Albanians Between the Ottomans, Banditry, and Egypt

Numerous stories and novels by the greatest living Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare (1936-), build on anti-Ottoman stereotypes and metaphors, ostensibly directed against authoritarianism, as exemplified by communist Albania. However, the author appears not to notice the irony that, like many of his compatriots’, his own name is of an Islamic and Turkic origin. In one short novel, Komisioni i festës (1977, The Feast Committee), Kadare describes a historical event. In 1830, Reşid Mehmed Pasha (1780-1839) as Grand Vizier and Serasker (Commander-in-chief) of all Ottoman forces in Rumelia (or the Balkans) invited about 500 southern Muslim Albanian beys (that is, chiefs, warlords, village leaders) for a feast of reconciliation in Manastır (or today’s Bitola in Macedonia). The 1820s had been a destructive and murderous decade across the entire southern Balkans, where the Greek War of Independence had been fought out between 1821 and 1833. At the end of this period, in the north, the Russian armies attacked the Ottoman vassal principalities of Walachia and Moldavia in 1828-1829. Shortly afterward, the Egyptians defeated the Ottomans in Syria (1831-1833).

Ismail Kadare

The Ottoman Grand Vizier had his hands full. Least of all he wanted to have the Albanian beys defying the Sultan’s orders at this important juncture between Greece and Egypt in the south, Istanbul and Anatolia in the east, and Wallachia and Moldavia in the north. Around half a thousand beys were cleverly lured into a trap, and summarily shot to death, during the feast, by the soldiers. To Kadare this is a clear example of ‘Ottoman perfidy.’ But obviously, the massacre could be equally interpreted as a long-awaited reintroduction of law and order, previously time and again breached by local beys, who endeavored in these turbulent times to win some following and influence that would allow them to reinvent themselves as warlords. Ali Pasha of Yannina (Ioannina) (1740- 1822) is best remembered from among such warlords-turned-rogue governors suffered by the Ottoman administration until the moment when an opportunity arose to remove them by force or ploy. Not surprisingly, Ali Pasha was an ethnic Albanian, though he ran his province-turned-principality with the use of the Greek language. After this difficult experience with him the Ottoman administration had no love lost for rebellious Albanian beys.

Muhammad Ali

However, the most successful of all the Albanian warlords struck gold on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Egypt. In the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of this rich Ottoman province (1798-1801), Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) was sent there, as second in command of an Albanian contingent tasked with bringing Egypt back under full Ottoman control. Between 1801 and 1805, while ostensibly fighting against anti-Ottoman forces, Muhammad Ali gradually seized power in this rich and extensive province with the world’s oldest university of Al-Azhar (founded in 972) to boot. He deftly used the opportunity afforded by the internecine struggle for domination between Egypt’s old (pre-Ottoman) Mameluke warrior elite and the Ottomans. In 1805 the Sultan had no choice but to recognize Muhammad Ali as Governor (Wali) of Egypt. But this was too little for him. Muhammad Ali preferred to style himself as Viceroy (Khedive) of Egypt. The last hurdle standing in his way to unrestrained power was the Turkicphone Mamelukes who had controlled Egypt since the mid-13th century. In 1811 Muhammad Ali invited 500 Mameluke notables to a banquet held in the Cairo citadel, where they were summarily executed in a narrow passage by a squadron of soldiers with. Three thousand more 3,000 Mamelukes of a lower stature were chased and killed in Cairo and elsewhere across Egypt. And 19 years later, Reşid Mehmed Pasha meted out exactly the same treatment to the Albanian beys in Manastır. Hence, it could be argued that the Ottomans learned this cruel ploy from none others but Albanians.

Massacre of the Mamelukes

Following the purge of the Mamelukes, Muhammed Ali replaced them overnight with his loyal Albanian soldiers. The new ethnically Albanian elite, under the Muhammad Ali (formally known as Alawiyya) dynasty, ruled and modernized Egypt, turning it into a regional empire that at times extended from the Peloponnesus, Crete, Cyprus and Syria in the north to Sudan, Eritrea and parts of today’s Somalia in the south, and to what at present is Saudi Arabia in the east. This ethnically Albanian dynasty and elite’s rule lasted until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. A year later the monarchy was formally abolished and an Arab national republic was proclaimed in Egypt. King Farouk (1920-1965) did not wait to see how things would turn out and escaped Egypt in haste at the outbreak of this revolution. He was followed into exile by 4,000 Albanian families, or about 20,000 people in total. Tainted by ‘monarchical and bourgeois decadence’ and mostly speaking Arabic only, they could not ‘go back’ to their ancestral Albania, which by that time had already become a communist and atheist state. To my knowledge there is not a single monograph or novel devoted to this amazing century-and-a-half-long Albanian adventure in Egypt. The topic is waiting for ‘its own Kadare,’ who would do justice to it.

March 2016