The Ottomans in North Africa

1 The Ottoman Occupation
2 Egypt and Sudan

The Ottoman Occupation

The Ottomans emerged with some strength from the northwest heartlands of Anatolia in the 15th century. By 1453 they controlled the lands of the former Byzantine Empire and 65 years later took over Syria and Egypt before expanding deep into Europe, Africa and the Arab Middle East. The Syrian and Egyptian districts became economically and strategically important parts of the empire with their large populations, fertile arable lands and trade links.

Egypt was a valued part of the Ottoman Empire, ownership of which provided the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman Court at Constantinople) with control over the Nile Valley, the east Mediterranean and North Africa. Power was exercised through governors appointed from Constantinople, but over the centuries an Egyptian, mainly Mamluk (of Caucasian origin) elite imposed itself as the principal political force within the country and detached the area from the direct control of the Ottomans. In most areas of the empire, the ability of the sultan to influence events diminished with distance from the main garrison towns and a great deal of independent action was open to local rulers and tribal chiefs outside the larger towns.

The great benefit of the Ottoman Empire was its operation as an open economic community with freedom of movement for citizens and goods. Traders exploited the Ottoman monopoly of land routes from the Mediterranean to Asia to handle the spice, gold and silk from the East, manufactures from Europe and the slave and gold traffic from Africa. Ottoman tolerance of Christian and Jewish populations led in Palestine/Syria to the growth of large settlements of non-Muslims. Arabic continued as the local language and Islamic culture was much reinforced. Elaborate mosques were added to the already diverse architectural heritage. Outside the larger towns, however, pastoralism, farming and parochial affairs remained the major occupation of the people and cultural and other changes were slow to occur.

Until the late 18th century the Ottoman Empire was wealthy, its armies and fleets dominant throughout the region, but after that date a marked decline set in. European powers began to play a role in politics and trade at the expense of the sultan. The empire began to disintegrate. During the 19th century Egypt under the Khedives, the famous Mohammed Ali and his successor Ismail, were only nominally under the sultan's control. Egypt adopted Western ideas and technology from Europe and achieved some improvements in agricultural productivity. The cost was ultimate financial and political dominance by the French and British in this part of the empire. In Palestine, too, colonial interventions by the French in Syria and Lebanon reduced Ottoman control so that by the time of the First World War the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was complete and the former provinces emerged as modern states, often under a European colonial umbrella.

Egypt and Sudan

In Egypt, the Ottoman administration soon found itself struggling against the unreconstructed remnants of Mamluk society, with the province frequently splitting into two units, each controlled by a different section of the Mamluk Dynasty. By 1786, the Ottomans had destroyed the Mamluk factions and restored central control. In 1798, Napoleon's army conquered Egypt, delivering a profound cultural shock to the Muslim world by demonstrating, in the most graphic manner, the technological superiority of Europe. In 1805 Mohammed Ali was appointed governor and lost no time in breaking away from the Ottoman Empire to found a new dynasty, the
, which remained in power for nearly 150 years.

Mohammed Ali sought to modernize Egypt and to expand its power. He brought in European military advisors, destroyed the remnants of the old political elite in Egypt and instituted wide-ranging economic reforms. In the Sudan, Mohammed Ali's Egypt was more successful; after the initial invasion in 1820, some 40 years were spent consolidating Egyptian rule, although, in 1881, the experiment failed.

By that time, Egypt itself had succumbed to the financial pressures of its modernization programme. Borrowings from Europe began, with the inevitable consequence of unrepayable debt. In addition, Britain realized the potential importance of Egypt for access to its Indian Empire, particularly after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. A debt administration was instituted in 1875, under joint British and French control. In 1881, a nationalist officers' rebellion against what they saw as excessive European influence in the Khedivate, provoked a British takeover which lasted until 1922. Following British military commander General Gordon's death in Khartoum and the consequent British campaign against the Mahdist state in the Sudan, which culminated in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, Britain instituted an Anglo-Egyptian condominium over Sudan.

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