Book review: A new look at the Ottoman occupation of Egypt

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Sunday 5 May 2019

In his latest book, historian Emad Abu Ghazi examines the Ottoman occupation, in a bid to settle the debate between the labels 'occupation' and 'conquest'

book cover
The Ottoman Occupation of Egypt and the Fall of the Mamluks, by Emad Abu Ghazi,

1517 Al-Ehtelal Al-Othmani Le Misr (“The Ottoman Occupation of Egypt and the Fall of the Mamluks”), by Emad Abu Ghazi, (Cairo: Merit Publishing House), 2019.

This brilliant study by Professor Emad Abu Ghazi, a specialist in library science and a former minister of culture, examines the Ottoman period of Egyptian history (1517-1867), and aims to rebut the arguments of a group he calls “the New Ottomans.”

The book concentrates on the beginning of the occupation, or more specifically, on the fall of the Mamluk state, which paved the way for Ottoman rule.

In the past decade or so, a coordinated campaign has surfaced in Egyptian historical circles, aiming to beautify the face of the Ottoman occupation of Egypt.

The term “conquest” has come to be used to describe the change, instead of “invasion,” with the former carrying a positive implication, particularly in Arabic, and the later a solely negative one. Arguments are advanced along the lines of “the young, strong Ottoman Empire protected the Arab area from being occupied by Western colonial powers.”

Abu Ghazi’s thoughtful answer to that argument is as follows: “We have to first answer an important question: were the Western colonial powers trying to invade the Arab area in the 16th century?”

His answer is no, the new powers represented in Portugal were trying to secure a commercial route to India to avoid the high taxes that the Mamluks imposed on goods passing through their territories, and securing stations for their ships to anchor safely.

Europe at that time was neither capable of nor willing to occupy the Arab area. That agenda was set later in the 18th and 19th century with the help of the Ottoman Empire itself, when they stood by the colonial powers against Mohamed Ali’s armies and gave them a blank cheque to destroy his armies, which had reached Greece and Turkey by that time.

Abu Ghazi remarks brilliantly that “the sick man of Europe” was a necessity for the colonial powers until they were ready to take over its colonies, Egypt among them. The “New Ottoman” point of view is the exact opposite of the official history books that Egypt has adopted over the past 100 years.

The official view saw the Ottoman occupation as a period of rigidity that marginalised Egypt from being an independent state to a colony of the invading empire, with what followed in terms of the theft of Egyptian wealth and forcing skilled artisans to move to the Ottoman capital, which destroyed the industrial part of the Egyptian economy.

Forced migration of Egyptian artisans and artists is an act that had never occurred before in Egyptian history, although many invaders had passed through our land. It was simply an act of jealousy by the Ottoman Emperor Selim I, who decided that Cairo should not be more beautiful than Constantinople.

The defeat of the Mamluk armies by the Ottoman ones in several battles, that led to the fall of their state in Egypt, had direct causes, such as the betrayal of several army leaders and their withdrawal during the battle, leaving their fellow soldiers to brutal slaughter by the Ottomans.

But Abu Ghazi intelligently underlines the internal reasons for the decay of the Mamluk state, which started a few decades before the final blow by the Ottoman army. The book goes into detail about the structure of the Mamluk state and explains how its ruling class failed to renovate itself and develop to keep up with the modern world, including but not limited to the invention of modern weaponry, especially firearms.

Changing the old rules of military warfare and forming new a modern army meant, for the Mamluks, losing the privileges that they held over the native Egyptians, and even allowing them to carry weapons, which had been completely forbidden to the masses for centuries.

The economy depended mainly on taxes — by either increasing the existing ones or inventing new ones, especially on peasants, whenever the need arose — and this led to the decrease in agricultural land, hence shrinking the main economic resource.

The book also looks at the testimonies of the contemporary historians from the period, who saw the Ottoman invasion as a disaster for Egypt and its population.

The resistance that the Egyptians showed in the final battles against the Ottoman army, and by participating in the resistance in the first place, was a leap forward in Egyptian identity. Mamluks and Egyptians stood together against the invaders. The resistance did not end with their defeat, but continued until Sultan Toman Bay was captured and hanged by the Ottomans.

The resistance afterwards took a nonviolent form, as agricultural land was simply abandoned and resisters escaped to the mountains in order to avoid the invaders.

The study concludes that the Ottoman invasion had two main negative effects. Firstly, it stopped the natural development of the Egyptian society — both economic and social — involved in moving from a feudalistic economy to a modern economy where land is another good that can be purchased by people other than the ruling class.

Secondly, the timing of the invasion was crucial. The world was moving towards more freedom for the people, new philosophies and new means of production; the West was able to make that leap, while the Ottomans remained rigid and set in their oppressive ways, which delayed the development of Egypt for at least three centuries more.


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