereignty over Egypt and governed, Palestine, Syria and the Province of Adana.(3) Later on Mohamed Ali was let down and had to accept smaller dominions.

In many ways Mohamed Ali was let down by the Western powers. He persistently tried to enlist British support for the reform of the Ottoman Empire during Ibrahim Pasha's campaign in Anatolia, only to be fobbed off.

After the campaign of 1833 the French tried to impose harsh conditions for a large loan to Egypt, while Mohamed Ali being the cautious man whom he was insisted on a small and temporary financial facility.(5)


We can safely say that Mohamed Ali managed to change the course of Egyptian history and laid the foundations of the modern state much of which survives to this day although many of his aspirations do not.

We tried to show his mercantile and pragmatic approach to the administration of the country. Had these principles been adhered to, Egypt would have been showing the way to the Japan’s, Singapore’s and South Korea’s of this day.

We tried to show how he not only sought skills from all over the world, but he was in fact ahead of his time and to some extent rebuffed by the West.

His architectural legacy is very interesting and telling. His Shubra Palace where he liked to receive foreign dignitaries is an extraordinary mixture of East and West. His architect Bernard Coste built him an Ottoman style "Selamlik" (male reception) building with a nympheum unthinkable in an Ottoman court and allegorical paintings on the ceilings in Italianate style, one of which depicts Mohamed Ali in the shape of an elderly but elegant bearded Zeus protecting a scantily clad Venus rising out of the waters representing the rebirth of Egypt.

The mosque he had built in the Citadel was considered old fashioned in his day, deliberately showing that he preferred the more formal traditional Ottoman style to the flamboyant style prevailing in Istanbul at that time, clearly a message to the people of the Empire.

Ras Ettin Palace in Alexandria looked very different in his days to the way successive Khedives transformed it. It looked extraordinarily like a larger version of his family house in Kavala. This was no doubt as the result of some degree of nostalgia for the place of his origin, but it's style must have looked extraordinarily familiar to the Greek population of the city and that might well have been one of his essential aims. This was the West implanted in Egypt as he probably saw it.

Mohamed Ali no doubt had failures, his very personal rule created over centralisation and consequent inefficiencies. He was some times over enthusiastic and at other times appeared to be hesitant. He cautiously planned his every move and was surprised when his opponents acted irrationally.

In spite of all this, his legacy is immeasurable and his message would still be valid today.


(1) "Remembering one's roots" by Heath W. Lowry and Ismail E. Erunsal. P3.

(2) Leake, 1835, Volume III, P175.

(3)Gaston Wiet, Mohamed Ali et les beaux arts, Societe Royale d'etudes historiques,Dar El Maaref, Le Caire.

(4) Le règne de Mohamed Aly, Rene Cattaoui Bey, Société Royale Egyptienne de Géographie, Roma MCMXXXIII.

(5) L'Empire Egyptien sous Mohamed Ali et la question d'orient. M.Sabry, Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1930.

4,196 views0 comments


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page