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

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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. We’re skipping over a very important detail. The Ottomans conquered Egypt and ended the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517, and in 1831 it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, it remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century. So I suppose you could call this an Ottoman civil war rather than the “Ottoman-Egyptian War,” but that would gloss over a lot in terms of what was happening in Egypt and, indeed, why the war took place.

From the earliest days of its Ottoman period, 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. And it may be that they didn’t want to over-manage it. Egypt was a huge acquisition for the Ottoman Empire and presented its leaders with a new challenge—namely, how to incorporate such a wealthy, already politically well-organized entity into their domains. A heavy hand might have led to a revolt or a permanent state of unrest. So instead of imposing direct Ottoman rule over Egypt they left the Mamluk hierarchy more or less intact, but subject to Ottoman suzerainty and answerable to an appointed Ottoman governor. Essentially that governor replaced the Mamluk sultan as the final political authority in Egypt—and he came complete with hired mercenaries, mostly Albanians, to make sure everything stayed in line.

What happened over the next couple of centuries seems inevitable in hindsight. The Mamluks, who understood Egypt much better than the Ottomans since they’d been running the place for over 250 years before the Ottomans showed up, gradually usurped the Ottoman governor’s authority while reestablishing their own. They maintained what was increasingly a fiction of Ottoman control, which frankly was enough for the imperial authorities as long as the taxes kept coming in and there was no open rebellion. But the governor was reduced mostly to a figurehead, at best, or a political prisoner trapped in his palace, at worst. The Mamluks didn’t reappoint themselves a sultan, but two Mamluk offices—the amir al-hajj (“commander of the pilgrimage”) and sheikh al-balad (“leader of the city”)—became the dominant political posts in Egypt. This system, more or less in place by the end of the 16th century, rolled along until some French guy named Napoleon decided to invade Egypt in 1798.

Napoleon, as we know, 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 (which led to his ignominious defeat at Acre) and when it became clear that he needed to get back to Paris in order to secure his political future. During his brief sojourn in Egypt, he had thoroughly decimated Mamluk authority, and so when he left there was a scramble to fill the vacuum as the Mamluks tried to reassert themselves while the Ottomans sought to take advantage and restore direct imperial control. Ultimately it was those Albanian mercenaries—specifically, one Albanian commander named Muhammad Ali (d. 1849), or Mehmed Ali Pasha if you like—who emerged victorious.

Muhammad Ali arranged his own appointment as the new Ottoman governor in 1805 and then executed most of the Mamluk hierarchy in 1811, solidifying his power to such an extent that he, like the Mamluks before him, became almost completely autonomous from the rest of the empire. He 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 this meant expanding into new territory, like the Sudan, but in other cases it meant he “conquered” 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.

As with the Mamluks pre-Napoleon, there was little the Ottomans could do, or even particularly wanted to do, about Muhammad Ali. As long as he kept Egypt nominally under Ottoman suzerainty and paid some 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. It was better for the empire to maintain the fiction that it still controlled Egypt than to try to assert real control and risk losing it altogether.

What spurred the 1831-1833 war between Muhammad Ali and his nominal Ottoman bosses was fallout from the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832). The Ottomans promised Muhammad Ali the island of Crete if he sent forces to help them put down the Greek rebellion (that they had to request forces from a governor shows how independent Egypt 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 October 1827, virtually the entire Egyptian fleet was sunk by a combined Russian-English-French fleet fighting on behalf of the Greek rebels. Muhammad Ali 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. Of course, this meant war.

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 won a series of victories against 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 shelling 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. The envelopment ended the fighting decisively in favor of the Egyptians.

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 destabilize the balance of power on the continent, and so they repeatedly acted to prop the Ottomans up in the face of grave threats. That’s what they did here, mediating the Convention of Kütahya (signed in May 1833). Kütahya gave Muhammad Ali control over Damascus and Aleppo (although today they’re both in Syria, at the time these cities governed two difference provinces), and established his dynasty’s rights to govern Egypt in perpetuity. In return, Muhammad Ali reaffirmed his status as an Ottoman “vassal.”

Muhammad Ali 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 the Egyptians were forced to make terms. But his hereditary 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 freedom from the Ottoman Empire 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, though in that case it lost far more autonomy to the British Empire than it gained from the Ottoman Empire. Egypt’s final break with the Ottomans didn't come until 1914, when Britain engineered its “independence” in the early months of World War I.