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EGYPT’S RUDE INTERVENTION IN GREECE’S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE

June 24, 2019

When the minds are ready, the circumstances are ripe, and the time is opportune, national changes happen; and what had been considered in the past impossible becomes possible.

Greece revolution.jpg

Bishop Germanos blessing the flag at the Monastery Agia Lavra by the Greek painter Theodoros Vryzakis, 1865

Introduction

The Greek’s bondage to the Ottoman Turks lasted for nearly four centuries. There could be no more brutal and savage imperialists than the Turks. Through massacres and terror they managed to subdue the proud Greeks for centuries, but in 1821 the Greeks bravely revolted against their foreign and cruel occupiers in what is known as the Greek War of Independence (1821 – 1832). Nations may submit to brutal force by foreign aggressors but great nations, whenever the time is opportune and the circumstances are ripe, revolt against their occupiers and oppressors. And this is what Greece had done; and free peoples around the world, particularly in Europe, stood in awe of the gallantry of the Greek people, and hoped that the land of Homer and Socrates, the land which was (and still is) Christian, could kick the fanatic Turks out and see achieve national idependence. But while free peoples supported the Greeks with weapons and funds and gave them moral support, and some, such as Lord Byron,[1] even fought with them against the Turks, there were other peoples who stood against the Greek aspirations for freedom and liberty, and, instead, supported the tyrannical Ottomans: and no one helped them as much as Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805 – 1848) the Viceroy of Egypt. Called for help in 1824 by Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) as the Ottomans were being defeated across Greece, Muhammad (or Mehemet) Ali was quick to respond; and hoping to expand his own imperial designs, which started in Hejaz in 1812 and Sudan in 1821, to the Balkans and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, he actively joined the Turks in their desire to defeat the Greeks and end their fight for independence.

Egypt’s Muhammad Ali builds his modern army

Mohammad Ali who was made governor of Egypt in 1805 by the Ottoman Sultan Selim III (1789 – 1807) was not Egyptian but Albanian – a recent comer to Egypt as part of an Albanian contingent in the Turkish army that had been sent to dislodge the French from Egypt. After the French evacuated Egypt in 1801, and before he was appointed governor, two Turkish governors had been appointed and then removed. The job was open to intrigue and purchase; and it often ended in the governor losing his head. Mohammad Ali was more astute than most of his predecessors – he worked to build a power-base from the local ulama and traders in Cairo in order to undermine his many competitors; and then he worked to secure his rule further by building a strong army. Up to 1823, he depended on an army made of irregular of Mamelukes of Albanian, Turkish and Circassian origin. These were notorious for being unruly and mutinous, and they were utterly unreliable and untrustworthy. He, therefore, thought of creating a regular army, trained along European lines with European discipline. For this new army, he raised taxes on the Egyptians, imported European – particularly French – instructors, created a department of war, and built military schools and colleges.

The first trainees were his own 2,000 Mamelukes: over three years they were trained in Aswan by French instructors to become officers. Muhammad Ali then turned his attention to getting troops for his officers. He ruled out Turks and Albanians for he did not trust them. When he occupied Sudan in 1821, he thought of recruiting black soldiers from Kordofan and Sennar regions, but the experiment failed as most Sudanese who were sent to Egypt’s different climate succumbed to disease and died. At this point, in 1823, Muhammad Ali resorted to recruiting the Egyptian Fellahin, and the Fellahin became the backbone of his army. These Fellahin, or Arab soldiers, were led by his Turkish, Albanian and Circassian officers. The Copts, being non-Muslim, and consequently untrusted by Muslims, were excluded from the army until the reign of Said Pasha (1854 – 1863).

By the time of the Egyptian involvement in Greece’s affairs, the Egyptian army – infantry, artillery, cavalry and fleet – was the most powerful non-European army of its day.

The launch of the Greek War of Independence

The Greek rebellion against the Turks and Muslim domination was planned by a secret society, Philiki Etairia (League of Friends), which was founded in 1814 by a group of wealthy merchants within the Greek diaspora community residing in Odessa, in southern Russia. From the beginning they aimed at the liberation of their motherland from its Turkish yoke, using well-co-ordinated armed struggle.  Philiki Etairia did not come to existence from a vacuum: it was preceded by an intense intellectual movement (the Greek renaissance) that worked to revive Greek language, literature and culture – a movement that took pride in Greece’s glorious past and its contribution to Western civilisation. And many Europeans who admired Greece and its heritage (called Philhellines) joined in agitating for an independent Greece. Philiki Etairia aimed at liberation not only of Greece but of all Balkan Christians (Serbs, Romanians, etc.); and it included in its membership not only lay people but also Greek clergy. The Greek Church, represented in its Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Grigorios V (Gregory V; in office, 1797 – 1798, 1806 – 1808, and 1818 – 1821), however, was against the uprising and preached obedience to the Ottoman authorities. However, many priests and bishops joined the movement. It was left for Germanos, Metropolitan of Patras, to officially declare the beginning of the revolution on 25 March 1821.[2] There at the monastery of Agia Lavra, Germanos raised the standard of revolt and exhorted the Greeks to fight the Turks for faith, freedom and country.

The revolution took place simultaneously almost all over Greece, in its mainland, its mountain ranges, its islands that were occupied by the Turks, such as Crete, Samos and Cyprus, and also at sea, where the Greeks’ skills in naval warfare played a great role.

The first act of revolt might have been that which took place in the Danubian Principalities. The Danubian Principalities were composed of Moldavia and Wallachia, a geopolitical area on the lower Danube River that later became Romania. In March, Philiki Etairia despatched a force of 4,500 men composed of different Balkan nationalities under the leadership of Alexander Ypsilantis, who was a general in the Russian army. By crossing the River Pruth that separated the Russian Bessarbia from Moldavia, it moved from inside Russia. Ypsilantis had hoped of a common Balkan front, and that the natives of Romania, who were rising against their local boyars, or notables (who were mainly Greek in origin but working for the Ottomans), would join his forces. However, these disappointed him and showed no inclination to fight the Turks at the time. The Serbs and Bulgarians too failed to join Ypsilantis. Consequently, the Turkish forces of Sultan Mahmud II defeated his forces in the Battle of Dragatsani on the River Otte in June 1821.

The Battle of Dagatsani was a military disaster by all means; however, the Greeks in the south proved more than a match to the Ottoman Turks. There, the rebellion found huge support from the Greeks who achieved greater successes, particularly in the Peloponnese (Morea), the southern part of mainland Greece. And there, over the next few years, the military operations concentrated.

The Greeks had the upper hand in the initial phase of the operations – they managed to liberate many inland areas and islands, and drove the Turks to some of their coastal fortresses. And the Turks, true to themselves, reacted to the rebellion with massacres and enslavement of the Greek population. For instance, in April 1822, the Turks massacred almost all the population of the island of Chios. And a holocaust was launched in Istanbul (Constantinople) and other cities where Greek leaders, civilian or militans,t were executed. Even the pacifist Patriarch Grigorios, who stood against the rebellion, was publically hanged on Easter Day, 22 April 1821, together with many bishops and priests. All approved and directed by Sultan Mahmud II.

Egypt’s rude intervention

In 1824, the Turkish power in Greece was almost crushed, when Sultan Mahmud II called on his nominal vassal in Egypt, Muhammad Ali, who had recently built his new army, for help. The Sultan had offered him the pashalik (territory run by a pasha) of Crete and the Peloponnese in return for his military assistance in the war against the Greeks. And Muhammad Ali readily seized the opportunity, and sent his son, Ibrahim Pasha, in charge of a large army, of fleet, artillery, cavalry and infantry. Egypt’s interference was able to reverse the war’s situation in the Peloponnese and almost crushed the Greek revolution for national independence.

Ibrahim Pasha sailed from Alexandria in July 1824 in a huge celebration. He was in charge of a large fleet comprised of 51 warships and 146 transport vessels, and an army that was made of 17,000 infantry, 700 cavalry, and 4 artillery batteries.[3] On his way to Crete, he first devastated the island of Kosos before landing on Crete and capturing it from the Greeks in early winter. In in January 1825, he sailed to the Peloponnese, where he found the Turks had been defeated in land and sea, and lost all positions except two sea towns on the Gulf of Messenia, in the Peloponnese, which remained in their control: Methoni (modon) and Koroni. Ibrahim established his headquarters at the fortified harbour of Methoni (Modon). From there, as Woodhouse says, “[H]e dominated Morea for the next three years with fire and sword, spreading terror and destruction everywhere.”[4] In May, he captured the important fort of Navarino and the island of Sphaktiria. Then on 22 April 1826, he captured Messolonghi, in western Greece, after a heroic defence by the Greeks. The Turks and Egyptians then moved to Athens and started the Siege of the Acropolis (1826 – 1827). The acropolis was the last fortress still in the hands of the Greeks in central Greece, but on 24 May 1827 its garrison surrendered to the Ottoman forces. For all practical reasons it seemed that Greece’s hopes for freedom were crushed once and for all, and its heroic sacrifices went with the wind. And, so, the imperialist Albanian foreign ruler of Egypt entertained the idea of finally being able to be master of Greece, or at least part of it, as he was master of Egypt, Hijaz and Sudan. Greek resistance at the time was made to retreat to only in a few small islands, particularly in the Aegean Sea in Hydra and Spetses (Spetsai).The situation looked bleak.

End of the Egyptian intervention and the success of the Greek War of Independence

However, help for the Greeks came from where they had not expected. Before the launching of the rebellion, the Greeks were hoping that Russia, being an Orthodox country, and having encouraged them in the past to liberate themselves from the Turkish yoke, would come to their aid. But Tsar Alexander I (1801 – 1825), although he sympathised with the Greeks’ aspirations, was not keen to upset the stability of Europe. In this, all European Powers (Austria, Prussia, France and England) were in agreement: they did not want to threaten the established order after the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) had ended, and they were resolved to suppress liberalism and revolution in Europe. In this sense, the circumstances were not opportune for the Greeks; and in a way they fell victim to their own self-deception and reliance on the European Powers. They even actively propagated the unfounded rumours that Russia would come to their aid once the rebellion had been launched. Nothing like that happened from any of the Great Powers; but, in 1827, circumstances changed: appalled by the massacres committed by the Turks and Egyptians, and facing an outcry from their public who wanted intervention to save the Christian Greeks from wholesale slaughter and slavery (there were rumours that Ibrahim Pasha had planned to depopulate the Peloponnese from the Greeks, enslave and send them to Egypt,[5] and re-people it with Egyptian Fellahin), and now finding that their trading interests were threatened and seriously affected by the continuing fighting, particularly at sea, England, France and Russia decided in the London Conference, on 6 July 1827, to interfere. In the treaty that was signed between them, they envisaged no nationally independent Greece but only a Greece that was autonomous within the Ottoman Empire. And, so, they sent a joint fleet to the eastern Mediterranean to enforce an armistice on the Ottoman forces in the Peloponnese. Historians believe that the agreement between the three powers was almost surely driven, in addition to concerns about their trade, by the Powers’ suspicious of each other, and the fear that one of them might be able to exploit the situation to its own political advantage. But, as it happened, the intervention by the Powers, that was planned to be ‘peaceful interference’, ended by being confrontational.

After the fall of Messolonghi on 22 April 1826 and then fall of the Acropolis in Athens on 24 May 1827, Greek resistance was almost dead all over Greece except in the islands of Hydra and Spetses, as we have seen, and where Greek seamen kept the spark of the revolution alive. To completely crush the Greeks, Ibrahim Pasha sent to his father asking for more warships and troops in order to besiege Hydra, the centre of Greek resistance. In early August 1827, 18 Egyptian, 16 Turkish, and 4 Tunisian warships, in addition to 40 transport ships that carried 4,600 fighters, sailed from Alexandria in Egypt; and on 9 September they set sail at the port of Navarino[6] (on the west coast of the Peloponnese, in the Ionian Sea), joining a Turkish fleet that had arrived from Istanbul and was composed of 23 warships. And while the new fleet and all the troops were preparing to attack Hydra, Ibrahim Pasha was concurrently devising plans to launch another land campaign north of the Peloponnese to reduce all pockets of Greek resistance.

But the Egyptians’ day of reckoning had come. The Powers blockaded Navarino, and on 20 October 1827, in a fateful clash, the Powers’ fleet, having been provoked by the Egyptians, and knowing that Ibrahim Pasha has marched with his troops northwards, attacked the Turco-Egyptian fleet. within two hours, the 27 warships of England, France and Russia, annihilated almost all its 62 warships of the enemies of Greece.[7] Muhammad Ali, recognising the massive disaster, accepted his defeat and signed with the European allies a convention on 9 August 1828 providing for evacuation of what had remained of the Egyptian forces in the Peloponnese. Egypt had spent 770,000 pounds in the invasion, lost 30,000 of its 42,000 strong army, and all its fleet. It was a humiliating defeat for Egypt.

But it was a great relief for the Greeks – they spread their forces over the areas evacuated by their enemy. Even as that was happening, the Great Powers were stuck to their policy of granting Greece only national autonomy under Ottoman sovereignty. However, in the Conference of London in March 1829 and then February 1830, the Powers agreed on a plan for an independent state for the Greeks with frontiers stretching from the Gulf of Arta in the Ionian Sea to the Gulf of Volos in the Aegean Sea, including the Cyclades[8], but excluding Samos[9] and Crete[10]. That arrangement left two-third of Greeks still under Ottoman rule. But the Greeks continued, through diplomacy and war, their struggle to expand their sovereignty over all or most of their historical lands and to include all or most Greeks within the borders of the new state, until in 1920, after WWI and the defeat of Turkey, Greece as we know it today, with its current borders, came into existence.

Our position: Two different worldviews

Such in short is the heroic story of the Greeks’ fight to achieve their national independence; and such is the rude intervention of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, an intervention that nearly crushed Greece’s struggle for freedom and dignity.  How do we look at the Greeks’ war of independence and the Egyptian intervention?

We hail Greece for its brave and heroic fight to free itself from the foreign and oppressive rule by the Turks. And we see the intervention by Muhammad Ali of Egypt as shameful and immoral. We cannot support such an intervention or take it as something to be proud of. The Copts cannot be more clear about this. Their sympathies are entirely with the Greeks on this matter.

But, this shameful move, against the aspirations of a great nation for independence and freedom, has been hailed by the Egyptian historians, such as Abd alRahman alRafai,[11] as a great and heroic act, and this is indeed being presented to Egyptian schoolboys up to this day. While the Greek saw the Egyptian invasion of Greece to help the Ottomans as an imperial design, al-Rifai looked at it as a war of ‘fat’h فّتْح’, or ‘opening’, the same term used by Muslims to designate the Islamic wars of expansion in the first centuries of Islam, including the conquest of Egypt. AlRafai can see nothing wrong, immoral or shameful in the Egyptian intervention in Greece to stop the Greeks from liberating their country and people from one of the worst occupiers in history.

And here we differ. On many of such issues, the Copts and Arabs of Egypt hold different worldviews. We are against unjust wars, wars of expansion, wars of aggression, such as the wars against Greece (1824 – 1827), Ethiopia (1864 – 1866) and Mexico (1863 – 1867). We do not support any imperialist designs. Others may see those as glorious wars, ‘openings’, but we don’t. And we are glad that Egypt’s design to defeat the gallant Greeks has failed, and that Greece has won its independence. We look at Greece and the Greeks with much love and admiration.

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References

David Howarth, The Greek Adventure. Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Independence (London, 1976).

Abd al-Rahman al-Rafai, Age of Muhammad Ali (in Arabic: عصر محمد علي) (Cairo, 1930).

David Brewer, The Flame of Freedom. The Greek War of Independence 1821 – 1833 (St. Edmunds, 2001).

Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece (Cambridge, 1999).

M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece. A Short History (London and Boston, 1991).

J. Vatikiotis, The History of Modern Egypt From Muhammad Ali to Mubarak (London, 1991).

L. Macfie, The eastern Question 1774 – 1923 (London and New York, 1989).

Richard Clogg, Modern Greece (London, 1981).

_______________________________

[1] Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), an English poet and politician who fought in the Greek War of Independence, and died there in 1824.

[2] In Old Style. In the New Style = 6 April 1821.

[3] The army received reinforcements later, such as before the sack of Messolonghi in April 1826 and then after its fall.

[4] C. M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece. A Short History (London and Boston, 1991), p. 143.

[5] Greeks who were captured, men, women and children, were sent to Egypt and sold in the slave markets. After the Battle of Navarino, and the capitulation of Egypt, the European Powers forced on Muhammad Ali (Treaty in August 1828) the return of all Greek prisoners of war, and the emancipation of all who were sold in Egypt. These were estimated in thousands.

[6] Navarino is an Italian version of the town of Pylos in Greek.

[7] 300 Turks and Egyptians died in the Battle of Navarino, while the European allies lost only 140 (300 more were wounded).

[8] The Cyclades are a group of islands in the Aegean Sea, southeast of mainland Greece.

[9] Samos was made autonomous under a Christian governor.

[10] Crete remained under Muhammad Ali until 1840.

[11] Abd al-Rahman al-Rafai (1889 –1966) was a prominent Egyptian historian who wrote several books on Egyptian history. His, Age of Muhammad Ali (in Arabic: عصر محمد علي) (Cairo, 1930) dedicates chapter 7 for the Greek War.

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