Much has been said and written about the Ottoman influence on the Balkans, but less attention has been paid to the ways in which the Balkans shaped the Empire and, through it, the Arab world. The Ottoman-Albanian commander Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the founder of ‘modern’ Egypt and, while much ink has been devoted to his military campaigns and socio-economic initiatives, the influence of his Kavali roots on the Egypt he imagines and cultivated has been under-explored. Muhammad Ali did not leave the Balkans for Egypt. He brought the Balkans to Egypt.
The history of the Mediterranean Sea is full of odd constructions like “present-day Greece” or “Modern Egypt” that are inadequate descriptions of life in this region centuries ago. It is difficult enough for the most mundane of stories, but it is nearly impossible to talk about Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Albanian commander credited with fathering contemporary Egypt, using twenty-first century geography. After all, much of it exists because of him.
In 1801, the 32-year-old was a local merchant who’d had some success fighting bandits outside his hometown of Kavala, located between Thessaloniki and Istanbul, when the governor recruited him for an Ottoman expedition to Egypt aimed at wresting control of the territory from Mamluk pashas. They had been in power since the departure of Napoleon’s French forces, three years after landing in Cairo in 1798.
Muhammad Ali set sail with 299 other men on a journey of over a thousand kilometres. About halfway into the voyage, after several weeks of island hopping in a struggle against the meltem wind, Ali’s flotilla arrived in Crete. A landlubber like him would probably have gotten itchy talking with fellow Kavalalılar (residents of Kavala). Legend has it that a mystic from his hometown promised Ali a fortuitous journey, but there is little in the record to make one think he was credulous of soothsayers. Instead, he brought with him contacts with French, Greek and Armenian families that his merchant colleagues promised would support him in Egypt.
Egypt was still a long way off, but by the time Muhammad Ali arrived in Crete, he was already leading the Albanian contingent. The rare Albanian speaker that the Ottoman officers could bring themselves to respect, Muhammad Ali was a child of the port town of Kavala and was loaned money by an Armenian notable. His comfort in relating to, if not speaking with (reports say that he never mastered any language but his native Shqip, or Albanian) Turks and powerful non-Muslims afforded him a reputation and no small amount of leeway among his purported superiors.
From Crete, the second leg of the journey was a straight shot through the Mediterranean’s open seas. The Ottoman rations of the time – olives, twice-baked bread and liberal pourings of arak – had to keep Muhammad Ali and his men healthy and sane and hopefully not too seasick. Within sight of Egypt a devastating storm kept them offshore for several days before they finally made landfall on March 8, months after the trip had begun.
The journey was far from mundane for Muhammad Ali, even if the eastern Mediterranean of the time was full of Greek captains plying the waves in similar ships. The weeks spent with Turks looking down their long noses at him and his fellow Albanians was instructive. To be an Ottoman of the early 1800s was to acknowledge the layers of identity in the Empire and perhaps even know enough to be wary of the tides of nationalism coming from Europe. Muhammad Ali was from the wealthy Balkan provinces of the Empire, an area influenced as much by merchants as by militaries. Judging by his later actions, he saw through Ottoman ostentations of superiority and figured out a way to arbitrate between empires through geography and trade. Ali demonstrated a peculiarly Balkan form of leadership, even though his children would assert an Ottoman Turkish identity.
By the time Muhammad Ali landed in Aboukir, the French had left and the local power structure had become wobbly with recriminations, double-dealings and assassinations. He was comfortable using his Albanian troops in operations not just against rebellious Mamluks, but also against Ottoman allies who stood in his way. Clever enough to win the imprimatur of the sheikh of al-Azhar University, the captain of a band of Albanians was governor of Egypt by 1805. Six years later, he would decimate the remaining Mamluks, conquer Cairo and turn 42.
Muhammad Ali decided that the traditional title of wali would not be enough for him. He instead chose to be called khedive, from the Persian khoda, or lord (or more dramatically: god) and lead a Turkish-speaking army to victory over the Caucasus Mamelukes, who were then (barely) ruling Arab Egypt.
The canniness of Muhammad Ali’s rule – and his global aspirations – would seem to belie contemporary assertions that he never learned Arabic, besides for prayer. What is clear is that he filled Egypt’s power vacuum with men he trusted (many of whom were also Albanian), and yet his worldview was much larger than Kavala or even Cairo.
Infrastructural projects – such as expanding the port of Alexandria and building a navy that could compete with the Ottomans – were funded with the help of the great Greek merchants of Anatolia and the Aegean. He also raided the civil servants of rival nations: the Izmir-born Armenian Boghos Youssefian became a minister of commerce, shipping goods from Alexandria to America and Europe. The Italo-Frenchman Bernardino Drovetti, a French diplomat, extolled the wonders of Muhammad Ali’s regime to Europeans and dealt in smuggled and raided antiquities.
Muhammad Ali was power hungry and saw his Egypt as the centre of the world. While this meant inviting foreigners in to do business, it also meant that Arabic speakers were at a disadvantage during his reign and that his warmongering killed thousands. Syria, Crete and Sudan turned to face a man known in Turkish as “Mohammed Ali from Kavala.” It was in Kavala that Muhammad Ali learned to trust people by their skills, not by their mother tongue – hence his comfort with French, Greek, Turkish and Armenian speakers coming to Egypt en masse and creating communities there.
But just as modernising inadequately describes the nineteenth century Middle East, so Europeanising may attribute to Muhammad Ali something he never set out to do. His goal was not to ape Europe, no matter how much some Europeans wish that were true. Instead, Muhammad Ali may have been drawing on the best parts of his Rumelian heritage: French schooling, a polyglot bureaucracy and a multiconfessional ministry. The goal was not to modernise or Europeanise Egypt, but rather to Balkanise.
In Muhammad Ali’s nineteenth century, the Balkans was the economic, agricultural and in many ways spiritual pinnacle of the Ottoman Empire. It is no wonder that the Austrians, Russians and not to mention the locals all wanted a piece of it. Muhammad Ali may have been the last world leader to see the Balkans not as a pie to be divided, but as a model worthy of emulation. When he set sail from Kavala, his Albanian roots were not in competition with the Greek, Serbian, Macedonian, Jewish and countless other descriptors of the land, and nationalism hadn’t yet taken its horrific toll.
Because of that, Ali was able to make Egypt into this somewhat complicated, somewhat elegant image. Alexandria (and also Cairo) became a global city – a port town of well over 100,000 souls that competed with the American cotton industry and was full of Armenian bankers. Greek, French and Turkish could be heard on its streets and took a privileged place over Arabic in many quarters. A man’s worth was marked by layered identities of wealth, religion and nationality. Egypt could hardly have been considered a “modern” country in the contemporary sense of the word – after all, it was still nominally under Ottoman rule – but the cosmopolitanism and Mediterraneanism of Alexandria gave it wealth and connections that conflicted with (if not wholly superseded) ethnicity and local ties.
Muhammad Ali did not modernise Egypt, but he did Balkanise the region by promoting a sort of ruthless cosmopolitanism. It should come as no surprise that the son of the Balkans was also the father of Egypt. His otherness, his “Turkishness,” is tragic only because it is blind to the vision that Muhammad Ali had for his new homeland.