Magazine article History Today

The Man Who Remade Alexandria: Once the Classical World's Dominant Port, by the Early 19th Century the City Founded by Alexander the Great Was Seemingly in Terminal Decline. but the Energy and Vision of the Ottoman Governor Muhammad Ali Restored Its Fortunes and, Ultimately, Set Egypt on the Path to Independence

Magazine article History Today

The Man Who Remade Alexandria: Once the Classical World's Dominant Port, by the Early 19th Century the City Founded by Alexander the Great Was Seemingly in Terminal Decline. but the Energy and Vision of the Ottoman Governor Muhammad Ali Restored Its Fortunes and, Ultimately, Set Egypt on the Path to Independence

Article excerpt

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In 1806, with a population of just 6,000, the Egyptian port of Alexandria appeared to the French writer and politician Chateaubriand to be 'the saddest and most deserted place in the world'. By 1849 it had become a cosmopolis of 100,000 and Egypt's second capital. The reason for the transformation was Muhammad Ali Pasha's ambition to create a modern Egyptian monarchy.

Like the city's founder, Alexander the Great, Muhammad All came from Macedonia. He was born in 1770, the son of a Turkish tobacco merchant, in the port of Kavalla in what is now northern Greece. He came to Egypt with an Ottoman army in 1801 to expel the French expedition d'Egypte. By 1805, encouraged by the local population's yearning for law and order, he had forced the Ottoman government to appoint him governor of Egypt. By 1811, having massacred the detested military elite of Mamelukes, he had done what other Ottoman officials were hoping to do in other provinces of the empire such as Lebanon or Albania: he had established his own government. By 1819 he was no longer called vali, or governor of Egypt, but His Highness the Viceroy.

Muhammad Ali was 'the founder of modern Egypt'. In 1812 the French consul, his friend Bernardino Drovetti, remarked that he had 'gigantic ideas' and 'eagerly seizes every opportunity to shake the yoke of prejudices'. After 1809 Muhammad Ali was the first non-Christian ruler to send batches of young Egyptian men to be educated in Europe, usually in Italy or France. On the initiative of Drovetti, a system of quarantine to prevent the spread of plague was introduced in Alexandria in 1817, 20 years before it reached the rest of the Ottoman Empire. The pasha's remark in 1825, when permitting Christians to ring church bells in Egypt, that among so many religions it would be a Misfortune if one was not correct, demonstrated an open mind.

Muhammad All was also a merchant. The great Egyptian chronicler al-Jabarti wrote with distaste that the pasha tried to raise money 'by all methods ... He wants his slightest desires to be executed without any comment' and thought only of taking other men's profits. Muhammad Ali often visited Alexandria in order to sell directly to foreign merchants the wheat, rice and other vegetables which he had requisitioned from Egyptians in exchange for gold, tin, iron, textiles and other European goods. He then sold them on to Egyptian merchants at prices fixed by himself. The English radical journalist and traveller lames St John found that among foreigners 'every look, word or smile of the pasha is subjected to an arithmetical calculation to ascertain its value in piastres [Egyptian pounds]'.

By 1810, despite decrees prohibiting the export of wheat from the Ottoman Empire, the wheat exported through Alexandria was feeding Wellington's army during the Peninsular War which began in 1808. By 1811 Muhammad All was believed to be the richest pasha in the empire and refused to obey orders from the Ottoman government which went against his own interests. By 1817 tile port of Alexandria presented, in the words of the English traveller Robert Richardson, a doctor who accompanied the Earl of Belmore on a grand tour of the Levant, 'an active scene of ship building, vessels loading and taking in their cargoes, with heaps of grain and bales of goods piled up along the shore'. Alexandria's rival ports of Damietta and Rosetta lost importance.

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In 1811 Muhammad Ali spent six weeks in Alexandria, in 1812 two months, in 1818 four months. By 1822 he was said to be spending all his time there and that year the consuls-general moved their offices from Cairo to Alexandria. So different in character to its inland rival, Alexandria became Egypt's unofficial capital, as much a synonym for its government as London and Paris were for the governments of Britain and France.

Muhammad Ali believed in employing Frenchmen in Egypt, as well as in educating Egyptians in France. …

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