Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (590)
In this second of a nine-part series marking the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali Pasha's assumption to the throne -- 13 May 1805 -- Professor Yunan Labib Rizk shows us the personal side of the founder of modern Egypt
a silver fountain presented to Mohamed Ali
Little is known about the private life of Mohamed Ali. Perhaps the most important reason for this is that even as the occupant of the citadel, he continued to live the austere life to which he had become accustomed in his military career. He had none of that sophisticated pomp and splendour that would characterise the age of his grandson Khedive Ismail -- the luxurious palaces inspired by Versailles, the elegant retinue modeled on the royal courts of Europe, and, consequently, a vibrant cultural life epitomised by a flourishing press. All Mohamed Ali had was the official gazette which was more of a broadsheet chronicling government activities. As a result, there were only two primary sources for information on Mohamed Ali's private life. The first is the foreign consuls or other officials who recorded their impressions on life in the citadel in the reports they submitted to their superiors or in the memoirs they published after returning home. The second is to be found in the long train of commands he issued pertaining to all aspects of life in Egypt, some of which concerned the royal family.
Because the Al-Ahram file on this matter was understandably slim, we cast about for other sources. To our good fortune we came across an intriguing article that appeared in Al-Hilal on 1 May 1893, the magazine's first year of publication. It is with this, therefore, that we shall open this episode of the Chronicle's commemoration of the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali's ascendancy to the Egyptian throne.
MOHAMED ALI PASHA, THE DYNASTY'S FOUNDER This was the title of Al-Hilal's article which stated: "Mohamed Ali was of medium height. He had a high forehead enhanced by a receding hairline, a prominent brow and dark piercing eyes, a large nose and a small smiling mouth -- features which were cast harmoniously and reflected his blend of forcefulness and humility. So too did his thick white beard which curved broadly around his jaw, his delicate hands, his upright posture and the striking figure he cut when striding purposefully, hands clasped behind his back, as he often did in his home when contemplating an important matter 'in the manner of Bonaparte', as it has been described. He cared little for clothes; he generally dressed in Mameluke costume, although later he exchanged the military tarboush for a turban, enhancing his dignity and stature, and the military uniform for a simple widely cut kuftan that would have barely marked him out from some of his subjects.
"He loathed ostentation in his court. Only a single guard stood at his door and in council he never carried a sword but would sit with a handful of snuff and a string of prayer beads which he would toy with in the other hand. He was fond of billiards and checkers and was not aloof to consorting with even low-ranking officers. His ordinary visitors, however, were foreign consuls and eminent tourists who revered him fondly as they would a grandfather and who sometimes dubbed him the Exterminator of the Mamelukes or the Reformer of Egypt. He was quick tempered, never concealed his anger and would frequently be given to outbursts over the intrigues of corrupters. He was noble spirited and generous, sometimes to excess. He boasted of being a self-made man and enjoyed speaking of his exploits. He was keen to keep up on the latest developments, especially in political affairs. He had a high regard for the press and its impact on society and had foreign newspapers translated and would comb through them in earnest.
"His political anxieties so obsessed him that he was unable to sleep properly. He could only sleep for short stretches and when he did he was so restless that he engaged two servants to alternate vigils so as to cover him up again if his blanket fell off him. It has also been said that one of the causes of his insomnia was a recurrent respiratory ailment that he had acquired as the result of a trauma during his campaign against the Wahabis. Nevertheless, this insomnia did nothing to diminish his energy. He would wake up at about 4.00am and spend his day in consultation with his advisers, observing military displays, deliberating matters pertaining to the welfare of the nation and other such concerns. He was excellent at mathematical calculations, a skill he acquired instinctively having learned to read and write at the age of 45. He is said to have first learned the alphabet from one of his female servants after which he learned to write from an Al-Azhar scholar, a fact which does him only greater credit as it demonstrates his innate perspicacity, wisdom and political acumen. He was punctilious in his dealings with others, but lenient and gentle and scrupulously courteous. He was a devout Muslim but respected the teachings of other religions, especially Christianity, affiliates of which he brought into his court and delegated to them some of the weightiest tasks of government.
"In general, he has been described as a fond father and faithful friend to his subjects, a dedicated aid and supporter of those close to him, and a true father to his children. Such was the distress that assailed him after having lost most of his children that it impaired his health and haunted him until his death. As for his love for his subjects it requires no proof; if the people of Egypt lack sufficient words to enumerate his virtues, the material world speaks on their behalf in the form of all these canals, bridges, buildings, gardens and avenues; all these printing presses, schools and military, civil and judicial institutions; all that profusion of agriculture and produce; and that Arabian Peninsula that cannot praise him enough for having come to its rescue. He was venerated not only by his subjects and family members but also by foreigners who, in spite of their distance from him in nationality, religion and outlook, would frequently present him with medals and gifts in recognition of his contributions to the world in general and to paving the way for trade between Europe and India in particular".
ON THE EDUCATION OF HIS CHILDREN, Ibrahim El- Muweilhi wrote: "Mohamed Ali -- born in the humble home of his parents, brought up in the shadow of the jorbashi (village governor in Cavalla, into whose family Mohamed Ali's father married), joined the army, married a wealthy widow and embarked in commerce with a French merchant -- benefited greatly from this diverse and practical life. He experienced both its boons and its banes, and took these lessons as the beacon that guided him to success, indeed, to rule and reform.
"I am unable to recall at the moment the name of that wise man who said, 'The best ruler over a people is that man who has practised commerce for 10 years'. There is nothing peculiar in this, for commerce hones the intellect, refines character and elevates morals.
"Mohamed Ali's 11 years in trade gave him insight into man's character and fortified him against the setbacks of life. Nor did the glory of power and the responsibility of rule cause him to forget the importance of rearing his own children on a practical education that instills in them a love for their nation that blends patriotic zeal with the dedication to its defence and the commitment to its advancement so that it can assume the status it merits among the community of civilised nations.
"A well-known illustration of the sternness with which he brought up his children relates that, once, when his grandson Abbas, then governor of Al-Gharbiya, was late in responding to his request for some information regarding the administration of that province, Mohamed Ali sent him the following letter: 'I have grown impatient with your negligence and remiss. When I appointed you to this post, I expected you to be a model for other governors. If you are tired of the work, relax and I will appoint someone else to take up your duties. If the delay was the fault of the chief clerk, he will receive his due punishment'. In sterner language yet, he concludes, 'Abbas! Look to your duties and responsibilities and abandon all thought of rest, because if you delay the business of government you will be dismissed and you will be regarded with scorn and censure. This is not what I would wish for you'.
"Abbas incurred the wrath of his grandfather again that year (1250 hijra) when he ordered the death of his baker for some petty offence. Mohamed Ali wrote the following letter to Mahmoud Kashef, one of Abbas's senior aides: 'I have learned from the supplication presented to me by my cook Eisa Agha of the order issued by the governor of Al-Gharbiya to kill his brother, the cook in the employ of that pasha, in spite of the fact that I have made it absolutely clear to this governor that he must not tyrannise the people. I was greatly distressed by this news, for as you know the above-mentioned pasha is my grandson who stands to inherit my rule. If in his youth he is given to such actions, which our subjects find horrifying and repulsive, how will he summon the necessary deliberation, forbearance and clemency when he assumes power? Wake him up and convey to him these sentiments out of kindness to my old age: 'Or else you will obtain your obliteration and annihilation!'
"One evening, while presiding over a meeting of his ministers, Mohamed Ali heard that his son Said Bek, who was studying the naval arts under Chief Admiral Mutash Pasha, was behaving insolently and arrogantly towards his teacher. Mohamed Ali dispatched the following letter instructing his son 'to abide by the orders of Mutash Pasha, not to sit before him unless instructed to do so and, whenever in his presence, show him the respect due to his office'. He added, however, that outside the naval barracks 'Mutash Pasha must remember that Said Bek is the son of Mohamed Ali and show him, in his turn, the respect appropriate to the heir of the governorship of Egypt'.
"In the same letter, the father refused to issue his son more than 100 piastres a month 'in line with the salaries of the other aides in the navy and commensurate with the rank he has on the ship upon which he is serving'. Thus Mohamed Ali treated his son as the other naval cadets. This was not to shame his son, but rather to encourage him to do better than his peers in order to rise through the ranks. He did want Said to become complacent in the thought that he was the son the viceroy and grow lazy and abandon his studies.
"Mohamed Ali personally attended the examinations of his sons and grandsons in order to reassure himself of their aptitudes for the arts and sciences. In a letter dated 26 Rabie Al- Awal 1251 hijra he counsels his son Said to pay attention to his studies and to remain active so not to grow fat. He further advises him to comport himself modestly and to do all that is necessary to better himself. He adds that he -- Mohamed Ali -- would be coming to Alexandria to oversee his son's examination by one of his instructors and that if Said does not demonstrate a solid grounding in his studies he will be disciplined accordingly.
"We now present a translation from the Turkish (into Arabic) of an important historical document: a letter from Mohamed Ali to Mazloum Pasha, the Egyptian representative at the sultan's court:
'Many who venerate the sultan will have the honour to receive advancements in rank on the occasion of the Imperial Fair which glitters on the horizon. I take this opportunity to address His Excellency the Grand Vizier's view with regard to the need to elevate my grandson Mustafa Bek and Thabet Bek to second rank, which view and your approval thereof you have apprised me of in your splendid letter of 18 Shawal 1263 hijra.
'As you know, every human being is naturally inclined to seek advancement and rank. Likewise, it is natural that every person, while aware of the building blocks of character that lead to the pinnacles of prestige and honour, will be inclined t o sluggishness and lassitude if he does not force himself to acquire said properties. For if he attains his aspirations freely and easily, without strain or exertion, he will not devote himself to his personal enhancement and refinement and he will remain bare of the mantle of wisdom and unadorned by the embellishments of virtue.
'The prince to whom I referred above is, on the one hand, too young to have acquired the finer human virtues and temperament, and, on the other, if he attains his desire too easily he will perforce succumb to lethargy and abandon the pursuit. In addition, he ranks sixth among the members of the family who have been privileged with the right of inheritance that has been conferred upon my family that remains ever devoted to the crown and beholden to its generosity under the wing of His Sublime Majesty the Sultan. As the prince's esteem and regard among the family can only be attained through the acquisition of virtue, I am compelled to draw attention to this matter in a manner that may be detrimental to his desire and to request that he be overlooked in the present bestowal of royal favour'.
"Such was Mohamed Ali's esteem for the significance of rank that he felt it his duty to intercede to prevent it from being bestowed those who did not merit it, even if these included a member of the ruling family.
The preceding illustrates the many outstanding qualities with which Mohamed Ali was endowed. It was due to these that his star rose in the heavens of distinction and glory and that he was able to transform Egypt -- that Ottoman province that had held its breath for three centuries -- into the strongest and proudest kingdom of the east as it made its ascent upon the ladder of civilisation and progress".
MOHAMED ALI'S SONS: On their deeds under the reign of their father, El-Muweilhi wrote: " Ibrahim Pasha: Eldest son of Mohamed Ali, he was born in the village of Nasrtali, a village near Cavalla, and came to Egypt in 1805 and took up residence in the citadel. In 1806, Mohamed Ali sent him to Istanbul as proof of his loyalty to the Supreme Porte. He returned the following year to assume the post of daftardar (financial administrator of a provincial directorate) and, in 1812, he was appointed governor of Upper Egypt.
In 1815, following the death of his brother Toussoun Pasha, he was appointed commander of the Hijaz campaign. Having occupied both administrative and military posts, he distinguished himself in war in his valour and leadership, and in peace time with his efficiency and resolve to do what was necessary for the advancement of Egypt.
The Supreme Porte tried but failed to pit father against son. Ibrahim Pasha had thwarted all the plots and intrigues and demonstrated throughout his filial obedience and respect to his father. Ibrahim was a proponent of introducing the means of Western civilisation into Egypt. He died in November 1848.
" Ahmed Toussoun Pasha: Mohamed Ali's second son, he was born in Nasrtali and died in 1815. He commanded the campaign against the Wahabis when only 16 and scored several victories. After the Wahabis sued for a truce, Touson returned to Egypt. His father then sent him to Berinbal near Rashid on a military mission; however, on the way he was stricken with plague and died. His body was brought back to Cairo for burial.
" Ismail Kamel Pasha: Born in Nasrtali. It was he who Mohamed Ali had chosen as his envoy to inform the sultan of the victory of the Egyptian forces in the Hijaz. Ismail Kamel was accorded a grand reception in Istanbul. Indeed, it was rumoured at the time that Sultan Mahmoud had nominated him for the post of governor of Tripoli in the Levant. After his return from Istanbul, Mohamed Ali appointed him governor of the area of Boulaq, then general commander of the Sudanese campaign. In Sudan, King Nimr succeeded in luring the young general into a trap. He burned to death in a fire that was set to his home.
" Hussein Bek: Born in 1825 and died in April 1847 in Paris to which he had traveled as a member of a scholastic mission. His body was returned to Egypt and buried in Prophet Daniel Mosque in Alexandria.
" Mohamed Said Pasha: The only son of Mohamed Ali to have completed his studies and attained higher educational certificates. He spoke French fluently. In spite of his son's severe conjunctivitis, Mohamed Ali placed him at an early age in the hands of foreign teachers. Mohamed Said joined the navy in which he rose to admiral of the Egyptian fleet.
He had a very strict upbringing. His father often scolded him for his obesity and punished him for his extravagance. When, one day, Mohamed Ali learned that Said had borrowed a considerable sum of money, he personally went to Al-Qabari Palace and sold his son's furniture in order to pay off his son's debts. Following the peace treaty between Mohamed Ali and the sultan, Mohamed Said traveled to Istanbul where he was granted the ranks of admiral and pasha.
" Mohamed Abdel-Halim Pasha: Born in 1831 and educated by Ottoman and foreign instructors, he was the bloom of youth when his father Mohamed Ali died. He did not participate in the Egyptian revival. Rather, he traveled to Paris with Prince Mustafa Fadel and the Khedive Ismail to complete his studies. His professors praised his acute intelligence.
" Mohamed Ali junior: Born in 1833 and died in 1861, he was the youngest of Mohamed Ali's sons. Educated in Abu Zaabal School, he showed an early proclivity for the acquisition of the military arts and sciences. Mohamed Ali displayed a special affection for this son and enjoyed displaying his intelligence before foreign guests.
" Princess Zeinab: One of the daughters of Mohamed Ali. She was married to Youssef Kamel Pasha in 1846, an occasion which was celebrated with a splendid banquet. She was born in 1825, died in Istanbul in 1884, and was buried in her family's private burial grounds in Eskafar".
GIFTS PRESENTED TO MOHAMED ALI: As Mohamed Ali consolidated his rule in Egypt and his reputation spread abroad, governments raced to win his friendship. Their efforts extended beyond eloquent speeches to valuable gifts and beautiful artifacts. So numerous were such offerings that we will suffice here with a few examples.
In 1824, the consul of France presented to the Egyptian viceroy in the name of his government a large carriage and bridles for four horses, all made in Paris. Mohamed Ali was the only person in Egypt at the time to use a carriage as a mode of transportation.
In 1826, an Indian prince presented to Mohamed Ali, in his capacity as the guardian of the Holy Places, 50,000 riyals in coins to be distributed to the poor in Mecca and Medina. He also presented him with luxurious kufiyas, fabrics woven with golden threads, a solid gold cuckoo clock, a splendid gold chain mounted with precious stones, a large clock, field glasses, a ruby ring, a rifle that could fire 24 shots with a single pull of the trigger, and a dagger and a sword.
In 1845, King Louis Phillip sent Mohamed Ali a large clock, valued at the time at LE800. This clock still stands upon a tower constructed for it on the courtyard wall of Mohamed Ali Mosque. King Farouq I ordered the clock repaired and cleaned as a token of his esteem for the legacy of his great grandfather.
When the British government sought to obtain certain facilities with regard to the road between Cairo and Suez, it commissioned the government of India to manufacture a splendid decorative fountain constructed of pure silver to present to Mohamed Ali. When the Egyptian viceroy learned of this commission he said, "I would have preferred a single rose from the Queen of England to that precious fountain". He wanted the British consul to understand that as a king it was more fitting that the British queen presented him a gift than the government of India. When political circles in Britain realised their faux pas Queen Victoria sent Mohamed Ali her picture, which she had mounted in a valuable frame.