Mohamed Ali Pasha’s career as ruler of Egypt started out with a decisive and bloody act. Inviting his rivals to enjoy coffee and entertainment at the Citadel, he then had every last one of them slaughtered.
The events of the Citadel Massacre are to this day still recounted by Egyptians; they use them as anecdotes, as sources for popular sayings or they tell the story to their children as they pass by the Citadel. The story itself increases in fame due to being constantly embellished with intriguing details and strange incidents, which still enthrall Egyptians in spite of the passing of time.
The issue of the conflict between the wali (the title held by governors of Ottoman provinces) and the overthrown yet still powerful Mameluke dynasty was not new at the time that Mohamed Ali Pasha became wali of Egypt. Our history delights in many similar stories about the conflicts between the wali, sent by the Sublime Porte (the Court of the Ottoman sultan, led by the grand vizier) and the Mamelukes. These stories, however, were by nature brief and abrupt. The walis knew their stay in Egypt would be short, even if it lasted a few years, after which a decree would arrive removing them from office or relocating them to other provinces. That is, of course, only if they managed to sidestep any political intrigues, often resulting from dealings with the Mamelukes, which could ultimately lead to their deaths; leaving them as an example to those who came after. Naturally, these circumstances quelled their desire to eradicate the Mamelukes, who continuously fought for increased power, so they spent their days enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, their main aim being to amass personal wealth and send money and gifts to the sultan. Through this, they hoped to gain his approval, avoid his temperamental attitude, and guarantee their stay as long as possible; enjoying what they could of their wealth and luxury while they had it.
The main difference between the conflict that arose between Mohamed Ali and the Mamelukes and the conflicts that had arisen with those that preceded him stems from this point: the aim of the previous walis did not go further than the technical context: increasing the area of sovereignty and obtaining the highest possible degree of control over those challenging them during their term of office. This approach stopped the conflict from escalating to an extent that would cause disturbance at the Asitane (Constantinople) and force the sultan to change the wali who could not keep the peace in one of the empire’s provinces. As for Mohamed Ali, he took the conflict to the strategic level with the aim of eradicating those that persisted in trying to share the power and authority with the wali (sometimes even exceeding him), in order to rise victorious as the sole ruler of Egypt, which he planned on making the nucleus of his future kingdom. Consequently, my opinion is that the escalation of conflict between Mohamed Ali and the Mamelukes beyond any preceding conflict was not due to their individual characters, or the fact that one might wish to take a passive route while the other might choose a more violent path, but rather due to totally political reasons driven by the objectives that each had for himself, and the aims he sought to achieve.
The Mameluke Obstacle
When the decree was issued on 9 July 1805 making Mohamed Ali Pasha the ruler of Egypt, he knew that it was only a step towards his dream of making Egypt his kingdom. He knew beyond doubt that gaining power through the sultan’s decree was only a step towards power in Egypt and that the Mamelukes had the upper hand in the course of events. They had military power as well as being the ones who collected money and taxes from the citizens, which enabled them to strengthen their position.
This [Mameluke] letter was the differentiating moment in the escalation of the conflict, from small skirmishes that had tactical results to the moment of truth when one party would totally abolish the other.
There were approximately 2 ,500 Mamelukes in Egypt. Half this number were in the south led by Ibrahim Bek and Osman Bek al-Bardeesy ; the other half were in the north led by Mohamed Bek al-Alfy, an ex-slave, who was named after his price. His owner gave him as a gift to Murad Bek, who was so impressed with his strength and appearance that he gave his benefactor 1 ,000 ardab (a unit of weight equal to approximately eighty kg) of grain, which was an enormous gift at the time, and so he became known as the ‘alfy’ (one thousand) slave.
Mohamed Ali was aware of the danger of the power of al-Alfy from his early days as wali, since manpower and wealth were not the only sources of al-Alfy’s strength. The real source of his power lay in his strong ties with England, which supported his aspirations to rule Egypt in order to gain more influence for itself and beat its arch enemy and main rival in the international arena: France.
Therefore, it was logical that Mohamed Ali should turn to France for support during this phase, as a cautionary measure against British military intervention. He was able to convince the French that having al-Alfy ruling Egypt would be a victory for British authority in the area and would entail a constraint on all French interests. From his end al-Alfy continued spinning webs of intrigue against Mohamed Ali at the Asitane with the help of the British, to the extent that he was very close to getting a decree issued empowering the Mamelukes in Egypt and giving him personally the office of wali.
As fate would have it, the new wali was richly rewarded with the death of al-Bardeesy in December 1806, at the age of forty-eight, followed by the death of al-Alfy in January 1807 aged fifty-five. It is such a strange coincidence that we find in some references hints that Mohamed Ali played a role in their deaths, while other references assure us that al-Bardeesy died of jaundice and al-Alfy either died of cholera or poison at the hands of his wives!
In spite of this, the period from 1806 to 1811 witnessed enflamed conflicts between the two powers; military battles and truces were agreed upon and then reneged upon. The conflict was distinctive because it included a strange mix of military assault, political resourcefulness and the temptations of money. We would not be exaggerating if we said that the tools used by Mohamed Ali in this conflict accurately portray the keys to his personality and his areas of concern: power, resourcefulness and money.
The Sultan’s Dilemma
The Sublime Porte was aware of the conflict raging in Egypt ever since Mohamed Ali took power, and was closely and cautiously monitoring it. On the one hand, Mohamed Ali’s loyalty was not guaranteed. The sultan had seen how he’d refused the order to be moved from Egypt after his first year of rule, and his power and influence had only increased in the following years. On the other hand, the rebellion of the Mamelukes and their contacts with the British were reason enough to support Mohamed Ali in his conflict with them, in spite of the fact that they had infiltrated the Asitane with rumors that Mohamed Ali disobeyed the orders of the sultan. Finally, the growing military strength of Mohamed Ali had started to worry the sultan, even though he had still not established an Egyptian army.
The sultan’s advisors without doubt analyzed all these factors and realized that removing Mohamed Ali from Egypt would only serve to hand the country over to the Mamelukes, whose loyalty to the Sublime Porte was dubious, and who had strong ties with Britain. Such a move would also require a major military force, and the Asitane was at this time laboring under pressures in Europe and so preferred to avoid opening up a new front in one of its most prominent provinces. On the other hand, the increase in Mohamed Ali’s power, and the fact that he was able to win one bout after the other against the Mamelukes, as well as the length of his rule in Egypt, were all of grave concern to the Sublime Porte and their fear of his rebellion was not unfounded.
Despite all this, the Sublime Porte laid an ingenious plan with many objectives; the sultan asked Mohamed Ali to set up a campaign to Hijaz (western border of modern-day Saudi Arabia) to temper the Wahhabis and force them to submit to the empire. The sultan aspired to achieve many things with his plan, the first being to embroil Mohamed Ali in a war that would decrease his strength; the second was to use the forces of Mohamed Ali in subjugating the Wahhabis, instead of using the waning forces of the sultan, in order to stress that Mohamed Ali was totally under the rule of the Sublime Porte. The third aim of the plan was to eradicate the Wahhabis, whose control over the Hijaz area and the two Holy Mosques meant a diminution of the authority of the sultan and an attack on his standing.
The Defining Moment
From his side, Mohamed Ali was fully aware of the situation and was not giving in to the course of events. Correspondence between Mohamed Ali and the Sublime Porte from this time proves that he found the sultan’s requests a potent tool to use in pressuring the Asitane to comply with his requests, the most important of which was fighting the Mamelukes. The letter which deserves in-depth study is that sent by Shahin Bek al-Alfy, the heir of Mohamed al-Alfy, to the commander of the British fleet in the Mediterranean Sea in August 1809, in which he wrote, ‘Since I am the legitimate heir of the Mamelukes, I believe I have the right to rule this country, but since I cannot seize power at the moment from the hands of he who has control over Egypt, and even if I could, I could not keep it without the protection of Britain, I am therefore asking for the protection and support of Britain under whatever conditions its government sees fit to impose’.
He goes on to barter, asking for fifteen thousand bags to pay his soldiers, which he promises to return when he assumes power. ‘I ensure my complete readiness to fully submit to the will of the British government even if this path cost me my life …’, he continues. ‘If Britain wishes to bring its fleets and soldiers once again [after the Fraser Campaign ] to the area, then your Excellency can ensure Britain that with the sum I will receive I can prepare immediately to aid it with all my men and the Arab tribesmen under the flag of the British commander, and we will shed our blood willingly for the glory of Britain.’
This is how the man bartered with the freedom of his nation and sold it cheap to the British. He did not hesitate to attain power by climbing on the shoulders of the occupier, nor did he hesitate in promising to turn over the country to them; it was submission and bartering that reached the level of high treason!
The Trap Is Set
This letter fell into the hands of the French Consul in Egypt, and he hurried to show it to his ally Mohamed Ali, who was then sure that the Mamelukes were conspiring with a super power. This letter was the differentiating moment in the escalation of the conflict, from small skirmishes that had tactical results to the moment of truth when one party would totally abolish the other.
The timing of the massacre stemmed from Mohamed Ali’s desire to secure the home-front before the Wahhabi campaign, for which he was receiving pressure to accomplish at the earliest possible time from the Sublime Porte. Events then follow on from this point. Mohamed Ali travelled to Suez, approximately one month before the massacre, to supervise the mobilization of ships travelling to Hijaz. On his return, he announced a celebration to honour his son Ahmed Tousson Pasha, along with the leadership of the Wahhabi campaign, before their departure. As per the customs of the day, he took the advice of soothsayers, who chose four o’clock on Friday afternoon for the event.
It is not known when exactly Mohamed Ali laid down his detailed plan for the massacre, but the fact that the plan was not leaked to his enemies in an era renowned for its spying and conspiracies is a signal that the time between planning and implementation was short, and that the number of those informed was no more than four; even his own children did not know of the plan, to ensure its secrecy.
On the morning of Friday, 1 March 1811, 470 Mameluke men, who were in Cairo at the time, went to the Citadel, dressed in all their finery and wearing heavy furs, with their shining gilded swords. They stood in order in the courtyard of the Citadel, each riding his best horse, while onlookers lined the sides of the streets to watch their awesome procession.
The wali enthusiastically welcomed his guests as they entered the Citadel and they were presented with coffee and nargila (hookah) as per the customs of the time. He then spent some time entertaining his guests and striking up casual conversations amongst them. We can just imagine how Mohamed Ali managed to keep his nerves in check knowing what he had in store for them in less than an hour! Finally, the wali rose to leave as a signal to end the celebration, and so they rose with him to take their leave.
The guests rode their horses to join a huge procession through the city, and it was planned that they would ride through the streets, to be seen by the crowds lining the roads, until they reached the camp prepared for the departing campaign.
Madiq al-Naqr was a winding, narrow, steep decline, carved out of the rock itself, and lined on both sides with houses and high forts; it had to be traversed to go from the Citadel to al-Ramila Square (Salah al-Din Square). The path was so narrow and so winding that two horses abreast could not pass through it, and it ended at the side of the square with a portal known as Bab al-Azab. This was where the event took place – or the scene of the crime, in legal terms.
Mohamed Ali placed his Albanian soldiers on the rooftops of the buildings lining Madiq al-Naqr, and placed his cavalry at the head of the Mameluke procession. Once all the Mameluke riders had entered Madiq al-Naqr, the cavalry raced through the portal and firmly shut it behind them, just as he had ordered. This was the cue for the Albanian soldiers lying in wait.
The massacre began.
A gunshot rang out (some say canon shot) from one of the overlooking buildings, and all hell broke loose. Bullets rained onto the trapped Mamelukes picking them off one after the other with no respite.
Elias al-Ayouby recounts that, ‘It was only moments before the narrow path was crowded with the corpses of men and horses, lying on top of each other, making any movement even more difficult than before [due to the narrowness of the passage]. As for the Mamelukes who happened to reach the portal Bab al-Azab, they found it closed and turned back their horses. But this caused even more chaos amongst the men and horses that were at the top of the incline, and they in turn tried to turn their horses back to the Citadel away from the bullets. However, the infantry spread across the walls opened fire, killing them in droves and the mayhem and horror increased. The Mamelukes soon realized that their horses were useless and so they descended to walk on foot and took off their clothes and finery which only hindered their movements at that terrible time. They started to run, swords and firearms in hand, wanting to meet an enemy to take their revenge for the catastrophe which had befallen them. But they found no-one and the bullets continued to rain down upon them hitting their mark.’ Al-Ayouby is the only source to claim that they carried firearms, whereas all others unanimously agree that they only held their gilded swords, which they wore as part of their dress uniforms for special occasions; this seems more logical since there were no deaths amongst the Albanians.
Al-Jabarti continues the story, ‘Most of them fell, and Shahin Bek was wounded and fell to the ground only to have his head cut off. The soldiers then rushed to give their prize to the pasha and receive a reward… they even bound the legs and hands of Shahin Bek and dragged him on the ground like a dead donkey … they arrested all those they found alive not killed by the bullets, or those delayed from the procession and sitting with Mohamed Laz Oghly, such as Ahmed Bek al-Kilargy and Yehia Bek al-Alfy and Ali Kashef the Elder, they removed their clothing and took them to prison under the council of Mohamed Laz Oghly and then called for the executioner to cut off their heads in the courtyard of the diwan one after the other.’
One of the Mamelukes murdered was Omar Bek al-Alfy, who was in Fayoum and was killed there, and his head sent back with fifty others. Dabous Oghly, the governor of Minya, sent thirty-five heads!
We also take from Sir Murray another angle on the bloodshed, ‘As for Suleiman Bek al-Bawab [a Mameluke leader], he made his way to the palace of the wali, dripping blood and without clothes till he reached the haramlek [the women’s quarters] and spoke words which became famous to any destitute person, “I put myself at the mercy of the women”.’ Al-Ayouby continues, recounting of the event, ‘This was a sacred plea at that time in history, but the sword found his throat, and his body was dragged to a far-off place’.
Seven or eight Mamelukes were able to reach the place where Tousson Pasha lived, and threw themselves at his feet and asked to take refuge with him. But the young man did not dare contradict his father and refused them, and they were killed in front of him. ‘The killing continued from early morning till nighttime till the courtyard was filled with the dead’, according to al-Jabarti , and all the Mameluke guests met their death that day. Most sources estimate the number of people invited – or rather killed – at 470.
The only two survivors of the Citadel massacre were Ahmed Bek, the husband of Adila Hanem (daughter of Ibrahim Bek the Elder), who sent his apologies for not attending because he was otherwise occupied, and Amin Bek. The story goes that Amin Bek was at the back of the procession, and when he saw death coming his way from every side he risked jumping his horse over one of the Citadel walls from a height of twenty metres – approximately from the seventh floor of a modern building – throwing himself from his horse as he neared the ground. The horse died, but he was saved and escaped to the Levant.
Storytellers have been passing this tale down from generation to generation until its contents have overcome reason. Scientifically speaking, Amin Bek’s speed as he plummets down to the ground is equal to that of his horse, so that if he had dismounted a few metres above the ground (as the story of al-Rafey goes) it would still have been as if he had thrown himself from the full height of twenty metres, inevitably leading him to meet his fate. If we assume that he remained on his horse till the bitter end, the possibility of his surviving the fall from such a height is equally weak.
A more plausible account relates that Amin Bek was simply late for the celebrations and decided to meet his colleagues at Bab al-Azab at the end of the procession, and when he heard the gunshots realized that there was a conspiracy underway. Some say he escaped to Syria or Tripoli then made his way to the Asitane where he curried favor with the sultan. There is also always the possibility that the story is fictitious, as some historians claim.
An Anxious Wait
Where was Mohamed Ali during these events? What was his psychological and nervous state? Al-Jabarti replies that, ‘When the procession took off, the pasha rode to the haramlek’. However, Princess Chewikar and al-Rafey recount that he remained in the hall with the three men who were involved with him and knew the secret. George Yang claims that Mohamed Ali himself shot the first bullet as a sign for the operation to start. Some historians and artists have tried to portray Mohamed Ali as sitting calm and serene during the incident, due to his courage and steady nerves, which seems rather farfetched. It is impossible to believe that any person, no matter how astounding his abilities are, could manage to remain calm during such a horrendous incident.
After a time , Mandricci the Genovese , who was one of his doctors came to him smiling, which only an Italian would dare to do and said, ‘The matter is finished, my liege, and this is one of your happy days’. He remained silent with a dour expression and only asked for a drink of water.
It is possible that Mohamed Ali thought of the possibility of the whole plan failing, or his ranks being infiltrated, or disloyalty occurring amongst the Albanians; all feasible fears that would definitely lead to his own demise. It is more plausible that the story as given by al-Rafey and Murray and other historians is closer to the truth: that he strode the hall back and forth, with a very pale face and a serious expression, and maybe only became calm when signs of his success became evident and he felt himself safe. Sir Murray writes that, ‘Even so, there were signs of discomfort on him and fear filled his heart. After a while, Mandricci the Genovese who was one of his doctors came to him smiling, which only an Italian would dare to do, and said, “The matter is finished, my liege , and this is one of your happy days.” He remained silent with a dour expression and only asked for a drink of water’.
As for the historian Habib Gamaty, he discloses the opinion of Mohamed Ali himself, which he had told in confidence to his friend De Lesseps (the father of the famous engineer Ferdinand De Lesseps of the Suez Canal). According to Gamaty, Mohamed Ali was amazed that the French artist Horace Vernet had portrayed him so calm in his famous painting depicting the massacre of the Mamelukes (the painting now hangs in the Palace of Prince Mohamed Ali in Manial). The truth – according to Mohamed Ali – is that he remained tense monitoring the developments of the massacre in hiding, asking himself whether his Albanian soldiers would remain loyal or if they would turn on him. He admitted that he had prepared his escape, by arranging with two of his loyal followers to wait for him at Bab al-Gabal with a saddled horse to carry him off if necessary into the desert.
The Slaughter Spreads
The matter did not rest at killing the invited Mamelukes, but it spread to the rest of the city and the rest of the country, Al-Jabarti says that, ‘When the doors to the Citadal were closed and the gunshots could be heard, and fear filled the people, and all the spectators ran to hide, and the bartenders shut up shop, with nobody quite understanding what was happening. When the Albanian soldiers had finally killed off all the princes, they descended like locusts on the houses of the Egyptian princes to plunder and steal-and wreak havoc, taking all that the women prized and held most dear, with no-one to stop them’.
Al-Jabarti mentions that the soldiers in other regions took to killing any Mamelukes they could find and ‘sent their heads, or conspired to capture them then killed them, and every day heads were sent from the north and south to be put on Bab Zuweila or the Citadal doors; they showed no mercy to anyone, and if they gave sanctuary to a Mameluke, once they had him they would strip him of his clothes and kill him. The pasha knew that Mohamed Laz Oghly Bek deeply hated the Mamelukes and hence he delegated the issue to him’. One of the Mamelukes murdered was Omar Bek al-Alfy, who was killed in the Fayoum Oasis, his head sent to Cairo with fifty others. Dabous Oghly, the governor of Minya, sent thirty-five heads! Overall, the number of Mamelukes killed in the provinces was estimated at 1,000 men.
Cairo remained in a state of chaos till the following day, when Mohamed Ali, dressed in his finery, took to the streets in a grand procession with all of his courtiers surrounding him. That day was a new start for the victorious pasha: he had organized his affairs, stabilized his position, and finally lost the cloud that had hung over his head. He then went about reassuring the people that they were not in any danger, and threatened the Albanian soldiers with death if they stole or plundered again. Peace was restored to the streets and markets, and people went about their usual-daily lives once again.
It seems that the objective of the procession surpassed the obvious aim of restoring the peace and took on a more strategic role: announcing the start of Mohamed Ali’s sole rule, where he alone reigned supreme and consequently was entitled to ride in the ruler’s procession, which he deliberately made as grand as possible. There were only a few Mamelukes left in the south at the time of the massacre, and when they heard of it they were filled with dread and realized that they too were doomed. They sent to the pasha asking him to assign them land on which to live, but he decided to seal their fates instead. He sent them an army led by Mostafa Bek, his nephew, who killed most of them while the rest fled farther south. Others fled to the Levant, where they lived out the rest of their lives as vanquished men.
The opinion of Mohamed Ali himself about the events of that horrific day can be read in a letter to the sultan four days later. Within the letter he claims that the Mamelukes amounted to only twenty-four princes and their entourages, obviously trying to minimize the effect of the incident by minimizing the number of victims. He also mentioned the Wahhabi campaign and the fact that the Mameluke deception was a stunt to appease the Sublime Porte.
With this terrifying scene Mohamed Ali totally obliterated the Mamelukes, who never rose again, and began to build his empire. The massacre included, beyond doubt, an extreme measure of violence and bloodshed – emphasized by the cruelty in the methods of killing and the desecration of bodies, in the refusal of sanctuary, and in the lack of mercy shown – over and above the deception involved and the breaking of any security pacts.
This has driven some historians to a naïve defense of Mohamed Ali, who claim that the massacre was organized by the Albanians and his role lay only in his knowledge of the affair. I find that this is more of a derogatory misrepresentation of the man rather than a defense for his actions. Mohamed Ali was not a weak, passive man who would allow such a plan if he were not fully controlling and implementing it, basically because he was sure that he would be the first victim if it failed. Apart from that, he was the main benefactor from the incident and his personal attributes of cunning and intelligence, as well as his Machiavellian tendencies, surely make him the mastermind behind the event. Any attempts to limit his role are really only efforts to save his reputation in history from that of a bloodthirsty ruler.
On the other hand, placing the massacre on political-scales could justify it, or at least explain it. The victims were not righteous saints. Rather, they were known throughout their periods of power as being oppressive and unjust in their rule, as we have seen how their leader bartered with the country to stay on the throne.
From another angle, we must realize that killing and bloodshed were not strangers to that era, nor were they to the Mamelukes, who were not above such acts if their enemies were within their reach. Over and above the fact that while they were challenging the rule of Mohamed Ali, they rendered him incapable of military and economic development and of initiating major projects of reform, which he was actually able to do once he had obliterated them.
Consequently, destroying the Mamelukes was a historic inevitability, if Mohamed Ali truly wanted to develop Egypt, necessitated by circumstances and the political-atmosphere of the time. It can also be said that the massacre was only the last link in the chain of conflict, in which both parties used subterfuge and deception, and was not really an isolated incident. As for the method of implementation, although totally contradicting all religious practices and any values of mercy, it was, however, from a purely political perspective, an accurate implementation of an ingenious plan that achieved a conclusive result, especially if put within the context of an era where the sword was the agreed upon method of solving conflicts.
The incident is not strange to our history; we would not be far off point if we compare it to President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s invitation to his friend Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer to dinner at his home, where he was arrested and later met his fate. Nor is it far from the events of 15 May 1971 when President Anwar al-Sadat rid himself of enemies who were challenging his rule and authority, similar to the way in which the Mamelukes were threatening Mohamed Ali.
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Amr S. Talaat ,DBA, is a historian specialized in Egypt’s modern history. He has conducted extensive research on many significant events and personalities of that era. In addition to his many articles, he has published Saadeyoun ‘am Adleyoun (Sherouk Press, 2010), a book on the relationship between two prominent politicians of the early twentieth century. Sherouk Press, 2010.