Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha (Arabic: محمد علي باشا) (Mehmet Ali Pasha in Albanian; Kavalalı Mehmet Ali Paşa in Turkish) (4 March 1769 – 2 August 1849) was an Albanian who became Wāli, and self-declared Khedive of Egypt and Sudan. Though not a modern nationalist, he is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt because of the dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres that he instituted. He also ruled Levantine territories outside Egypt. The dynasty that he established would rule Egypt and Sudan until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
Muhammad or Mehmed
The spelling of Muhammad Ali’s first name in both Arabic, and Ottoman Turkish was consistent: محمد (Muhammad). This is the name by which he was known to his Egyptian subjects, and the name used uniformly in Egyptian, and Arab historical scholarship. However, given his original status as a commander in the Ottoman military, his first name is often rendered as Mehmed, or Mehmet, as this was the way in which his name was pronounced by his Albanian co-nationals and the Turkish-speaking leadership. Current English-language historical scholarship is divided as to which is preferable, with the majority opinion favoring the former. Typically, historians accentuating the Egyptian character of his rule opt for ‘Muhammad’, whilst those accentuating the Ottoman character opt for ‘Mehmed’, or ‘Mehmet’. This distinction is an issue for those writing in a Latin alphabet, but not in Arabic.
Muhammad Ali was born in Kavala, in the Ottoman province of Macedonia (now a part of modern Greece) to Albanian parents. According to the many French, English and other western journalists who interviewed him, and according to people who knew him, the only language he knew fluently was Albanian. He was also competent in Turkish. The son of a tobacco and shipping merchant named Ibrahim Agha, his mother Zainab Agha was his uncle Husain Agha’s daughter. Muhammad Ali was the nephew of the “Ayan of Kavalla” (Çorbaci) Husain Agha. When his father died at a young age, Muhammad was taken and raised by his uncle with his cousins. As a reward for Muhammad Ali’s hard work, his uncle Çorbaci gave him the rank of “Bolukbashi” for the collection of taxes in the town of Kavala. After his promising success in collecting taxes, he gained Second Commander rank under his cousin Sarechesme Halil Agha in the Kavala Volunteer Contingent that was sent to re-occupy Egypt following Napoleon’s withdrawal. He married Ali Agha’s daughter, Emine Nosratli, a wealthy widow of Ali Bey.
In 1801, as a high ranking commander of an Albanian contigent of the Ottoman army, he was sent to re-occupy Egypt following a brief French occupation. He was second in command under his cousin Sarechesme Halil Agha in the Kavala Volunteer Contingent, which was itself part of a larger Ottoman force. The expedition landed at Aboukir in the spring of 1801.
The French withdrawal left a power vacuum in the Ottoman province. Mamluk power had been weakened, but not destroyed, and Ottoman forces clashed with the Mamluks for power. During this period of anarchy Muhammad Ali used his loyal Albanian troops to play both sides, gaining power and prestige for himself. As the conflict drew on, the local populace grew weary of the power struggle. Led by the ulema, a group of prominent Egyptians demanded that the Wāli (governor), Ahmad Kurshid Pasha, step down and Muhammad Ali be installed as the new Wāli in 1805