Many documents in the archives of France’s Foreign Ministry refer to Ismail Pasha, Mohamed Ali’s grandson, Ibrahim Pasha’s son, and Egypt’s most important ruler in the second half of the 19th century, as “the Magnificent,” portraying him as a grand Renaissance prince and patron.
Ismail, to use his famous phrase, wanted to make Egypt “a part of Europe.” Indeed, Ismail led a colossal urban transformation that made parts of Cairo and Alexandria appear as if they were in Paris, Rome, or Vienna.
For him, however, it was about much more than architecture. Ismail also utterly overhauled life in Cairo and Alexandria. His governments introduced modern sanitation, water purification, city lighting, and paved roads. Cairo and Alexandria were redrawn into new districts and boroughs, and entire new parts were developed, often with hundreds of imported trees and plants from various parts of the world.
He commissioned an exquisite new opera house (sadly burned down in 1970) and a number of theatres. Ismail sent out dozens of scientific and cultural expeditions, often way beyond Egyptian borders. His reign saw the emergence of Egypt’s first schools of modern geography, agriculture, horticulture, and the first attempts at the preservation of monuments.
It was during his time that a mania for Egyptology began to appear in different parts of Europe that in time provided the momentum for building the world’s first purpose-built museum in Cairo. It was not surprising that Fatma, one of Ismail’s daughters, played a decisive role in the creation of Egypt’s and the Middle East’s first secular university.
Ismail entered European consciousness through his legendary lavishness in celebrating the opening of the Suez Canal, most likely the grandest party in the world in the second half of the 19th century. For Ismail, the celebration was about much more than the inauguration of the strategic maritime passage. He saw the opening of the Suez Canal as the unveiling, in front of the entire world, of modern Egypt, his Egypt.
That Egypt was very different from the country in the first three-quarters of the 19th century, not only in terms of how it looked, but also in its demography. Immigration boomed during Ismail’s time. Entrepreneurs and adventurers came to Egypt from different parts of the world, especially from the Eastern Mediterranean, attracted by the opportunities that Ismail’s transformations had given rise to.
Many Egyptians participated in the transformation. Dozens of families from the Nile Delta and southern Egypt sold major land holdings to buy into the new Egypt that was then emerging. New fortunes were made, often anchored on servicing the urban changes of the time. For the first time since Mohamed Ali had come to power, Egyptians were beginning to appear near the uppermost echelons of wealth and power in the country.
Cairo and Alexandria, and quickly after them some of the larger towns in the Delta, saw revolutions in social norms and behaviour. But the truly important changes were taking place in the systems of education (more westernised and secular), judiciary (the beginning of secular laws in Egyptian courts), and governance (the first attempts at a national charter).
Ismail’s project was anchored on confidence. His Egypt did not look at Europe with starry eyes and copy it blindly. By the time of Ismail in the third-quarter of the 19th century, Egypt already had over half a century of exposure to the West through Mohamed Ali’s modernisation programme discussed in the first article in this series and Ibrahim’s campaigns in Southern Europe and the Levant, the topic of the second article in the series.
By Ismail’s time, Egypt had enough experience to discern what in European modernity could be imported and assimilated to the country’s then increasingly multi-cultural society. To Ismail, making Egypt a part of Europe meant incorporating Europe into the Egypt that he was weaving, not imposing what was essentially western on what was naturally eastern.
But the project had enormous costs. Ismail bankrupted Egypt, and his disastrous financial management was matched by his administrative skills. He failed throughout his reign to sustain a coherent government. He had a fiery temper, which alienated some of his most competent aides and associates. And though he seems to have had a genuine appreciation for meritocracy, he was an absolute ruler. The state was his, and he was the state. It was for this reason, and particularly for his creditors in Britain, that Ismail was merely an incompetent and delusional despot.
Some of Ismail’s problems were not of his making, however. By the time he came to power, Britain and France had already destroyed his grandfather’s and father’s short-lived empire. As discussed in the previous article in this series, they had vanquished the idea of resisting Western interests from the circles of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty.
Throughout his reign, Britain was effectively steering the Ottoman Empire on the most strategic issues, the result of the Ottomans’ descent into irrelevance as well as decades of smart British positioning in Istanbul. This meant that Ismail faced an Ottoman court that was often willing to prioritise the interests of the Western powers, including those of English financiers, over any other considerations.
Ismail was not ruthless enough. He was a visionary; he loved art and culture; he lived life to the full. But he was not cut out for the manoeuvring of geo-politics and the intrigue of international relations, and he lacked the steely determination of his grandfather Mohamed Ali to eliminate opponents, whether near or far away.
As his debts mounted, Ismail lost control of Egypt to foreign creditors. He tried to fight, and according to the archives of the British foreign office, he often put on tantrums. His loss, however, was all but inevitable.
He was removed from power and sent into exile and spent the last years of his life between southern Italy and the quiet shores of the Bosphorus in Turkey. Illness took its toll. In photographs taken of him shortly before his death, his body appears frail and the fiery sparkle of his eyes is all but gone.
For many, Ismail failed. Egypt fell under complete British control and lost its independence, and Ismail lost his kingdom. Egypt was to suffer for at least four decades until World War I from the economic dominance of the European powers. Judging by Ismail’s legacy in the period that immediately followed his reign, his project certainly failed.
His legacy, however, is much wider than its immediate political and economic consequences, and it remains with us almost 150 years after he was deposed and exiled. Ismail left us the most beautiful parts of Cairo and Alexandria. He envisioned and created Egypt’s first modern urban spaces, with all the services and amenities and regulations that this entailed.
As a result of his project, Ismail made Egypt and increasingly large sections of the Egyptian people confident and comfortable with interacting with European modernity.
Ismail did not make Egypt “a part of Europe.” But he did usher in different elements of the idea of Europe into Egypt.
*The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.