A striking paradox of Peter the Great’s rule is that, despite his many achievements in building a strong Russian state, he failed to establish a reliable mechanism for the transfer of supreme executive power and helped create the conditions for a century of palace coups. In the century after Peter’s death in 1725, army officers were involved constantly in questions of sovereign power, although they never seized power for themselves. The one episode that could have ended with an officer on the throne was the failed Decembrist uprising.

The Era of Palace Coups

Peter himself had come to power with the assistance of military officers. Peter was ten years old when his father, Tsar Feodor, died in 1682. Feodor’s sister Sophie, with the aid of Muscovite strel’tsy (musketeers), seized power and declared herself regent. In 1689 Peter organized her overthrow with the help of his so-called play regiments, which later were transformed into elite Guards regiments. An attempted revolt by the strel’tsy in 1698 was crushed and Peter had their units disbanded; many of them were executed. Peter then ruled without challenge until his death in 1725.

In a momentous change before his death, Peter sought to make succession dependent on the wishes of the sitting tsar. Previously the oldest son generally had succeeded, but there was no set mechanism in the absence of an heir. Peter himself was unable to appoint his own successor, however, because he died suddenly in 1725. There were four pretenders to the throne in 1725: Peter’s grandson, his two daughters, and his widow (Peter’s only son, Alexis, had previously been charged with treason and tortured to death). All of the successions in the next century were marked by instability and officer involvement, and there were at least eight coups or attempted coups during this period. The Guards regiments established by Peter played a key role in these events. The most tumultuous period was 1725-1762, during which seven different monarchs occupied the throne. Only with the accession to power of Catherine the Great in 1762 did Russia once again have a stable leadership.

The details of these succession struggles are less important for our purposes than some general points about the role of officers in these conflicts. First, these palace coups involved only a small fraction of the officer corps, elite Guards officers. These officers were members of the Imperial court, and they generally acted at the behest of and on behalf of more powerful members of the court. Second, these elite officers generally acted out of personal motives and grievances, not corporate ones. To the extent that corporate interests were involved, they were those of the Guards, and not the officer corps as a whole. It was only in the late eighteenth century that Guards officers began to see themselves as distinctly military, rather than as members of the broader elite. Third, the Guards officers did not try to seize power for themselves. They remained loyal to the principle of autocracy. Finally, efforts to prevent coups through the use of material incentives, political spies, changing commanders, or creating counterbalancing units were only marginally successful.

The last successful military coup in Russia took place in 1801. Tsar Paul I, who had succeeded his mother Catherine the Great to the throne in 1796, was assassinated by a group comprised largely of Guards officers. Paul had alienated the military because of a purge of more than twenty percent of the officer corps, his favoritism toward elite units that he had established, and his adoption of Prussian drill and tactics. Fifty officers were involved in the coup, which made it larger than the palace coups of the eighteenth century. The coup had some support in broader society, particularly among the nobility, who were unhappy with Paul’s efforts to restrict their privileges. Thus, unlike the previous interventions, which were strictly matters of the Imperial court, the intervention of 1801 had broader military and societal support. It also is important to note that Paul I had changed the law on succession, instituting the principle of primogeniture (succession of the oldest son) in 1797. The coup of 1801 was a partial challenge to this effort to establish a stable succession mechanism, although Paul’s eldest son Alexander took his throne. The coup was not a challenge to the principle of autocracy itself.

Decembrist Revolt, a painting by Vasily Timm

The Decembrist Uprising

The Russian armed forces thus had a strong tradition of involvement in sovereign power issues in the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it seemed quite possible that this pattern would continue and that a military organizational culture of praetorianism would develop.

Alexander I ruled Russia (1801-1825) during one of the most momentous events in modern European and Russian history, the Napoleonic Wars. The French Revolution represented a threat to dynastic rule throughout Europe, and Revolutionary France quickly became involved in wars with a coalition of European powers. From 1792 to 1815 much of Europe was at war, and these wars had profound effects on political, social, and military development in Europe. Russia played a considerable role in the defeat of Napoleon, and Russia’s victory in the War of 1812 (the Fatherland War, in Russian parlance) established Russia as perhaps the dominant power in continental Europe.

The force of French revolutionary ideas and arms led many European states to adopt liberalizing and modernizing reforms. Alexander I, however, who had pursued limited political reform before the Napoleonic Wars, now resisted any suggestion that further reform was necessary for Russia. The autocratic and patrimonial state of traditional Russia and its corollary institutions, particularly serfdom, were seen by the tsar as vindicated because of the Russian victory over Napoleon.

Russian educated society expected that reforms similar to those taking place in western and central Europe also might be enacted at home. Discontent grew when Alexander embraced a reactionary vision for Russia, particularly because before the war the tsar had been perceived by many as relatively liberal and a reformer. Many officers shared these hopes for reform, and they were disappointed by the conservative policies of the tsar after 1815. Officers’ self-confidence was high after their victories on the battlefield, and liberal elements in society looked to the army as a potential agent of change. Many officers felt the same way.

The origins of the Decembrist movement can be traced to the growth of a Russian “military intelligentsia” around the turn of the century. The term military intelligentsia refers to officers who, by virtue of their education, acquired a greater understanding of broader cultural, social, and political is- sues and, equally important, a willingness to question received ideas and to seek out new knowledge. These officers were not political radicals and they maintained the service mentality of the Russian aristocracy. At the same time, they found fault with conditions both in the army and in the larger society. A small but important element within the military intelligentsia had been to Western Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, and they shared their experiences and impressions with other officers. These officers objected to the arbitrariness of authority relations in the military and in Russia and sought greater security for the individual. The military intelligentsia, although committed to state service, also began to transfer their loyalty from the tsar to a broader notion of service to the people, the nation, or the state.

In the years after 1815 the military intelligentsia began to organize itself in secret societies. These societies adopted such names as the Union of Salvation (the Society of True and Loyal Sons of the Fatherland), the Union of (Public) Welfare, and, a personal favorite, the Society of Military Men Who Love Science and Literature. The most prominent of these were the Northern Society, based in St. Petersburg, and the Southern Society, based in Tul’chin (in present-day Ukraine); these two societies came into being in 1821, after a split in the Union of Welfare. The Southern Society was dominated by Colonel P. I. Pestel’, who possessed an authoritarian temperament and radical republican views. The leaders of the Northern Society, such as Captain N. M. Murav’ev, were more attracted to constitutional monarchy. Although members of the secret societies and the military intelligentsia were committed to reform, individual officers differed substantially in terms of their views of the appropriate goals. Views diverged even more substantially on the question of means, with some supporting assassination of the tsar and a military dictatorship while others seemed uncommitted to any form of action other than discussion.

The event that gave the Decembrists their name was a failed military intervention launched in December 1825 after the death of Tsar Alexander I. Alexander died unexpectedly on November 19, 1825. He had no son, so according to normal succession procedures the oldest of his three brothers, Konstantin, should have taken the throne. Konstantin, however, had renounced his claim to the throne at Alexander’s request in 1822 because of Konstantin’s marriage to a lower-born Catholic Polish countess. According to a secret manifesto signed by Alexander in 1823, and agreed to by Konstantin, their brother Nicholas should have been the next tsar. Because this agreement had not been publicized, and contradicted the legal succession chain established by Paul I, considerable confusion accompanied Alexander’s death and the throne remained unoccupied for over three weeks while Konstantin and Nicholas vacillated. The army originally swore loyalty to Konstantin, before the secret manifesto became known, and Konstantin and Nicholas each renounced the throne in favor of the other.

Members of the Northern Society, based in Petersburg, saw the confused interregnum as an opportunity for action. A hasty scheme was hatched for armed opposition to the plans for the army to swear loyalty to Nicholas, scheduled for December 14. The intent was to bring troops to Senate Square in St. Petersburg on the fourteenth and declare the establishment of a dictatorship under Prince Sergey Trubetskoy, a Colonel. Trubetskoy got cold feet, however, and literally ran away and hid in the Austrian Embassy. A day-long standoff between the Decembrists and troops loyal to Nicholas ended in a rout of the Decembrists. An attempted uprising in the south also failed.

Several general points are in order about what, in hindsight, was a key turning point in Russian civil-military relations. First, the rise of the military intelligentsia should be separated somewhat from the failed Decembrist intervention. Many participants in the December events were not members of secret societies, and many members of secret societies did not participate in the Decembrist uprising. They were two related but distinct phenomena, although the failure of December 1825 had considerable impact on the military intelligentsia movement. Second, it seems likely that the Decembrist uprising would not have taken place if the succession had happened quickly and smoothly. At the time of Alexander’s death there was no plan for a coup that could be taken off the shelf and implemented; the Decembrist uprising was an improvised response to an opportunity created by the power vacuum at the top. The act of swearing loyalty to Konstantin several weeks before officers were asked to swear loyalty to Nicholas, in particular, may have encouraged many of the Decembrists to come out against Nicholas. Third, another counterfactual worth considering is whether the secret military societies would have gone on to develop a more coherent plan for military intervention if no leadership crisis had arisen in 1825, and they could have gone on scheming. This counterfactual is more difficult to resolve. The secret military societies had been detected by government informers be- fore December 1825, with those in the south particularly compromised. On the other hand, previous reports about the societies had been largely ignored. It is certainly possible that, in the absence of the failed Decembrist uprising, secret military societies would have continued their activities and presented a potential threat to the state.

The Russian Constitutional Crisis of 1993


When first delivered to the 4th GTD in the late 1980s, the T-80UD tanks were finished in the standard three-color scheme. When repainted after extensive training use, this was simplified to dark green and gray-yellow as seen here. The tactical number of this tank, 187, is seen in shortened form on the right side due to a lack of space. The two last digits, “87,” are also found on the rear-facing red night format ion light at the top of the turret. The 4th GTD traditionally used a pair of oak leaves as its symbol, usually painted on the searchlight cover, and the “2” in the center indicates the 13th GTR. This was one of the tanks taking part in the confrontation between Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament, and the burning “White House” can be seen in the background after being shelled by several tanks.

The constitutional crisis of 1993 was a political stand-off between the Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament that was resolved by military force. The relations between the president and the parliament had been deteriorating for some time. The power struggle reached its crisis on 21 September 1993, when President Yeltsin aimed to dissolve the country’s legislature (the Congress of People’s Deputies and its Supreme Soviet), although the constitution did not give the president the power to do so. Yeltsin justified his orders by the results of the referendum of April 1993. In response, the parliament declared the president’s decision null and void, impeached Yeltsin and proclaimed Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy to be acting president.

On 3 October, demonstrators removed police cordons around the parliament and, urged by their leaders, took over the Mayor’s offices and tried to storm the Ostankino television centre. The army, which had initially declared its neutrality, stormed the Supreme Soviet building in the early morning hours of 4 October by Yeltsin’s order, and arrested the leaders of the resistance.

The [Red] Army’s Support?!

The dominant organizational culture of the Russian army continued to hold the view that intervention in sovereign power issues was illegitimate. Although Yeltsin was highly unpopular among the armed forces, praetorian sentiments remained the minority position.

One important public change in Russian organizational norms was the abandonment of the slogan “the army outside politics.” After the October 1993 events the phrase came under attack from President Yeltsin and some of his close supporters, and it was therefore dropped from Grachev’s lexicon. Many officers continued to adhere to it in some form in private, with qualifications. One retired colonel noted that it would make a nice “bumper sticker,” saying he liked the slogan but in reality in all countries the army has a political role. Other officers adhered to the rationale used in Ministry of Defense training literature – that the army is the “object” of politics, but should not be its “subject.” In other words, as a state institution the military fulfilled the decisions of civilian leaders. Other officers, such as one retired general, categorically rejected the slogan as “complete nonsense,” but for the same rationale given by the supporters of it – that the army implemented orders of politicians, and was therefore, ipso facto, “in politics.” Thus, Russian officers understood the distinction between defense politics, in which the army obviously played a role, and sovereign power issues, a sphere where the armed forces should not be involved.

Several major polls conducted between 1994 and 1999 provided further evidence of the Russian army’s commitment to the norm of civilian supremacy. A major poll by the German Friedrich-Ebert Foundation was released in the fall of 1994. Seventy-one percent of officers thought that a military coup in the next two years was improbable, ten percent thought it was a certainty, and eleven percent thought it was probable. This scenario was considered the second least likely of twelve scenarios, falling only be- hind a “seizure of power by Russian fascist elements.” Even full Russian membership in NATO by 1996 was considered more likely. Officers also ex- pressed objections to most potential domestic uses of the army; the only three that officers approved were in case of natural disasters, the struggle against organized crime, and nuclear power accidents. They opposed being used to protect both the parliament and the president. Majorities also opposed being used against separatist movements, for construction and economic projects, for gathering the harvest, and to break strikes.

The most comprehensive analysis of Russian officer corps opinion was conducted by Deborah Yarsike Ball in the summer of 1995. Ball arrived at a number of findings that are relevant to an assessment of officer corps organizational culture. She found that the majority of officers hold democratic views and do not support an authoritarian government. Furthermore, Russian officers continue to believe that the army’s primary task is external defense of the state and to reject internal usage. More than eighty percent opposed using the army for public works and railroad construction and for harvesting crops. On the other hand, seventy percent approved of using the military in case of nuclear power plant accidents, and ninety-seven percent approved using the army to help in case of natural disasters. Officers also opposed using the armed forces for a variety of domestic policing missions.

These results are very similar to those of the Ebert Foundation poll, with the exception that a majority in the Ball survey also disapproved of using the army against organized crime. Summarizing her results, Ball concludes, “the military feels that internal troops should take care of the country’s `internal’ problems, and that the military should be responsible for protecting the nation against external threats.”

Ball’s data on the willingness of officers to follow orders are more disturbing, and they are similar to the polling data available for 1993 discussed above. Large numbers of officers said that they would not follow orders to be used internally against separatists. Officers’ responses reflect the institutional lessons embodied in the “Tbilisi syndrome” and reinforced in August 1991 and October 1993: Officers’ activities in the event of domestic usage are likely to be heavily scrutinized, and one should be very cautious about fulfilling orders of dubious legality. It was this concern that prompted Grachev to insist on a written order from Yeltsin on October 4, 1993. Ball also found that fifty-one percent of officers stated that they would have disobeyed orders to storm the White House in October 1993.

As far as is known, though, only a handful of officers actually disobeyed direct orders in October 1993. It is easier to tell a pollster that you would disobey an order than it is to actually do so when the consequences could well be a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces. Regardless, these data clearly do not demonstrate praetorian urges on the part of the officer corps. This very hesitancy to follow questionable orders would likely have doomed any attempt at intervention, and it may have influenced Yeltsin’s decision not to go ahead with the disbanding of the Duma in March 1996.

Another major survey of 1,200 active-duty officers conducted in May 1997 found that seventy-eight percent of those questioned maintained that the military should not be involved in domestic politics. Thus, throughout the period 1992-1997 there were strong majorities against military participation in sovereign power issues.

Russian military behavior in a series of domestic and foreign events in the mid- and late 1990s led some to conclude that the army had serious political ambitions and were slipping out of civilian control. A full discussion of these issues is not possible here, but a brief discussion of two of them, the war in Chechnya and the sudden deployment of Russian troops to Kosovo in June 1999, shows that these fears are exaggerated.

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and the Decline of the Ottoman Empire I

With Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the chain of events that followed, it was suggested, centuries of decline, inertia, and neglect finally ended and the Middle East rose, albeit awkwardly, to meet the challenges of modernity. The clock started ticking to mark this passage of Middle Eastern civilization from a previous era into the present.

The voyages and land expeditions to the Middle East during the Crusades (or, conversely, the Wars against the Saracens) pulled back the curtain on a larger world than was previously known in Europe during the Middle Ages. With the infusion of the works of ancient Greece and Rome, new principles, new concepts, and new ways of investigating the empirical world soon animated society in Western Christendom. The divine right of kings would soon face scrutiny under the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and rational inquiry. The concepts inherent in demos kratos, or the people rule, would, over time, come to drive the aspirations and hopes of an expanding middle class. The desire for liberty would eventually drive the Americans and French to revolution, while British intellectual curiosity and the desire for empirical exploration would catapult the island nation into a leading role of the early Industrial Revolution.

With the landlines of communication and trade routes that characterized the Old Silk Road between Europe, the Middle East, and South and East Asia monopolized by the Ottomans and their allies, in the fifteenth century, in terms of access to Asian markets, the European seafaring nations began exploring alternatives to the traditional overland trading routes. Accordingly, with the development of ocean-traversing technology and skills, the maritime trading nations in Europe increased their ability to expand trade and protect sea lines of communications (SLOCs). By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had risen to global prominence by virtue of its prowess in sea power, trade, technological innovation, and military effectiveness. As London and Paris competed for control in North America and following the loss of its franchise within the original North American 13 colonies, Britain increased its involvement in India. In order to facilitate the movement of goods, Egypt became a key route of trade, extending from the Mediterranean, overland to the Red Sea, and on to South Asia.

By the late eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire’s control in Egypt was declining, as was its overall strategic position in the eighteenth century. The British, Russians, Habsburgs, French, and other powers in Eurasia and the Middle East were engaged in maneuvering for advantage in the event of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1776 the Baron de Tott submitted to Louis XVI a memorandum recommending that France acquire Egypt on the grounds that the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was inevitable … In 1782 Joseph II of Austria suggested to Louis XVI that France should acknowledge that the Ottoman Empire was no longer capable of protecting itself and Louis should take advantage of that weakness and annex Egypt.

The Mamluks had been provided significant levels of autonomy in administering Egypt as Ottoman vassals following their defeat in the Ottoman-Mamluk War (1516–1517). However, by 1784, decades of mismanagement of agriculture coupled with conditions of drought had led to famine in Egypt followed by outbreaks of plague. Simultaneous to these events, the Mamluks had also stopped making the required payments to the Ottoman treasury. As a result, during 1786–1791, the Ottoman leadership tried unsuccessfully to bring their vassals in Egypt back under control.

Further west, the rising vitality and energy of the liberated people of France had overthrown the monarchy and were intent on spreading revolutionary ideals—along with acquiring new trading opportunities—and a young military commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, was meeting with success in the French campaign in Italy. The use of both diplomacy and military power that had been honed and expertly practiced by the French for centuries, coupled with the collective energy of a newly liberated people that the Prussians had come to refer to the energy of the French as leidenschaft, helped propel France toward continental leadership (along with a centuries-long tradition of military excellence) as a wide range of European states and principalities entered agreements with the new French government.

Nonetheless, the competition and conflict between France and the British monarchy continued unabated to the point where the British withdrew all Mediterranean naval ships, in October 1796, in order to protect the home islands from a potential invasion.

… Had it not been for Admiral John Jervis’s defeat of the Spanish in the Atlantic off Cape St. Vincent in February 1797 and Admiral Adam Duncan’s destruction of the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown in October, her [Britain’s] enemies might have achieved a sufficient combination of force to achieve the necessary conditions for a Channel crossing.

From a French strategic perspective, the end of the eighteenth century brought with it an opportunity to test the vacuum created in the Eastern Mediterranean by the withdrawal of the British fleet. More specifically, French control in Egypt would provide leverage in challenging British commercial interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and in cutting Britain’s overland route to India via the Red Sea. If Napoleon could establish control in Egypt, the French would be in a position to more effectively challenge Britain’s vast commercial interests in India, interests which helped finance British naval power projection. British naval power would have to be reduced, French military commanders believed (including Napoleon), before a channel crossing could be successfully mounted.

Given the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the strategic position of Egypt in terms of British communications with its vast holdings in India, a campaign in Northeast Africa aimed at Cairo would degrade British trade and, eventually, British sea power. In fact, as early as the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV of France had proposed a canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas across the Egyptian Isthmus.

While France maintained what was generally considered the most effective land army in Western Europe—a martial tradition that had earlier blocked the Islamic invasion of Western Europe in 732 CE—Britain had concentrated on building what was arguably the most capable navy in the world. The French military successfully convinced the civilians in the French Directoire to make Cairo the objective, rather than London, at least for the time being. Thus, the invasion plans for Britain were shelved, and the strategy was to challenge British sea power by extending French power throughout the Mediterranean, which would undermine Britain’s access to India. Following the establishment of a beachhead in Egypt, the objective was to leverage France’s relationship with Tipu Sultan, then ensconced as the ruler of the Sultanate of Mysore and a hindrance to the British East India Company in South Asia. The French Directoire approved the Egyptian campaign on March 5, 1798.

As Napoleon gathered his expeditionary forces in Toulon, France, for the Egyptian campaign, he addressed the assembled troops on May 19, 1798:

You have made war on the mountains, on the plains, and on the cities; it remains for you to fight on the seas … The genius of liberty which made you, at her birth, the arbiter of Europe, wants to be genius of the seas and the furthest of nations.

Napoleon’s assembled force consisted of 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, 280 transport ships, 14 frigates, and 13 ships-of-the-line (64 to 120 guns). The French expeditionary force consisted of 31,000 infantry formed into five divisions, with each division having elements of cavalry (approximately 600 per division), artillery, and engineers (artillerymen and engineers totaling about 3,000). The artillery consisted of 171 assorted howitzers, mortars, and field guns firing shells, canister, and ball shot. Napoleon also brought a new weapon, a weapon which would factor into many modern-era wars and campaigns yet to come: a printing press, in this instance, an Arabic printing press, which he would use to help him communicate to the Arabs. When his forces arrived in Egypt in the summer of 1798, this marked the arrival of the first printing press in the Middle East.

One of his first messages using the press was a proclamation in Arabic to the inhabitants of Alexandria, Egypt, on July 1, 1798, stating that it was the intent of France to bring the blessings of liberty to the people of Egypt and to free them from the tyranny of the Mamluks. The printed proclamation, in Arabic, read in part: “… If Egypt is the Mamluks’ farm, then they should show the lease that God gave them for it.”

While Napoleon was intent on spreading the ideals of the Revolution in the Middle East and ultimately marching to the Indus River in India as did his hero, Alexander the Great, he like all great military leaders in history, whether operating in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia, needed to “incentivize” his military operations in such a manner that would motivate individual soldiers and in language they would understand. As his troops later prepared to disembark upon arrival in Egypt, he sent a message to his soldiers: “I promise to each soldier who returns from this expedition enough to purchase six arpents of land.” Soldiers and warriors throughout history, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew, required incentives, whether it be a unifying religious-political ideology or immediate material inducement or, as in the case of the most successful armies in world history, both. Thus the French Revolution, not unlike the Roman expeditions or the Islamic expansionary campaigns of the seventh to seventeenth centuries, offered not only lofty, heroic, and “universally” valid ideals but also material reward.

On July 1, 1798, Napoleon’s Army of the Orient, as the force was now being called, arrived off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Napoleon had brought with him, in addition to the Arabic printing press, a commission of scholars and scientists from L’Academie whose function was to examine all aspects of Egyptian history and culture while simultaneously sharing concepts arising from the Enlightenment regarding science, the arts, and self-government, for which they brought a substantial library. The proceeding interactions marked the introduction of Western modernity into the Middle East and the reciprocal movement of ideas (particularly about ancient Egypt) to European civilization. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798–1801) also has a less noble distinction in world history as being “the largest and most violent meeting between Western and Muslim Arab armies since the Crusades.”

The main objective was the city of Cairo, which had a population of approximately 300,000 and was along the Nile River (the longest river in the world). Napoleon understood that if he suffered significant delays in reaching it, his army might become victims to the great flooding that occurred in the river on a regular basis. Even on the relatively short journey to Alexandria, Napoleon’s troops found that nomadic Bedouin tribesmen had filled many of the wells along the army’s advance, and, as a result, the Army of the Orient was already parched and suffering from a lack of potable water. To add to the discomfort, the French were outfitted in wool uniforms and carried heavy packs in a summer environment where temperatures often rose to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, French commanders mistakenly assumed that the population would welcome an army bringing them liberty from autocratic rule. The French military found themselves surrounded by a generally unwelcoming population, unprepared for the extreme heat, and suffering from a lack of food and water. Morale immediately took a turn for the worse.

The first French units left Alexandria on July 3. They lacked sufficient horses … and one division even had to leave its artillery behind. Napoleon sought to obtain horses and camels from local Bedouin leaders, but the sheiks in Cairo convinced the tribesmen to switch sides and they harassed the French along the entire line of march. The khamsin, the desiccating wind that blows up the dust of the Libyan Desert into great choking, blinding clouds, had begun … Thirst quickly became the deadliest enemy … Before the march was over, hundreds had died, some by their own hand.

Hence, the campaign unfolded in both a harsher physical and harsher cultural environment than French planners had anticipated. While much of the Egyptian population was indeed in a state of relative political captivity under ruthless autocrats, the French were unable to effectively convey their message of liberty and the rights of man, finding them-selves outmaneuvered in terms of messaging and communications by a merchant elite and ruling class well vested in the current status quo. They were not interested in French achievements in liberal reform, science, the arts, or in French business establishing a presence in a society where a handful of powerful agriculturalists and wealthy merchants had long controlled commerce as well as Egyptian society.

The Egyptian elite, armed with a more expansive knowledge base regarding cultural fears and hopes, were better positioned for delivering an effective strategic narrative to the masses and outmaneuvered French efforts at proclaiming the benefits of liberty and equality. While Napoleon’s use of an Arabic printing press was a pragmatic first step in the modernization and evolution of the Middle East and, over the long term, proved beneficial to the masses, the reality was that since most of the population was illiterate at the time of the French Egyptian campaign, it proved to be of limited value in furthering the realization of the immediate objectives of Napoleon’s operations, which was to control the country, deprive the British access, and to sever London’s lines of communication to India, followed by the invasion of Britain and the overthrow of the British monarchy.

Prior to departure from Alexandria, Napoleon divided his army sending some 12,000 troops with generals Dugua and Murat and the remaining forces from Kleber’s command onto the town of Rosetta with orders to proceed south along the Nile after meeting up with a flotilla, which carried arms and supplies under Admiral Peree. Marching with Napoleon was the main body of 25,000 men, which took a direct route across the Beheira Desert to the village of Damanhur and then to El Rahmaniyah where both sections of the Army of the Orient would link up before proceeding to the main objective at Cairo.

While the Mamluk cavalry, inheritors of a tradition of excellence that had stopped the Mongol army at Ain Jalut in 1260 CE, was generally considered one of the finest (if not the finest) cavalry forces in the Mediterranean during the late Middle Ages, the Franks had assembled the finest infantry in the world as early as the eighth century CE and had maintained that status, arguably, for a thousand years (the Swiss and the Prussians, notwithstanding). Now, after having achieved complete surprise in terms of the Ottomans, the British, and the Mamluks, that infantry, now armed with muskets and artillery and commanded by one of the most successful generals in world history, suddenly appeared off the coast of Egypt, disembarked, and proceeded to march on Egypt’s largest city. For the Ottoman-Egyptian army, the “Franks” had returned, and Napoleon had achieved the desired shock of surprise, including the psychological impact in the minds of enemy commanders and the individual soldiers. The initiative had been seized, and the enemy was forced to scramble in order to react to the next move.

Napoleon, failing with the strategic narrative in a foreign land, was now ready, however, to introduce the most proficient practitioners of nomadic steppe cavalry maneuver (the Mamluks) to the most proficient infantry army and practitioner of early modern-era warfare (a Napoleon-led French army). The Mamluks had paid a price by not adopting gunpowder weapons in their battles against the Ottoman Empire. The nightmare was about to be repeated with the arrival of the muskets and cannon of the French army.

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and the Decline of the Ottoman Empire II

Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later.

Napoleon’s desert-crossing force (100-mile march) reached the Nile on July 10 but not before threats of mutiny broke out in the desert on July 8 and 9, which Napoleon dealt with effectively and decisively. Arriving on July 10, Napoleon’s vanguard led by Desaix’s division came under attack by 300 horsemen under Muhammad Bey el-Elfi near El Rahmaniyah. Probably dispatched as a scouting or probing exercise, it would be reasonable to assume that el-Elfi was interested in whether Napoleon’s force, after a 100-mile desert hike in 110 degree heat—in wool uniforms and heavy packs and weapons—would have suffered a debilitating loss in combat readiness. The French, however, repulsed the Mamluk’s probing attack without loss, and Napoleon issued orders that the army would rest for two days, swim in the river, and enjoy any surrounding food supplies, which apparently included an ample amount of watermelon.

Now joined by the forces under Dugua and Murat, the combined Army of the Orient proceeded south on July 13, 1798, along the shores of the Nile after Napoleon received intelligence that Mamluk leader and joint ruler of Egypt Murad Bey’s forces were in the vicinity of the village of Shubra Khit, eight miles south of El Rahmaniyah. At the Battle of Shubra Khit, Murad had perhaps 4,000 Mamluk cavalry and 10,000 peasant militia (or fellahin). Each Mamluk cavalryman carried two or three pistols, a short musket, javelins, and a scimitar sword (or two). The fellahin were armed with an assortment of more rudimentary weapons, including maces, clubs, spears, knives, and if one were fortunate, a sword. Mamluk river gun boats had arrived in the vicinity and were aligning to take on the French flotilla that had followed Napoleon’s forces as well as lending fire support to Murad Bey’s forces against the French army.

Napoleon’s Army of the Orient, somewhat reduced since beginning the journey from Malta, still totaled nearly 27,000 infantry armed with muskets arrayed in five divisions. The French infantry were supported by nearly 2,500 artillerymen and engineers manning 171 assorted howitzers, mortars, and field guns, firing shells, canister, and ball shot. Napoleon’s cavalry had been reduced by logistical difficulties in the transport and movement of horses, as perhaps as many as 30 percent of the 2,400 cavalrymen were now on foot, awaiting the capture of additional mounts. The Mamluks had committed only about a third of their forces when Murad Bey appeared with about 14,000 troops. About 30,000 Mamluk troops were taking up positions down the river at the capital city of Cairo.

Murad Bey’s cavalry paraded out of gun range in order to display their colors and their valor. This went on for an extended period of time, and Napoleon ordered his band to strike up several French patriotic tunes while they waited for the Mamluk cavalry to do what they had done throughout history, charge the enemy after trying to intimidate them with parade maneuvers. After a rousing version of “La Marseillaise” in honor of the anniversary of Bastille Day, the French were soon at the height of patriotism and spirit. The Mamluks shortly thereafter initiated the expected cavalry charge. Napoleon’s soldiers had orders to hold fire until the Mamluks came within 50 feet and then let loose with multiple volleys from muskets and field guns.

Napoleon’s troops used multiple tactics and formations:

Depending on the engagement, the infantry were formed into columns for attacking in-depth, lines to concentrate firepower, or squares several ranks deep.

If a square was charged by cavalry, the outer ranks would kneel, those directly behind them would crouch, and the hindmost soldiers would remain upright.

The result was a fearsome and impenetrable wall of bayonets. Few horses could be induced to breach a mass of deadly 15 inch spikes.

Murad Bey’s forces, to their credit, charged the French battle squares again and again. Each time they were repulsed with significant casualties. After about 400 casualties and only a handful of French killed or wounded, the Mamluk-Egyptian forces withdrew and prepared to make a stand at the outskirts of Cairo. The result at the Battle of the Pyramids (defense of Cairo on June 21, 1798) produced the same result, however, with a greatly increased Mamluk-Egyptian casualty count. The Mamluk-Egyptian-Ottoman force (about 30,000) suffered thousands killed and wounded, with many drowning in the Nile River after being pushed back by the French.

After observing Mamluk attacks at El Rahmaniyah and Shubra Khit, Napoleon positioned cannon at the corners of his infantry battle squares, essentially taking away any advantage a cavalry force might enjoy by being able to attack the formation from the flanks or from the rear. In a classic instance of Flaechen-und Luecken, gunpowder weapons essentially eliminated the tactical maneuver advantage enjoyed and practiced for centuries by the nomadic steppe cavalry tribes, including the Mongols, the Turks, and the Mamluks. Now, as the early stages of the modern era unfolded, gunpowder weapons and infantry drill, organization, and discipline continued to eclipse the tradition of the heroic and gallant horseman as the ultimate arbiter of political, economic, and religious disputes.

Muscle, steel, arrow barrage, and courage combined with effective cavalry maneuver, long practiced by steppe warriors in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, fell by the wayside as the modern era dawned at the end of the eighteenth century. Following Napoleon’s operations along the Nile River in the summer of 1798, 700 years of Mamluk rule in Egypt collapsed.

After the successful conclusion of the Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon and the French army marched into Cairo on July 25, 1798 (following the July 22 arrival of an advance element consisting of two French infantry companies and five officers). Murad Bey, who had been wounded in the face during the battle, fled to Upper Egypt, and his partner Ibrahim Bey, fulfilling the old adage that discretion was the better part of valor by waiting safely on the far side of the Nile during the climactic battle for Cairo, evacuated with the Ottoman viceroy along with the remnants of the Mamluk army to Syria. From Syria follow-on operations against the French could be coordinated. While Napoleon had served notice as to the proficiency of French arms by defeating Mamluk power within a month and capturing their capital city, the real campaign for Egypt was just beginning. Whereas Napoleon controlled the Nile Delta and Cairo, the Mamluks and their Bedouin allies controlled Upper Egypt, and the Ottomans were soon in consultation with the British to coordinate efforts against the French Army of the Orient.

After the Mamluk-Ottoman loss at the Battle of the Pyramids, the Ottoman Sultan asked other great powers for assistance. The Russian Czar, who sought Ottoman territory in general and the key port city of Constantinople in particular, offered Russia’s assistance. He ordered Russia’s Black Sea fleet to the Bosporus, and a combined Ottoman-Russian naval force began operating in the vicinity of Constantinople. Concurrently, the Sultan enlisted the aid of the British and the Austrians. While the 29-year-old Napoleon was maneuvering brilliantly on the battlefield, the revolutionary French government was being outmaneuvered in international politics and diplomacy.

François Henri Mulard – General Bonaparte Giving a Sword to the Military Chief of Alexandria, July 1798 [1808]

In Cairo, Napoleon’s forces found the streets deserted as many of the city’s residents had fled. French troops instead were met with the sounds of wailing women drifting out to the narrow streets from behind closed doors and covered windows. Napoleon and his staff took up residence in Murad Bey’s riverfront palace, but before he had a chance to savor his victory, he received word that his wife in Paris, Josephine, had been unfaithful. The dreams of conquest, glory, and the expected sounds of the cheering masses faded quickly in the dark—a darkness that permeated the spirits of the city’s inhabitants in ways that the young French general found difficult to understand.

For the masses in Egypt, particularly those of Cairo, which had had most material things taken from them through Mamluk mismanagement, military coercion, and collective punishment, the French were taken aback at the dark mood and evident pain in the Egyptian people upon the institution of a French occupation. What the French did not comprehend was that the Mamluks had become part of Egypt and for 700 years had been the most formidable cavalry force in the Middle East. As such, there was comfort and solace in knowing that even if one were poor, one belonged to a nation, which was the defender of the true faith, proud warriors, generally believed to be the most capable man-for-man anywhere on the globe. Napoleon’s army far from freeing the masses had destroyed the only remaining vestige available to a poverty-stricken and oppressed people, the idea that greatness was still part of their society and, as a result, nourished their soul with belief that greatness was part of themselves and their families.

The French had hoped, in addition to achieving their own objectives vis-à-vis the British monarchy, that their presence would empower the masses to take control of their society and, in doing so, free themselves from physical coercion and financial servitude by an elite few. Napoleon attempted to reform the government in Egypt and to highlight the need for educated, virtuous civil servants working for the public good. He directed his troops to tear down the walls and gates that guarded and sealed off Cairo’s wealthier districts from the underclass. There was indeed greatness in the French ideals taken to Egypt in 1798. Unfortunately, great forces in Europe and the Middle East were combining to defeat this project in liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Nelson and the British Navy Frustrate Napoleon’s Strategy in Egypt

Aboukir Bay: The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, Nicholas Pocock, 1808, National Maritime Museum

A week after the French occupied Cairo, Lord Nelson and his British naval task force appeared off the coast of Alexandria. French warships were anchored in shallow water just northeast of the city in Aboukir Bay in a line parallel to the shore. French Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers believed he had positioned his ships close enough to the shore to prevent British warships from getting between the French line and the shore. Thus, the arrayed French warships, in combination, had nearly 500 guns facing the sea, as their commanders believed that would be the only direction from which an attack could be mounted. Brueys’s fleet included 13 ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates; however, half of the Frenchmen serving aboard the vessels were under 18 years of age and most had never seen combat.

Boldness in war often initiates its own dynamic, creating opportunities that would not have been available without first seizing the initiative and “wrong-footing” the opponent in a dash of energy, speed, and decisive force. Such attributes had been part of the French army for centuries; they certainly were part of what made Napoleon one of the greatest military commanders in recorded history. However, the British navy had developed on sea what the French had perfected on land. Conducting military operations on the European continent offered interior lines from which to operate, and the French excelled in maneuver. However, the advantages offered in Europe were not available for a global French expeditionary force where SLOCs factored into operations. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British fleet sailed the world’s oceans without peer.

On August 1, 1798, following a month in which French military power destroyed the Mamluk army in Egypt and sent the Ottoman viceroy in headlong retreat into Syria, the British naval task force consisting of 13 ships-of-the-line finally located the French fleet supporting Napoleon’s land campaign. The British naval commanders were not aware of the configuration of the seabed between the French line of ships and the shore, but, they took a calculated risk and maneuvered half the British ships between the French and the shore. Once in position, Nelson’s ships were able to open fire from two directions. Admiral Brueys’s 118-gun flagship, the L’Oriente, took volley after volley, setting fires that eventually reached her powder magazine, which then created a massive explosion. Two French ships-of-the-line and two frigates were able to cut their cables and fight their way out to sea. By the time the battle was over, a day later, one French ship was at the bottom of the bay, three still floating but generally unrecognizable, and nine French warships captured.

The English were then in a position not only to patrol the coasts of North Africa and Egypt but also, having coordinated their efforts with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to traverse the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean. It was said that “Napoleon did indeed have Egypt,” but cut off from the sea, “Egypt actually had Napoleon.” On September 11, 1798, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire declared war on France and formed an alliance with Britain, Austria, Russia, and Naples. Shortly thereafter, on October 21, the people of Cairo began rioting against the French.

Having received information that an Ottoman army was forming in Syria with the objective of attacking his forces in Egypt, Napoleon decided to strike first, and on February 6, 1799, commenced operations in Palestine as he proceeded north to Syria. With a force of 13,000 troops, Napoleon fought and overran enemy forces at El Arish (February 8–19), Gaza (February 24–25), and Jaffa (March 3–7), as he moved north toward the Syrian border. By mid-March, Napoleon laid siege to Acre and from March 17 to May 21 launched 7 assaults against the seaport fortress and dealt with 11 offensive operations from the city’s besieged forces followed by the French temporarily halting the siege and withdrawing at the approach of a large army coming out of Syria. Napoleon then turned and attacked the approaching Ottoman-Syrian army at the Battle of Mount Tabor where he defeated and dispersed the force. He then resumed the siege of Acre.

Following the arrival of intelligence that a combined British-Ottoman fleet was planning on transporting a large Ottoman army for insertion into Egypt, Napoleon halted siege operations at Acre and returned to Egypt. In July 1799, the British-Ottoman fleet transported an 18,000-man Ottoman army and landed at Aboukir Bay. Napoleon promptly engaged this force in an attack mounted on July 25, killing or driving into the sea nearly 11,000 Turkish troops and taking 6,000 prisoners, including the commander of the force, Mustafa Pasha.

Following the victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the French Directoire and other French leaders knew that Napoleon Bonaparte was too valuable a military leader for them to allow him to perish in the Middle Eastern theater surrounded by an overwhelming assortment of enemies and with the French unable to support or resupply his forces by sea. After the failure of French forces to take Acre, coupled with the siege of the French garrison on Malta (which would eventually fall to the British on September 5, 1800), and with the British cooperating with the Ottoman Empire, the French government knew that French control in Egypt, even if sustainable in the short term, would not create the conditions that would allow France to use it for launching operations in South Asia or in operations regarding succession issues of a crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Without the ability to challenge British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea, with Britain’s intent on protecting access to India through Egypt, and without a commitment of treasure and manpower that far exceeded that which French leaders were prepared to make at the time in the Middle East, France could not successfully and politically consolidate military gains in Egypt, Palestine, or Syria. If Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had proven anything (beyond his brilliance as an operational and tactical commander), it was that even with one of the most capable generals in history, commanding one of the finest armies in history, the political objective of leveraging tactical military supremacy in order to establish a liberal democracy within a culture fractured by years of autocratic rule was, at the time, strategically and operationally unsustainable.

British victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Following operations at Aboukir Bay, arrangements were quietly made for Napoleon to return to France where he would be promoted first consul. On August 22, 1799, Napoleon unceremoniously, accompanied by a small contingent of aides and staff, left Egypt by sea. General Jean-Baptiste Kleber was named commander of the French forces that remained in Egypt. Kleber was tasked with an orderly evacuation of French forces, but preliminary negotiations with the British were unsuccessful, and Kleber was forced to plan for continued military operations to protect French forces in Egypt. The French under Kleber successfully battled the Anglo-Ottoman coalition until 1800 when Kleber was assassinated in Cairo by a Syrian, and command of French forces was transferred to General Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French convert to Islam. Following the transfer of command, an Anglo-Ottoman invasion force surrounded French forces at Alexandria and Cairo. French army forces at Cairo surrendered on June 18, 1801, and Menou personally surrendered the Alexandria garrison on September 3. By September end, all French forces had been withdrawn from Egypt.

Following the departure of French forces from Egypt, Lord Nelson, the British admiral who helped sink French plans for the Middle East, observed at the time:

I think their objective is to possess themselves of some port in Egypt and to fix themselves at the head of the Red Sea in order to get a formidable army into India; and in concert with Tipu Siab [Sultan of Mysore], to drive us if possible from India.

Hence, the French objectives of establishing a foothold in Egypt to facilitate a move against Constantinople, the British in India, or both, were never reached. The actual results included the utter destruction of 700 years of Mamluk control in Egypt and the establishment of a vivid awareness within ruling circles in the Middle East as to how far the region had fallen behind European military capabilities and Western technology. Less apparent, but certainly not lost on an observant few, was the remarkable energy being generated by a revolutionary people under the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality.

Mehmet Ali Introduces Modernization and Reforms

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.

Battle of Navarino

The Naval Battle of Navarino (1827). Oil painting by Garneray.

The Great Age of Fighting had then passed its peak, and there would be only one more large sailing fleet battle, the one-sided slaughter of an Egyptian-Turkish squadron by a combined fleet composed of British, French, and Russian warships at Navarino Bay in 1827. The forces were not large: 11 allied battleships and 16 other ships faced seven Turkish battleships and 58 smaller ships.

The last great naval battle of the sailing ship era arose out of the Greek War of Independence, 1822-32. In an attempt to control the conflict Britain joined France and Russia, which had wider ambitions. When Sir Edward Codrington led the combined fleets into Navarino Bay on 20 October 1827 determined to forestall a Turkish attack on the Greek island of Hydra, battle was inevitable. The numerous but smaller ships of the Turco-Egyptian fleet were almost annihilated in a savage close-range battle by the superior firepower of the allied ships, especially Codrington’s flagship the new 84-gun Asia. While a new ministry in London considered Navarino ‘untoward’ and sacked Codrington, the French and Russians celebrated a rare victory.

After initial negotiations failed with the Ottoman Sultanate, Britain, France, and Russia prepared to enforce the provisions of the Treaty of London through military action. In the summer of 1827, a large Ottoman-Egyptian fleet was being assembled in Alexandria for operations in the Greek theater, and Allied commanders sent a warning to Mehmet and Mahmud not to send the flotilla. The Ottoman-Egyptian leaders ignored what they believed to be meddling by the Allies into Sultanate affairs. As the fleet left Alexandria for Greece on August 5, 1827, the Ottoman leadership was finally in a position to finish off the remaining partisan rebel fighters and in putting an end to what had become known as the Greek War of Independence.

On August 20, 1827, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the Allied combined naval task force, received instructions from the Admiralty informing him that he was to impose and enforce the provisions of the London Treaty on both sides and to interdict the flow of reinforcements and supplies from Anatolia and Egypt to Ottoman forces in Greece. The application of military force against the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet, the communication stressed, should be used only as a last resort. On August 29, the Sultanate formally rejected the Treaty of London’s provisions, aimed at granting Greece autonomy while keeping the province within the empire. From September 8 to 12, 1827, the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet from Alexandria joined other Ottoman warships in Navarino Bay (present-day Pylos), located on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in the Ionian Sea.

The Ottoman warships within the bay, in addition to imperial ships, were a combined force with warships from Algeria and Tunis as well as the Egyptian naval vessels. Ibrahim, Mehmet’s son and in operational command of Egyptian-Ottoman forces, was contacted by Codrington and agreed to halt fighting until he received further instructions from his father who was involved in communications with the Western allies at his headquarters in Egypt. However, on October 1, the Greek rebels continued operations against Ottoman forces that had been ordered to temporarily stand down, leading Ibrahim to disregard his agreement with Codrington and in resuming attacks against the Greeks.

On October 13, Codrington was joined off Navarino Bay by French and Russian warships. While Codrington believed his combined fleet had the necessary firepower to destroy the Ottoman ships arrayed in Navarino Bay, his instructions were to impose the provisions of the treaty peaceably if possible. Therefore, he sailed his fleet into Navarino Bay in single column with the British in the lead, followed by the French, and then the Russians. Eleven Allied ships-of-the-line (average 70 guns each) and 9 frigates and 4 smaller warships, bringing to bear nearly 1,300 guns, all sailed boldly into the bay where 70 warships of the Ottoman Empire lay at anchor with more than 2,000 cannon at the ready. Adding to the Turkish firepower were the shore batteries, which were under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman fleet had taken a horseshoe or arc formation with three lines, and the ships-of-the-line anchored in the first wave. The Allied forces had superior firepower in that their cannon aboard the ships-of-the-line were 32-pound guns, as most of the cannon available to the Turks were 24-pounders. Additionally, while the Allies possessed 11 ships-of-the-line, the Ottomans had only 3 and, while the Turks had more than 70 ships, 58 were smaller vessels such as corvettes and brigs. Further still, the Allied crews, particularly the British and the French, had extensive combat experience during the Napoleonic Wars, while most of the Ottoman crews’ only experience was in fighting smaller vessels. As if the superior firepower and superior gunnery expertise were not enough to tilt the odds in the Allies’ favor, the Ottomans’ ability to fight the Battle of Navarino was severely constrained by an additional and unforeseen development.

The Egyptian fleet present at Navarino Bay had largely been constructed or purchased with supervision by European naval officers, mostly French. The fleet had also been trained by a team of French officers under the overall direction of Captain J. M. Letellier,and these men served aboard the Egyptian-Ottoman warships as “shadow officers.” On October 19, the day before the Battle of Navarino, French Rear Admiral De Rigny, serving with the combined Allied fleet, convinced the French officers to withdraw from the Egyptian fleet. They removed themselves to a smaller vessel in the bay and attempted to provide logistical advice to the Egyptians, but the damage to morale and effectiveness was significant. Most of the Ottoman sailors had been pressed into service (essentially forced conscription), and, as the French shadow officers withdrew from their crews, one can imagine the sadness some of the officers must have felt for these unfortunate and unwitting souls as powerful naval artillery prepared to open fire at them from point-blank range as well as the anxiety and fear that must have permeated the young Egyptian and Ottoman sailors.

At 2 p.m. on October 20, 1827, British Admiral Codrington aboard his flagship, HMS Asia, led his combined fleet into Navarino Bay. The Ottoman shore batteries guarding the entrance to the bay were ordered to hold their fire while Ibrahim Pasha sent a launch to Codrington’s approaching vessel. The message from Ibrahim to Codrington was simple: “You do not have my permission to enter the bay.” Codrington returned the Ottoman launch with his reply to Ibrahim: “I have come to give orders, not take them.” Codrington continued on and, as his ships began to drop anchor at essentially point-blank range from the Ottoman fleet, a boat that had been lowered from the Allied ship Dartmouth proceeded in the direction of an Ottoman fire ship (a fire ship was a relatively small vessel loaded with flammable and combustible material in barrels mounted in the bow for use against an enemy target). The Ottomans opened fire on the approaching boat with musketry, and the exchanges escalated throughout the bay. In his communication with the Admiralty the following day, Codrington stated:

I gave orders that no guns should be fired unless guns were first fired by the Turks; and those orders were strictly observed. The three English ships were accordingly permitted to pass the batteries and to moor, as they did with great rapidity, without any act of open hostility, although there was evident preparation for it in all the Turkish ships; but upon the Dartmouth sending a boat to one of the fire vessels, Lieutenant G.W.H. Fitzroy and several of her crew were shot with musketry. This produced a defensive fire of musketry from the Dartmouth and La Syrene, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral de Rigny; that succeeded by cannon- shot at the Rear-Admiral from one of the Egyptian ships, which, of course, brought on a return, and thus very shortly thereafter the battle became general.

Following two hours of battle, all Ottoman ships-of-the-line and most of the large Ottoman and Ottoman-allied frigates had been destroyed; after two more hours of fighting, the remaining Ottoman naval vessels had been sunk, scuttled, or set on fire. While no British, French, or Russian ships had been sunk, several ships had suffered significant damage; one Allied ship-of-the-line had 180 hull breaches (pierced by enemy cannon balls), while three Russian ships-of-the-line were essentially disabled, and three British ships, including Codrington’s flagship, HMS Asia, were required to sail for England to immediately undergo repairs. The Allied fleet suffered 181 killed and 487 wounded, while the Ottoman fleet incurred losses exceeding 4,000 killed or wounded.

Word of the outcome of the battle reverberated throughout the maritime-oriented community that was Greece. People, in village after village upon hearing the news, rushed to the village squares, as church bells rang out and huge bonfires were lit on the mountain tops of the Peloponnese and Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. Demoralized Ottoman garrisons in the occupied zones made little effort to curtail the celebrations. The Battle of Navarino marked that final naval engagement between sailing ships with unarmored hulls and brandishing muzzle-loading, smooth-bore cannon. It also marked the first use in naval history of a steam-powered warship, as the relatively small Greek ship, the Karteria of the fledgling revolutionary navy, propelled by steam-powered paddles (as well as sails) made its appearance during the battle.

After suffering the devastating loss of essentially his entire navy and forced to withdraw his now unsupportable infantry from Greece, Mehmet demanded extra compensation for his losses from the Sultan. Mehmet demanded of the Sultan the Ottoman Eyalet of Syria in exchange for the loss of his navy. In Arabic, the region surrounding Syria is referred to as Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), and for centuries those in Mesopotamia, Persia, Anatolia, and Egypt sought to control it, as it possessed abundant resources as well as featuring the world’s most ancient yet developed international trading communities centered on Damascus, Aleppo, and the Mediterranean coastal cities. Moreover, from Mehmet’s perspective, possession of Syria would also provide a buffer zone against Ottoman power as well as a buffer zone against any foreign power that eventually seized control of Constantinople and Anatolia. With Egyptian military capacity based in Syria, it would also provide Mehmet with a possible staging area for direct operations against the Ottomans, should at some future time Mehmet decide to march on Constantinople.

For those same reasons, the Sultan refused Mehmet’s demands. In response, Mehmet built a new navy, and on October 31, 1831, under Mehmet’s son, Ibrahim, Egypt invaded Syria in the opening phases of the First Turko-Egyptian War. Ibrahim’s forces quickly overran Syria except for the well-fortified port city of Acre, which required a six-month siege, before capitulating on May 27, 1832. However, the costs of the expedition required Mehmet to demand increases in fees and taxes from the Egyptian population, which created significant levels of domestic discontent with Mehmet’s leadership. In addition to the domestic front, Mehmet soon realized the discomfort of the major European powers with his actions against Constantinople. The slow dissolution of the empire was unfolding as the Europeans and Russians moved to control or liberate key pieces of empire property. However, both the Europeans and the Russians did not wish to see Mehmet enthroned as the new Ottoman Sultan with control in Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia, and the key port cities that dotted the Eastern Mediterranean coastline between Asia Minor (Turkey) and North Africa.

After the fall of the stubborn port city Acre, Ibrahim took the Egyptian army into Anatolia and defeated an Ottoman army led by Reshid Pasha at the Battle of Konya on December 21, 1832. Sultan Mahmud II realized that, should Mehmet wish it, the Egyptian army could now march largely uncontested on Constantinople. Moscow, sensing opportunity, offered Mahmud military assistance and concluded the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi (Unkiar Skelessi) with him on July 8, 1833, to formalize the Sultan’s acceptance. With the Russians seeking to continue their push south and in creating a greater Mediterranean presence by taking advantage of Ottoman weakness, the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi brought a sharp reaction from Britain and France. The treaty included a secret clause that opened the Dardanelles to Russia in time of war, while precluding its use by anyone else. Both nations negotiated the Convention of Kutahya between Mehmet and Mahmud II in May 1833, which stipulated that Mehmet would withdraw his forces from Anatolia and in return would receive Crete and the Hejaz (in Arabia) in compensation. Moreover, Ibrahim would be appointed Wali or governor of Syria in return for a yearly tribute payment to the Sultan.

Inhabitants of the Syrian Eyalet chaffed at their new Wali, uncomfortable with Egyptian policies at what they perceived to be excessive taxation, forced labor, a general disarmament of the population, and military conscription. A variety of incidents and uprisings began in 1834. On May 25, 1838, Mehmet informed the British and the French that he intended to declare independence from the Ottoman Empire and Mahmud II ordered his forces to advance into Syria. Ibrahim defeated them at the Battle of Nezib on June 24, 1839, and afterward, the Ottoman fleet defected to Mehmet. Mahmud II died almost immediately following the loss at Nezib and the defection of the Ottoman navy.

On July 15, 1840, Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia signed the Convention of London, which offered Mehmet hereditary rule in Egypt provided the North African country stayed in the Ottoman Empire and provided he withdrew from Syria and the coastal regions of Mt. Lebanon. Mehmet mistakenly believed that the French were prepared to side with Egypt and was consequently dismissive of British demands. Following this, British and Austrian naval forces blockaded the Nile Delta and shelled Beirut on September 11, 1840. On November 27, 1840, Mehmet agreed to the terms of the Convention of London and renounced claims over Crete, Syria, and the Hejaz. Also instituted in the 1841 agreement, to which France also reluctantly acquiesced, was the Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention of 1838, which abolished Mehmet’s monopolistic control over Egyptian domestic and foreign commerce. Further diminishing Mehmet’s power was a requirement in the agreement that compelled the reduction of the Egyptian army from more than 100,000 troops to no more than 18,000.

From 1820–1840, Ali enjoyed the continuous support of France. Following his defeats of 1840–41, Ali and his successors never recovered from the effects of the European intervention, although his grandson, Ismail (1863–79) came closest to emulating the dynasty founder. Ismail’s heavy borrowing at ruinous discounts and interest rates for his ambitious schemes of military, economic, and social modernization hastened his downfall. By the time of his dismissal in 1879, Britain and France were exercising a dual control over Egypt’s finances under the authority of a public debt commission. After mounting crises beginning with the Urabi coup d’etat in September 1881, Britain backed into the occupation of Egypt the following July, without precipitating war in Europe. For more than sixty years thereafter, Whitehall decided the fate of the Egyptian army.

From 1606 to 1826 the Ottoman Empire instituted efforts aimed at reforming its gunpowder weapons-brandishing medieval armed forces. In Persia, the problem was even more acute than that faced by Constantinople. The Shah during the time of the Qajar dynasty and continuing into the nineteenth century was forced to rely on militias that constantly required extensive negotiations as well as expensive promises all contributing to an extended mobilization process. For the Ottomans, Sultan Selim III attempted to reorganize the army (Nizam-i Cedid) in the late eighteenth century but met considerable resistance from a number of entrenched interests, most notably from the infantry units known collectively as the Janissaries. As a result of his attempts at modernization and reform, the Sultan was driven from power in 1807. His successor, Mahmud II, in November 1808, only months after becoming Sultan was faced with a revolt by the Janissaries rebelling yet again at plans toward modernizing the army. The Janissaries killed Mahmud’s “grand vizier” Mustafa Bayraktar Pasha who had been ordered to spearhead the reform efforts and to modernize the Ottoman army.

These events, coupled with the difficulties experienced by a long line of predecessors, led Mahmud II to proceed with caution in his reform efforts. Eventually, however, on June 15, 1826, during the Vaka-i Haryire or “good incident,” troops loyal to Mahmud II shelled the Janissary barracks in Constantinople, killing several thousand inside. The Janissary corps was subsequently dissolved and its provincial garrisons disbanded. The event is recorded and celebrated in Turkish history as the “auspicious event,” which overcame a key obstacle and provided the opportunity to create that which eventually became modern Turkey.

The Rise and Fall of Ottoman Power

In the Middle Ages, the Ottomans created an empire through aggressive territorial expansion, a fairly sophisticated and organized system of taxation, a formidable military capability, and the utilization of a religion-based ideology for control and obedience. Once the forays into Europe had been blocked at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and outside Vienna in 1683, and, as a result, further imperial expansion and conquest thwarted, the Ottomans relied financially on agricultural production and the control of trade routes between the East and the West. However, the arrival of long-distance sailing ships and the rise of European shipping altered the traditional leverage enjoyed by the Ottomans in cooperation with their Mediterranean sailing contractors, the Venetians.

Since the Ottoman Empire traditionally controlled the overland Silk Road and commercial trade routes between Europe and Asia, they were able to dictate the terms of trade to both. Accordingly, the rest of Europe (minus the Venetians) sought options in order to mitigate the effects of this monopoly, leading eventually to the age of exploration and ocean-going technology. With the European voyages around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the Ottomans increasingly found themselves cut out of the lucrative spice trade from Asia to Europe and the Mediterranean world.

In addition to being limited in its trading influence in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean during the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire also steadily lost territory in Eastern Europe to Austria and Russia. The empire found itself engaged on a number of fronts between 1568 and 1876 during the Russo-Turkish wars. During those wars, 11 conflicts, draining resources without replenishing the Ottoman treasury, were fought against an expanding and powerful Russian Empire. The Russian victory during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774 secured vast stretches of land on the Black Sea north coast and brought territory as far south as the Caucasus under Russian control. The Russian army invaded the Balkans in 1806–1812, and by 1878, Russian troops came within 10 miles of Constantinople. For Western Europe, the prospect of a Russian-controlled former Ottoman Empire brought a concerted effort to limit Russia’s Mediterranean influence and its relentless drive south toward warm water ports and control in Europe and in the Middle East.

In his book, Guns, Sails, and Empires, Carlo Cipolla argues that the development of gunpowder weapons and long-distance sailing ships enabled the Europeans to expand at the expense of the Muslim world in the sixteenth century. This is an accurate, if not partial, portrayal of events. However, all too often the narrative developed characterizes Europe as pillaging and plundering its way through a peaceful, tolerant Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. The military history of the Middle East shows predatory behavior being engaged throughout the region, first by the nature of ancient kingdoms within the Middle East itself, taking control of the production of food and trade while financing sufficient military capability to enforce an elite preferred status quo. This was the case in ancient Mesopotamia and in Egypt. Asiatic nomadic cavalry descending into the region introduced a new mobility and maneuverability combined with the all too familiar savagery in keeping mass populations compliant in the fields, and focused on paying their taxes.

These new developments in mobility and maneuverability were not defeated by the West but rather by the introduction of gunpowder and gunpowder weapons that were first invented in China and spread across the Old Silk Road to the Middle East and Europe by the Mongols, eventually providing the Turkish tribes of the Ottomans the opportunity for bombarding the walls (and the inhabitants) of a trading city that stood unconquered for 1,000 years. It was not a Western plan or plot but the simple reality that the primary Ottoman motivation was to enrich themselves and their warriors as they proceeded in their campaign aimed initially at seizing all that was “Rum” (Roman world). Following the conquest of the last remnants of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, the Ottomans immediately attacked into the Mediterranean where they defeated the seafaring and trading city-state of Venice in 1479, following a 15-year war.

The Ottoman Empire then turned east and attacked with gunpowder weapons in Persia followed by a pivot south, conducting operations against the Mamluks in Egypt. A series of wars then erupted against Vienna between 1540 and 1791 wherein the Ottoman Empire attempted to overrun European civilization. A Western fleet stopped further Ottoman advances into the Mediterranean at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and European ground forces, for all intents and purposes, halted their invasion of Europe at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. From 1500 to 1700, the Ottomans were using similar artillery and small arms as the Europeans; however, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a significant gap widened between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The problem stemmed partly from the same type of issues the Russians faced by blocking the advancement in science and learning that the Europeans and North Americans embraced from the Renaissance (fourteenth to sixteenth centuries) to the Enlightenment (eighteenth century).

The West had finally seen the major religious wars come to an end with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which not only strengthened scientific inquiry but also codified the central position and power of the nation-state. Free to conduct experimentation and in possession of resources in which to support research and development, the West moved into the Industrial Revolution, which witnessed England, in particular, making historic gains in both civilian and military technology.

Conversely, in the Middle East in general and in the Ottoman Empire in particular, the inability to expand territory and seize resources with which to provide succor to one’s warriors and with which other key elite in the establishment might avoid paying taxes was stalled by the obstinacy of the Europeans. The Ottoman Empire came into being by taking land and wealth via an overwhelmingly powerful military. “Conquer and tax” was a simple formula useful for centuries for most warlords in conjunction with their multiple purveyors of religious edicts, condemnations, and general authoritarian methods of behavioral control. Without the ability to expand territory and thus the tax base, which allowed the Sultan to provide warriors with lucrative timars from which they could enjoy revenue from a subservient people, the Sultan was faced with having to generate revenue from taxes on an expanding base of sales and marketing of goods and services, that is, international trade. The problem with this model of empire was, once again, the Europeans.

During the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire was arguably the premier military force in the world. It had managed, by virtue of its occupation of the key and strategic position of the former Byzantine Empire, to create a monopoly on the movement of trade between India and China, on the one hand, and Europe and the Mediterranean, on the other hand. The problem for the Ottomans’ monopoly on trade arose when men began seeing the world as a globe rather than as a flat, immovable object. Thus, shedding the church’s condemnation of Galileo and others who were intent on freely investigating the natural world, the West was able to escape the shackles of tradition and began embracing the dynamics that came from creativity and innovation. The result was a scientific revolution, which led to advanced technology and military supremacy.

The Ottoman Empire rested on a triad of capabilities. First, it evolved from the benefits of territorial expansion and in taxing those newly minted citizens. Second, its fortunes rested on massive tracts of land generally dedicated to agricultural production. And third, it benefited enormously from the control of trade routes between the East and the West. In terms of the first leg of the triad, its ability to expand had been frustrated by the Europeans. In the second, its control over the trade routes had been neutralized by ocean-going vessels and technology, which traversed the southern tip of Africa and into Asian markets. As such, by the eighteenth century, its fortunes had come to rely on its agricultural products and raw materials as its main economic asset. Its ability to control the terms of trade had vanished. A fourth leg had disappeared in the eighteenth century—military supremacy.

By this time, the European trading countries—Britain, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Germany, and, to a certain extent, Russia—through aggressive mercantilist policies had developed capital reserves that developing countries would require in order to modernize their infrastructure and reform their financial institutions. The Europeans, in stark contrast to the period between the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries when the Ottomans reigned supreme militarily and financially, controlled the terms of trade.

Unfortunately, the Europeans conducted campaigns of predatory financial and military behavior in the same harsh and blatantly exploitative manner as its predecessors in the Middle East and in Asia. The blame for dismal economic conditions in the modern Middle East rests not with the West, East, North, or South. The blame rests on predatory schemes by corrupt and often incompetent leaders within the Middle East, acting in conjunction with dominant internal factions. Additionally, international actors, including states and private sector entities have, in many instances, undermined rational policies of growth and development by aligning with the corrupt and incompetent within the region.

In order to modernize in the early modern era, Mehmet Ali in Egypt and the Sultan in Constantinople needed foreign exchange (hard currency), and since the Europeans were now in a superior trading position, hard currency (and thus capital) was now in their hands. The Middle East had no other option other than a campaign aimed at economic, political, and educational reforms and a general modernization effort that would touch upon all aspects of society. However, since they lacked the capital, it had to come from loans from the rich European trading states. Those loans were granted, but they were granted by what could only be described as predatory mercantilists posing as international bankers. Accordingly, the Western bankers and their state supporters were prepared to make the loans for the modernized networks and systems that relatively advanced European technology could provide; but the Middle Eastern borrowers would have to provide exclusive concessions to the European lenders for what essentially amounted to effective control of those strategic assets, such as railways, communication links, and factories.

As a result, Ottoman banks, mining companies, railroads, docks and warehouses, forestry enterprises, gas and water works, and so forth were all not only built by the Europeans but also subsequently owned by them. The British obtained significant shares in the Ottoman Central Bank, which they helped finance and create. France took control of the concession to run key railroads in the Ottoman Empire. The French also obtained tobacco rights and control of the docks in Beirut. The British took control of mineral rights in the city of Mosul, one of the premier trading posts of the old overland trading system in what is now present-day Iraq. The Russians pressed for and secured the rights to custom duties in Constantinople and in the Black Sea ports. Germany took control of the docks at Haidar Pasha (1899) and Alexandrette (1905) along with railway shares (Berlin-to-Baghdad aspirations) and various municipal transport monopolies.

Even if the urge to develop the Ottoman economy had sharpened after 1840, that urge would have come too late. By then the Europe powers had, by concerted intervention, harnessed the Ottoman and Egyptian agricultural economies to the industrializing European economies, with the familiar pattern of the exchange of raw materials from the Middle East for industrial goods from Europe. As a result, in the Ottoman Empire even more than in Egypt the emergence of a domestic industry and of a Muslim middle class was checked. Instead, non-Muslim minorities and the enlarging European resident communities performed middle-class functions. The absence of economic reform in the Ottoman Empire thus closed the circuit of innovation. The rising secular educational system promoted primarily the interests of the new class of military officers, civil (imperial) servants, diplomats, and teachers who by 1870 formed a new urban educated elite. Their influence in domestic politics outlived the empire and indeed, Turkey’s First Republic.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the management of the state finances was largely being controlled by Europeans. The responsibility for these developments does not rest solely with the Europeans. In order to facilitate such a massive penetration of a state’s economic assets, the cooperation of key Ottoman elite was necessary and was made possible partly by a desire to enrich themselves as they signed away control. This is not to say all Ottoman elite operated in this manner, nor is it to say all Western political and financial elite sought to plunder the empire.

But the people living in the Ottoman Empire, unbeknownst to them, had their economic wealth carted off by what might be characterized as modern pillagers and plunderers arising both in the Middle East and in Europe. Prior to placing a blanket of blame on everyone in the West involved in nineteenth-century Ottoman and Egyptian economic affairs, it should be remembered that an enormous threat was posed to Western civilization by the rise of the Ottoman Empire and its vassals in Egypt. This was an enormously powerful and violent empire whose aim was to conquer and subjugate Europe and place the yoke of taxation upon its shoulders. This campaign was to be achieved not by negotiation, consent, or the virtuous example of exemplary leadership, but attained at the point of the sword, and later, by the general bombardment of a city’s walls. To contribute in dismantling that threat from a purely defensive motivation certainly animated the decision making and behavior of many statesmen and bankers in Europe at the time. European military commanders were required to defend their people. If the bankers could take down most of the Ottoman’s capability before a war had to be fought, so much the better.

The dynamics and the nexus between economic affairs and military operations have been ongoing for thousands of years, in Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, the process is not improved by burning down the town square, shooting the sheriff, or burning the bank. When the Egyptian people realized that the elite had essentially sold their country to the Europeans, they began, in a passionate and emotional fit, burning, looting, and killing. The process is improved by ordinary people becoming increasingly aware of the nefarious nature of many of these schemes and in shining the light of public awareness on the nature of those tactics, and then, holding those responsible to account. This requires reason over passion, wisdom over emotion, and education over ignorance. It required a new relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Napoleon and the French army, for all the havoc it wreaked during the Egyptian campaign, successfully served notice that the idea of a new relationship between ruler and ruled had arrived in the Middle East.