Egypt under Muhammad Ali and his successors

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History of Egypt series.
Ancient Egypt
Greek and Roman Egypt
Early Arab Egypt
Ottoman Egypt
Muhammad Ali and his successors
Modern Egypt
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The reign of Mehemet Ali and his successors over Egypt was a period of rapid reform and modernization that led to Egypt becoming one of the most developed states outside of Europe. It also led to massive government expenditures, that ended up bankrupting Egypt and eventually led to it falling under control of the British.


Rise to power

The process of Mehmet Ali's seizure of power was a long three way civil war between the Ottoman Turks, Egyptian Mamelukes, and Albanian mercenaries. It lasted from 1803 to 1807 with the Albanian Ali taking control of Egypt in 1805, when the Ottoman Sultan acknowledged his position. Thereafter Mehemet Ali was undisputed master of Egypt, and his efforts henceforth were directed primarily to the maintenance of his practical independence.

Campaign against the Wahhabis

The suzerainty of the sultan he acknowledged, and at the reiterated commands of the Porte he despatched in 1811 an army of 8000 men, including 2000 horse, under the command of his son Tusun, a youth of sixteen, against the Wahhabis in Egyptian-Wahhabi War. After a successful advance, this force met with a serious repulse at the Pass of Jedeida, near Safra, and retreated to Yembo. In the following year Tusun, having received reinforcements, again assumed the offensive, and captured Medina after a prolonged siege. He next took Jidda and Mecca, defeating the Wahhabis beyond the latter place and capturing their general.

But some mishaps followed, and Mehemet Ali, who had determined to conduct the war in person, left Egypt for that purpose in the summer of 1813 leaving his another son, Ibrahim, in charge of the country. In Arabia he encountered serious obstacles from the nature of the country and the harassing mode of warfare adopted by his adversaries. His arms met with various fortunes; but on the whole his forces proved superior to those of the enemy. He deposed and exiled the Sharif of Mecca, and after the death of the Wahhabi leader Saud II. He concluded a treaty with Saud's son and successor, Abdullah in 1815.

Hearing of the escape of Napoleon from Elba and fearing danger to Egypt from the plans of France or Britain, Mehemet Ali returned to Cairo by way of Kosseir and Kena. He reached the capital on the day of the Battle of Waterloo. His return was also hastened by reports that the Turks, whose cause he was upholding in Arabia, were treacherously planning an invasion of Egypt.

Second Arabian campaign

Tusun returned to Egypt on hearing of the military revolt at Cairo, but died in 1816 at the early age of twenty. Mehemet Ali, dissatisfied with the treaty concluded with the Wahhabis, and with the non-fulfillment of certain of its clauses, determined to send another army to Arabia, and to include in it the soldiers who had recently proved unruly.

This expedition, under his eldest son Ibrahim Pasha, left in the autumn of 1816. The war was long and arduous, but in 1818 Ibrahim captured the Wahhabi capital of Deriya. Abdullah, their chief, was made prisoner, and with his treasurer and secretary was sent to Constantinople, where, in spite of Ibrahim's promise of safety, and of Mehemet Ali's intercession in their favor, they were put to death. At the close of the year 1819, Ibrahim returned to Cairo, having subdued all opposition in Arabia.


During Mehemet Ali's absence in Arabia his representative at Cairo had completed the confiscation, begun in 1808, of almost all the lands belonging to private individuals, who were forced to accept instead inadequate pensions. By this revolutionary method of land nationalization Mehemet Ali became proprietor of nearly all the soil of Egypt, an iniquitous measure against which the Egyptians had no remedy.

The pasha also attempted to reorganize his troops on European lines led, but this lead to a formidable mutiny in Cairo. Mehemet Ali's life was endangered, and he sought refuge by night in the citadel, while the soldiery committed many acts of plunder. The revolt was reduced by presents to the chiefs of the insurgents, and Mehemet Ali ordered that the sufferers by the disturbances should receive compensation from the treasury. The project of the Nizm Gedid (New System) was, in consequence of this mutiny, abandoned for a time.

While Ibraihim was engaged in the second Arabian campaign the pasha turned his attention to strengthening the Egyptian economy. He created state monopolies over the chief products of the country. He set up a number of factories and began digging in 1819 a new canal to Alexandria, called the Mahmudiya (after the reigning sultan of Turkey). The old canal had long fallen into decay, and the necessity of a safe channel between Alexandria and the Nile was much felt. The conclusion in 1838 of a commercial treaty with Turkey, negotiated by Sir Henry Bulwer (Lord Darling), struck a deathblow to the system of monopolies, though the application of the treaty to Egypt was delayed for some years.

Another notable fact in the economic progress of the country was the development of the cultivation of cotton in the Delta in 1822 and onwards. The cotton grown had been brought from the Sudan by Maho Bey, and the organization of the new industry from which in a few years Mehemet Ali was enabled to extract considerable revenues.

Efforts were made to promote education and the study of medicine. To European merchants, on whom he was dependent for the sale of his exports, Mehemet Ali showed much favor, and under his influence the port of Alexandria again rose into importance. It was also under Mehemet Ali's encouragement that the overland transit of goods from Europe to India via Egypt was resumed.

Invasion of the Sudan

In 1820 Mehemet Ali ordered the conquest of the eastern Sudan to be undertaken. He first sent an expedition westward (Feb. 1820) which conquered and annexed the oasis of the Siwa. Ali's reasons for the Sudan was to extend his rule southward as was the desire to capture the valuable caravan trade then going towards the Red Sea, and to secure the rich gold mines which he believed to exist in Sennar. He also saw in the campaign a means of getting rid of the disaffected troops, and of obtaining a sufficient number of captives to form the nucleus of the new army.

The forces destined for this service were led by Ismail, the youngest son of Mehemet Ali, they consisted of between 4000 and 5000 men, Turks and Arabs, and left Cairo in July 1820. Nubia at once submitted, the Shagia Arabs immediately beyond the province of Dongola were defeated, and the remnant of the Mamelukes dispersed, and Sennar was reduced without a battle.

Mahommed Bey, the defterdar, with another force of about the same strength, was then sent by Mehemet Ali against Kordofan with a like result, but not without a hard-fought engagement. In October 1822 Ismail, with his retinue, was burnt to death by Nimr, the melk (king) of Shendi; and the defterdar, a man infamous for his cruelty, assumed the command of those provinces, and exacted terrible retribution from the inhabitants. Khartoum was founded at this time, and in the following years the rule of the Egyptians was largely extended and control obtained of the Red Sea ports of Suakin and Massawa.

Ahmad Revolt

In 1824 a native rebellion broke out in Upper Egypt headed by one Ahmad, an inhabitant of Es-Salimiya, a village situated a few miles above Thebes. He proclaimed himself a prophet, and was soon followed by between 20,000 and 30,000 insurgents, mostly peasants, but some of them deserters from the Nizm Gedid, for that force was yet in a half-organized state.

The peasants were angered by many of Ali's reforms, especially the introduction of conscription and the increase in taxes and forced labour.

The insurrection was crushed by Mehemet Ali, and about one fourth of Ahmad's followers perished, but he himself escaped and was never heard of again. Few of these unfortunates possessed any other weapon than the long staff (nebbut) of the Egyptian peasant; still they offered an obstinate resistance, and the combat in which they were defeated resembled a massacre. This movement was the last internal attempt to destroy the pasha's authority.

The subsequent years saw an imposition of order across Egypt and Ali's new highly trained and disciplined forces spread across the nation. Public order was rendered perfect; the Nile and the highways were secure to all travelers, Christian or Muslim; the Bedouin tribes were won over to peaceful pursuits.

Greek campaign

Mehemet Ali was fully conscious that the empire which he had so laboriously built up might at any time have to be defended by force of arms against his master Sultan Mahmud II, whose whole policy had been directed to curbing the power of his too ambitious vassals, and who was under the influence of the personal enemies of the pasha of Egypt, notably of Khosrev, the grand vizier, who had never forgiven his humiliation in Egypt in 1803.

Mahmud also was already planning reforms borrowed from the West, and Mehemet Ali, who had had plenty of opportunity of observing the superiority of European methods of warfare, was determined to anticipate the sultan in the creation of a fleet and an army on European lines, partly as a measure of precaution, partly as an instrument for the realization of yet wider schemes of ambition. Before the outbreak of the War of Greek Independence in 1821, he had already expended much time and energy in organizing a fleet and in training, under the supervision of French instructors, native officers and artificers; though it was not till 1829 that the opening of a dockyard and arsenal at Alexandria enabled him to build and equip his own vessels. By 1823, moreover, he had succeeded in carrying out the reorganization of his army on European lines, the turbulent Turkish and Albanian elements being replaced by Sudanese and fellahin. The effectiveness of the new force was demonstrated in the suppression of an 1823 revolt of the Albanians in Cairo by six disciplined Sudanese regiments; after which Mehemet Ali was no more troubled with military mutinies

His foresight was rewarded by the invitation of the sultan to help him in the task of subduing the Greek insurgents, offering as reward the pashaliks of the Morea and of Syria. Mehemet Ali had already, in 1821, been appointed by him governor of Crete, which he had occupied with a small Egyptian force. In the autumn of 1824 a fleet of sixty Egyptian warships carrying a large force of disciplined troops concentrated in Suda Bay, and, in the following March, with Ibrahin as commander-in-chief landed in the Morea.

His naval superiority wrested from the Greeks the command of the sea, on which the fate of the insurrection ultimately depended, while on land the Greek irregular bands were everywhere routed by Ibrahims disciplined troops. The history of the events that led up to the battle of Navarino and the liberation of Greece is told elsewhere; the withdrawal of the Egyptians from the Morea was ultimately due to the action of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who early in August 1828 appeared before Alexandria and induced the pasha, by no means sorry to have a reasonable excuse, by a threat of bombardment, to sign a convention undertaking to recall Ibrahim and his army. But for the action of European powers the intervention of Mehemet Ali would have crushed the revolt.

War with the Sultan

Ali went to war against the sultan on pretext of chastising the ex-slave Abdullah, pasha of Acre, for refusing to send back Egyptian fugitives from the effects of Mehemet Ali's reforms. The true reason was the refusal of Sultan Mahmud to hand over Syria according to agreement, and Mehemet Ali's determination to obtain at all hazards what had been from time immemorial an object of ambition to the rulers of Egypt.

For ten years from this date the relations of sultan and pasha remained in the forefront of the questions which agitated the diplomatic world. It was not only the very existence of the Ottoman empire that seemed to be at stake, but Egypt itself had become more than ever an object of attention, to British statesmen especially, and in the issue of the struggle were involved the interests of Britain in the two routes to India by the Isthmus of Suez and the valley of the Euphrates. Ibrahim, who once more commanded in his fathers name, launched another brilliant campaign beginning with the storming of Acre on May 27, 1832, and culminating in the rout and capture of Reshid Pasha at Konia on December 21.

Soon after he was blocked by the intervention of Russia, however. As the result of endless discussions between the representatives of the powers, the Porte and the pasha, the Convention of Kutaya was signed on May 14, 1833, by which the sultan agreed to bestow on Mehemet Ali the pashaliks of Syria, Damascus, Aleppo and Itcheli, together with the district of Adana. The announcement of the pasha's appointment had already been made in the usual way in the annual firman issued on May 3. Adana was bestowed on Ibrahim under the style of muhassil, or collector of the crown revenues, a few days later.

Mehemet Ali now ruled over a virtually independent empire, subject only to a moderate tribute, stretching from the Sudan to the Taurus Mountains. However the unsound foundations of his authority were not long in revealing themselves. Scarcely a year from the signing of the Convention of Kutaya the application by Ibrahim of Egyptian methods of government, notably of the monopolies and conscription, had driven Syrians, Druze and Arabs, who had welcomed him as a deliverer, into revolt. The unrest was suppressed by Mehemet Ali in person, and the Syrians were terrorized, but their discontent encouraged the Sultan Mahmud to hope for revenge, and a renewal of the conflict was only staved off by the anxious efforts of the European powers.

In the spring of 1839 the sultan ordered his army, concentrated under Reshid in the border district of Bir on the Euphrates, to advance over the Syrian frontier. Ibrahim, seeing his flank menaced, attacked it at Nezib on the 24th of June. Once more, however, the Ottomans were utterly routed. Six days later, before the news reached Constantinople, Mahmud died.

Once more the Ottoman Empire lay at the feet of Mehemet Ali; but the European powers were now more prepared to meet a contingency which had been long foreseen. Their intervention was prompt; and the dubious attitude of France, which led to her exclusion from the concert and encouraged Mehemet Ali to resist, only led to his obtaining less favorable terms.

End of Ali's rule

The end was reached early in 1841. New firmans were issued which confined the pashas authority to Egypt, the Sinai peninsula and certain places on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, and to the Sudan. The most important of these documents are dated February 13, 1841.

The government of the pashalik of Egypt was made hereditary in the family of Mehemet Ali. A map showing the boundaries of Egypt accompanied the firman granting Mehemet Ali the pashalik, a duplicate copy being retained by the Porte. The Egyptian copy is supposed to have been lost in a fire which destroyed a great part of the Egyptian archives. The Turkish copy has never been produced and its existence now appears doubtful. The point was of importance, as in 1892 and again in 1906 boundary disputes arose between Turkey and Egypt.

Various restrictions were laid upon Mehemet Ali, emphasizing his position as vassal. He was forbidden to maintain a fleet and his army was not to exceed 18,000 men. The pasha was no longer a figure in European politics, but he continued authority to occupy himself with his improvements in Egypt. The long wars combined with a murrain of cattle in 1842 and a destructive Nile flood. In 1843 there was a plague of locusts where whole villages were depopulated. Even the sequestered army was a strain enough for population unaccustomed to the rigidities of the subscription service. Florence Nightingale, the famous British nurse, recounts in her letters from Egypt written in 1849-50, that many an Egyptian family thought it be enough to "protect" their children from the inhumanities of the military service by blinding them in one eye or rendering them unfit by cutting off their limb. But Mohammed Ali was not to be confounded by such tricks of bodily uncompliance, and with that view he set up a special corps of disabled musketeers declaring that one can shoot well enough even with one eye.

Meantime the uttermost farthing was wrung from the wretched fellahin, while they were forced to the building of magnificent public works by unpaid labor. In 1844-1845 there was some improvement in the condition of the country as a result of financial reforms the pasha executed. Mehemet Ali, who had been granted the honorary rank of grand vizier in 1842, paid a visit to Istanbul in 1846, where he became reconciled to his old enemy Khosrev Pasha, whom he had not seen since he spared his life at Cairo in 1803.

In 1847 Mehemet Ali laid the foundation stone of the great bridge across the Nile at the beginning of the Delta. Towards the end of 1847, the aged pasha's mind began to give way, and by the following June he was no longer capable of administering the government. In September 1848 Ibrahim was acknowledged by the Porte as ruler of the pashalik, but he died in the November.

Mehemet Ali survived another eight months, dying on August 2, 1849. He had done a great work in Egypt; the most permanent being the weakening of the tie binding the country to Turkey, the starting of the great cotton industry, the recognition of the advantages of European science, and the conquest of the Sudan.

Mehemet Ali's successors

On Ibrahim's death in November 1848 the government of Egypt fell to his nephew Abbas I, the son of Tusun Abbasad. Abbas put an end to the system of commercial monopolies, and during his reign the railway from Alexandria to Cairo was begun at the instigation of the British government. Opposed to European ways, Abbas lived in great seclusion. After a reign of less than six years he was murdered in July 1854 by two of his slaves.

He was succeeded by his uncle Said Pasha, the favorite son of Mehemet Ali, who lacked the strength of mind or physical health needed to execute the beneficent projects which he conceived. His endeavour, for instance, to put a stop to the slave raiding which devastated the Sudan was wholly ineffectual. He had a genuine regard for the welfare of the fellahin, and a land law of 1858 secured for them an acknowledgment of freehold as against the crown.

The pasha was much under French influence, and in 1854 was induced to grant to the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps a concession for the construction of the Suez Canal. Lord Palmerston was opposed to this project, and the British opposition delayed the ratification of the concession by the Porte for two years. To the British, Said also made concessions to the Eastern Telegraph Company, and another in 1854 allowing the establishment of the Bank of Egypt. He also began the national debt by borrowing 3,293,000 from Messrs Fruhling & Gbschen, the actual amount received by the pasha being 2,640,000. In January 1863 Said Pasha died and was succeeded by his nephew Ismail, a son of Ibrahim Pasha.

Ismail the Magnificent

The reign of Ismail, from 1863 to 1879, was for a while hailed as a new era into modern Egypt. He attempted vast schemes of reform, but these coupled with his personal extravagance led to bankruptcy, and the later part of his reign is historically important simply for its compelling European intervention in the internal affairs of Egypt.

Yet in its earlier years much was done which seemed likely to give Ismail a more important place in history. In 1866 he was granted by the sultan a firman obtained on condition of the increase of the tribute from 376,000 to 720,000. This made the succession to the throne of Egypt descend to the eldest of the male children and in the same manner to the eldest sons of these successors, instead of to the eldest male of the family, following the practice of Turkish law. In the next year another firman bestowed upon him the title of khedive in lieu of that of vali, borne by Mehemet Ali and his immediate successors. In 1873 a further firman placed the khedive in many respects in the position of an independent sovereign.

Ismail re-established and improved Mehemet Ali's administrative system, which had fallen into decay under Abbas's uneventful rule; he caused a thorough remodeling of the customs system, which was in an anarchic state, to be made by English officials; in 1865 he established the Egyptian post office; he reorganized the military schools of his grandfather, and gave some support to the cause of education. Railways, telegraphs, lighthouses, the harbour works at Suez, the breakwater at Alexandria, were carried out by some of the best contractors of Europe. Most important of all, the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. Early in Ismail's reign Egypt took advantage of vastly inflated cotton prices, caused by the American Civil War. Once that conflict ended Ismail had to find new sources of funding to keep his reform efforts alive. Thus the funds required for these public works, as well as the actual labor, were remorselessly extorted from a poverty-stricken population.

A striking picture of the condition of the people at this period is given by Lady Duff Gordon in Last Letters from Egypt. Writing in 1867 she said: "I cannot describe the misery here now every day some new tax. Every beast, camel, cow, sheep, donkey and horse is made to pay. The fellaheen can no longer eat bread; they are living on barley-meal mixed with water, and raw green stuff, vetches, &c. The taxation makes life almost impossible: a tax on every crop, on every animal first, and again when it is sold in the market; on every man, on charcoal, on butter, on salt. . . . The people in Upper Egypt are running away by wholesale, utterly unable to pay the new taxes and do the work exacted. Even here (Cairo) the beating for the years taxes is awful."

In the years that followed the condition of things grew worse. Thousands of lives were lost and large sums expended in extending Ismail's dominions in the Sudan and in futile conflicts with Ethiopia. In 1875 the impoverishment of the fellah had reached such a high point that the ordinary resources of the country no longer sufficed for the most urgent necessities of administration; and the khedive Ismail, having repeatedly broken faith with his creditors, could not raise any more loans on the European market. The taxes were habitually collected many months in advance, and the colossal floating debt was increasing rapidly. In these circumstances Ismail had to realize his remaining assets, and among them sold 176,602 Suez Canal shares to the British government for £ 976,582, surrendering Egyptian control of the waterway.

These crises induced the British government to inquire more carefully into the financial condition of the country, where they had many investments. In December 1875, Stephen Cave, MP, and Colonel (afterwards Sir John) Stokes, RE, were sent to Egypt to inquire into the financial situation; and Mr Caves report, made public in April 1876, showed that under the existing administration national bankruptcy was inevitable. European powers used Egypt's indebtedness to extract concessions. Other commissions of inquiry followed, and each one brought Ismail more under European control. The establishment of the Mixed Tribunals in 1876, in place of the system of consular jurisdiction in civil actions, made some of the courts of justice international. The Caisse de la Dette, instituted in May 1876 as a result of the Cave mission, led to international control over a large portion of the revenue. Next came (in November 1876) the mission of Mr (afterwards Lord) Goschen and M. Joubert on behalf of the British and French bondholders, one result being the establishment of Dual Control, i.e. an English official to superintend the revenue and a French official the expenditure of the country. Another result was the internationalization of the railways and the port of Alexandria. Then came (May 1878) a commission of inquiry of which the principal members were Sir Charles Rivers Wilson, Major Evelyn Baring (afterwards Lord Cromer) and MM. Kremer-Baravelli and de Blignires. One result of that inquiry was the extension of international control to the enormous property of the khedive.

Driven to desperation, Ismail made a virtue of necessity and accepted, in September 1878, in lieu of the Dual Control, a constitutional ministry, under the presidency of Nubar Pasha, with Rivers Wilson as minister of finance and de Blignires as minister of public works. Professing to be quite satisfied with this arrangement, he announced that Egypt was no longer in Africa, but a part of Europe; but before seven months had passed he found his constitutional position intolerable, got rid of his irksome cabinet by means of a secretly-organized military riot in Cairo, and reverted to his old autocratic methods of government. England and France, anxious about losing influence under this affront, decided to administer chastisement by the hand of the suzerain power, which was delighted to have an opportunity of asserting its authority. The Europeans and the Sublime Porte decided to force Ismail out of office. On the June 26, 1879 Ismail suddenly received from the sultan a curt telegram, addressed to him as ex-khedive of Egypt, informing him that his son Tewfik was appointed his successor. Surprised, he made no attempt at resistance, and Tewfik was at once proclaimed khedive.

Dual control

After a short period of inaction, when it seemed as if the change might be for the worse, England and France in November 1879, re-established the Dual Control in the persons of Major Baring and M. de Blignires. For two years the Dual Control governed Egypt, and initiated the work of progress that England was to continue alone. Its essential defect was what might be called insecurity of tenure. Without any efficient means of self-protection and coercion at its disposal, it had to interfere with the power, privileges and perquisites of a class which had long misgoverned the country. This class, so far as its civilian members were concerned, was not very formidable, because these were not likely to go beyond the bounds of intrigue and passive resistance; but it contained a military element who had more courage, and who had learned their power when Ismail employed them for overturning his constitutional ministry.

Among the mutinous soldiers on that occasion was an officer calling himself Ahmed Urabi. He was a charismatic leader who was followed by a group of fellow army officers and many amongst the lower classes. He became the centre of a protest aimed at protecting the Egyptians from the grasping tyranny of their Turkish and European oppressors. The movement began among the Arab officers, who complained of the preference shown to the officers of Turkish origin; it then expanded into an attack on the privileged position and predominant influence of foreigners, many of whom were of a by no means respectable type; finally, it was directed against all Christians, foreign and native. The government, being too weak to suppress the agitation and disorder, had to make concessions, and each concession produced fresh demands. Urabi was first promoted, then made under-secretary for war, and ultimately a member of the cabinet.

The danger of a serious rising brought the British and French fleets in May 1882 to Alexandria. Because of concerns over the safety of the Suez Canal and massive British investments in Egypt the Europeans looked to intervene. The French hesitated, however, and the British alone tried to suppress the revolt. On July 11, 1882, after wide spread revolts in Alexandria, the British fleet bombarded that city. The leaders of the national movement prepared to resist further aggression by force. A conference of ambassadors was held in Constantinople, and the sultan was invited to quell the revolt; but he hesitated to employ his troops against what was far more a threat to European interests.

Egypt occupied by the British

The British government decided to employ armed force, and invited France to cooperate. The French government declined, and a similar invitation to Italy met with a similar refusal. England therefore, acting alone, landed troops at Ismailia under Sir Garnet Wolseley, and suppressed the revolt by the battle of Tell-el-Kebir on September 13,1882. While this was meant to be only a temporary intervention, British troops would remain in Egypt until 1953.

The khedive, who had taken refuge in Alexandria, returned to Cairo, and a ministry was formed under Sherif Pasha, with Riaz Pasha as one of its leading members. On assuming office, the first thing it had to do was to bring to trial the chiefs of the rebellion. Urabi pleaded guilty, was sentenced to death, the sentence being commuted by the khedive to banishment; and Riaz resigned in disgust. This solution of the difficulty was brought about by Lord Dufferin, then British ambassador at Constantinople, who had been sent to Egypt as high commissioner to adjust affairs and report on the situation. One of his first acts, after preventing the application of capital punishment to the ringleaders of the revolt, was to veto the project of protecting the khedive and his government by means of a Praetorian guard recruited from Asia Minor, Epirus, Austria and Switzerland, and to insist on the principle that Egypt must be governed in a truly liberal spirit. Passing in review all the departments of the administration, he laid down the general lines on which the country was to be restored to order and prosperity, and endowed, if possible, with the elements of self-government for future use.


Walis (Governors) of Egypt, 1805-1867

Khedives of Egypt, 1867-1914

Continued at History of Modern Egyptde:Dynastie des Muhammad Ali


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