Muhammad Ali's seizure of power

Muhammad Ali's seizure of power

The process of Muhammad Ali's seizure of power in Egypt was a long three way civil war between the Ottoman Turks, Egyptian Mamluks, and Albanian mercenaries. It ended in victory for the Albanians led by Muhammad Ali of Egypt (1769-1849).

The war was a result of the French invasion of Egypt by Napoleon. After the French defeat by the British a power vacuum was created in Egypt. The Mamelukes had governed Egypt before the French invasion and still had much power in the area. Egypt was officially a part of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt still had many Turkish troops that were sent to evict the French. Many of the best troops were from Albania, then a province of the Ottoman Empire.


Albanians under Thir rise and seize Cairo from Husrev Pasha

In March 1803, the British evacuated Alexandria leaving a power vacuum in Egypt. Muhammad Bey al-Alfi (aka Alfi Bey) (1751-1807) accompanied the British to lobby them to help restore the power of the Mamelukes. In their attempts to return to power, the Mamelukes took Minia and interrupted communication between Upper and Lower Egypt.

About six weeks later, the governor Husrev Pasha attempted to disband his Albanian bashi-bazouks (or Arnauts) without pay in order to strengthen his regular soldiers at their expense.[1] The Albanians surrounded the house of the defterdar (finance minister), who appealed in vain to the pasha to satisfy their claims. Hushrev Pasha opened fire from the artillery of his palace on the insurgent soldiers who had taken the house of the defterdar, located across the Ezbekia. The citizens of Cairo, accustomed to such occurrences, immediately closed their shops, and every man who possessed a weapon armed himself. The tumult in the city continued all day, and the next morning a body of troops sent out by the pasha failed to quell it. The Albanian commander Thir Pasha then repaired to the citadel, gaining admittance through an embrasure, and began to cannonade the pasha over the roofs of the intervening houses. He descended with his guns to the Ezbekia and then laid close siege to the palace. The following day, Husrev Pasha fled with his women, servants, and regular troops to Damietta along the Nile.

Thir assumed the government, but within twenty-three days met with his death from exactly the same cause that had overthrown his predecessor. He refused to pay some of his Turkish troops and was immediately assassinated. A desperate conflict ensued between the Albanians and Turks, during which the palace was burnt and plundered.

Muhammad Ali assumes control and captures Ahmed Pasha

Thir was replaced as commander of the Albanians by Muhammad Ali, one of the regimental commanders. Fearing for his position against the Ottomans, he entered into an alliance with the Mameluke leaders Ibrahim Bey and Osman Bey al-Bardisi.

With Husrev Pasha fortifying himself at Damietta, the Turks near the capital acclaimed Ahmad Khurshid Pasha, the governor of another province passing through the area, as their new governor. Muhammad Ali, however, refused to consent to surrendering Cairo to him and moved the Mamelukes from Giza, whither they had been invited by Thir.

Ahmed Pasha established himself at the mosque of al-Zflhir, which the French had converted into a fortress, but was compelled to surrender by the Albanians and taken prisoner. The Turkish troops who had killed Thir Pasha were captured with him and put to death.

Capture of Husrev & Damietta

Muhammad Ali gave control over the Cairo citadel to the Mamelukes; soon after, they marched against Husrev Pasha, who had been joined by a considerable number of Turks in a well-fortified position at Damietta. Finally, he was taken prisoner and brought to Cairo by the Albanians. The bashi-bazouks sacked Damietta, but Husrev was treated with respect.

Ali Pasha Jazirli attempts to regain control

Days later, the newly-appointed governor of Egypt Ali Pasha Jazirli landed at Alexandria and assumed control of the remaining Turkish forces. He threatened the Mameluke beys, now virtual masters of Upper Egypt, as well as of the capital and nearly all of Lower Egypt. Muhammad Ali and al-Bardisi therefore descended on Rashid, which had fallen into the hands of a brother of Ali Pasha. The town and its commander were successfully captured by al-Bardisi, who then proposed to proceed against Alexandria; his troops, however, demanded back-pay which he was unable to provide. During this delay, Ali Pasha destroyed the dykes between the lakes of Aboukir and Mareotis, creating a moat around Alexandria. Al-Bardisi and Muhammad Ali returned to Cairo.

The troubles of Egypt were now increased by an insufficient flood of the Nile and great scarcity prevailed, aggravated by the taxation the beys were forced to resort to in order to pay their troops. Riots and violence continued in the capital, with the bashi-bazouks under little or no control.

Meanwhile, Ali Pasha had been behaving with violence towards the French in Alexandria. He received a hatt-i sherif from the sultan, which the governor sent with his secretary to Cairo. It announced that the beys could live peaceably in Egypt with annual pensions of fifteen purses and other privileges, provided the government returned to the hands of the governor. To this the beys assented, with considerable misgivings. They had previously intercepted letters from Ali to the Albanians, endeavoring to win their alliance as well. Ali advanced towards Cairo with 3,000 men to discuss his resumption of control. The forces of the beys and Albanians encamped near Ali Pasha at Shalakan, and the governor fell back on a place called Zufeyta.

At this point, the Albanians seized Ali Pasha's transport boats, capturing soldiers, servants, ammunition, and baggage. They then demanded why he had brought such a large host with him, in opposition to custom and a previous warning. Finding they would not allow his troops to advance, forbidding himself to retreat with them to Alexandria, and being surrounded by the enemy, Ali would have hazarded a battle, but his men refused to fight. He therefore went to the camp of the beys, and his army retired to Syria.

With Ali Pasha in the hands of the beys, a horseman was seen to leave his tent one night at full gallop. He bore a letter to Osman Bey Hasan, the governor of Kine.[disambiguation needed ] This offered a fair pretext to the Mamelukes to rid themselves of him. Ali was sent under a guard of forty-five men towards the Syrian frontier; about a week later, news was received that in a skirmish with some of his own soldiers, he had fallen mortally wounded.

Return & flight of al-Alfi

The death of Ali Pasha produced only temporary tranquillity. On February 12, 1804, Muhammadd Bey al-Alfi returned from the United Kingdom, splitting the Mamelukes into two parties, one gathered around al-Alfi and the other around al-Bardisi. The latter was now supreme among the Mamelukes, and while the guns of the citadel, of Old Cairo, and of the palace were fired three times each in al-Alfi's honor, preparations were immediately begun to oppose him.

His partisans were collected opposite Cairo and al-Alfi held Giza; but Husain Bey, one of al-Alfi's relatives, was assassinated by emissaries of al-Bardisi. Muhammad Ali took this opportunity to take possession of Giza, which was given over to his troops to pillage. Unaware of these events, al-Alfi embarked at Rashid and made his way to Cairo. Encountering a party of Albanians a little south of the town of Manfif, he only escaped with difficulty. Al-Alfi made his way to the eastern branch of the Nile, but the river had become dangerous and he fled to the desert. There he had several close escapes and at last secreted himself among a tribe of Arabs at Ras al-Wgdi.

Al-Bardisi and the Albanians fall out

Al-Bardisi's fortunes began to decline, however, in order to satisfy the demands of the Albanians for their pay he gave orders to levy heavy contributions from the citizens of Cairo; and this new oppression roused them to rebellion. The Albanians, alarmed for their safety, assured the populace that they would not allow the order to collapse, and Muhammad Ali himself caused a proclamation to be made to that effect.

The Albanians became the favorites of the people, and took advantage of their opportunity. Three days later (March 12, 1804) they beset the house of the aged Ibrahim Bey, and that of al-Bardisi, both of whom effected their escape with difficulty. The Mamelukes in the citadel directed a fire of shot and shell on the houses of the Albanians which were situated in the Ezbekia; but, on hearing of the flight of their chiefs, they evacuated the place.

Muhammad Ali, on gaining possession of it, once more proclaimed Mahommed Khosrev pasha of Egypt. For one day and a half he enjoyed the title; the friends of the late Thir Pasha succeeded in killing him and Cairo was again the scene of great violence, the Albanians revelling in the houses of the Mameluk chiefs, whose hareems met with no mercy at their hands. The Albanians now invited Ahmed Pasha Khorshid to assume the reins of government, and he without delay proceeded from Alexandria to Cairo.

The forces of the partisans of al-Bardisi were ravaging the country a few miles south of the capital and intercepting the supplies of corn by the river. A little later they passed to the north of Cairo and successively took Bilbeis and Kalyub, plundering the villages, destroying the crops, and slaughtering the herds of the inhabitants. Cairo was itself in a state of tumult, suffering severely from a scarcity of grain, and the heavy exactions of the pasha to meet the demands of his troops, at that time augmented by a Turkish detachment. The shops were closed, and the unfortunate people assembled in great crowds, crying Y Latif! Y Latif! (O Gracious ).

These events were the signal for the reappearance of al-Alfi who joined with Osman Bey Hasan. Al-Alfi and Hasan had professed allegiance to the pasha; but they soon declared against him, and they were now approaching from the south. Their forces clashed with those of Muhammad Ali and after repulsing him they took the two fortresses of Tur.

These Muhammad Ali speedily retook by night with 4000 infantry and cavalry, but the enterprise was only partially successful. On the following day the other Mamelukes north of the Cairo actually penetrated into the suburbs; but a few days later were defeated in a battle fought at Shubra, with heavy loss on both sides. This reverse in a measure united the two great Mameluke parties of al-Bardisi and al-Alfi, though the two chiefs remained personally antagonistic.

Al-Bardisi passed to the south of Cairo, and the Mamelukes gradually retreated towards Upper Egypt. There the pasha despatched three successive expeditions (one of which was commanded by Muhammad Ali), and many battles were fought, but without decisive result.

At this period another calamity befell Egypt; about 3000 Dells (Kurdish troops) arrived in Cairo from Syria. These troops had been sent for by Khorshid in order to strengthen himself against the Albanians. Their arrival immediately recalled Muhammad Ali and his party from the war.

The Dells, instead of aiding Khorshid, were rather the proximate cause of his overthrow. Cairo was ripe for revolt; the pasha was hated for his tyranny and extortion, and execrated for the deeds of his troops, especially those of the Dells: the sheiks enjoined the people to close their shops, and the soldiers clamoured for pay. At this juncture a firman arrived from Constantinople conferring on Muhammad Ali the pashalic of Jedda; but the occurrences of a few days raised him to that of all Egypt.

Muhammad Ali ousts Khorshid

On the 12th of Safar 1220 (May 12, 1805) the sheiks, with an immense concourse of the inhabitants, assembled in the house of the 1~alI; and the ulema, amid the prayers and cries of the people, wrote a full statement of the wrongs which they had endured under the administration of the pasha. The ulema, in answer, were to go to the citadel; but they were apprised of the treachery; and on the following day, having held another council at the house of the ki4i, they proceeded to Muhammad Ali and informed him that the people would no longer submit to Khorshid. Then whom will ye have? said he. We will have thee, they replied, to govern us according to the laws; for we see in thy countenance that thou art possessed of justice and goodness. Muhammad Ali seemed to hesitate, and then complied, and was at once invested.

On this a bloody struggle began between the two pashas began. Khorshid, being informed of the insurrection, immediately prepared to withstand a siege in the citadel. Two chiefs of the Albanians joined his party, but many of his soldiers deserted. Muhammad Ali's great strength lay in the devotion of the citizens of Cairo, who looked on him as a deliverer from their afflictions; and great numbers armed themselves having the sayyid Omar and the sheiks at their head and guarding the town at night.

On the 19th of the same month Muhammad Ali began to besiege Khorshid. After the siege had continued many days, Khorshid gave orders to cannonade and bombard the town. For six days his commands were executed with little interruption, the citadel itself also lying between two fires.

Muhammad Ali's position at this time became very precarious. His troops became mutinous for their pay; the silhdar, who had commanded one of the expeditions against the Mamelukes, advanced to the relief of Khorshid; and the latter ordered the Dells to march to his assistance. The firing ceased on the Friday, but began again on the eve of Saturday and lasted until the next Friday.

On the day following (May 28) news came of the arrival at Alexandria of a messenger from Constantinople. The ensuing night in Cairo presented a curious spectacle; many of the inhabitants, believing that this envoy would put an end to their miseries, fired off their weapons as they paraded the streets with bands of music. The silihdar, imagining the noise to be a fray, marched in haste towards the citadel, while its garrison sallied forth and began throwing up entrenchments in the quarter of Arab al-Yesgr, but were repulsed by the armed inhabitants and the soldiers stationed there; and during all this time the cannonade and bombardment from the citadel, and on it from the batteries on the hill, continued unabated.

The envoy brought a firman confirming Muhammad Ali and ordering Khorshid to go to Alexandria, there to await further orders; but this he refused to do, on the ground that he had been appointed by a Hatt-i Sharif. The firing on the citadel ceased on the following day, but the troubles of the granted people were rather increased than assuaged; murders and robberies were daily committed by the soldiery, the shops were all shut and some of the streets barricaded.

While these scenes were being enacted, al-Alfi was besieging Damanhur, and the other beys were returning towards Cairo, Khorshid laving called them to his assistance, but Muhammad Ali forced them to retreat.

Soon after this, a squadron under the command of the Turkish high admiral arrived at Aboukir Bay, with despatches confirming the former envoy, and authorizing Muhammad Ali to continue to discharge the functions of governor. Khorshid at first refused to yield; but at length, on condition that his troops should be paid, he evacuated the citadel and embarked for Rosetta.

Defeat of the Mamelukes

Muhammad Ali now possessed the title of Governor of Egypt, but beyond the walls of Cairo his authority was everywhere disputed by the beys, who were joined by the army of the silihdar of Khorshid; and many Albanians deserted from his ranks. To replenish his empty coffers he was also compelled to levy exactions, principally from the Copts.

An attempt was made to ensnare certain of the beys, who were encamped north of Cairo. On August 17, 1805 the dam of the canal of Cairo was to be cut, and some chiefs of Muhammad Ali's party wrote, informing them that he would go forth early on that morning with most of his troops to witness the ceremony, inviting them to enter and seize the city, and, to deceive them, stipulating for a certain sum of money as a reward.

The dam, however, was cut early in the preceding night, without any ceremony. On the following morning, these beys, with their Mamelukes, a very numerous body, broke open the gate of the suburb al-Husainia, and gained admittance into the city from the north, through the gate called Bāb frel-Futuh. They marched along the principal street for some distance, with kettle-drums behind each company, and were received with apparent joy by the citizens. At the mosque called the Ashrafia they separated, one party proceeding to the Azhar and the houses of certain sheiks, and the other continuing along the main street, and through the gate called Bab Zuweyla, where they turned up towards the citadel. Here they were fired on by some soldiers from the houses; and with this signal a terrible massacre began.

Falling back towards their companions, they found the side streets closed; and in that part of the main thoroughfare called Bain al-Kasrain they were suddenly placed between two fires. Thus shut up in a narrow street, some sought refuge in the collegiate mosque Barkukia, while the remainder fought their way through their enemies and escaped over the city-wall with the loss of their horses.

Two Mamelukes had in the meantime succeeded, by great exertions, in giving the alarm to their comrades in the quarter of the Azhar, who escaped by the eastern gate called Bib al-Ghoraib. A horrible fate awaited those who had shut themselves up in the Barkukia. Having begged for quarter first and surrendered, they were immediately stripped nearly naked, and about fifty were slaughtered on the spot; about the same number were dragged away. Among them were four beys, one of whom, driven to madness by Muhammad Ali's mockery, asked for a drink of water; his hands were untied that he might take the bottle, but he snatched a dagger from one of the soldiers, rushed at the pasha, and fell covered with wounds. The wretched captives were then chained and left in the court of the pasha's house; and on the following morning the heads of their comrades who had perished the day before were skinned and stuffed with straw before their eyes. One bey and two others paid their ransom and were released; the rest, without exception, were tortured and put to death in the course of the ensuing night. Eighty-three heads (many of them those of Frenchmen and Albanians) were stuffed and sent to Constantinople, with a boast that the Mameluke chiefs were utterly destroyed. Thus ended Muhammad Ali's first massacre of his too-confiding enemies.

The beys, after this, appear to have despaired of regaining their ascendancy; most of them retreated to Upper Egypt, and an attempt at compromise failed. Al-Alfi offered his submission on the condition of the cession of the Fayum and other provinces; but this was refused, and that chief gained two successive victories over the pashas troops, many of whom deserted to him.

At length, in consequence of the remonstrances of the British, and a promise made by al-Alfi of 1500 purses, the Porte consented to reinstate the twenty-four beys and to place al-Alfi at their head; but this measure met with the opposition of Muhammad Ali and the determined resistance of the majority of the Mamelukes, who, rather than have al-Alfi at their head, preferred their present condition; for the enmity of al-Bardisi had not subsided, and he commanded the voice of most of the other beys. In pursuance of the above plan, a squadron under Salih Pasha, shortly before appointed high admiral, arrived at Alexandria on 1 July 1806 with 3000 regular troops and a successor to Muhammad Ali, who was to receive the pashalik of Salonika.

This wily chief professed his willingness to obey the commands of the Porte, but stated that his troops, to whom he owed a vast sum of money, opposed his departure. He induced the ulema to sign a letter, praying the sultan to revoke the command for reinstating the beys, persuaded the chiefs of the Albanian troops to swear allegiance to him, and sent 2000 purses contributed by them to Constantinople.

Al-Alfi was at that time besieging Damanhur, and he gained a signal victory over the pashas troops; but the dissensions of the beys destroyed their last chance of a return to power. Al-Alfi and his partisans were unable to pay the sum promised to the Porte; Salih Pasha received plenipotentiary powers from Constantinople, in consequence of the letter from the ulema; and, on the condition of Muhammad Ali's paying 4000 purses to the Porte, it was decided that he should continue in his post, and the reinstatement of the beys was abandoned. Fortune continued to favor the pasha. In the following month al-Bardisi died, aged forty-eight years; and soon after, a scarcity of provisions excited the troops of al-Alfi to revolt. They very reluctantly raised the siege of Damanhur, being in daily expectation of the arrival of a British army; and at the village of Shubra-ment he was attacked by a sudden illness, and died on January 30, 1807, at the age of fifty-five. Thus was the pasha relieved of his two most formidable enemies; and shortly after he defeated Shahin Bey, with the loss to the latter of his artillery and baggage and 300 men killed or taken prisoners.

Fraser campaign

On March 17, 1807 a British fleet appeared off Alexandria, having on board nearly 5000 troops, under the command of General Alexander Mackenzie-Fraser. The people of Alexadria, being disaffected towards Muhammad Ali, opened its British gates to them. Here they first heard of the death expedition of al-Alfi, upon whose co-operation they had founded their chief hopes of success. They immediately despatched messengers to his successor and to the other beys, inviting them to Alexandria. The British resident, Major Missett, having represented the importance of taking Rosetta and Rahmanieh, to secure supplies for Alexandria, General Fraser, with the concurrence of the admiral, Sir John Thomas Duckworth, detached the 31st regiment and the Chasseurs Britanniques, accompanied by some field artillery under Major-General Wauchope and Brigadier-General Meade, on this service. These troops entered Rosetta without encountering any opposition; but as soon as they had dispersed among the narrow streets, the garrison opened a deadly fire on them from the latticed windows and the roofs of the houses. They effected a retreat on Aboukir and Alexandria, after a very heavy loss of 185 killed and 281 wounded, General Wauchope and three officers being among the former, and General Meade and nineteen officers among the latter. The heads of the slain were fixed on stakes on each side of the road crossing the Ezbekia in Cairo.

Muhammad Ali, meanwhile, was conducting an expedition against the beys in Upper Egypt, and he had defeated them near Assiut, when he heard of the arrival of the British. In great alarm lest the beys should join them, especially as they were far north of his position, he immediately sent messengers to his rivals, promising to comply with all their demands if they should join in. expelling the invaders; and this proposal being agreed to, both armies marched towards Cairo on opposite sides of the river.

The possession of Rosetta being deemed indispensable, Brigadier-General Sir William Stewart and Oswald were despatched thither with 2500 men. For thirteen days a cannonade of the town was continued without effect; and on April 20, news having come in from the advanced guard at Hamad of large reinforcements to the besieged, General Stewart was compelled to retreat; and a dragoon was despatched to Lieutenant-colonel Macleod, commanding at Hamad[disambiguation needed ], with orders to fall back. The messenger, however, was unable to penetrate to the spot. The advanced guard, consisting of a detachment of the 31st, two companies of the 78th, one of the 35th, and De Rolls regiment, with a picquet of dragoons, the whole mustering 733 men, was surrounded, and, after a gallant resistance, the survivors, who had expended all their ammunition, became prisoners of war. General Stewart regained Alexandria with the remainder of his force, having lost, in killed, wounded and missing, nearly 900 men. Some hundreds of British heads were now exposed on stakes in Cairo, and the prisoners were marched between these mutilated remains of their countrymen.


The beys became divided in their wishes, one party being desirous of co-operating with the British, the other with the pasha. These delays proved ruinous to their cause; and General Fraser, despairing of their assistance, evacuated Alexandria on September 14. From that date to the spring of 1811 the beys from time to time relinquished certain of their demands; the pasha on his part granted them what before had been withheld; the province of the Fayum, and part of those of Giza and Beni-Suef, were ceded to Shahin; and a great portion of the Said, on the condition of paying the land-tax, to the others. Many of them took up their abode in Cairo, but tranquillity was not secured; several times they met the pashas forces in battle and once gained a signal victory. Early in the year I 811, the preparations for an expedition against the Wahhbis in Arabia being complete, all the Mameluke beys then in Cairo were invited to the ceremony of investing Muhammad Ali's favorite son, Tusun, with a pelisse and the command of the army. As on the former occasion, the unfortunate Mamelukes fell into the snare. On the 1st of March, Shahin Bey and the other chiefs (one only excepted) repaired with their retinues to the citadel, and were courteously received by the pasha. Having taken coffee, they formed in procession, and, preceded and followed by the pashas troops, slowly descended the steep and narrow road leading to the great gate of the citadel; but as soon as the Mamelukes arrived at the gate it was suddenly closed before them. The last of those to leave before the gate was shut were Albanians under Salih Kush. To these troops their chief now made known the pashas orders to massacre all the Mamelukes within the citadel; therefore, having returned Final by another way, they gained the summits of the walls and houses that hem in the road in which the Mamelukes were confined, and some stationed themselves upon the eminences of the rock through which that road is partly cut. Thus securely placed, they began a heavy fire on their victims; and immediately the troops who closed the procession, and who had the advantage of higher ground, followed their example. Of the betrayed chiefs, many were laid low in a few moments; some, dismounting, and throwing off their outer robes, vainly sought, sword in hand, to return, and escape by some other gate. The few who regained the summit of the citadel experienced the same fate as the rest, for no quarter was given. Four hundred and seventy Mamelukes entered the citadel; and of these very few, if any, escaped. One of these is said to have been a bey. According to some, he leapt his horse from the ramparts, and alighted uninjured, though the horse was killed by the fall; others say that he was prevented from joining his comrades, and discovered the treachery while waiting without the gate. He fled and made his way to Syria. This massacre was the signal for an indiscriminate slaughter of the Mamelukes throughout Egypt, orders to this effect being transmitted to every governor; and in Cairo itself the houses of the beys were given over to the soldiery. During the two following days the pasha and his son Tusun rode about the streets and tried to stop the atrocities; but order was not restored until 500 houses had been completely pillaged. The heads of the beys were sent to Constantinople.

Final skirmishes

A remnant of the Mamelukes fled to Nubia, and a tranquillity was restored to Egypt to which it had long been unaccustomed.

In the year following the massacre the unfortunate exiles were attacked by Ibrahim Pasha, the eldest son of Muhammad Ali, in the fortified town of Ibrim, in Nubia. Here the want of provisions forced them to evacuate the place; a few who surrendered were beheaded, and the rest went farther south and built the town of New Dongola (correctly Dunkulah), where the venerable Ibrahim Bey died in 1816, at the age of eighty. As their numbers thinned, they endeavoured to maintain their little power by training some hundreds of blacks; but again, on the approach of Ismail, another son of the pasha of Egypt, sent with an army in 1820 to subdue Nubia and Sennar, some returned to Egypt and settled in Cairo, while the rest, amounting to about 100 persons, fled in dispersed parties to the countries adjacent to Sennar.

See also

  • Fraser campaign


  1. ^ Inalcık, Halil. Trans. by Gibb, H.A.R. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Ed., Vol. V, Fascicules 79-80, pp. 35 f. "Khosrew Pasha". E.J. Brill (Leiden), 1979. Accessed 13 Sept 2011.

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