Turko-Egyptian Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Struggles between the declining Ottoman Empire and Egypt reshaped power in the Middle East and opened the Eastern Question, an international diplomatic concern over how Europe should respond to the possible breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Summary of Event

“Destiny caresses the few and molests the many.” This Turkish proverb seems appropriate to describe the 1832 to 1841 war between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. The war featured major campaigns that taxed both nations and killed thousands, but in the end benefited only a single family. Turkey;and Egypt[Egypt] Egypt;and Turkey[Turkey] Ibrāhīm Paṣa Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha [p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Turkey[Turkey] [kw]Turko-Egyptian Wars (1832-1841) [kw]Egyptian Wars, Turko- (1832-1841) [kw]Wars, Turko-Egyptian (1832-1841) Turkey;and Egypt[Egypt] Egypt;and Turkey[Turkey] Ibrāhīm Paṣa Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha [p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Turkey[Turkey] [g]Egypt;1832-1841: Turko-Egyptian Wars[1715] [g]Turkey;1832-1841: Turko-Egyptian Wars[1715] [g]Ottoman Empire;1832-1841: Turko-Egyptian Wars[1715] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1832-1841: Turko-Egyptian Wars[1715] [c]Government and politics;1832-1841: Turko-Egyptian Wars[1715] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1832-1841: Turko-Egyptian Wars[1715] Ibrāhīm Paṣa Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha Mahmud II Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Egypt[Egypt]

Although technically an Ottoman vassal, Egypt’s wali (governor), Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha (also known as Mehmed Ali), enjoyed de facto independence from 1805. His numerous economic and military reforms created a European-style military machine, al-nizam al-jadid (new model army), which made the wali more powerful than his nominal overlord, Sultan Mahmud II. After participating in the failed Ottoman campaign to maintain control of Greece Greece;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Ottoman Empire;and Greece[Greece] (1821-1829), sultan and wali fell out over questions of compensation for Egypt’s significant contributions. At issue was the Ottoman province of Syria Syria;and Egypt[Egypt] Egypt;and Syria[Syria] , whose economic and strategic assets were of great interest to Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha. In 1831, he demanded Syria as a reward for past support of the Ottoman Porte (government). Ottoman intransigence led to war.

On paper, the Ottoman military seemed strong. A British report from 1832 listed 60,000 to 100,000 soldiers, eleven ships-of-the-line, and ten frigates. In reality, Ottoman troops had a terrible reputation. They were unable to end internal rebellions such as the Wahhābī Wahhābīs Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] movement in Arabia Arabia;Wahhābī war[Wahhabi war] , or the more recent Greek insurrection, and had just lost a war with Russia.

Egyptian troops, who numbered slightly more than sixty thousand, were polar opposites. Under the leadership of Muḥammad ՙAlī’s favorite son, Ibrāhīm Paṣa, these men enjoyed a string of victories that stretched from the Sudan to Arabia Arabia;Wahhābī war[Wahhabi war] . Ibrāhīm took twenty-six thousand of these veterans into Palestine Palestine in the fall of 1831. They captured Jaffa on November 26, and a day later, Egyptian scouts were outside the walls of Acre.

Despite a long siege and spirited defense, Egyptian troops stormed the city on May 27, 1832. Next, Ottoman provincial forces were crushed at Homs. Egyptians dubbed this “the defeat of the eight pashas” because so many high-ranking Ottoman officials participated in this July 8 struggle. Victory was sweet, for as one eyewitness wrote, the loot included enough sugar and coffee “to supply a city.” Next, the Egyptians attacked twenty thousand Ottoman soldiers commanded by Hussein Bey. Dug into the heights of Bilan, they occupied a formidable position. Yet, on July 29, Ibrāhīm’s sixteen thousand men stormed the Syrian Gates and destroyed yet another Ottoman army.

British foreign minister Lord Palmerston.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Egyptian victories, plus Ibrāhīm’s proclamation for a reduction of taxes for local Christians and Jews, Jews;in Egypt[Egypt] garnered support for the invaders. Local notables such as Mount Lebanon’s Baṣīr II quickly joined Ibrāhīm and contributed militia forces to maintain law and order. With his rear secure, the Egyptian commander marched into Anatolia, while Ottoman authorities rushed to create a new army. Under the grand vizier, Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha, the army numbered almost fifty thousand troops of indifferent quality. With less than thirty thousand men, Ibrāhīm faced the Ottomans at Konia on December 21. The grand vizier personally led a cavalry charge and was captured; as his men found out, they fled the field. This was the decisive battle of the campaign, as it eliminated the last significant Ottoman force between Ibrāhīm and Constantinople. (According to military historian David Nicolle, Konia also marked the first use of cigarettes in the Middle East, when Egyptian troops captured large quantities of Turkish tobacco, Tobacco;Turkish but finding no pipes, rolled it with cartridge paper instead.)

Ibrāhīm wrote to his father that after Konia, an advance on the imperial capital of Constantinople was “as easy as a drink of water.” Possibly so, but the Egyptian blitzkrieg ended when a great power threw its support behind the sultan. Strangely, the support came from Russia, a traditional foe of the Ottomans. For the Russians, the support was realpolitik, as they had no desire to see inefficient Ottoman leadership replaced by the more dynamic Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha. The Ottoman perspective is summed up by a Turkish diplomat who explained that “a drowning man will grasp a serpent.” This confluence resulted in twelve thousand Russian soldiers landing to defend Constantinople, and in 1833, the signing of the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi Hunkar Iskelesi, Treaty of (1833) . The treaty led to a defensive alliance between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Russia;and Ottoman Empire[Ottoman Empire] Ottoman Empire;and Russia[Russia]

Ibrāhīm now needed a drink stronger than water, for Russian intervention had saved Mahmud. In May of 1832, Ibrāhīm accepted the Convention of Kutahia, which placed Syria Syria;and Egypt[Egypt] Egypt;and Syria[Syria] under Egyptian control, but the convention was worded in a style that suggested it was more a truce than a definitive peace treaty.

Hunkar Iskelesi allowed the Russians to request closure of the Dardanelles (narrow strait between Europe and Asia) for any cause. It increased tremendously Russian influence in the Levant, and it alarmed both England and France. Initially, this did not register with Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha, who told an American diplomat that he would never leave Syria, “as long as I have a soldier and a dollar.” Prophetic words, for by the mid-1830’s, an Egyptian Levant was anathema to England. Lord Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Egypt[Egypt] , who served as foreign minister from 1830 to 1834, and again from 1835 to 1841, actively opposed Egyptian efforts to hold Syria Syria;and Egypt[Egypt] Egypt;and Syria[Syria] permanently. “I hate Mehmed Ali,” wrote Palmerston, “he is an ignorant barbarian. . . . His boasted civilization of Egypt is humbug!” Palmerston established connections between England, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria, all aimed at thwarting Egypt.

With great-power backing, Mahmud built a new army and sought revenge. Mehmed Ḥāfiẓ Paşa, the Ottoman commander for Anatolia, fed Mahmud’s desires by greatly underestimating Egyptian potential, while overestimating Syrian resistance to Ibrāhīm’s authority. He also overvalued his own troops, whom eyewitness Helmuth von Moltke described as equipped with “Russian jackets, French regulations, Belgian weapons, Turkish caps, Hungarian saddles, English swords, and instructors from every nation.” Yet despite this hodgepodge of gear and training, the Prussian advisory team also pressed for an invasion of Syria. So with encouragement from all sides, Mahmud ordered a renewal of hostilities in 1839.

During the spring of 1839, Mehmed Ḥāfiẓ Paşa crossed the Syrian frontier. He brought eighty thousand men, plus specific orders to avoid battle in the open and to fight only from behind fixed defenses. Ibrāhīm, with seventy-five thousand troops, marched toward the invaders, and the two armies met at Nezib on June 24-25, 1839. Prussian advice to the contrary, this turned out to be another Ottoman disaster. The Egyptians smashed their adversaries and were again poised to march on an undefended Constantinople.

After Nezib, the Ottoman Empire unraveled. Mahmud II died on June 30, 1839, and as political infighting surged, the empire’s last major military force, its navy Navy, Ottoman , defected to Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha. On July 14, the Ottoman navy sailed into Alexandria harbor, instantly making Egypt a major naval power in the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire was as close to collapse as after the disaster at Ankara in 1402, when Tamerlane defeated Ottoman sultan Bayezid I Bayezid I in a battle over Anatolia.

Ibrāhīm was ready again to march on Constantinople, until Great Britain and Austria intervened and with Prussia and Russia swinging toward intervention as well. Russia, for example, unilaterally abrogated Hunkar Iskelesi to appease Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Egypt[Egypt] . The Europeans demanded Ibrāhīm halt his advance and enter negotiations for a permanent settlement with the Ottomans. France remained ambivalent under the government of Adolphe Thiers Thiers, Adolphe , which encouraged Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha to consider possible backing from a great power. This ended when Thiers was replaced by François Guizot in October, leaving Egypt bereft of friends.

Led by Palmerston, a European coalition now demanded an end to the war. Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha listened, but he refused their offer of Syria for his lifetime only. He ordered Ibrāhīm to repel all invaders, but by summer, 1840, Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Egypt[Egypt] had created a powerful coalition, the Convention for the Pacification of the Levant. Austrian and British naval units then attacked the coast of Palestine and, in a spectacular bombardment, leveled the fortress of Acre on November 1-2, 1840. As Royal Marines and Austrian sailors landed up and down the coastline, local rebels increased their activities, so that with the destruction of Acre, Ibrāhīm had no option but retreat into Egypt. Recognizing that his Syrian Empire was gone, Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha accepted an Ottoman firmin (decree) of February 13, 1841, which, backed by the powers, allowed Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha and his family to hold Egypt in perpetuity. It also required, however, his surrender of all other Middle Eastern holdings and recognition of the Porte as Egypt’s suzerain.

Significance

The Ottoman-Egyptian Wars played a critical role in shaping nineteenth century Middle Eastern history. First, the wars firmly established the Eastern Question, an international diplomatic issue that led to the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), and played a part in the Ottoman entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers.

Second, continual Ottoman defeats in the 1830’s helped push through the Tanzimat reforms (government reorganizations) that copied some of those already begun in Egypt. Finally, although Ibrāhīm’s army was unable to hold Syria, the hard-fighting al-nizam al-jadid secured Egypt for the Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha Dynasty, and a member of that dynasty sat on the Egyptian throne until the revolution of 1952.

Further Reading
  • 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, 1999. A complex look at Egyptian military affairs, arguing against Mehmed Ali’s role as the founder of modern Egypt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mishaqa, Mikhayil. Murder, Mayhem, Pillage, and Plunder: The History of Lebanon in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Translated and edited by W. M. Thackston, Jr. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Tremendous coverage by an eyewitness on the Egyptian occupation of Syria in the 1830’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolle, David. “Nizam-Egypt’s Army in the Nineteenth Century.” Army Quarterly and Defense Journal 108, no. 1 (January, 1978): 69-78; and 108, no. 2 (April, 1978): 177-187. A quick look at the making of the Egyptian army and its campaigns.

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