Quick Egyptian Historical Review III (1517-1879)

Ottoman Rule in Egypt (1517-1798)

The Ottoman Empire, founded in the late 13th century, had been steadily expanding. From its source in northwestern Anatolia the empire extended across the Dardanelles into southeastern Europe. In the 15th century, after it had conquered most of the Balkan region, the empire turned south and east, absorbing most of the petty states of Muslim Anatolia.

Although Selim appointed a governor for Egypt, the Mamluks, the ulama, and the Egyptian people did not happily accept Ottoman rule. Selim took many artisans and scholars from Cairo and sent them to Istanbul to help build up the imperial capital.

The Ottomans imposed new and unfamiliar laws (and Turkish judges) on the Egyptians. Inevitably these sources of unrest led to uprisings against Ottoman rule. A large scale revolt broke out in 1523, inspired by the ulama of Cairo but spearheaded by groups of Circassian Mamluks, with some involvement by Bedouin tribal soldiers.

Broadly speaking, the 16th century was one of prosperity for Egypt, as it was for most of the Ottoman Empire. Public order led to high agricultural production, making Egypt the main supplier of rice, sugar, and lentils to the sultan’s court in Istanbul. The Circassian Mamluks continued to control the rural areas, especially in the Delta; their power was enhanced by tax farming, a system in which the state gave to designated agents (usually, in Egypt’s case, Mamluks, but also ulama and even Copts and Jews) the right to collect land taxes from the peasants as long as they paid a percentage or a fixed amount to the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul. Arab tribes held power in many parts of Upper Egypt. Ulama and merchants prospered in Cairo and the port cities; al-Azhar, founded in Cairo by the Fatimids in 972, emerged as preeminent among Egypt’s madrasas. Muslim mysticism, or Sufism, grew ever more central in the lives of most Egyptians. Christians and Jews suffered sporadic persecution from the governors or the troops, often in the form of demands on the religious group as a whole to come up with specified sums of money, but generally managed their own affairs and lived well.

As the Ottoman administration grew more bureaucratic and tied to Sunni Islam, Egypt became a refuge for discontented troops fleeing Anatolia. This led to street brawls in Cairo, factional strife, and competition for power.

Egypt in Decline

In the first half of the 18th century Egypt prospered owing to its high agricultural output and its leading position as a seller of coffee, sugar, and rice to Europe and to other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Later, however, Egypt’s economy declined as Europeans took control of seaborne trade in these commodities and increasingly imported them from the Americas. One interesting exception was the introduction of an American product, tobacco, into Egypt, where it became a significant cash crop. Local Mamluks, notably Ali Bey (r. 1760-72) and his lieutenant, Muhammad Bey Abu al-Dhahab (r. 1772-75) tried to reform Egypt’s government and economy by cutting it off from Ottoman rule. Their efforts may be seen as harbingers of the more successful reforms undertaken by Mehmet Ali in the 19th century. Nevertheless, their attempts to conquer Syria, in open rebellion against the Ottoman sultan, proved to be costly failures. Abu al-Dhahab later turned against his former mentor, Ali Bey. After Abu al-Dhahab’s death in 1775, the Mamluks again fought bitterly for control of Egypt, doing great harm to the Egyptian economy.

The political and economic decline brought Egypt to its lowest point. To the French soldiers and savants who invaded Egypt in 1798 and to later generations who read their descriptions of Egyptian society, it appeared that the country had declined for centuries and its people had long wallowed in misery. But the truth is that Egypt’s power, prosperity, cohesion, and intellectual glory have declined and revived many times throughout history. The late 18th century marked only a brief interlude.

French Military Campaign and Western Colonization (1798-1879)

The main challenges for the French expeditionary force were not military but logistical. Traversing the Delta meant crossing numerous canals and desert wastes, passing deserted villages, and enduring mosquitoes and dysentery-all under a hot Egyptian sun. Napoléon’s troops suffered more casualties from thirst and tropical diseases than from their enemies in battle. Lacking modern arms and discipline, the Mamluks were routed near the Pyramids. On July 21, 1798, the French entered Cairo.

Upon his arrival Napoléon assured the Egyptians: “Peoples of Egypt, you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion. This is an obvious lie; do not believe it. Answer back that I have come to restore your rights and to punish the usurpers; that I worship God more than the Mamluks do; and that I respect His prophet Muhammad and the admirable Quran.Most Muslim Egyptians were not convinced.

Napoléon had managed to evade Nelson’s fleet on his way to Egypt, but the British admiral did not give up his pursuit. On August 1, 1798, Nelson destroyed Napoléon’s fleet in Abu Qir Bay, near Alexandria. The reputation of the French was damaged; however, the Egyptians had no means to resist Napoléon’s troops on land. It would take the British and the Ottomans months to sign a defensive alliance treaty and to send an expedition to drive him out.

Napoléon viewed Egypt as the first step toward his goal of building a larger empire. He wrote to a woman friend: “In Egypt, I found myself freed from the obstacles of an irksome civilization. I was full of dreams… I saw myself founding a religion, marching into Asia, riding an elephant, a turban on my head and in my hand the new Quran that I would have composed to suit my needs.

The new French commander, General Jacques Abdallah Menou, had converted to Islam to marry an Egyptian woman. Less interested than Kléber in leaving Egypt, he restored the Egyptian diwan and drew up elaborate plans to promote agriculture, commerce, and industry. These reforms would clearly require higher taxes. When Menou began to survey landholdings to raise their assessments, all social classes in Egypt became alarmed. But relief was in sight. A joint Anglo-Ottoman force occupied the Delta in March 1801 and defeated the French. Both the British and the Ottomans were eager to hasten France’s departure from Egypt, but they disagreed on how to achieve it. Britain and the Ottoman Empire ended up signing separate peace treaties with France in 1802. The French troops left, followed by the British. An Ottoman army of occupation remained to restore order.