Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 March 2008
Issue No. 887
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Massacre in the citadel

The Massacre of the Mamelukes -- a banquet for the elite, a lavishness of all sorts, a spring night breeze and a killer by the door, a walk under a moonless sky and a downpour of death. Mohamed El-Hebeishy went where it happened

Click to view caption
Hosh Al-Pasha where Mohamed Ali's royal family is buried alongside some of the massacred Mamelukes; turbans and fezzes adorn the tombs of the Mamelukes who lost their lives in the Citadel Massacre

It all started in the Abbasid court around the ninth century when the caliphates feared their own armies. Tribalism superseded nationalism and each ruler had grown wary his own soldiers would turn against him if the mother tribe was ill-treated one way or another. Hence, the decision came to go for mercenaries. Some 11 centuries back in time the definition had a different term -- Mameluke. They were slaves, war trophies or sultans' gifts sent to Baghdad. Strong courageous warriors, they jumped the ranks and became leaders, grew in number and in no time became their own rulers. The Ayyubid Dynasty spiralled downward after the death of their phenomenal leader and founder Saladin. One Ayyubid sultan after the other, the struggle prolonged and the dynasty's power faded into oblivion. The death of their last sultan, Al-Salih Ayyub in 1250, marked the birth of the Mameluke Sultanate.

For over two and a half centuries, they ruled the country during a period that can be best described as an era of instability with one plot after the other, one coup after the other, one sultan after the other. As an expected result, Egypt, as a country, became weak, a prey awaiting the next conqueror, and indeed he came -- Sultan Selim I. Though history marks 1517 AD as the end of the Mameluke Sultanate with the Ottoman invasion led by Selim I himself, the Mamelukes remained powerful, yet dormant.

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, beating its army of Mamelukes in the Battle of the Pyramids. The Ottomans needed to react, and did. Three years later, in 1801, a joint British- Ottoman expedition brought the French occupation to an end. Still, the struggle was not over; it was actually about to begin. Soldiers' salaries were delayed, some mutinied and even deserted the army and joined the flanks of bandits. The French were out of the picture and in reality there was no one to rule Egypt; there was a complete power vacuum. Sensing it in the air, the second officer in command of the liberating expedition seized the opportunity and briskly rose to power. He was a young and very ambitious man by the name of Mohamed... Mohamed Ali.

Some claim he's Albanian, others believe him Macedonian, while a few think he is a descendant of a Kurdish family from the village of Ilic in Eastern Anatolia. Even his date of birth is uncertain, 1770 or 1771, perhaps 1769. What is certain is that Mohamed Ali was born in the Macedonian town of Kavala, to a tobacco merchant by the name of Ibrahim Agha. Several foreign journalists who had the luck of interviewing Mohamed Ali Pasha confirmed his mastery of the Albanian language, though he also spoke Turkish but with lesser fluency. The Father of Modern Egypt, as history bestowed upon him the title, was a pragmatist visionary whose subjects adored and feared him. He ruled Egypt for a little less than half a century, which in theory and practice was more than enough to revamp the entire country and literally reshape it history.

Gaining the trophy and winning the throne was actually easy in comparison with the much greater obstacles that lay ahead. Mohamed Ali's first entanglement to unravel was the long standing thorn named the Mamelukes. Since his first day on the job and for six years to come, Mohamed Ali tried mediating peace with the Mamelukes who were still the feudal rulers of Egypt, being the landlords, the big merchants in the trading business and thus, holding all the keys to the country's economy. By time, Mohamed Ali ran out of patience and began to evolve the ultimate conspiracy to get rid of this invasive endemic.

On the evening of 1 March 1811 a lovely spring evening with a fresh breeze, Mohamed Ali Pasha threw a copious feast celebrating the investiture of his elder son Prince Tusun. After declaring war on the Wahhabis, Prince Tusun had just been appointed leader of the military campaign bound to Hejaz. Food of all sorts, music and entertainment, wine and dancers were all in abundance like never seen. The ceremonial feast took place in the citadel in what later became Qasr Al-Gawhara (Palace of the Jewel) as the exact spot. Qasr Al-Gawhara, or rather Bijou Palace as it is sometimes referred to, was built in 1814 and named after Gawhara Hanem, Mohamed Ali's last wife.

They feasted like never before, they feasted like never again, for that was to be their last feast, yet none of the attendees had the slightest hint of what was about to take place. The serpent laid still in its bed of roses. Soon, the feast came to an end, the Mamelukes were escorted out into a narrow passage near Bab Al-Azab. Led to a trap, as soon as their last was lured in, a haemorrhage of gunshots was fired from the ambushing troops. A torrential downpour of death claimed the souls of the drunken men, all killed while having no chance to defend their lives, all killed in subtle cold blood. It is believed that while gunshots echoed, Mohamed Ali Pasha calmly and without the least concern asked for a glass of water.

Sounds like a repeat story -- history must have marked them in the hundreds, if not thousands -- so what makes the Massacre of the Mamelukes so peculiar?

Though the above is factual, the details could be not. A shroud of mystery wraps the massacre, letting its details coincide between two worlds; reality and imagination. Mohamed Ali's motives are quite apparent, regardless of whether they could be justified. Still, not all the entire Mameluke community was invited; their leaders and their estimate is widely debated. With a number of scholars setting the number at 480, others take it up to 600 while some go for a staggering 1,000 invitees. On the other hand, Egyptian historian Afaf Lutfi El-Sayed set the number at a feeble 64, basing her opinion on the number of cut ears and heads delivered to the sultan. Tradition or myth, either or perhaps both tell of Hassan, the only Mameluke to survive the massacre. As it is claimed, Hassan cut through the Turks and jumped with his horse over the gates of the citadel. Whether a fact or a fabrication of someone's imagination, it was enticing enough to Dutch painter Willem De Famars Testas, who captured a scene of Hassan on his horse as he jumps the precipice, in his renowned piece of art "The Last of the Mamelukes".

Whether 1,000 or a mere 64, whether Hassan did exist or is just a romantic symbol of a lost tale of survival, that will remain a mystery till further notice. What could be added to the list of facts is the burial site of some (estimated to be 40) but not all the butchered Mamelukes. It is called Hosh Al-Pasha and it is fairly close to Al-Emam Al-Shafei in the Southern Cemetery. Even in tombs victims retain their peculiarity. Their tombstones are like no other, for they are adorned with turbans and fezzes, a symbol to the ranks and titles they used to hold. What deals the last blow to this whole episode of entangled reality dancing on the edge of imagination is the fact that Hosh Al-Pasha, where victims of the Mameluke Massacre are buried, is where Mohamed Ali's family is also buried.

Foes in life, neighbours in death, it doesn't really matter who is buried next to who.

Tickets to enter Hosh Al-Pasha are LE15 for tourists, LE10 for students and LE2 for Egyptians.

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