Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary email@example.com or faxed to +202 578 6089.
Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)
On the eve of the international symposium to be held in Cairo and Alexandria beginning 12 November, Al-Ahram Weekly concludes the Muhammad Ali series commemorating the bicentennial of the Pasha's ascendancy to power
Through the grapevine
discovers exactly what the common people of Istanbul thought of Egypt's pasha through surviving intelligence reports
Click to view caption|
Nineteenth Century Coffee House by Eugene Alexis Girardet, from the Dahesh Museum of Art's collection
The Ottoman Empire faced many crises in the first half of the nineteenth century which significantly challenged its authority: frequent rebellions in the Balkans, intensifying Janissary rebellions in Istanbul, unruly local notables who in 1808 forced the newly enthroned young sultan, Mahmut (Mahmoud) II, to officially accept their authority in the provinces, and the Greek uprising culminating in an independent Greek state in the late 1820s. The crisis caused by Mehmet Ali Pasha (more commonly transliterated from Arabic as Muhammad Ali), however, stands out among all these because none other than him had seriously threatened the very existence of the dynasty in the decade spanning from 1831 to 1841 in subsequent episodes.
The story of how Mehmet Ali turned from an effective and loyal governor of the lucrative province of Egypt to a bold and defiant rebel, and how this crisis reverberated in the corridors of diplomatic circles in Istanbul, Cairo as well as in the capitals of the European Great Powers during the 1830s is relatively better known. Less known, however, is how the war with Mehmet Ali Pasha was perceived by the common people of Istanbul. In the course of the 1830s Sultan Mahmut II and his subjects were equally haunted by the image of a Mehmet Ali at the Topkapi Palace as his armies were repeatedly and decisevely defeating the Ottomans, approaching as close as a day's march from Istanbul thereby forcing the Ottoman soldiers to dig trenches at the outskirts of the capital.
People from all walks of life talked intensely about the gloomy prospects of this ordeal, sometimes on the winding streets, sometimes in their shops, or while resting under a tree, sailing in a boat, or in the privacy of their homes, but mostly in smoky coffeehouses over cups of hot coffee. They talked, and the Sultan's informers listened -- and recorded their words. Hundreds of these spy reports, or, as the Ottomans called them, jurnals, are now housed in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul. They provide the modern reader with a unique window to peak through and glimpse the everyday world of the Sublime Porte and to overhear the voices of the past.
Stationing informers to public places to detect "seditious" conversations and to persecute gossip-mongers was a common enough practice of the Ottoman ruling elite. However, recruiting informers from among the local population to better infiltrate into the webs of the society, recording and documenting popular conversations about current events, and establishing an intelligence system not for the purpose of persecuting subversives, but for the aim of keeping the pulse of the popular mood was a new governmental practice instituted in 1840. These intelligence reports containing the daily conversations of common people were collated almost every week and found their way up as far as the Sultan's ears. They consist of paragraphs, each of which corresponds to the verbatim transcription by the informer of a conversation or an individual opinion uttered in public places as well as private homes in the capital. One interesting fact about these reports is that nearly all register the name, the title and the occupation of those whose words were recorded. Hence they go far beyond an informer's impressionistic account about a nameless crowd, but provide us with a rare opportunity to trace the individual opinions.
Since these reports cover 1840 onwards, the conversations that we can hear through them relating to Mehmet Ali are about the final episodes of the "crisis." By that time, Mehmet Ali's armies, led by his son Ibrahim Pasha, had defeated the Ottoman army more than once, and had conquered a substantial portion of the Ottoman lands stretching from the province of Syria to inland Anatolia. The final episode began with yet another defeat of the Ottoman army in 1839 at Nezib. Mahmut II (1808-1839) died just before the news of the disaster had reached Istanbul, and his son Abdulmecit (Abdul-Majid) ascended the throne when he was only 16. In the meantime, Husrev Pasha, Mehmet Ali's bitter rival, forced himself into the position of grand-vizierate, upon which the Grand Admiral Ahmet Pasha, nicknamed "the traitor," defected and handed over the entire Ottoman fleet to Mehmet Ali Pasha. A defeated army, a lost navy, a teenager sultan, and a resentful grand-vizier whom people intensely disliked; indeed all this added up to a dismal prospect for the Ottomans.
The repercussions of these events were strongly felt on the streets of Istanbul. In fact, judging from the reports, the Mehmet Ali crisis was the most talked about subject between the summer of 1840 and the winter of 1841. The helplessness of the Ottoman government and this very direct and concrete challenge against the Sultan were translated into a fearful anxiety among the ordinary people. Feelings of loss of trust, pessimism towards the future, and expectations of chaos are palpable in their utterances. For instance, a certain Mustafa was overheard saying in a coffeehouse that "Ottoman lands will be lost whether we fight or not." Public weariness on the continuing uncertainty of the situation was also reflected in Veli Mehmet Aga's desire that "things would take their course in one way or other as soon as possible; then, at least, we will have peace of mind."
In the chaos of the streets ambivalence seems to be the dominant feeling of the public towards Mehmet Ali Pasha. On the one hand, he stands out among the most hated figures. Conversations are full of examples of anger and hate focusing on his person and his greed was believed to be the reason for this ordeal. His name, when uttered, was accompanied by cursing and swearing. People in coffeehouses told each other elaborate methods of torture they would inflict if only he were to fall into their hands. On the other hand, the hatred for Mehmet Ali was accompanied with a distinct admiration for him. Yet, while anger and hatred towards Mehmet Ali is more explicitly and liberally recorded by informers, the admiration of the common folk is rather hidden, and subtle in their words. There seems to have been a deliberate attempt on the part of the informers or their superiors to downplay its existence in the public opinion, a misleading yet strategic move to show a united front against the Pasha. Admiring remarks uttered in public were never recorded directly, but can be found indirectly through a condemnation of those uttering such positive remarks about him. Ali, for example, was heard saying: "There are some people who eat the bread of the Ottomans, make their living here, and then pray for Mehmet Ali. Why should I do that? I make a living here, eat their bread, I won't pray for Mehmet Ali, I pray for the Sultan."
Admiration for Mehmet Ali becomes more manifest in comparisons between the regime he instituted in Egypt through legal, political and military reforms and the one in Istanbul. It was not Europe, but Egypt that many people looked up to as a measuring stick and as a base for criticism of the Ottoman methods of government. People believed that the regime Mehmet Ali established in Egypt was brutal, that he had no respect for the lives of his subjects. Yet an underlining belief that Egypt was ruled better than the Ottoman Empire is embedded even in these critical remarks. In everyday language, this is attributed to certain characteristics of Mehmet Ali and his methods of rule. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from Mehmet Aga, a sailor in the Ottoman navy, who had just returned from Egypt, sharing his first hand observations with his friends in a coffeehouse. "Mehmet Ali has this practice of brooding over the political situation. He tells his officials and his entourage that he is going to die the next day. And then he has an Arab killed and his body put in a coffin, and brings some Arab peasant women to cry while the coffin is taken for burial. Then he appears a few days later. In the meantime, if there is plundering and disobedience by those who believed that he was dead, he strikes and destroys them...And, our officers and sailors in the navy know neither law nor anything. It would have been better, if they were in order like Egyptian soldiers and officers. As they sail, ours drink wine and be with boys and are unable to keep their heads up because of drinking. This is not the case in Egypt; from a pasha to a corporal, they all have the book of law in their hands. If an officer will punish a soldier, or whatever the case might be, he cannot act without first consulting the law."
As the above illustrates, Mehmet Ali's ways served as a mirror to observe the Ottoman ways. He was talked about as an innovative, cunning, and effective ruler. Despite being seen as vicious and oppressive, he was believed to rule justly and wisely, whereas Ottoman high officials -- and by implication the Sultan albeit the criticism towards the latter was never direct -- are seen as impotent, incompetent, and arbitrary. People on the streets tried to explain the reasons for the constant Ottoman failure against its subordinate adversary through its reflection in the Egyptian mirror.
As the rulers were compared, their subjects and soldiers were compared, too. This comparison served to provide a further perspective towards the explanation of the defeats of the Ottoman army. In popular consciousness, Ottoman troops were defeated not by canons and rifles, but by a dishonourable enemy who does not respect the rules of war. While virtue, courage, and manliness are qualities reserved for the Ottoman soldiers, conversations are often decorated with negative traits attributed to Arab soldiers, who supposedly lacked these qualities in the battlefield. That "Arab soldiers sneak up on Ottomans at night," that "they fight with their wives, and during the fight women throw their babies into the river to distract Ottoman troops," or that "they remove intestines and dismember the bodies of Ottoman soldiers they killed" are some of the common motives of the narratives of the people in search of an account of their army's defeat. The rage against Mehmet Ali was compounded by the fact that this was a conflict among Muslims and perhaps worse than this was that it resulted in the intervention of non-Muslims. The ordinary folk in Istanbul were humiliated and profoundly confused when the Ottomans sought help from Russia, the longtime nemesis, to solve an internal problem. The thorny problem that the empire was brought to the verge of destruction by a Muslim was resolved in popular consciousness by declaring Mehmet Ali an "infidel." As in the words of a Mehmet in Mustafa's coffeehouse: "If somebody rebels against his Sultan, he becomes an infidel; he rebels against God, too. Mehmet Ali is not a Muslim." Through gossip, people in Istanbul were propping up their mental solution and further justifying that Mehmet Ali was committing the greatest of sins, rebelling against God's will. He was supposed to have said, " Allah cannot dictate. I can do whatever I want to do." Two soldiers who fought in the battle of Nezib were heard telling one another what they said they had heard there: "In a moment of anger Mehmet Ali's son Ibrahim Pasha raised his arak glass in the air, saying that "God, you make me angry. Look, I am drinking my arak in your face."
The Ottoman government promptly capitalised on such rumors to mobilise public opinion against Mehmet Ali Pasha. An imperial edict was written ordering the publication in the official newspaper, Takvim-i Vekayi, of the allegation that Mehmet Ali Pasha had two people from the lineage of caliph Uthman executed. We do not know if Mehmet Ali Pasha actually did this. Nevertheless, the allegation itself was published in the newspaper, which no doubt validated and reinforced popular sentiments about Mehmet Ali's transgressions. The government must have been especially pleased to hear through informers that the public mood was to its liking. The following report, composed and narrated in a rather unusual way, demonstrates the informer's impressions and interpretation of the mood of the populace: "Your humble servant has observed in the past month that people's dislike and hatred of Mehmet Ali have aggravated to such an extent that they are praying from the bottom of their hearts for his wretchedness. Even more, hearing the roars of cannons last night on the occasion of the birth in the palace, the people in the coffeehouses and other places felt immense joy, for they assumed that "God willing! Egypt was conquered" or "Ibrahim Pasha was captured and brought to Istanbul."
Let us not forget that as much as there was a war waged on the battlefields, there was also a battle on public opinion waged in newspapers, coffeehouses, streets, and shops. Takvim-i Vekayi, for example, published numerous pieces profiling Mehmet Ali Pasha as aggressive, greedy, disobedient, and irreconcilable in an effort to mobilise public opinion on the Ottoman side. Informers, too, were not always passive listeners. Through provocative interventions in conversations without revealing their true identity, they asked questions about how people felt towards Mehmet Ali, acting more like examiners conducting opinion polls.
Two significant changes that took place early in the summer of 1840 drove the public into hopeful expectations. First, grand-vizier Husrev Pasha was dismissed from his office. Despite the official statement that Husrev resigned due to his old age, people inferred that he was his dismissal was tied to the Mehmet Ali affair. In Istanbul coffeehouses, the whole issue was seen as a concession to Mehmet Ali, for it was well known that he had launched a campaign to have Husrev deposed since the latter took office the year before. Rumors circulated that Abbas Pasha, Mehmet Ali's son, brought a letter from his father to the Sultan, asking for Husrev's dismissal. While this concession was partly seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the Ottoman administration, the great joy over Husrev's dismissal prevailed over the sense of humiliation that the Sultan was taking orders from his insurgent governor. Not only did people hold Husrev as much responsible as Mehmet Ali in this ordeal, they also blamed him for seeking the assistance of Russia, probably the most notoriously unpopular country among the ordinary Ottoman people.
In an exemplary instance of how inside information from an office found its way almost immediately to coffeehouses throughout Istanbul, we hear "fresh news" from a clerk who overheard a conversation in a meeting of the Supreme Council: "Husrev Pasha said we should take care of Mehmet Ali. Let us send for Russia and hand Istanbul over to them. Then we can be at ease." The reliability of this information is trivial in and of itself. What is important is people's readiness to believe in such a rumor that derived its credibility from their distrust of Husrev. In the eyes of the people, his image was already tainted with rumors of corruption: "It is very good that Husrev Pasha was dismissed. This relieved a great burden from everybody's shoulders. Even the ground he is stepping on should be removed."
Second, soon after Husrev Pasha's dismissal, there was an uneasy anticipation that the Mehmet Ali crisis would take a new course. Indeed, when the Ottoman, British, Russian, Prussian, and Austrian delegates convened in London to discuss the affair, the expectation turned into reality. According to the subsequent agreement, Mehmet Ali was offered the hereditary governorship of Egypt and Acre in return for the evacuation of his armies from Hijaz, Syria, Crete, and Adana, as well as the immediate return of the Ottoman fleet. The terms of the agreement sent to Mehmet Ali in the form of an ultimatum quickly began to echo through Istanbul streets. The diplomatic traffic between Ottoman and European officials was being monitored in minute detail by the people. The sight of every foreign non-commercial ship in the waters of Istanbul was taken as a sign of the arrival of a European ambassador to discuss the matters relating to Mehmet Ali's reply to the ultimatum, and the news hastily spread through the streets and coffeehouses fuelling immense speculation along the way.
The popular hope for peace quickly turned into dismay when the war became inevitable upon Mehmet Ali's rejection of the ultimatum. Public mood also changed swiftly as contradictory news led to different speculations. One day, some people would be spreading the news that France was mobilising its forces against the Ottomans, while others would be convincing their friends that France would never fight against Britain and Russia over Egypt. The next day, new concerns and new opinions would generate novel perspectives. Conversations often included certain traits attributed to the people of other countries, friends and foes. In Ismail's coffeehouse in the district of Sultan Mahmut, glazier Huseyin Aga raised his concern that British forces could be easily defeated by Mehmet Ali's army because "England had not fought a war for several decades." Russians, on the other hand, were considered to be "all warriors from age 7 to 70, plus untrustworthy." In the same coffeehouse Mustafa Aga kept his hopes high by attributing "fraudulence" to Mehmet Ali's Arab soldiers whom, he thought, "will react against Mehmet Ali as soon as they understand how much trouble he is in."
The pessimism and anxiety haunting the streets of Istanbul in early 1840 left its place to an air of optimism towards the end of the year when the Ottoman-British alliance defeated Mehmet Ali Pasha's army and ended his rule over the province of Syria. News of fresh developments hastily reached Istanbul during the course of the war. While an Austrian merchant in a Galata coffeehouse was bringing fresh information about the advance of British forces, Ismail Aga read out the capture of Acre recounted in Takvim-i Vekayi in an Aksaray coffeehouse. Istanbul echoed with joy over the victory, and the general mood of the public was enthusiastically reflected in the reports of the informers: "Your humble servant reports that in most coffeehouses in Istanbul and its environs, the people are indulged in pleasure and jubilation, and pray for our mighty Sultan."
Popular comments, however, were not homogeneous. "I am surprised by how quickly Acre was captured. It cannot be our navy. It must be the British or Austrian navy," said someone in response to a newspaper read out in a Kemeralti coffeehouse. An informer commented to incite others: "Egypt is finished. We hear that they have been devastated in each fight." "Wait and see the end. There must be something else in this," replied Hacy Mustafa, expressing weariness in his response.
Ambivalent and discontented voices were also loud after peace was established between Mehmet Ali and the Ottoman government in May 1841. For Osman Efendi, granting Mehmet Ali the hereditary governorship of Egypt was a complete disgrace for the Ottoman government. He commented, "They have not had the peace published in the Takvim [newspaper]. They must be embarrassed." Similarly, Yorgaki was not content with the outcome and at his home told a friend: "What kind of a peace is this? They put the other four kings to shame as well. For the sake of the four sanjak s [administrative units] they depleted the whole treasury. You'll see, this dude will take them back anyway and all this money spent will be in vain. They call this peace. He is called Mehmet Ali, you'll see what will happen in the end."
There are voices in these reports that also remind us of the fact that this conflict within the empire had contradictory repercussions for its various subjects. Kostandi, a Greek broker, told in a Karaköy coffeehouse the story of an Arab he witnessed the other day on a boat crying after his family who were stranded was trapped in Egypt. Two Arab shopkeepers watching the parade of Egyptian prisoners of war in Sultan Bayezid said "they are all soldiers of Egypt. Some are our brothers, some our relatives. Even in our own lands our children perish like this. God damn Mehmet Ali."
These examples challenge the misleading black and white picture that draws a clear-cut boundary between the Ottoman as self and Egypt as the other, the enemy. It was a victory, albeit a broken one. There were plenty of those who were wounded and disenchanted, caught within the jubilant atmosphere of Istanbul streets and coffeehouses. These everyday voices not only frame the gray and shady areas of the picture but also give depth and perspective to it.
* The writer is assistant professor of history, Atatèrk Institute for Modern Turkish History, Bogaziçi University, Istanbul.