Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Konya (1832)

The Battle of Konya, fought on December 21, 1832, was the decisive battle in the 1831-1833 Ottoman-Egyptian War, and in that sense it serv–I’m sorry, you had a question?

Yes, the Ottoman-Egyptian War of 18–yes?

Oh, right. The Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, and we haven’t mentioned that they lost Egypt anywhere along the way because they didn’t. Egypt was still Ottoman territory in 1831, and remained so until the early 20th century. So how could there have been an “Ottoman-Egyptian War,” you ask? Wouldn’t it make more sense to call it an Ottoman civil war?

Well, not really. From the earliest days of Ottoman rule, Egypt always had a certain autonomous status within the empire. The Ottomans simply couldn’t manage such a distant, wealthy territory as directly as they were able to manage things in Anatolia and the Balkans. So they left the Mamluk hierarchy more or less intact, but subject to Ottoman suzerainty and immediately answerable to an appointed Ottoman governor. A governor who came complete with hired mercenaries, mostly Albanians, stationed in Cairo to make sure everything stayed in line. This worked pretty well, until some French schmuck named Napoleon decided to invade Egypt in 1798.

Napoleon, as anybody who’s taken high school European history probably knows, had little trouble defeating the Ottoman-Mamluk forces that were sent against him, but high-tailed it back to France after his support fleet was destroyed by the British navy and when it became clear that he needed to get back to Paris in order to secure his political future there. In his absence, the power vacuum was ultimately filled by those Albanian mercenaries, specifically one Albanian commander named Muhammad Ali (d. 1849), or Mehmed Ali Pasha if you like, who arranged his own appointment as the new Ottoman governor in 1805 and then liquidated (literally) the Mamluk hierarchy in 1811. Mehmed Ali governed Egypt virtually free from Ottoman interference for almost 43 years, and in that time he expanded the areas under his control–in some cases into new territory, like the Sudan, but in other cases into places that were already Ottoman territory, like the Hijaz, where he defeated (at Ottoman request) a Saudi uprising in 1812 and then retained direct control of the region.

Egypt’s expansion under Muhammad Ali, between 1805 and 1840; note Konya up at the top there (Wikimedia | Don-kun, Eric Gaba)

There was little the Ottomans could do, or really wanted to do, about Mehmed Ali; as long as he kept Egypt nominally under Ottoman suzerainty and paid some requisite taxes, that was enough for the empire. Even though he increasingly ruled Egypt as his own kingdom–he’s considered the founder of modern Egypt, both for the modernizing reforms he made and for the fact that his dynasty ruled Egypt until 1952–and talked openly of his plans to build a new empire on the back of the decaying Ottoman one, any Ottoman move against him would have undoubtedly ended with Egypt fully independent and the Ottoman Empire truly on its last legs.
Mehmed Ali Pasha, a portrait by 19th century French painter Auguste Couder (Wikimedia)

What spurred the 1831-1833 war between Mehmed Ali and his nominal Ottoman bosses was fallout from the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832). The Ottomans promised Mehmed the island of Crete if he sent forces to help them put down the Greek rebellion (that they had to request forces from a nominal governor shows how independent Mehmed was), so he sent a fleet and about 16,000 soldiers, under the command of his son Ibrahim, to participate in the fighting. At the Battle of Navarino, in 1827, virtually the entire Egyptian fleet was sunk by a combined Russian-English-French fleet. Mehmed had apparently not imagined that the major European powers might get involved in the war, and so he was completely blindsided by the loss of his fleet and demanded that he be given control of Syria, in addition to Crete, as compensation for his loss. Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II refused; even though Mehmed was in the stronger military position, losing Syria was simply too big a pill for the empire to swallow.

Ibrahim led an Egyptian army north in late 1831, and it had little trouble capturing Jerusalem and taking most of modern Lebanon. The Ottomans didn’t respond in force until April 1832, at which time Ibrahim laid a series of defeats on Ottoman forces at Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and Antioch, stopping only when his army had reached the border between Syria and Anatolia. The Ottomans prepared a counterattack, and Ibrahim decided to enter southern Anatolia so as to fight the Ottomans on “their” soil rather than “his.” The two sides met at Konya, with Ibrahim commanding somewhere around 20,000 or so men to around 50,000 under the Ottoman commander, Reshid Mehmed Pasha.

Conditions were foggy, and despite the mismatch in numbers the more experienced Egyptian troops were able to take advantage of the situation better than Reshid’s raw conscripts. While the Ottoman artillery fired wildly in an effort to find the Egyptians, Egyptian gunners waited until the Ottoman fire made their position clear and then targeted them accurately. And when a gap opened up on the Ottoman left side between their infantry and cavalry, Ibrahim was able to quickly mobilize his reserves for an attack through the gap that routed the Ottoman left flank. Reshid was captured trying to restore order, and the Egyptians advanced all the way into the rear of the Ottoman line before they turned and struck the remaining Ottomans from three sides.

After Konya there was really nothing stopping Ibrahim from marching on Constantinople, apart from a strong desire among the European powers that this should not happen. As we’ve seen on a few occasions, the Europeans (especially Britain and France) feared that the full collapse of the Ottoman Empire would utterly destabilize the balance of power on the continent, and so they repeatedly acted to prop the Ottomans up in the face of grave threats. So they did here, mediating the Convention of Kütahya (signed in May 1833). Kütahya gave Mehmed Ali control over Syria and Aleppo (at the time these were two difference provinces), and established his dynasty’s rights to govern Egypt in perpetuity, in exchange for Mehmed reaffirming his status as an Ottoman “vassal.”

Mehmed lost his claim on Syria (and Crete) after a second Ottoman-Egyptian War, 1839-1841, when a new Egyptian offensive was met with a much more energetic British response and Mehmed was forced to make terms. But his control over Egypt was ratified after that second war and was given British recognition, which meant that nobody was likely to challenge it. Egypt gained even greater autonomy when it became an autonomous vassal kingdom (the Khedivate, which means something like “viceroyalty”) in 1867, and then when it became a British protectorate in 1882, but the final break with the Ottomans didn’t come until 1914, when Britain engineered its independence in the early months of World War I.

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