Muhammad ‘Alī Has the Mamlūks Massacred Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite their defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading French army in 1798, the Mamlūks continued to threaten Muḥammad ՙAlī, Egypt’s Ottoman-appointed governor, until he effectively liquidated them, making himself uncontested ruler of Egypt.

Summary of Event

Originally a Circassian Circassians military slave Slavery;and Mamlūks[Mamluks] dynasty, the Mamlūks ruled Egypt between 1250 and 1517, when they were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. In 1798, they were again defeated, by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading French. However, after the turn of the nineteenth century, they managed to regroup once again and threatened the power of the Ottoman viceroy. In 1804, the head of the Ottoman’s Albanian-staffed cavalry, Muḥammad ՙAlī, collaborated with the Mamlūks in a power play to secure the governorship of Egypt. Afterward, however, Muḥammad ՙAlī’s suspicions of the Mamlūks caused him to induce a number of their leaders to set up residence in Giza, just outside Cairo, so that he could keep a watchful eye on their activities. Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha [p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Mamlūks[Mamluks] Mamlūks[Mamluks];massacre of Egypt;Mamlūks[Mamluks] Cairo;Mamlūks[Mamluks] [kw]Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred (Mar. 1, 1811) [kw]Mamlūks Massacred, Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the (Mar. 1, 1811) [kw]Massacred, Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks (Mar. 1, 1811) Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha [p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Mamlūks[Mamluks] Mamlūks[Mamluks];massacre of Egypt;Mamlūks[Mamluks] Cairo;Mamlūks[Mamluks] [g]Africa;Mar. 1, 1811: Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred[0510] [g]Egypt;Mar. 1, 1811: Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred[0510] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Mar. 1, 1811: Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred[0510] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 1, 1811: Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred[0510] Mahmud II [p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Mamlūks[Mamluks] Ahmad Tusun Khusrau Pasha

The massacre of the Mamlūluks.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The Mamlūks themselves were far from unified. As a group they had tried to play off, just as Muḥammad ՙAlī was to do, the different centers of power—the religious clerics (ulama), the merchants, the Ottomans, eventually the French and the British—against one another and to exploit the country economically to their advantage, as they had long done. All of this occurred under the nominal rule of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. However, by the early nineteenth century, internecine rivalry among the Mamlūk military households and European intervention had reduced but not eliminated their power.

Early in 1811, Muḥammad ՙAlī responded to a request from Sultan Mahmud II Mahmud II [p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Mamlūks[Mamluks] to send his second son, Ahmad Tusun Ahmad Tusun, with an expeditionary force to Arabia’s Arabia Hijaz region to suppress the Wahhābīs’ Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] Wahhābīs fundamentalist Islamic revolt. Although wishing to comply, the Egyptian governor was apprehensive about being left without the several thousand men and equipment that his son would take out of the country. Muḥammad ՙAlī contrived a plot to eliminate what he believed to be the Mamlūk threat against his authority.

On March 1, 1811, Muḥammad ՙAlī invited all the Mamlūk notables to a reception and parade at the Citadel, his fortified residence on hills overlooking Cairo. The ostensible occasion was the investiture of his son Ahmad Tusun Ahmad Tusun as pasha of Jidda on the eve of his departure for Arabia Arabia . Estimates of the numbers of Mamlūks who showed up at the reception vary greatly. Some run into the hundreds, but it appears that only twenty-four Mamlūk notables under their leader, Shahin Bey Shahin Bey , and sixty underlings appeared. They came in full regalia, along with their decorated mounts. During the ceremonial procession of troops loyal to Muḥammad ՙAlī, the Mamlūks were wedged into the middle of the parade line. At the point where the route led through a narrow alleyway carved into rock and enclosed within high walls, loyal Albanian troops under Salih Koch barred the exit gate and took up their positions at the top of the wall, from which they opened fire upon the Mamlūks. Shahin was slain outright, as were most of the others. Those who survived were beheaded. During the weeks that followed, many more Mamlūks were killed in Cairo and Upper Egypt. Their lands were then confiscated.

Congratulations on his exploit reached Muḥammad ՙAlī from various sources, including Sultan Mahmud II. Mahmud II [p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Mamlūks[Mamluks] Fifteen years later, Mahmud emulated his underling’s deed by eliminating his own crack Janissary Janissaries;suppression of infantry in 1826. There were, however, differences between the Mamlūk and Janissary Massacres. For example, whereas the Janissaries integrated themselves into Ottoman society, the Mamlūks had isolated themselves from all levels of Egyptian society for centuries while remaining as an exploitative military aristocracy. Muḥammad ՙAlī’s elimination of the Mamlūk threat helped to restore order and security in Egypt, leaving him the undisputed master of Egypt. By contrast, Constantinople remained unstable even after the Janissary Massacre of 1826.


The period between Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and 1811 witnessed a see-saw in the struggle for power in Egypt, but the Mamlūk Massacre ordered by Muḥammad ՙAlī put a definitive end to that source of instability. Nevertheless, although the Citadel Massacre marked the termination of any effective claim to Mamlūk power, some survivors were later incorporated into the hierarchy, serving in high military or administrative positions throughout the reign of Muḥammad ՙAlī and beyond.

Two major explanations have been given to explain the brutal 1811 massacre by a man who was not, by nature, bloodthirsty. The first is that the Mamlūks were, indeed, conspiring to unseat the Egyptian governor. Also, Muḥammad ՙAlī wanted to ensure the stability of both his own rule and that of his successors by putting an end to a disruptive and dangerous element. In any case, brutally repressive measures were common in the Ottoman Empire at that time. Muḥammad ՙAlī’s predecessor as governor, Khusrau Pasha, Khusrau Pasha had been ordered to get rid of the troublesome Mamlūks—but had failed. It is reasonable to assume that the Mamlūks would have engineered Muḥammad ՙAlī’s destruction with as little compunction as he had in planning theirs.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Donald A. Egypt in the Nineteenth Century: Or, Mehemet Ali and His Successors Until the British Occupation in 1882. London: Smith, Elder, 1898. In addition to a separate chapter on the Mamlūks, this work by a British scholar contains the most graphic account of the 1811 Mamlūk Massacre, even though the author’s highly inflated figures of the number of victims were modified by later research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daly, Martin W., ed. The Cambridge History of Egypt: Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Puts the 1811 massacre into the broader contexts of Egyptian and Ottoman history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dodwell, Henry. The Founder of Modern Egypt: A Study of Muhammad Ali. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Originally published in 1931, this well-written British classic focuses on Muḥammad ՙAlī’s role in history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fahmy, Khaled. All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army, and the Making of Modern Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contrasts Muḥammad ՙAlī’s Mamlūk Massacre in Egypt with Sultan Mahmud II’s elimination of the Janissary threat to his power in Constantinople.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, F. Robert. Egypt Under the Khedives, 1805-1879: From Household Government to Modern Bureaucracy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. Pinpoints the Mamlūks’ role in Egyptian society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid. Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Dispassionate explanation of Muḥammad ՙAlī’s uncharacteristically brutal act in eliminating the Mamlūk threat to his rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Philipp, Thomas, and Ulrich Haarmann, eds. The Mamluks in Egyptian Politics and Society. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Examination of how the Mamlūks managed to continue to wield political, military, and economic power in Egypt after their defeat by the Ottomans in 1517.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sonbol, Amira el-Azhary. The New Mamluks: Egyptian Society and Modern Feudalism. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000. Study of how the Mamlūks exploited Egypt to their own advantage before their destruction as a center of power in 1811.

Arabic Literary Renaissance

Ottomans Suppress the Janissary Revolt

Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs

Turko-Egyptian Wars

Battle of Tel el Kebir

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha; Napoleon I. Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha [p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Mamlūks[Mamluks] Mamlūks[Mamluks];massacre of Egypt;Mamlūks[Mamluks] Cairo;Mamlūks[Mamluks]

Categories: History