In the years following the departure of French forces from Egypt in 1801, an extremely capable and ruthless leader rose to power in Cairo in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Kavali Mehmet Ali Pasha (the Ottoman version of the name; also known as Muhammad Ali in Arabic form) is widely considered to be the father of modern Egypt, as he was instrumental in reforming the Ottoman-Mamluk system and laying the foundations for a modernization process in the industry and the military. Mehmet Ali (modern Turkish) sought to reform both the economy and the Egyptian military, including the navy, by crafting it along the lines of the European model. Economically, he seized control of all aspects of the nation’s economic life by monopolizing key sectors and demanding structural reforms. He also created new educational institutions in an attempt at transitioning Egyptian society from the medieval world of the Mamluks to the modern age. Militarily, he brought in French advisors and sent students to Europe to learn French in order to translate European military manuals into Arabic.
Mehmet was an ethnic Turk born into an Albanian merchant family on March 4, 1869, in the town of Kavala in Thrace (present-day Greece) and was eventually provided a position by his district military commander uncle with the rank of Bolukbasi (tax collector) in the Ottoman Eyalet of Rumelia. There he learned the nuances and craft of taxation, public administration, and leadership. Later, during Mehmet’s rise to power in Egypt, he positioned himself as a champion of the people striving to overcome the cronyism and corruption of the Ottoman-Mamluk centuries-old system. This tactic effectively forestalled any sizable, popular opposition until he was able to consolidate his power within Egypt. In addition to a deft and capable hand at public administration, he gained valuable experience in military affairs, serving as an officer in the Ottoman military and eventually commanding an army in an unsuccessful bid at driving Napoleon from Egypt in 1799.
After being recognized as Wali (governor) of Egypt by Constantinople in 1805 and backed by the French, Mehmet systematically dismantled what remained of Mamluk power within Egypt, including the confiscation of feudal farms of the Mamluk emirs, while simultaneously stripping Cairo’s religious institutions of some 600,000 acres of prime real estate holdings. Appearing to offer a gracious compromise to the then-reeling Mamluks, Mehmet invited their leaders to a feast in 1811 celebrating his son Tosu Pasha’s appointment to lead the army being sent against the Saud-Wahhabi rebellion in Arabia. However, once his guests had arrived within the compound (Cairo Citadel), Mehmet ordered the gates locked and all Mamluks in attendance killed.
The Egyptian-Ottoman military in the opening years of the nineteenth century consisted of a wide range of ethnicities, including Circassian Mamluks, Albanians, Kurds, Greeks, and Egyptians. Only the Mamluks, Albanians, Kurds, and Greeks received training as military commanders, as Egyptian cadets were trained as noncombatants. By the 1830s, Egyptians were selectively trained for combat assignments but were not allowed to rise above the rank of major. In similar fashion, when the Turks descended into Persia in the eleventh century, while they kept the educated and trained Persian bureaucrats in their administrations, they continued to rely on Turkish cavalry for military duty. Mehmet used educated Egyptians and imported European experts to establish schools and hospitals within Egypt, but he kept a wary eye on the Egyptian elite.
In the 1820s, Mehmet sent educational missions comprised of Egyptian students to Europe, resulting in the birth of the modern Arabic literary renaissance known as the al-Nahda. By 1835, Mehmet’s government had established the first indigenous printing press in the Arab world (the Bulaq Press), which disseminated the official newspaper of the Mehmet Ali government. Within the military, he instituted reforms that came to be known as Nizam-i Cedid (new system) and Nizam al-jadid (new organization), essentially being instituted and organized with assistance from French and Italian officers recruited from Europe. The new system included men, equipment, and doctrine trained in the early modern European profession of arms. These reforms included remaking the Mamluk arms industry. Mehmet also built factories in Cairo that manufactured cannon and small arms. By 1830, the Egyptian arms industry was producing 1,600 muskets per month.
For the growing Egyptian navy, Mehmet purchased finished warships from Italy and France, and they began arriving in Egypt in 1826. A shipyard was also established at Alexandria and, by 1830, had produced nine ships-of-the-line (100 guns each). During the same time period, Mehmet created a 100,000-man army, which, coupled with his growing naval capability, placed a relatively modern military and navy under his command—a military and naval capability that soon eclipsed that of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. These developments were closely monitored in capitals throughout the Middle East and North Africa, eventually becoming a concern in both Europe and Russia. Britain’s reliance on sea power, in particular, for defense as well as empire made the advancing capabilities of Mehmet’s fleet, combined with significant French support, a growing concern in London.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Arabia, an Islamic fundamentalist group derisively called “Wahhabis” by their detractors, in conjunction with the House of Saud, began moving against Ottoman interests on the Arabian Peninsula and captured Mecca in 1802. The Wahhabis then captured the Hejaz region in 1803, which eventually led to the Ottoman-Saudi War (1811–1818). The timing for the Wahhabi move against the Hejaz was propitious as the Ottoman Empire’s main army was engaged in the Balkans in Europe putting down a series of rebellions. As Mehmet had finished dispensing with the Mamluk leadership at the Cairo Citadel, Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (ruled 1808–1839) directed the Egyptian leader to deploy forces to Arabia to deal with the upstart Wahhabis.
Subsequently, in 1811, Mehmet dispatched a 20,000-man army, including a cavalry force of 2,000, under his 16-year-old son Tosu into the Arabian Peninsula where the Egyptian expeditionary force met heavy resistance at the Pass of Jedeia near al-Safra and was forced to withdraw to Yanbu. Shortly thereafter, Mehmet reinforced the expeditionary army under Tosu, and at the end of 1811, the force conducted siege operations against Saud and his allies in Medina. After a successful, if not prolonged, conclusion at Medina, the Egyptian-Ottoman army proceeded to capture Jedda and Mecca and retook the Hejaz region from the House of Saud.
These campaigns, however, did not neutralize Saudi military capabilities, as they continued raiding and harassing Ottoman and Egyptian forces from the Central Nejd region. An irritated Mehmet dispatched another son, Ibrahim, who led an army into Arabia in the fall of 1816 and conducted a two-year campaign against the Saudis. These activities captured the Saudi capital of Diriyah in 1818, including most of the Saudi elite and their leader Abdullah ibn Saud, who was subsequently transferred to Constantinople and summarily executed.
After securing the Hejaz, Mehmet turned his attention to Africa and in 1820 dispatched an army of 5,000 troops under the command of his third son, Ismail (this time sending along a trusted military advisor, Abidin Bey), into the Sudan. These forces met fierce resistance from the warriors of the Shaigiya tribe. However, armed with modern weapons and tactics, Mehmet’s army outgunned and outmaneuvered the Shaigiya and secured the Sudan, which served in expanding his ability to project power and influence into Ethiopia and Uganda. From this outpost, Mehmet’s forces captured and made slaves of the inhabitants of the Nuba Mountains and western and southern Sudan. The defeated Shaigiya, in order to hold on to their lands, acquiesced as vassals and served in Mehmet’s infantry regiment, the Gihadiya (in Arabic, Jihadiya). Mehmet and subsequent Ottoman-Egyptian rulers have been recorded in Sudanese history as being particularly brutal and repressive regimes, which eventually gave rise to the independence struggle in 1881 that featured the self-proclaimed Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad).
While Mehmet was expanding his power and influence in Arabia and Africa, the Sultan in Constantinople, Mahmud II, was experiencing upheaval across the empire, particularly in his European provinces in the Balkans, Greece, and Macedonia. Ottoman losses during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774 meant that the empire had ceded to Russia’s vast lands in the Black Sea region and extending as far south as the Caucasus. In its European provinces, the empire was facing ethnic rebellion.
In Greece, the problem was particularly acute. Greek nationalists in the Roman principalities, in the Peloponnese, and in the Aegean Islands commenced insurgency operations during the Greek War of Independence (1821–1830), with the aim of liberating Greece from four centuries of Ottoman domination. From the perspective of the Ottoman Sultanate, Greece was a key province not only for its strategic position in the Balkans and the Mediterranean but also because much of the empire’s shipping was Greek-owned and operated. Moreover, many of the key areas of the Ottoman Empire—Cyprus, Crete, western Anatolia, Macedonia, Thrace, and the city of Constantinople—had Greek majorities.
Sultan Mahmud II believed that Greece, being a conquered land, had been generously treated under the empire. He found it unconscionable that its inhabitants would now rise up in insurrection. In order to communicate his displeasure, in April 1821, he ordered Ottoman Janissaries (elite units within the Ottoman army) to seize the spiritual leader of the Greek Christian Orthodox Church whom he suspected of colluding with the rebels. As the patriarch of Constantinople (Gregory V) was leaving Easter Mass in full regalia, he was arrested and hanged on the spot from the cathedral gates and left there for three days. Following the third day, his body was dragged through the streets of Constantinople and flung into the Bosporus Straits.
While Mahmud was experiencing the slow unraveling of empire, by 1823 Mehmet’s Nizam-i Cedid developed into a force of 24,000 officers and men, comprising six infantry regiments with five battalions of 800 men each—all armed with French muskets and trained in French infantry tactics. Mehmet deployed the first regiment on the Arabian Peninsula, the second in the Sudan, and the remaining four under the command of his son, Ibrahim in Morea in 1825 (southern Greece), following the urgent directive from Sultan Mahmud II to help quell the uprising in the empire’s Greek territories now raging into their second year.
The Sultan’s Ottoman army had been unable to suppress the Greek rebellion and Mehmet, whose Egypt was technically an Eyalet (province) of the empire but had achieved practical autonomy, realized there would be gains to be made by coming to Constantinople’s aid. Sultan Mahmud II offered Mehmet the island of Crete in compensation for halting the rebellion and, in further negotiations, the Sultan also promised to grant the heartland of the insurgents, the Peloponnese, as a hereditary fief to Mehmet’s son, Ibrahim. Mehmet would later argue that he was led to believe that, given Egyptian intervention against the Greeks, the position of Wali (governor) of Syria would also be made available to Mehmet or an appointee of Mehmet’s choosing.
Consequently, in 1825, after receiving assurances of substantial reward, Mehmet sent four regiments (16,000 troops) aboard 100 transports escorted by 63 warships to quell the Greek rebellion. To the great consternation of the European powers, his Western trained and equipped army and navy had now been sent against the Orthodox Christian Greeks. In February 1825, the Egyptian ground forces, under the campaign commander, Ibrahim (Mehmet’s son), overran the western region of the Peloponnese but were unable to secure the East where the Greek rebels were based at Nafplio. By this time the rebels were being led by a contingent of British and French officers, including Major Sir Richard Church, Colonel C. Fabvier, Admiral Lord Cochrane, and Captain F. A. Hastings.
Moving across the Isthmus of Corinth, Ibrahim’s forces transited to the Greek mainland and captured the strategic stronghold of Missolonghi in April 1826. Greek forces then conducted guerrilla operations against the combined Ottoman-Egyptian armies, and Ibrahim turned to drastic measures such as burning crops and food supplies of the population in order to destroy the support and sustenance being provided to the insurgency. Ibrahim also brought Arab settlers into Greece in the attempt to dilute ethnic Greek influence while deporting hundreds of Greeks into slavery and sending them to work camps in Egypt.
Aligned against about 5,000 Greek fighters (whose partisan motto became “freedom or death”) were the 16,000 Egyptian-Ottoman troops and 25,000 regular Ottoman army troops. In June 1827, the Acropolis of Athens, the last Greek fortress on the mainland, was overrun by Ottoman forces. Britain, France, and Russia, concerned about the military might being brought to bear on the Greeks and the scorched earth policy being conducted by Ibrahim, gathered in Britain and, in discussions which led to the Treaty of London in July 1827, sought to impose an armistice on the Ottoman Empire.