03/01 – The Massacre of the Citadel

Muhammad Ali (soon Pasha) watches from the Citadel as the remaining Mamluks are massacred by his Albanian mercenaries. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1811, the Massacre of the Citadel took place in Cairo, Egypt. A brutal civil war was underway in the country following Napoleon‘s failed 1798 invasion, and the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of the French was viciously contested by British, Mamluk and Ottoman troops. The Mamluks – a class of slave soldiers from the Balkans who had ruled Egypt semi-autonomously for centuries – were desperate to regain control of Egypt. Their main enemies were the Ottomans, masters of a sprawling and diverse Arab empire who, at least in theory, controlled Egypt. So, Albanian-Ottoman mercenary Muhammad Ali was sent in to regain control and evict the Mamluks. By 1811, war had dragged on for years and Ali knew that he had to eliminate his rivals swiftly or face the frustrations of his subordinates.

A 19th century photograph of rural Egypt. Muhammad Ali Pasha’s reforms Egyptian life, transforming the agricultural industry and conscripting many rural men. (Egyptian Streets)

So, on March 1st of 1811, roughly 470 Mamluk commanders were invited to the Citadel in Cairo for a parade in celebration of the Ottoman campaign against the Wahhabis (a reformist religious movement) in Saudi Arabia. As the Mamluks approached the Citadel, their procession entered a narrow chokepoint, and the gates at either end of their column were slammed shut. On Ali’s order, Albanian mercenaries positioned on the rooftops opened fire, killing all but one of the Mamluks. According to legend, the survivor leapt his horse over the gates and fled. As the dust settled in Cairo, Mamluks throughout Egypt were massacred by Ali’s men. The few survivors fled the country, and Ali’s position was finally secured.

Egypt in 1811. The country was not independent yet, but enjoyed semi-autonomous status as an ally of the Ottoman administration in Istanbul. (Wikimedia Commons)

The victory of Ali’s Albanian mercenaries in 1811 had wide-reaching consequences. Unlike the Mamluks, Ali was loyal to Istanbul; his victory strengthened the Ottoman Empire in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion. By removing the traditionalist Mamluks from power, Ali was able to transform Egypt into what many scholars consider to be one of the Arab World’s first modern states. Now the pasha (governor) of Egypt, Ali developed a massive army of conscripts trained by French and British officers and equipped with modern weaponry. To fund this endeavour, a significant bureaucracy was developed to collect taxes and conduct a census. Military and agricultural reforms helped produce Egypt’s first real middle class, which birthed the country’s nationalist movement and had massive implications going into the 20th century. Although a foreigner, Muhammad Ali Pasha was regarded as the “father of Egypt”, a man who forever altered the regional balance of power and created of one of the Middle East’s most powerful states.

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