Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Ottoman Empire’s governor of Egypt was killed by rebels in a series of revolts that reflected growing tensions between foreign governors and local revenue (or tax) farmers under pressure to provide tribute to Constantinople. The empire’s Janissary military corps, having integrated into Egyptian society, would take control of the region because of a weakened sense of allegiance to the Ottoman capital, but the empire eventually prevailed and retook Egypt.

Summary of Event

In 1517, Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-1520) extended the territory of the Ottoman Empire by conquering Egypt. A brief period of expansion was followed by seven decades of quiet and general acceptance of Ottoman rule; then unrest erupted. The common pattern for the Ottomans had been to replace local government institutions, including the military. However, in Egypt, Selim offered pardon to many of the defeated Mamlūks, that is, to the rulers with slave origins. Those who were willing to profess loyalty to the new regime were incorporated into the new administration. During the sixteenth century, the Ottomans continued to purchase military slaves from the Caucasus, known also as Circassians. [kw]Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans (Sept., 1605) [kw]Rebel Against the Ottomans, Egyptians (Sept., 1605) [kw]Ottomans, Egyptians Rebel Against the (Sept., 1605) Government and politics;Sept., 1605: Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans[0390] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept., 1605: Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans[0390] Egypt;Sept., 1605: Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans[0390] Middle East;Sept., 1605: Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans[0390] Ottoman Empire;Sept., 1605: Egyptians Rebel Against the Ottomans[0390] Ottoman Empire;Egyptian rebellion against

The military system was somewhat complex. Janissaries Janissaries were elite infantry troops who guarded Cairo and the military governor, known as a viceroy. However, there were also many other units of former Mamlūks in the rural areas. Among these units were the sipahi Sipahi , cavalry who fought with bows and arrows. They were often supported by an additional local tax known as the tulba. As the size of the military increased, tax revenues were thus divided and diminished. The Ottoman procedure was to give beys, military commanders, responsibility over a portion of land from which they raised troops and exacted taxes. Taxation;Ottoman Empire Originally twelve in number, by the beginning of the seventeenth century the number of beys had increased to forty. This increase in number led to a decentralized local government and helped raise questions about restoring self-rule.

In September, 1605, these autonomous Egyptian forces assassinated the Ottoman viceroy Ibrahim Paşa Ibrahim Paşa (Ottoman viceroy) , threatening to overthrow imperial rule. This uprising was caused by a number of factors. First, the entire Ottoman Empire was faced with massive inflation because of an influx of silver from the Spanish Americas. With their own silver currency debased, the Ottomans were unable to meet payroll obligations for their growing bureaucracy and extensive military. The Ottomans compounded this crisis through a series of costly wars against the Habsburg Dynasty in Europe (1593-1606). Revolts among soldiers were common

In Egypt, revolts had begun as early as 1586, when a viceroy initiated an investigation concerning the delivery of revenues to the sultan, a significant act because Egypt paid much more than its fair share in finances to run the empire. In turn, the imperial soldiers removed the viceroy from the citadel, put him under house arrest, and suspended his rule. His successor attempted to deal with the soldiers but instead aggravated them to the point of their revolt in 1589, in which the soldiers obtained a number of concessions. More revolts followed. The confidence of the rural troops grew as discontented soldiers from elsewhere in the empire sought refuge in Egypt

WhenIbrahim Paşa arrived to take up the office of viceroy in 1604, he was determined to restore the authority of his office. It had been the custom of arriving viceroys to present a financial gift to the military upon taking office, butIbrahim chose to ignore this tradition. The soldiers responded first by collapsing his tent on top of him and then by taking the gift by force.Ibrahim situated himself in the citadel and slowly began a campaign of revenge against the offending soldiers. The following year, in September of 1605, he was no longer secure, as the annual Nile River floods forced him to leave the citadel. Fifteen sipahi (armed cavalry) surrounded his house at Shubra on the outskirts of Cairo and broke in with drawn swords to kill him. They proceeded to parade through the streets of Cairo bearing the head of the slainIbrahim and the heads of three of his elite Janissary soldiers, finally displaying them on the Zuwayla Gate, a place reserved for the heads of the worst criminals

The assassination of the sultan’s representative was a major threat to the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Ahmed I Ahmed I responded by sending a tough new viceroy, a formidable foe named Muḥammad Paşa Muḥammad Paşa . He would be known as Kul Kiran (the breaker of the Mamlūks). Upon assuming office, he assembled the beys (military commanders) and regimental leaders in order to inquire into the death of ViceroyIbrahim. The beys were accused of involvement in the murder, and thirteen of them, about half, were removed from their leadership positions and exiled. Perhaps the most severe reaction toIbrahim’s murder was the discontinuation of the tulba, the traditional tax that was raised in the rural areas of Egypt to support the sipahi. Since this tax was local, and not a practice in other parts of the empire, the decision of the viceroy seemed to make sense from an administrative standpoint. However, the decision incited even more soldiers to oppose the viceroy

Matters continued to worsen until 1609, when the sipahi named their own sultan and government ministers. In essence, the sipahi were announcing their secession from the Ottoman Empire. Swearing an oath of allegiance to this separatist movement on the grave of a revered Sufi leader, they marched on Cairo in order to take on the viceroy’s Janissaries. The sipahi singled out Koja Mustafa Koja Mustafa , who was marked for assassination. Along the way they gathered support in every village.

Viceroy Muḥammad was not deterred. Rounding up sympathizers to the separatist movement, he put some to death immediately. He called upon the beys to make an oath of loyalty, and he appointed Koja to command the loyal forces against the rebels. Confronting the rebel forces at Al-Khanqa near Cairo, a well-organized and highly disciplined Ottoman army, equipped with cannon and guns, proved a formidable threat. Many of the rebels surrendered without hesitation, and others were systematically rounded up. Fifty were beheaded on the spot to instill terror. Captured leaders, humiliated and in chains, were paraded before the crowds. The names of the rest of the captured rebels were recorded, and their weapons were confiscated. With the rebellion thwarted, the loyalist troops returned to Cairo in triumph. Because of the intervention of the chief judge, the lives of rebel leaders were spared on the condition that they be exiled to Yemen.


The success of Muḥammad Paşa was such that the Arab chronicler Muḥammed ibn Abī al-Surūr referred to the thwarting of the rebellion as the second Ottoman conquest of Egypt. Although Muḥammad served as viceroy for only four years, he was able to crush the revolt convincingly, thereby putting a stop to future unrest. There would be no further revolts in Egypt for more than a century. As a final gesture, he ordered the people of Cairo to dig out a cubit’s depth (about 18 inches) in front of their houses to forever remove the footprints of the rebels.

The beys—reduced in number to their original twelve—not only continued to play a role in government but also were soon designated with new leadership functions. Prior to 1604, judges had been responsible for transitions between one viceroy and another. However, beys would now have this important task. Their influence was evident in 1623, when troops loyal to the bey were successful in refusing a replacement for a viceroy recalled by Constantinople.

Likewise, beys would be appointed amīr-al-Hajj, the overseer of the safe passage of pilgrimage caravans to Mecca. Also, beys would be appointed amīr-al-Khazna, the overseer of the safe delivery of the annual tribute to Constantinople. So, rather than providing a check to this source of local power, the rebellions of the early seventeenth century helped to bring the bey to a dominant position in eighteenth century Egyptian politics.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daly, M. W., ed. Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2 in The Cambridge History of Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. In chapter 1, Michael Winter describes the organization of the administration and the army. In chapter 2, Jane Hathaway describes the seventeenth century as an age of transformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi Books, 1994. A highly recommended history of the elite Janissary corps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Jason. Lord of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. A popular survey of the Ottoman Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, P. M. Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, 1516-1922: A Political History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. Includes a thorough description of the revolt along with causes, results, and significance of this event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, P. M.. “The Pattern of Egyptian Political History from 1517 to 1798.” In Political and Social Change in Modern Egypt, edited by P. M. Holt. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Provides a context for the rebellion of 1605 by dividing the period into four distinct phases: acquisition, 1517-1525; quiescence, 1525-1586; internal conflict, 1586-1711; and the ascendancy of the grandees, 1711-1798.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. A detailed work on the Ottoman Empire of the late medieval-early modern era. Includes an excellent glossary of often-technical period terminology.
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