Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Did the Turks sweeten Egypt’s kitty?

The history and cultural influence of the Turks and the Turkic rulers of Egypt culminated in the creation of an integral component of Egyptian society, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Salaheddin Citadel
Salaheddin Citadel
Al-Ahram Weekly

The sound of silence can be perturbing. Yet, accusations and counter-accusations have now reached a deafening crescendo. Egypt and Turkey are today sovereign nations, but this was not always the case. For centuries, Turks and Turkic people governed Egypt. The shadow of this colonial legacy that permeates the Egyptian national psyche falls across the country, particularly cities like Cairo and Alexandria and in the Delta. Contemporary Egypt and Turkey have grave ideological and political differences that have soured relations between the two countries. Why does the question of the Turks in Egypt matter at this particular juncture?

The 13th Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), convened in Istanbul last month, saw the presidency of the OIC pass from Egypt to Turkey. The summit was symbolic in more ways than one. Egypt, like most Arab nations with the notable exception of Morocco, was once ruled by the Ottoman Turks, and there is an instinctive revulsion at the notion that the Turks, or to be more precise Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the 12th president of Turkey, are trying to revive Turkish hegemony over the region.

Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has ruled Turkey since 2002 openly support the now banned Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. At the summit Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri left the podium in a hurry and flew back to Egypt before it ended. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi declined to attend.

Open wounds abound. Yet, the current crisis of confidence between Egypt and Turkey cannot erase the centuries of cultural interaction between them. An anti-Turkish consensus is consuming Egypt and rattling relations, and pronouncements by high-profile Turkish officials only make matters worse. Amina Erdogan, or Emine Erdogan, the Turkish first lady, is of Arab descent and hails from the province of Siirt in south-eastern Turkey. She recently announced that the haramlek, the female harems of the Ottoman Empire, were ideal “educational establishments”. Needless to say, the pronouncements of this grande dame of Turkish politics do not go down well in Egypt. Neither do they endear her to many of her secular compatriots.

More controversial still have been the long paeans of praise for the former Ottoman Empire. The Turkish president and his wife regularly speak of their attachment to Islamic principles and the values of the defunct empire, and on International Women’s Day this year Erdogan categorically stated that women must first and foremost be mothers and housewives.

“I know there will be some who will be annoyed, but for me a woman is above all a mother,” he said. “You cannot free women by destroying the notion of family.”

It is a difficult moment with regional dimensions, now that two of the Muslim world’s most secular nations are now at loggerheads due to ideological and political differences. Egypt and Turkey are bound by strong religious, cultural and historical ties, but diplomatic ties between them are strained. Turkey established diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1925 at the level of chargé d’affaires, upgrading them to ambassadorial level in 1948. While Egypt today is deeply suspicious over Turkey’s interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs, Turkey, too, is in combative mood.

In July 2014, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry warned that relations could worsen since Erdogan had called Al-Sisi a “tyrant”. Earlier, on 23 November 2013, the Egyptian government expelled the Turkish ambassador in Cairo after a months-long diplomatic crisis.  Scandal-dogged Erdogan is seen in Egypt as divisive and belligerent. Egypt’s former interim president Adli Mansour had said Egypt would sign up to recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the First World War. “Our representatives at the United Nations will sign the international document that acknowledges the Armenian Genocide, which was committed by the Turkish military, leading to the deaths of one million,” Mansour stated.

Ideological discrepancies have thus supplanted a shared cultural heritage, much to the consternation of those Egyptians and Turks who yearn for the years when the cultures of the two peoples were inextricably intertwined. In Egypt, there will always be underlying misgivings about the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman hegemony that today is seen as being echoed in Ankara by Erdogan.

“The Turkic peoples left their original homelands in Central Asia, southern Siberia and western China and moved westwards. They became predominantly Muslim, but remained essentially nomadic hordes. When they came into contact with more sophisticated civilisations, such as the Persians or the Abbasid and Byzantine Empires, they felt a sense of inferiority,” Assem Al-Dessouki of Cairo University’s History Department told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Nevertheless, they eventually overran these empires and quickly assumed a superior attitude towards their non-Turkic subjects. With time, they became the ruling classes in most of the Middle East, North Africa and huge swathes of south-eastern Europe and the Caucasus region,” he added.

“The Ottoman Turks were one such Turkic tribe that subdued other tribes in Anatolia and then systematically conquered Greece and much of the Balkans. In Egypt, the Turkic peoples came in waves over several centuries. The ruling elite of the country was Turkish and introduced its customs to the Egyptians. The aristocracy had the haramlek, a Turkish term denoting the harem, the part of the palace reserved for women, princesses as well as concubines and courtesans of the sultans. Similarly, the term yashmak, or burqa, was introduced, and high-status women, mostly Turkish, were required to wear this complete veil to distinguish themselves from peasant women or poor urban Egyptians who traditionally did not wear it.”

“However, in my opinion, the most negative aspect of Turkish rule was the isolation of Egypt and the way it was cut off culturally and socially from the rest of the world. The Mameluke sultans, operating under Ottoman suzerainty, forbade European or Christian powers from berthing in Egyptian ports. European trading vessels were not permitted to dock in Egyptian ports and were required to steer clear of Egypt and Levantine waters altogether,” Al-Dessouki said.

The arrival of French warships in Alexandria in 1798 dumbfounded the Mamelukes. The Mameluke cavalry was no match for the French cannons, and while 300 Frenchmen perished in Alexandria, no fewer than 6,000 from the Mameluke forces were killed in battle. “When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the Mamelukes imagined that they would defeat the ‘Crusaders’ as they had done centuries before. Little did they know that the new arrivals were technically far more advanced than they were. Egypt under Turkic rule, whether Mameluke or Ottoman, had degenerated into a mediaeval backwater and had no idea of modern warfare,” Al-Dessouki added.

Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt who rid the country of the Mamelukes, was a moderniser by necessity. Yet, for all their shortcomings, the Mamelukes and the Ottoman Turks had, for better or for worse, a lasting cultural influence on Egypt.

Turkish Egyptians: “If you see anyone good looking on the streets of Cairo, he or she is most probably of Turkish origin,” Al-Ahram photographer Sherif Sonbol remarked.  

It is a common perception that fair-skinned, blue-eyed Egyptians are of Turkish origin, and that this is analogous to being beautiful. The colloquial Egyptian Arabic word for beauty is helw, and it implies fair-skinned, though the indigenous asmar, or dark, can also be very comely.

The Turkish bey, the Arabic for the Turkish beg or baig, the official title of chieftain, was the commandant who usurped the status of the ancient pharaohs in Egypt. Turks or Turkic peoples have been in Egypt for generations, for centuries to be precise, and they have been integrated socially and as such have never had a sense of particularity. The Turco-Egyptians were simply Egyptians. But the Turks also ruled Egypt for centuries, and in Egyptian folklore Turks can be simultaneously awesome and lunatic.

On 24 August 1516 at the Battle of Marj Dabiq the last Mameluke Sultan of Egypt, Al-Ghawri, was killed, and Syria and the entire Levant passed under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Turks were not the first Turkic people to settle or rule Egypt, however, and in Arabic there is no differentiation between Turkic and Turkish. The entire race with all its multitudinous subdivisions is labelled “Turkish”.

With the conquest of 1516, the formidable armies of the Ottoman Empire were at the gates of Egypt. Turkish speakers then governed the country and formed the social, political, military and economic elite in the period up until the mid-1950s. Egypt, however, never became a Turcophone country, even if from the Tulunid period onwards (868-905 CE), long before the Ottoman invasion, it was ruled by individuals of Turkish origin.

Today, the number of ethnic Turks in Egypt varies considerably, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 1,500,000. Most have intermingled in Egyptian society and are almost indistinguishable from non-Turkish Egyptians, even though a considerable number of Egyptians of Turkish origin are bilingual.

The writer Qassem Amin, considered by many as the Arab world’s “first feminist”, was an Egyptian man of letters of mixed Turkish-Egyptian heritage, for example. Amin (1863-1908) advocated Egyptian women’s rights and was an Egyptian jurist born to a Turkish father and an Egyptian mother.

Another Turkish-Egyptian literary craftsman was Tewfik Al-Hakim (1898-1987), a pioneer of the Arabic novel and drama and the son of a wealthy Egyptian judge and civil officer and a Turkish mother. His plays such as Shahrazad (Scheherazade, 1934) and Ahl Al-Kahf (People of the Cave, 1933) are considered classics in contemporary Egypt. In sharp contrast to Amin, Al-Hakim bore the epithet Adew Al-Maraa, or enemy of women, because of the sentiments mentioned in some of his plays.

There have also been curious characters of mixed Turkish and Egyptian heritage, such as Tatamkhulu Afrika, or Grandfather Africa in the Xhosa language of South Africa. This man was born Mohamed Fouad Nasif of an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother in Egypt and moved to South Africa with his parents as a very young child. For Tatamkhulu Afrika, later an important writer, Egypt became just a distant memory.

Aisha Al-Taymuriya (1840-1902) a women’s rights advocate and social activist, was descended from a family of Turkish origin, and her father Ismail Taymur was a member of the Egyptian royal entourage. Her brother Ahmed Pasha Taymur was a novelist. Aisha is commemorated by having one of the newly discovered craters of the planet Venus named after her. She wrote poetry in Arabic, Turkish and Persian, and is today considered a pioneer of Arabic women’s writing.

However, the Ottoman Turks never imposed Turkish cultural hegemony on their subject peoples during their period of rule. Indeed, they were acutely aware that they ruled by force, that their origins were in Central Asian nomadic hordes that had conquered more civilised nations and adopted the customs and traditions of the Byzantines and Persians. But they embraced Islam, Sunni Islam to be precise, and thus maintained moral rectitude.

Persian, and not Turkish, was the official court language of the Ottoman Empire, and Arabic was the liturgical language of the Sublime Porte, the Bab Al-Alie, a metonym for the central government of the empire and a reference to the gate that shut the royal family and state institutions off from the outside world in Istanbul, or simply “the City”.

The Turks in Egypt: In Egypt, the symbolism of the Turks destroying every obstruction they saw in front of them takes on particular resonance as part of the country’s succession of foreign rulers before the 1952 Revolution.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a former secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and author of a book on The Turks in Egypt and their Cultural Legacy, was born in Egypt to a family of Turkish origin. His father, İhsan Effendi, was a prominent Islamic scholar who once ran against Turkish president Erdogan in an election.

“My landlady was a Turkish-Egyptian and was once a lady in waiting at the Egyptian royal court in Abdin Palace,” muses the English translator of Ihsanoglu’s book, Humphrey Davis. “This scholarly work was originally written in Turkish and translated into Arabic, and I translated the Arabic version into English as my Turkish is now rusty,” Davies told the Weekly.

Pasha, analogous to the British knighthood, was a Turkish term once conferred on the first, or highest, class of Egyptians, and it is still used to this day in colloquial Egyptian Arabic as a mark of respect. Indeed, there is a considerable lexicon of Turkish in the language of contemporary Egypt, especially in the dialect of residents of Cairo that has become the most prevalent in the country. For instance, the polite expression for pardon is effendim, derived from the Turkish.

Suffixes are a prominent feature of the Turkish language. Colloquial Egyptian Arabic has kept some of these, such as ji related to a profession, examples including sufragi, or waiter; makwagi, or ironer; and kahwagi, or one who serves coffee or a coffee shop owner. The Turkish ji becomes the Egyptian gi, or hard g.  

Sis is another Turkish suffix that was once very common but now has a more restricted usage in Egyptian Arabic. Words such as adabsis, or person with bad manners, are now rarely used, but they were very common until the turn of the century. Khan is yet another Turkish suffix, such as in agzakhana, or pharmacy, and it is commonly used to this day. Effendi is the equivalent of the British esquire and is no longer used in Egyptian Arabic.

“Most of the terms used in Arabic military literature are derived from Turkish. Such terms include military ranks, commands and orders, terminology relating to uniform, and the names of parts of weapons and equipment,” Ihsanoglu says in his book. Similarly, the colloquial Egyptian term khawaga that once translated as master or lord now simply refers to foreigners or Europeans.

The Turks, or Turkic peoples to be more precise, earlier formed an integral part of the state or military apparatus as Mamelukes in Syria and Egypt since at least the 9th century and during the Tulunid period. In 1263, the Turks became the dominant military and political power in Egypt under the sultan Baybars, founder of the Turkic Bahri Mameluke Dynasty (1250-1382).

When Baybars ascended the throne in Egypt, the event marked the start of an age of Mameluke dominance in the eastern Mediterranean that defeated the Mongols at the battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 and saved Egypt from European incursions for several centuries until the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the country briefly between 1798 and 1801. The Mamelukes also ended the Crusader presence in the Levant at the Battle of Harbiyyah east of Gaza in 1244. Egypt lived under the rule of Turkic peoples for the next seven centuries.

The Mamelukes drove Maronite and Orthodox Christians from the coastal areas of Lebanon and into the rugged terrain of Mount Lebanon as a means to prevent their potential contact with European powers. This had implications for Egypt, and the decline of Coptic Christian cultural pre-eminence began in earnest. The Mamelukes also brought about a similar decline in the Armenian Orthodox Church after their capture of the Armenian Cilician kingdom in 1374, even though there was a trickle of Armenian and Levantine Christian immigrants into Egypt during the Mameluke era.

The Mamelukes made sure that Egypt abandoned its older Graeco-Roman and then Arab culture and became a more cosmopolitan country. Historians have traditionally broken the era of Mameluke rule into two periods, one, covering 1250 to 1382, being that of the Bahri Mamelukes, and the other, from 1382 to 1517, that of the Burji Mamelukes.

The influx of ethnic Kipchak Turks, the original Mamelukes, from Central Asia changed the ethnic composition of Egypt, contributing to the “whitening” of the Egyptian population. Cuman-Kipchaks from the Crimea, Circassians, Oghuz Turks, Georgians and Abkhazians changed the face of Egypt for good. But the Turks and Turkic peoples did not impose their language, instead embracing and strengthening colloquial Egyptian Arabic and peppering it with Turkish words. Khassis is used in contemporary Egypt to describe a lowly or low-class person. It is of Turkish origin.

While the Mameluke elite was ethnically diverse, those who were not Turkic in origin were Turkicised nonetheless. Most of the Mamelukes were of Turkic origin. However, the Mamelukes often employed Nubian or Sub-Saharan Africans as slaves. The Mosque of Queen Safiya, for instance, was constructed by Othman Agha Dar Al-Saada who was a black eunuch in the service of queen Safiya. The mosque’s mihrab, or prayer niche, with marble panels is typical of the Mameluke style of decoration, while the minbar (pulpit) is ornamented in the Ottoman style.


Turks and Turkishmen: Mohamed Ali (1769-1849), the self-styled khedive, or ruler, of Egypt and Sudan, also radically changed Egyptian society.

Mohamed Ali himself was of Albanian origin, but his retinue, courtesans and entourage were mainly “Turkish-speaking officials who had come with their families from outside Egypt in the hundreds and even the thousands to take up positions in the civil and military arms of the Pasha’s government and formed a new element within Egyptian society. They began taking up permanent residence in the mid-1830s, learned Arabic and started using it in their daily lives. They intermarried with Egyptians and built palaces and houses in Cairo and Alexandria rather than in Istanbul,” Ihsanoglu writes.

Mohamed Ali is remembered by the Coptic Christian community of Egypt as having permitted the first public funeral of a Coptic Orthodox Christian in Egypt since the Islamic conquest of the country. The Copt in question, Sidhom Bishai, was murdered by a Mameluke chieftain who was promptly brought to book by Mohamed Ali and executed.

During Mohamed Ali’s reign, some Coptic Christians thrived and were incorporated into the administrative and economic systems. As members of a non-Muslim minority, they were still required to pay the jizia, the tax imposed on Jews and Christians in return for Muslim protection. A few Coptic Christians became fabulously wealthy such as the brothers Ibrahim Al-Gohari and Guirgis Al-Gohari. They and their ilk were called arkhan, or rich Copts who paid the jizia on behalf of poor Copts who could not afford to do so.

“The concept of Turkishness is generally associated, where Egypt is concerned, with culture,” Ihsanoglu adds of this period. “The Turkish lifestyle in its classical sense was taken as a model to be imitated with regard to cuisine and dress and as a code of conduct among members of the [Egyptian] upper class.”

This Turkish ideal clawed its way through the doors of Egyptian society’s perceptions of identity. Turkish, or rather Byzantine, architecture evolved and came to stand for the idea of the refined in modern Egypt. Yet, even if the new Turkish architectural influence did not lead to the destruction of the Cairo of the Fatimids, which was already long gone, it did mean the further destruction of much of previously Mameluke Cairo.

“Given that the Turks of Egypt were never considered a minority, they did not see themselves as separate from the society and never had the status of Europeans or eastern non-Muslim minorities in the country,” Ihsanoglu notes. “They were never counted as part of an internally autonomous organised religious, ethnic or cultural group.”

However, the Sublime Porte certainly exerted much influence on Egypt for centuries. The Turkish domination of Egypt drilled deep into Egyptian society, though Egypt still demonstrated its customary agility of ideas and the Turks appreciated Egyptian culture. They introduced a new system of government but did not interfere with indigenous social traditions.

Cairo today is a striking example of the Turkish architectural influence that was derived from earlier Byzantine styles. The 14th-century North African writer Ibn Khaldoun had earlier called Cairo “the centre of the universe and garden of the world,” as a result of its majestic domes, courtyards, and soaring minarets spread out across the city.

The Mamelukes ruled from Cairo, but they little impact on the conservative traditions of the country. However, they did control the economy, and in 1387 the Mameluke Sultan Barsbay established control over Alexandria, the principal Egyptian commercial port, thereby transferring tax revenues from the port to the sultan’s personal treasury (Diwan Al-Khass) instead of the treasury linked to the military iqtaa (tax-farming) system.

These then novel economic practices remained more or less consistent until the 1952 Revolution that ended the monarchical system of government in Egypt. The iqtaa system was inherited by the Mamelukes from the earlier Ayyubids and was further organised under the Mamelukes to fit their military needs.

Some of the most prominent rulers of Egypt at the time included Sultan Al-Ashraf Seifeddin Qaitbey (1468-1496) who sponsored spectacular building projects in both Cairo and Alexandria, perhaps the most famous being the Qaitbey Citadel in Alexandria. His reign has traditionally been seen as the “happy culmination” of the Burji Mameluke Dynasty.

The indigenous Egyptians’ attempts to exert pressure on their Mameluke rulers were feeble until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. After the French were expelled, power was seized by Mohamed Ali Pasha, an originally Albanian military commander of the Ottoman army in Egypt.

Pressure mounted on the Mamelukes when Mohamed Ali massacred hundreds of them in the citadel where they had been invited in March 1811 to celebrate the achievements of his son Tusun, who was to lead a military expedition into Arabia, later acquiring the Hijaz for Egypt along with the cities of Mecca and Medina.  

It is important to note that the Egyptian subjects of the Mamelukes and the Ottoman Turks did not participate in the political intrigues of the ruling Turkic cliques. The Mamelukes made political decisions based on self-enrichment and rewards to their loyal Egyptian subjects. Agriculture was the primary source of revenue in the Mameluke economy, and in it an ustadar (from Arabic ustadh al-dar, or master of the house) was chief of staff to the sultan and responsible for organising the court’s activities.

Among the Bahri sultans and emirs, there existed a degree of pride in their Kipchak Turkish roots, but they nevertheless eventually intermingled and intermarried with their Egyptian subjects and became indistinguishable from the indigenous Egyptian population, apart from those Egyptians descended from Arabian Peninsula tribal groups, who also kept their identity separate from indigenous Egyptians, including the Coptic Christian community.

Religiously, the early Mameluke tradition of selecting a Shafi’i scholar as Qadi Al-Qudah (chief judge) was later abandoned in favour of his appointment from each of the four madhabs (or theological schools) of Sunni Islam, Shafie, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali. The Mamelukes also embraced the various Sufi orders that existed in Egypt at the time, and there was much freedom of religious belief.

Under the Bahri sultans, the promotion of Sunni Islam was pursued more vigorously than it had been under the earlier Ayyubids. Sufism was widespread in Egypt by the 13th century, as it was in many predominantly Muslim nations. To bring further uniformity to the military, the sultans Baybars and Qalawun standardised Ayyubid policies regarding the distribution of iqtat to the various emirs. They introduced offices such as the hajib (chamberlain), the emir jandar and the khazindar (treasurer).

One final note that is characteristic of the centuries-long rule of Turkish people in Egypt is their empathy with their non-Muslim subjects. This is a characteristic that has become a tradition in Egypt. Perhaps there was no concept of citizenship rights and civil liberties in those days, but they were generous and compassionate, and this emerged as a characteristic feature of Egyptian society.

The Turks and the earlier Mameluke Turkic rulers of Egypt were devout Sunni Muslims, and yet they were charitable to their Christian and Jewish subjects.

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