Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 July 2012
Issue No. 1106
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ruthless, but industrious

As Mohamed Ali consolidated his power in Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century, the chronicler El-Gabarti was on hand to record his every move, writes Samir Sobhi

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: old Azbakeya neighbourhood; means of transportation in the 19th century; tarboush-maker in the market; Egyptian alley in the mid-19th century

The merciless power struggle that left Mohamed Ali in power in Egypt in the early 19th century was not only about exterminating the class of warlords known as the Mamluks, or the boundless ambition of an up-and-coming Ottoman general. Mohamed Ali also brought a new vitality to Egypt, however brutal and self-serving it may have been, as can be seen from his budgetary endeavours.

A whole new system of book keeping was put in place, as the new ruler refurbished the bureaucracy and began raising money for his many projects. Within a few decades of his having taken power, Mohamed Ali launched printing, irrigation, armaments, educational and industrial programmes. He brought the best men he could get from Europe, including leftovers from the Napoleonic armies, Italian architects, and French educationalists. He wanted anyone who had the skills required to help him transform Egypt into the modern state he envisaged.

Four years after he took power, Mohamed Ali brought his family to Egypt from Macedonia and stunned the nation with the celebrations held for the birth of the Ottoman sultan's daughter. El-Gabarti, Egypt's leading chronicler of the time, wrote that "on 15 May 1809, news came that a daughter had been born to the sultan, named Fatemah. Orders were given for celebrations to be held and for cannons to be fired from the Citadel at prayer times for seven days. [ê] This is something that hasn't been done before, for the custom was to celebrate the birth of boys, not girls."

In 1809, Mohamed Ali fought the Mamluk chieftains and confiscated their property. Here is how El-Gabarti describes the scene. "On Tuesday, several Egyptian princes arrived from southern Egypt, including Marzouk Bey, son of Ibrahim Bey, and Selim Agha Mostahfazan. There was also Qassem Bey, army chief of Mourad Bey, and Ali Bey Ayoub. They all came to pursue a peacemaking agreement. But Selim Agha was not part of the agreement. He had been reluctant to engage in any form of exchange. The reason he came [to Cairo] was that his wife had died a month and a half before, and he wanted to sort out her inheritance."

"When Selim Bey arrived, he discovered that the pasha had taken all his property -- all the jewellery and the buildings and the revenues. The confiscation had been carried out by Mahmoud Bey El-Duweidar. When Selim Agha came, he found nothing: not a home, not a building, not even a servant. The men, led by Marzouq Bey, stayed in the house of Ali Bey Ayoub. Mahmoud Bey El-Duweidar and his translator came to see Selim Agha. They comforted him and told him that the pasha would compensate him and even give him more than he had taken away."

Reconciliation attempts between Mohamed Ali and the Mamluks went on for two more years, until the latter were finally decimated in 1811. Mohamed Ali's success in Egypt led him to invite the rest of his family to come and live with him in Cairo. El-Gabarti describes the scene when the family arrived in Egypt as follows.

"The family of Mohamed Ali Pasha arrived from Kavala. The party was made up of his wife, his younger son [the future Khedive] Ismail, and many relations. Everyone came from Kavala to Alexandria. When Egypt had become their home, they felt so happy that they sent to their family and relatives to come as well, which they did in great numbers. Everyone came, men, women and children. When news of their arrival came, Ibrahim Bey El-Daftardar went to meet them. The pasha went to meet them at [the port of] Bulaq in Cairo."

On 29 May 1808, orders were given to all women of high status to go to Bulaq to welcome the wife of the pasha. This was hard for some of the women connected with the former regime to do. El-Gabarti gives an example. "Sitt Nafisa El-Moradiya, who is known to be a difficult woman, apologised and said that she was sick and could not go anywhere. Her apology was not accepted. The great majority of the women gathered in Bulaq and accompanied the pasha's wife to the Al-Azbakiya area of Cairo, and many cannons were fired all the way from the Citadel to Al-Azbakiya. Then gifts started arriving from everywhere, gifts for women and gifts for children too."

On 28 June 1809, the pasha asked Muallim Ghali, his financial secretary, to raise 1,000 purses in funds, the equivalent of some $100 million today. The latter told the mubashers (tax collectors) and secretaries to collect the money. On the same day, Youssef Pasha El-Selahdar arrived with a decree saying that "taxes are to be imposed on the tax collectors' land, on empty land, and endowments, and are to be collected by a new department called the 'Pen Palace.'"

This Pen Palace was soon dubbed nehaytu, or the "end of all", a word still used in the dialect today to indicate a sense of finality. Tax collectors had to declare their property within 40 days or risk losing it. This measure, unpopular as it was, helped boost state revenues tremendously. Religious endowments had to be registered with the state, which taxed them and kept a strict record of who the beneficiaries were.

When people from the countryside came to Cairo to renew their title deeds, they were given freshly scripted scrolls bearing the name and seal of Mohamed Ali. The latter's seal, or torrah, was an ingenuous work of calligraphy designed to impress the nation with the sophistication of its new leader. Some of these title deeds survive to this day, testifying to the artistry of a ruthless, but industrious, ruler.

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