Muhammad Ali Pasha the Great

Muhammad `Alī

Muhammad Ali, Pasha the Great (Arabic: محمد علي باشا; many spelling variations, including Turkish language Mehmet Ali) (1769 - August 2, 1849), was a viceroy of Egypt, and is sometimes considered the founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali was an Albanian born in Kavala. In 1798 Napoleon destroyed the Mamluk rulers' army at the Battle of the Pyramids. Napolean himself soon left Egypt, and his troops there were defeated by the British at the Battle of the Nile, a mainly naval affair, on August 1, 1791. By 1801 the French had withdrawn from Egypt, effectively leaving a power vacuum, which Muhammad Ali filled. He was appointed Ottoman governor (wali) of Egypt in 1805 and famously (and treacherously) massacred the Mamluk leaders. He introduced sweeping reforms to Egypt: he built an army from Egyptian peasants through conscription, using this force to expand Egypt's borders; he built much infrastructure, such as canals and roadways; and he established Egypt as one of the world's largest cotton producers. Muhammad `Ali also introduced significant social reforms, including the creation of modern educational institutions. Most of his efforts, however, were focused on his successful strengthening of Egypt's armed forces. Egypt became temporarily a powerful modernized force in the Middle East.


Throughout his reign he was the nominal vassal of the Ottoman sultan, but he acted independently. He aided the sultan in fighting in the Greek War of Independence, but lost part of his navy at the Battle of Navarino. He put down a Wahhabi revolt in Arabia for the sultan. Later he and the sultan fell out, going to war in 1831. Under his son Ibrahim of Egypt, Muhammad `Ali's armies seized Palestine and Syria and were within a few days march of Constantinople. Russia intervened, leading to a negotiated solution in 1833, leaving Muhammad `Ali in control of Syria and Palestine. In return for withdrawing opposition, the sultan made the governorship of Egypt a hereditary office.

Rise to Power

The process of Muhammad Ali's seizure of power in Egypt was a long three way civil war between the Ottoman Turks, Egyptian Mamluks, and Albanian mercenaries. The war was a result of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Napoleon’s invasion, and rapid personal withdrawal, from Egypt remains something of a mystery. Napoleon told the Egyptian people, in a Proclamation on July 2, 1798, that the Mamluks had exploited them as well as “insulted the French nation and injured its merchants,” so the French, who were lovers of liberty, had come to restore their rights and to “punish the usurpers.” Moreover, God had ordered that the “rabble of slaves [who had] tyrannized the people” should rule no longer. After the French were defeated by the British, a power vacuum was created in Egypt when the latter withdrew their troops from Cairo in March 1803, although a team of French administrators stayed on.

The Mamluks had governed Egypt since 1250, although from 1517 they were subjects of the Ottomans, and in theory, the senior official in Egypt was the Pasha, appointed from Istanbul. Originally soldier-slaves, the Mamluks became a ruling class in Egypt, first as sultans including the great Saladin (1137-1193); then after their conquest by the Ottomans, vassal landlords with the honorific title of bey.

Before the French invasion, the Mamluks still had much power in the area. They owned most of the land, and thus controlled the economy. They attempted not only to resume control, but also to do so as independent rulers. The British were sympathetic towards this goal, seeing it as an opportunity to increase their influence in the region at the expense of the Ottomans. One of the Mamluk beys, Mahommed Bey al-Alfi (called the Great) was in England at the time. Egypt still had many Turkish troops who had been deployed against the French. Many of the best troops were from Albania, then also a province of the Ottoman Empire. These troops had not been paid, and began to demand funds from the defterdar, or finance minister. When pay was not forthcoming, the soldiers took possession of the minister's official residence. The Wali (Ottoman governor), whose own residence was across the Ezbekia gardens from the minister's house, opened fire on the defterdar's house. However, the Albanian commander, Thir, retaliated and forced the Wali, Khosrev Pasha, to flee. Just 23 days later, Thir met his death from exactly the same cause as that of the overthrow of his predecessor—he refused to pay some of the Turkish troops, and was immediately assassinated.

A desperate conflict ensued between the Albanians and Turks and the palace was set on fire and plundered. Muhammad `Ali now succeeded to the leadership of the Albanians, and found himself caught between the Mamluks, and the Wali. The situation was made more complicated by the fact that the Mamluks were also fighting an internal battle between two factions, one led by Mahommed Bey al-Alfi, who had returned from England, the other by Osman Bey al-Bardisi. A series of Walis were appointed. One, Ahmed Pasha, had happened to be passing through Egypt on his way to take up an appointment in Arabia. Ali remained loyal to the Sultan but he also allied himself with the Mamluks, since they had not formally broken with the Sultan. By attempting to protect the general population and to keep the peace, Ali endeared himself to the people of Egypt, who were being tax heavily to pay for the military struggle. At one point in the compex series of military engagement and swings of power backwards and forwards between the Wali and the Mamluks, with the Albanians in the middle, the Sultan offered to give the Mamluks an annual pension and other privileges if they recognized that the Pasha was the senior and supreme official in Egypt. They agreed to negotiate terms but on this occasion suspected treachery and rebelled against Khosrev Pasha, who was once again technically in power.

An insufficient flood of the Nile also added to Egypt's troubles, aggravated by the taxation to which the beys were compelled to resort in order to pay their troops. Riots and violence broke out in the capital, with much of the soldiery being under little or no control. It was Muhammad Ali who managed to discipline his troops so that some of the violence could be constrained. Although a foreigner, he emerged as a popular figure amidst the chaos and anarchy. The Wali was escorted to Syria, where some of his troops were stationed, and met his death there during a skirmish involving his own soldiers.

The Mamluk-Albanian Alliance

This left Al-Bardisi, who had emerged as victor against his rival, al-Alfi, in charge of Egypt. His fortune, however, was temporary. In order to satisfy the persistent and apparently rarely satisfied demands of the Albanian soldiers for their pay, he gave orders to levy heavy contributions from the citizens of Cairo, which incited them to rebellion. The Albanians, alarmed for their own safety, assured the populace that they would not allow civil disorder, and Muhammad Ali himself issued a proclamation to this effect. Al-Bardisi fled from Cairo. Three days later, on March 12, 1804, the Albanians attacked al-Bardisi's house, who escaped with difficulty. Still loyal to the Ottomans, Ali recognized the Sultan's official, Mahommed Khosrev, as pasha of Egypt. However, he only enjoyed the title for about a day and a half before friends of the late Thir Pasha succeeded in killing him. He was succeeded as pasha by Ahmed Khorshid.

Meanwhile, forces loyal to al-Bardisi were ravaging the country a few miles south of the capital, intercepting corn supplies on the river and capturing several towns and villages, which they plundered. Cairo itself remained in a state of tumult, suffering especially from the scarcity of grain. A series of confrontations followed between the Muhamamd Ali-led Albanians, and al-Bardisi's troops, now joined by his former rival, al-Alfi. Muhammad Ali, fighting under the Pasha, engaged against the Mamluks.

Attempting to exert his power, Khorshid summoned the assistance of 3,000 Kurdish troops from Syria. However, instead of aiding Khorshid, the Kurds caused his overthrow. Cairo was ripe for revolt. At this juncture a firman arrived from Constantinople conferring on Muhammad Ali the Pashalic of Jedda, but within a few days he became pasha of all Egypt.

Muhammad Ali ousts Khorshid

On the May 12, 1805, the ulama (religious leaders), accompanied by a large number of Cairo residents, submitted to Muhammad Ali a list of the wrongs they had endured under the administration of the pasha and told him that the people would no longer submit to Khorshid. When he asked them to whom would they submit, they said they would submit to him. They could see from his countenance that he would govern with justice and compassion, and according to the law. Muhammad Ali hesitated, then consented, and was invested into office.

Khorshid, hearing this news, which amounted to a mutiny, prepared for battle. Some of the Albanian troops joined his side, not wishing to oppose the Sultan. Many of his own soldiers, on the other hand, deserted. Muhammad Ali's advantage lay in the support of the citizens of Cairo, who now saw him as a deliverer. Many citizens were also armed.

On May 9, Muhammad Ali laid siege to Khorshid's Headquarters, the famous citadel built by Saladin. Khorshid gave orders to cannonade and bombard the town, which made Muhammad Ali's position somewhat precarious, especially when his own soldiers once again started demanding pay.

On May 28, news came of the arrival at Alexandria of a messenger from Istanbul. This message proved to be a firman (imperial decree) confirming Muhammad Ali as pasha and ordering Khorshid to go to Alexandria to await further instructions there, which he refused to do. Next, the Mamluk troops advanced on Cairo, this time in response to a request for help from the Wali. Muhammad Ali forced them to retreat. Then, a squadron under the command of the Turkish high admiral arrived with dispatches from the Sultan that again confirmed Ali's appointment, and which authorized him to continue to discharge the functions of governor. Khorshid again refused to yield. Finally, on condition that his troops would still be paid, he evacuated the citadel and left Cairo for Rosetta.

Defeat of the Mamlukes

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo, Egypt.

Muhammad Ali now possessed the title of Governor of Egypt, but beyond the walls of Cairo his authority was everywhere disputed by the Mamluk beys, who enjoyed support from some Albanian deserters as well as from elements of Khorshid's army. Muhammad Ali had no choice but to raise income through taxation, and he chose to do so mainly by increasing the jizya (tribute) paid by the Coptic Christian minority.

On August 17, 1805, the Mamluks and the deposed Wali succeeded in entering Cairo while Ali's attention had been diverted towards a ceremonial opening of a new dam. They were routed, however, by a combined force of citizens and soldiers, and many members of the Mamluk family were slaughtered. Ali then sent 83 heads (some of which were French) to Istanbul with a message that the Mamluks had been crushed. The sultan, though, at the request of the English, re-instated the surviving Mamluks, and on July 1, 1896, sent Admiral Salih Pasha to Egpyt with a replacement Wali and a firman appointing Ali as governor of Salonika. Ali responded by persuading the ulama to petition for his retention as Wali, and to oppose the re-instatement of the Mamluks. Ali also said that while he was willing to depart for Salonika, his troops, to whom he owed money, did not want him to leave. A compromise was reached by which Ali had to pay an agreed sum of money to the sultan in return for retaining the governorship of Egypt, which he did. The following month al-Bardisi died, at the age of 48; and soon after, a scarcity of provisions led al-Alfi's troops to revolt. Al-Alfi himself was still expecting English support but he fell ill died and died on January 30, 1807, at the age of 55. This removed two of Ali Pasha's chief opponents.

On March 17, 1807, a British fleet appeared off Alexandria carrying 5,000 troops, under the command of General A. Mackenzie Fraser, with the intent of supporting the now dead al-Alfi. Instead, they invited the surviving Mamluks to join forces. A military engagement followed at Rosetta and Rahmanieh, aimed at securing supplies for their base in Alexandria. The British suffered a surprising defeat, losing a number of senior officers and 185 men, with a further 281 wounded. The heads of the slain were fixed on stakes on each side of the road crossing the Ezbekia in Cairo.

Muhammad Ali, meanwhile, was conducting an expedition against the Mamluk beys in Upper Egypt, winning a victory near Assiut. He heard of the arrival of the British, and was alarmed that the beys might join them. He immediately sent messengers to his rivals, promising to comply with all their demands if they should join him in expelling the invaders. They agreed, and both armies marched towards Cairo on opposite sides of the river. The British were still trying to take Rosetta but finally, on April 20, retreated to Alexandria having by then lost 900 men. The Mamluks were now also divided between those who wanted to help the British, and those who wanted to assist Ali. By September 14, however, the British had evacuated Alexandria. Ali Pasha then granted various demands from the Mamluks, reinstating some of their privileges, which amounted to control of the revenues of certain provinces. Several members of the family also took up residence in Cairo. However, he appears to have concocted a plan to permanently rid himself of the Mamluks.

In early 1811, Ali Pasha was preparing to send troops to Arabia in support of the Sultan who was crushing a Wahhabi-led rebellion there and was sending one of his own sons as commander of a regiment. He invited the Mamluks to attend the commissioning ceremony, which was to be an occasion of great pomp and circumstance. On 1st March, the Mamluks attended the procession, and were courteously received by the pasha in the Citadel. Having taken coffee, they formed up in procession, and, preceded and followed by the pasha's troops, slowly descended the steep and narrow road that led to the great gate of the citadel. However, as soon as the Mamluks arrived at the gate it was suddenly closed before them. The last of those to leave, before the gate was shut, were Albanian soldiers, to whom Ali had secretly given orders to massacre all the Mamluks within the citadel. Four hundred and seventy Mamluks entered the famous citadel. Only one is known to have escaped, who found his way to Syria. This massacre was the signal for an indiscriminate slaughter of the Mamluks throughout Egypt, with orders to this effect being sent to every regional governor. The Wali and his son tried to stop the rioting but order was not restored until five hundred houses had been completely pillaged. The heads of the beys were sent to Constantinople. A remnant of the Mamluks fled to Nubia.

Final Skirmishes

In the year following the massacre, the exiles in Nubia were attacked by Ibrahim Pasha, Ali Pasha's eldest son. Some survivors continued to live in Nubia. Some scattered throughout the region. In 1820 he invaded Sudan. He also aided the Sultan in a number of battles, including against European forces in Greece in 1827. In 1831 he added Syria to the territory over which he had control. This, though, alarmed the Ottoman sultan, who requested Russian help against him. The British and French then intervened, and in 1833 a compromise was reached by which Ali withdrew from some of his territory but Ibrahim, his son, became governor of Syria. In 1839 he fell out with the sultan, and attacked Turkey. However, he was repulsed by multilateral European intervention (including the British Royal Navy blockading the Nile Delta coast) that required Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim to give up Syria in 1841. The sultan, though, confirmed Ali in his governorship and also declared that it would be a hereditary office.


Ali had modernized his army based on the French draft system. He employed French officers to train his troops, and to teach military science. He also established a staff college. He introduced irrigation systems and general administrative reforms but lost much of his initial popularity by taxing heavily to pay for these. Due to the high demand for cotton in Europe, he turned almost all agricultural production over to cotton, making Egypt a major supplier. This became his personal monopoly. He also tried to develop manufacturing, but this was not very successful. He opened up the economy to European trade, firming commercial and diplomatic links. Under his rule, Egypt entered into the international community of nations as a 'state' in its own right, not just as a province of the Ottomans.

He retired in July 1848, and died in August 1849. He was succeeded by his sons Ibrahim (1789-1848) and Said (1769-1863), then by his grandson, Abbas (1849-1854). Egypt increasingly fell under the domination of Europeans, whose bank-loans and expertise were originally used to compensate for lack of funds to finance the necessary reforms but soon resulted in the British and French demanding privileges. Ismail Pasha (1830-1895), the first Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt, the new title conferred by the sultan in 1867, also Ali's grandson, continued modernization but was forced to sell his most of his own stock in the Suez Canal (opened in 1858) to Britain. By 1876, Egyptian finances were controlled by a British-French debt commission and by 1883, real power was in the hands of the British Consul-General. The British more or less assumed power because Egypt was in their financial debt, and, according to them, could not govern itself properly. Ali's great-grandson, Fuad I, became the first modern king of Egypt in 1922, when Britain granted “independence,” although as a client state. Nominally, then, Ali's successors ruled Egypt until 1953, when King Farouk was deposed.

Ali Pasha gave modern Egypt a sense of its own identity, and moved it away from complete subservience to Ottomans towards a larger degree of independence. Egyptian nationalism re-asserted itself, although this was also linked with pan-Arabism—the desire for a single, united Arab state. Many felt that the Ottomans were not true caliphs of Islam because they were not Arab. Unfortunately, Ali's involvement in military expansion and skirmished embroiled him with European powers, to which his country became increasingly indebted. This resulted, eventually, in subordination to British power. On the other hand, relations between Egypt and Europe were strengthened and a great deal of cultural exchange has taken place between Egypt and Europe, not least because of interest in Ancient Egyptian artifacts.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.