Conquest & Creation –Alexander & Alexandria: The Greek Influence in Egypt (Part Three)

Greece and Egypt would seem to be strange bedfellows. They are on two entirely different continents, one noted for prosperity, the other for poverty. Geographically, Greece is known more for its islands than the mainland. Egypt is known for the Nile, rather than the desert wasteland that covers most of the country.  One is a long-standing member of the European Union, the other experienced a revolution just a decade ago. While both are known for ancient history, Pharaonic Egypt and Classical Greece were constructed on contrasting political systems. One hierarchical, the other horizontal. Despite these differences, there have been times when these two places and their peoples have been connected to historic effect. Greece as a fringe territory in southeastern Europe has often looked further east. Several of its native sons have written their name into history through their exploits in Egypt. This influence is remarkable and remarkably overlooked.  

Rising from the shore – Alexandria (Credit: Argenberg)

Riding The Waves – Tides of Civilization
Southeastern Europe and North Africa were never that far apart. Before modern times, water was often easier to cross than land. The Mediterranean Sea offered one of the widest avenues available for the transport of peoples, ideas, and goods. Waterborne transport led to cross-cultural contacts. The Mediterranean was one of the world’s great highways, spreading civilization onto distant shores. One needs to look no further than the ancient Roman ruins on the coast of present-day Algeria as evidence of how civilization spread from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Roman and Hellenistic influences in North Africa will come as a surprise to most Westerners.

Historical biases against the east, whether that be Eastern Europe, the near east or the middle east still stubbornly persist in the western world today. For instance, it is not sufficiently known that the richest part of the Roman Empire was its eastern half, particularly Egypt. One of the most glaring anti-eastern biases concerns the fall of Rome. It is still widely believed today that the Roman Empire came to an end in 476 AD. This, even though the empire’s eastern half continued for 977 more years. It lasted until the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. One of the most obvious and overlooked examples of anti-eastern bias is explicitly stated in the phrase, “History of Western Civilization” for which entire textbooks, popular histories, and countless university courses are named. These inherent and long-lasting biases have little time for tales of cultural interaction that took place along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Alexander’s vision – Plan of ancient Alexandria (Credit: Philg88)

Life Everlasting – A Wide Canvas
After Alexander died, he received the ultimate posthumous honor in Alexandria as his body laid there on display in a gold sarcophagus. Alexander and Alexandria offer the greatest evidence to support the great man theory of history. It was Alexander’s decision to found Alexandria that set all its succeeding history in motion. While Alexander died before his vision of the city would be fully realized, his achievement has outlasted him by 2,300 years. For all his greatness, Alexander could not escape mortality. He went from cradle to grave rather quickly, living a relatively short 33 years. Alexandria is very different in this regard. The city is still a cradle of civilization that despite a great deal of degeneration over the past seventy-five years managed to have staying power.

Alexandria has suffered numerous conflicts, conquests, sacks, and sieges at a steady rate throughout its history. Nonetheless, it is one of history’s great survivors. People come and go, but Alexander’s city lives on. The city has historically offered a wide canvas from which others hailing from Greece could fulfill their dreams. Modern Egypt, as it exists today, would be a very different place if not for its founder who came straight out of the Balkans by way of Greece. Muhammad Ali Pasha, an energetic ethnic Albanian who grew up in Greece and gravitated to Egypt as part of an Ottoman military contingent, is one of the most influential historical figures in Egyptian history. During the first half of the 19th century, he set about modernizing Egypt with vigor and vision. Greece, at the time an Ottoman outpost and Balkan backwater, was closer than one might imagine to Egypt and the near East. This was because both Greece and Egypt were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Staking his claim – Alexander the Great founding Alexandria (Credit: Placido Costanzi)

Empire Building – The Grecian Way
While it is now common to speak of empires as disasters for the regions and countries which they conquered, empires also allowed for the transference of capital, ideas, and talent. In the case of Egypt, without the Ottoman Empire, Muhammad Ali would never have set foot on its shores. For all the excesses of empires they also lent a veneer of stability to places where it had otherwise been lacking. Muhammad Ali’s reign and subsequent creation of a dynasty provided Egypt with enough stability that others sought it out. These emigres brought much needed skills and created communities with their own unique cultures.

This was the case with the Greeks. They started coming to Egypt in large numbers during Muhammad Ali’s reign. The dynasty he established allowed them to stay. Their skills were highly valued, as they were well educated and economically driven. Micro-cultures developed among these emigres who lived in two worlds, the Egyptian one and their own. The Greek community in Egypt developed distinctive cultural traits. They also produced individuals of distinction, the most famous of which was Constantine Cavafy, perhaps the greatest of Greek poets.

Of Human Bondage – Florence Baker: Exploring Her Later Life (Part Two)

Florence Maria von Sass went from childhood in a prosperous Transylvania family to becoming an orphan overnight. She was only four years old at the time when she lost her mother, brother, and father. At that moment, her childhood came to an abrupt halt. Circumstances forced her to grow up fast amid war and revolution. The end of one part of her life indirectly led to the beginning of another part. One where she and the love of her life – Samuel Baker – would make history. It is remarkable that the first kindling of that fabulous romance began in a slave market. The peculiar institution of human bondage brought the couple improbably together. From the point forward, they became united as explorers and lovers.

In the mid-19th century, the city of Vidin was a bustling port along the southern bank of the Lower Danube. It had 26,000 inhabitants and a sizable military garrison that added another 8,000 soldiers to the population. At the time it was still part of the Ottoman Empire (the city is now in northwestern Bulgaria). An empire that would soon enough become known as “the Sick Man of Europe” due to its perpetual decline. It also looked increasingly backwards compared to a Europe on the cusp of modernity. One of the empire’s more lamentable traits was slavery. Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves as an orphan or refugee in the Ottoman lands could just as easily be sold into slavery. This was the situation Florence faced at the age of fourteen. While her life was on the verge of taking a turn for the worst, the man she would become inextricably connected with for the rest of her life had no idea of her plight.

Passionate pursuit – Lady Florence Baker

Distress & Discovery – Favorable Circumstances
Samuel Baker was in the throes of a hunting trip across central and eastern Europe with Sir Duleep Singh. A decade earlier, Singh had been the Maharajah (Great King) of the Sikh Empire. He was only a child at the time and would later go into exile. Baker, like Singh, was born into favorable circumstances. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. This afforded him the opportunity to indulge a wide range of interests which included writing, hunting, ranching and travel. Baker and Singh arrived at Vidin on the tail end of their trip. To satisfy Singh’s curiosity, Baker agreed to accompany him to Vidin’s slave market. He had no idea that this would change his life forever. One of the slaves for sale in the market was Florence. The teenager caught the eye of Baker who was nearly thrice her age. (The age of consent in Victorian Britain at the time was twelve).

It may have been love at first sight, but “purchasing” Florence was not without difficulties. As the story goes, the Pasha (governor) of Vidin outbid Baker. A life in the cloistered, oversexed world of the harem awaited Florence unless Samuel could find a way to free her from bondage. Baker’s passionate pursuit took the form of bribes to her attendants. They allowed the Englishman to spirit her away by carriage. The couple then made their way to Romania. Some accounts state that they married there, others are more ambiguous. The couple would have a much more formal wedding in Great Britain, but that was five years into the future. For now, they settled down in Romania. Rather than a life of sexual slavery, Florence would now walk in lockstep with Samuel as they moved toward an era of their famous discoveries.

Discovery channels – Murchison Falls (Credit: Rod Waddington)

Into The Wild – Abolitionism in Africa
While the acclaim surrounding Samuel and Florence comes from their trip into the unknown wilds of the White Nile, a later journey into the same region of Africa says a great deal about their humanity. In 1869, at the invitation of Ismail Pasha (Khedive of Egypt), Samuel undertook a military expedition to end the sale of slaves there. Given administrative control over the new region and appointed to a four-year term in office, Samuel took command of 1,700 soldiers (mostly made up of former convicts). Florence was with him the entire time. They met with resistance every step of the way. The slave trade was a lucrative enterprise, but Florence and Samuel fervently believed in its abolition. Convincing those who profited from it was another matter. Their attempt to end the slave trade failed.

At the end of Samuel’s time in office they left the area. They spent the final years of their life together both at home in the English countryside and traveling the world. Their love for one another continued as strong as ever. Despite the scarcely disguised snobbery and rigid class hierarchy of Great Britain during the Victorian era, the romance of Samuel and Florence Baker would endure. The couple stayed married until Samuel’s death in 1893 at the age of seventy-two. Florence never remarried and lived until 1916. Theirs was an otherworldly romance, hers was a remarkable life.

Of human bondage – Samuel and Florence Baker

Broken Records – An Air of Mystery
A word of caution for anyone attempting to ascertain the facts of Florence’s life, especially the early years. Piecing together her childhood and teenage years is difficult at best. The records are extremely vague, to the point of non-existent. Once the massacre at Nagyenyed (Aiud in present day Romania) occurred in 1849, everything about her life becomes open to conjecture. Her time as a refugee, probable abduction, and life in Vidin prior to meeting Samuel is obscure. It is the product of hearsay and family stories passed down through the years. There was good reason for both Samuel and Florence to not divulge the truth. With Samuel knighted for his discoveries in Africa, this meant they gained the spotlight in an intensely aristocratic society.

There were those among the British elite who would look down upon the couple due to Florence’s backstory. Word eventually got to Queen Victoria about Florence’s past. She would never receive the couple, purportedly because of the way they had first come together. This is also why historians believe the couple is overlooked when compared with other explorers of that time. Livingston, Stanley, and Burton all became household names, but Samuel and Florence Baker are all but forgotten. In Florence’s case, this also has to do with the fact that she was female. That makes her exploits much more remarkable and well worth remembering.



Autonomy & Dynasty – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Four)

By the late 1830’s, Mehmet Ali (Muhammad Ali Pasha) was at the peak of his power. For an ethnic Albanian, hailing from a provincial Ottoman city on the coast of Greece, who had first set foot in Egypt with 300 men and very little military experience, Ali had succeeded beyond all expectations except his own. He had achieved the impossible by taking Egypt from a dismal backwater of the Ottoman Empire to a reformed and rejuvenated, quasi-autonomous state. This made him more powerful than the Sultan in Istanbul. With his son Ibrahim leading Egyptian forces in Syria to a crushing victory over the Ottoman Army at the Battle of Nezib in June 1839, the Ottoman throne was now within Mehmet Ali’s grasp. Ibrahim wanted to march on Istanbul and take the Ottoman capital. Mehmet hesitated. He was more interested in seeing what concessions he could get from Sultan Mahmud II (1808 -1839), including territory and complete autonomy for Egypt. Forcing the Ottoman Sultan to agree on his terms would be the crowning achievements of Ali’s three-and-a-half-decade long struggle to build Egypt into a regional power whose wishes could not be ignored.

Standing tall in Cairo – Mosque of Mehmet Ali (Credit: ezzat hisham)

Dreams Deferred – A Negotiated Settlement
Mehmet was on the verge of breaking Egypt completely free of external influences, but he also knew that the Great Powers of Europe – particularly Britain – wanted to stop him from growing more powerful than the Ottoman Sultan. Following the Battle of Nezib it looked like Mehmet Ali might get everything he wanted. The entire Ottoman fleet defected to his side and Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) died. The Ottoman Empire could either collapse or become a plaything of Mehmet Ali. From the perspective of Britain, if either of these occurred than the entire European security architecture that had existed in the post-Napoleonic era would be threatened. It was in there interests along with several Continental powers to prop up the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Ali was forced into negotiations. This was what he had wanted, but with the Ottoman Sultan. Instead, he would have to deal with the Great Powers who would defer many of his dreams forever.

The truth was that Mehmet Ali had become too powerful for his own good. If he had been the Ottoman Sultan, then the Great Powers would have dealt with him as an equal. Instead, they felt the need to put him in his place. Ali was a danger to their interests, especially British ones, as well as the balance of power. His military could not be allowed to control Syria because it could render British plans to develop alternate access routes to India null and void. While Ali was more than the Ottoman sultan had been able to handle, he could not stand up to Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, all of whom were backing the Ottomans. When the British and Austrian navies blockaded the Nile Delta in 1840, Ali was forced into an agreement he had little choice but to accept. He would pull Ibrahim and the army out of Syria. The army would also undergo severe cutbacks. A force that had numbered up to 130,000 would be reduced to 20,000. This was enough to allow Ali to keep his grip on power in Egypt, but nothing more than that.,

Sign of the times – Flag of Mehmet Ali

Dynastic Cycle – The Long Goodbye
Despite those setbacks, he was able to win several major concessions. The Ottoman Sultan was forced to recognize Ali and his heirs as the leaders of Egypt. The province would now be an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, enjoying virtual independence. Unfortunately for Ali, this independence had its limits. He was entangled by the British in an Ottoman-Anglo trade agreement that opened Egypt up to cheaper British imports and powerful industrial entities. There was no way Egypt could compete with British trade and industry. This would have ramifications for government revenue. Ali’s power was weakened by his agreement with the Great Powers, but his greatest achievement was still intact, Egypt now enjoyed virtual independence. His heirs would rule over it until the mid-20th century.

By the late 1840’s, Egypt was sinking into debt and Ali into senility. There were disagreements with Ibrahim and wild fits of temper, signs of a once great leader losing his mental acuity. Ali’s cognitive decline worsened to the point that Ibrahim traveled to Istanbul and received the Sultan’s blessing to take over as ruler of Egypt. Tragically, a guilt-ridden Ibrahim succumbed to despair and failing health. He soon died of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Ali’s health continued to worsen and his grandson Abbas I became Viceroy of Egypt. In 1849, Ali died in Alexandria. Abbas, who had little use for Ali, did not even declare a period of mourning in Egypt. The man who had brought Egypt into the modern age was an afterthought. This slight did nothing to reduce Ali’s remarkable historical stature which grew with each passing decade. While Ali built up Egypt to consolidate his grip on power and out of self-interest, those actions modernized the country.

Elder stateman – Mehmet Ali in the 1840s

Lasting Monuments – Mehmet Ali & Modernity
It is hard to believe just how far Egypt came under Mehmet Ali’s leadership. Prior to Ali assuming power in 1805, Egypt was at its lowest historical point in thousands of years. The country suffered from a wide range of ills. By the time Ali died, Egypt was autonomous, administered by educated bureaucrats and contained a professional army led by a highly trained officer corps. Ali was responsible for bringing order and prosperity to Egypt. The dynasty he created would live on into the mid-20th century. It helped pave the way for independence in 1952 when the last leader of Ali’s dynasty was overthrown. Even with the rise of nationalism, Ali still held his place as the founder of modern Egypt.

Anyone who might wonder about Ali’s importance to Egyptian history should look no further than the skyline in its greatest city, Cairo. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali can be seen from most vantage points in the city. Its twin minarets rising above domes and piercing the sky. The mosque is located at the summit of Cairo’s famed Citadel, much of which was rebuilt by Ali. His mosque and the Citadel are lasting monuments that remind Egyptians of his greatness. Modern Egypt would not be the same without Mehmet Ali. As a matter of fact, it might not exist at all.  

Arsenal of Autocracy- Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Three)

One of history’s more controversial debates involves the Great man theory of History. The theory says that history can be explained by the activities of great men, those historical personages of extraordinary personalities and activities that shaped the world. This has been challenged by scholars who state that social and economic forces shape history more than any single man. The Great Man Theory of History is also blind to the contributions of women. This is one of its major failings. While there is some truth to the theory, the sheer weight of social and economic forces outweighs the activities of any single person. This is particularly true for modern history when mass movements became more pronounced due to the industrial and digital revolutions. Individual leaders are now as much at the mercy of technology as they are of events. They are shaped by these forces, rather than controlling them.

There is also the matter of historical context when judging whether economic and social forces are more powerful than an individual leader’s actions. Certain periods may lend themselves more to the activities of individuals than others. Circumstances often dictate the opportunity for a strong leader to emerge. For instance, war has a way of making historical figures into heroes or villains depending upon the outcome of their actions. The same can be true with societies that have suffered difficult times. A fine example occurred in Egypt during the 18th century. That was when a series of natural catastrophes, combined with dismal leadership, led Egypt to its lowest point in thousands of years. Fortunately, a transformative leader arrived at the beginning of the 19th century. There is no greater argument in support of the Great Man Theory of History than Mehmet Ali (also known as Mohammad Ali Pasha), an Ottoman provincial from the Balkans who improbably took control of Egypt at a time when it was in perpetual decline and made it into a modern state. Mehmet Ali’s exploits are those of a visionary leader who used his vast administrative skills to transform every aspect of Egypt’s political, economic, and military institutions.

Great man theory – Interview with Mehemet Ali in his Palace at Alexandria (Credit: David Roberts)

A Fighting Chance – Building An Army
After Mehmet Ali nationalized land ownership and agriculture in Egypt, he set about using the revenues gained from these reforms to begin the industrialization of Egypt. His immediate focus was on building a powerful military force. This meant that he needed to make Egypt self-sufficient in military technology. Ali envisioned home grown industries that would produce weapons for a modern (European style) military. He had seen how a lack of innovation had left the Ottoman Empire at the mercy of European powers. Ali was determined that the same thing would not happen to Egypt. Under his guidance, Egypt’s two biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria became hubs for a new military-industrial complex. In Cairo, weapons factories churned out close to 20,000 muskets a year. Alexandria’s position on the Mediterranean coast made it a center for shipbuilding.  No less than nine warships were constructed there.

Ali realized the most modern weapons in the world would do no good without a strong army of soldiers. This led to his most controversial reform, one which he did not enact until he had been in power for sixteen years. In 1821, the conscription of peasants into the army began. This led to a great deal of consternation in villages where families saw their sons taken away for military service. To say this was groundbreaking would be a massive understatement. No leader had tried this in Egypt for over two thousand years. This did not stop Ali. He pushed the reforms through in the face of peasant opposition. The result was a force that grew to 130,000 men and an army that struck fear in both European states and the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul.

Aggressive expansion – Egypt under Mehmet Ali’s dynasty from 1805 -1914 (Credit: Don-kun)

Power Plays – The Greater Threat
The strong, centralized military was administered by an increasingly professionalized bureaucracy. The two influenced one another and strengthened the Egyptian state. With Ali at the helm, the military achieved a string of notable successes, several of which took place before conscription. Ali put down a rebellion in what is now Saudi Arabia. When tensions flared again, he sent his son Ibrahim to lead another campaign. This brought Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, back under Ottoman rule in 1818. Ali did not stop there. His campaigning extended into the resource rich Sudan which was subdued during the first half of the 1820’s. Meanwhile, Ottoman forces were on the defensive in Europe as the Greeks rebelled in a bid for independence. Ali sent Ibrahim with an army to Greece. He would provide military assistance to Ottoman forces. In return, the Sultan made promises that Ali would be given Syria and the island of Crete.

After Ibrahim’s campaign faltered, the Sultan went back on his promises. This resulted in Ali’s army taking Syria and occupying the Ottoman heartland in central Anatolia by the early 1830’s. During this time, Great Britain and several countries in continental Europe realized that Ali was the greatest threat to the balance of power they had carefully constructed on the continent after Napoleon’s defeat twenty years earlier. Egyptian forces were threatening to topple the Sultan. This could lead to Ali as the Ottoman leader, something that nations like Britain could not allow to happen. The Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) had no other choice but to seek external support. He soon received it from Russia, but this upset the British who feared that Russia could use this to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. The British response was to ensnare the Ottomans in a trade agreement, which allowed them de facto control over the Ottoman economy.

Military masterminds – Muhammed Ali with his son Ibrahim

The Reckoning – Coming To Terms
None of the machinations by the great powers in the Near East and Balkans would have occurred if not for the threat Ali represented to Ottoman rule. The British continued to be fearful that Ali might eventually use his Egyptian base of power to cut them off from creating a quicker route to India. They looked with suspicion at Ali’s use of French experts in military affairs and engineering to bolster his Egyptian empire. Ironically, the greater threat to Britain had become Ali rather than the Ottoman Sultan. His leadership in making Egypt a force in great power politics was extraordinary. The British knew there would have to be reckoning with Mehmet Ali. He had become too powerful to ignore.

Click here for: Autonomy & Dynasty – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Four)

The Empire Builder – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Two)

Visitors to the city of Karvala in northeastern Greece spend most of their time enjoying the mesmerizing waters of the Bay of Karvala and the Aegean Sea. Those hankering for a bit of history can take a short stroll to the the man who made modern Egypt. Karvala was the birthplace of Mehmet Ali who grew up in the Ottoman Empire as the second son of an Albanian tobacco merchant. His childhood home is one of the most striking examples of Ottoman residential architecture to be found anywhere in the world. It is representative of a prosperous Ottoman merchant’s home in the late 18th century. At that time, the home was the largest in Karvala. Unfortunately, Mehmet Ali’s father died when he was young. Perhaps that is why he spent the rest of his life striving so hard to make a name for himself in the world. Raised by an uncle, Ali became known for his work ethic which manifested itself in the collection of taxes in the city. His outstanding service earned him a commander’s rank in an Albanian mercenary force that was sent to Egypt in 1801. No one could have known at the time that Mehmet Ali was on the verge of modernizing Egypt.

Seizing power – Mehmet Ali looks on during the Massacre of the Mamluks (Painting by Horace Vernet)

A Series of Disasters – Egypt In The 18th Century
To appreciate the Herculean task that faced Mehmet Ali (also known as Muhammad Ali Pasha) in transforming Egypt, it is important to understand what the country had suffered through prior to his arrival. The magnificence of ancient Egypt, one of the defining civilizations in human history, could not have been more distant. The 18th century was unkind to Egypt. A series of natural disasters upended any semblance of prosperity and led to a decline in the population. Egypt was relegated to a primitive backwater. As always, the Nile Valley had massive agricultural potential, but it was no longer being realized. Politically, Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks. Their administration left a lot to be desired. The Mamluks were slave soldiers from the Caucasus and Central Asia who were brought to Egypt in the Middle Ages by the Abbayid (Abbassid) Dynasty. Their grip on power was loosening.

After the Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt in the early 16th century, they were still forced to recognize Mamluk suzerainty. The Mamluks paid a tribute to the Sultan and were largely left to rule as they saw fit. By the 18th century, the Mamluks had descended into corruption and decadence. The slow decline of the Ottoman Empire affected Mamluk Egypt. Without a strong central authority, tax farming of the peasantry was out of control. Many settlements were abandoned. Coupled with plagues and floods, the population plummeted to less than four million by the end of the 18th century. This was ten million people less than lived in Egypt when the Arab conquest occurred eleven hundred years earlier. It was a demographic disaster unprecedented in Egyptian history. Adding to Egypt’s woes, a French invasion led by Napoleon took place 1798-99. The French sought to conquer Egypt as the first step in a process they hoped would result in taking India out of British control. This did not work out as planned. Napoleon’s conquest failed and he soon returned to France.

Early beginnings – Mehmet Ali’s birthplace in Karvala

Seizing Power – An Authoritarian Streak
A power vacuum now developed with French troops, the Ottomans and Mamluks all competing to gain control.  Into this maelstrom. Mehmet Ali arrived in 1801 leading a regiment of 300 Albanian troops. His forces were to assist Ottoman troops in reasserting control. Little did anyone know that Ali had ideas of his own. Through military brilliance, a series of intrigues, shadowy machinations and personal charisma, Mehmet Ali won over local leaders while undermining two Ottoman governors. He managed to convince the Sultan to promote him to viceroy. This was quite an achievement for a man who was illiterate at the time and would not learn to read until he was well into middle age. Furthermore, Ali’s mother tongue was Turkish. He was unable to speak Arabic. None of this stopped him from gaining complete control over Egypt.

Ali dealt with the Mamluks in a masterfully sinister way. In 1811, he invited all their leaders to a ceremony where his troops proceeded to murder them.* This left Ali as the ruling authority in Egypt. His ambitions did not stop after gaining the position of viceroy. If anything, power fueled Ali’s desire to separate Egypt from the Sultan’s authority. Meanwhile, the Ottoman state was suffering through major problems of its own. Egypt was not their primary focus. Ali used this to his advantage. He was distant enough from Istanbul to where rule as he pleased. This allowed him to engineer a major overhaul of the Egyptian state. The idea that underlay all of Ali’s reforms was to create sources of revenue that he could then use to build up his military forces. This would not only cement his power in Egypt, but also allow him to conduct military campaigns throughout the Middle East.

To that end, he began by focusing on land reform and agriculture. The government confiscated the holdings of large landowners and religious foundations. Tax farming was banned. The government took control of agricultural production as peasants were told what crops to cultivate. Money soon began to flow back into government coffers. Ali also brought in French engineers to create a new network of canals. This in turn led to greater productivity in agriculture. Water storage expanded to the point that peasants were able to raise three crops per year rather than one under the traditional system of agriculture which had been in place for thousands of years. This was an extraordinary historical innovation that transformed the Nile Valley.

Transformative leadership – Mehmet Ali (Painting by Auguste Couder)

Mind Boggling –The Master Planner
It is mind boggling to think that a former Albanian tax collector who grew up in Greece and served Ottoman interests throughout his early career, could transform Egypt from a fetid backwater teeming with problems into a viable economic entity using transformative technology. These innovations not only improved Ali’s grip on power, but also led to unprecedented demographic growth in Egypt. During the 19th century, the population would more than double. This would never have happened if not for the reforms instituted by Ali. The reforms introduced by Ali were the means which he would use to build a powerful military that would soon threaten the Ottoman state.

* Note: Popular legend states that the massacre took place on a street named Al-Darb Al-Ahmar situated between Islamic Cairo and the citadel where the Muhammad Ali Mosque is located. The name translated as “Red Street” named because of the “blood that flowed there”. Archives show the street had been called this well before the massacre ever took place due to the red brick used to build the homes. (Credit: gracetheglobe)

Click here for: Arsenal of Autocracy- Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Three)

The Albanian Connection – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part One)

Ancient Egypt never really interested me. It was either too popular or not nearly obscure enough. Likely both. The knowledge I acquired of ancient Egypt came from a Western Civilization class during high school. I vaguely remember taking lots of notes, paying more than the usual attention to the lectures, but then forgetting everything I learned soon thereafter. My familiarity with the subject was fleeting. Later in that same course, I learned about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I can still recall the teacher drawing a diagram of the streets in Sarajevo where the assassination occurred. He then gave a blow-by-blow account of the Archduke’s fateful ride into history.

From that point onward, I was fascinated by what had occurred that day in a provincial Yugoslav city at the hands of a shadowy Serb organization. This gave the Balkans a special meaning for me. The region was mysterious and exotic, filled with intrigue and worth a lifetime of study. Egypt and the Balkans may have appeared in the same history survey course, albeit thousands of years apart, but they had nothing in common other than that. Or not at least in the way world history was taught at a provincial high school in western North Carolina. Only later, would I discover a deeper, more modern connection between Egypt and the Balkans. One more fascinating than I could ever have imagined.

Maker of Modern Egypt – Muhammad Ali Pasha (Credit Jean-François Portaels)

A Brief History – Subject of Fascination
My lack of interest in Egypt extended into all its other historic periods. The Arab conquest and Islam in Egypt became blind spots. I knew the country suffered under colonialism, but so did many other places. Modern Egypt to me was Anwar Sadat’s assassination and that was only because I saw its aftermath on television one afternoon after coming home from school. My knowledge of Egypt was as barren as the desert wasteland found throughout the country anywhere beyond the Valley of the Nile. This held true until not long ago when I was perusing the history section of a used bookstore. That was when I came across a volume entitled, “A Brief History of Egypt” by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. The title was something of an oxymoron since the book still had 12 chapters and 294 pages. If this was a “brief” history, I could only imagine the doorstop sized tomes which might be lurking in the dusty corners of a campus basement. The kind of books that are the opposite of accessible. The brevity of Goldschmidt’s book made it worth a read or useable as a quick source of reference.

For a handful of dollars, I decided to purchase “A Brief History of Egypt” for two reasons. Number one, it did not have a photo of the pyramids on the cover. Instead, there was a color image of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. Secondly, I had a vague yearning to learn about the Mamluks, a ruling dynasty whose name had a striking resemblance to marmalade and the cartoon dog, Marmaduke. I loved the way Mamluk sounded when it rolled off the tongue. Once I purchased the book, it sat in the trunk of my car with a pile of other unread volumes. From time to time, I would gaze curiously at the cover, but did not feel compelled to begin wading through it. Then for some unexplainable reason I picked it up one day and began reading. I finally discovered that the Mamluks were Circassian slave soldiers from the Caucasus region who were able to win control over a few Muslim states, one of which was Egypt. Satisfying this curiosity did not stop me from reading onward. Soon I came to a connection between Egypt and the Balkans that I would have scarcely believed possible. Modern Egypt was largely the creation of an Albanian soldier by the name of Mehmet Ali (also known as Muhammad Ali Pasha). His life and work are a subject of fascination. 

A brief history – Arthur Goldschmidt Jr tells the story of Egypt

Empire of Opportunity – Ottoman Tolerance
The Ottoman Empire was incredibly diverse though few people other than scholars and specialists are aware of that. The empire is known primarily in the western world for its expansionism that struck at the very heart of Europe and resulted in two famous sieges of Vienna. The Ottoman ability to incorporate diverse ethnic and religious elements into the empire for its own benefit is often overlooked. For minority groups, playing by the Ottoman’s rules meant additional taxes, but also the opportunity to earn a good livelihood and do largely as they pleased within their own proscribed communities.  While Turkish Muslims enjoyed the highest status, other groups such as Christians, Armenians and Jews had many opportunities for advancement open to them. One ethnic group that took of advantage of these opportunities to an unprecedented degree were Albanians. That will come as a surprise to many.

For much of recent history, Albania’s reputation has been terrible. A hermit communist state followed by a chaotic period of pseudo-democracy beset by insurrection has not helped matters. There was also the bankruptcy due to a pyramid scheme gone horribly wrong. Sprinkle in the fact that during the first half of the 20th century Albania had a self-styled monarch known as King Zog and his wife, Queen Gertrude, whose background included selling postcards at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. In other words, there was much to recommend Albania’s reputation as a carnival country. This obscures a deeper and much richer history of Albania and Albanians. The mountainous land that borders the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea produced some of the greatest Grand Viziers in the Ottoman Empire, along with many other powerful officials as well as thousands of soldiers who helped spread the Ottoman influence across much of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds.

Keeping the faith – Muhammed Ali Mosque in Cairo Citadel (Credit: kalerna)

The Modernizer – Lasting Legacy
Many of these men came from unique backgrounds that represent the complexity of the empire’s ethnic, geographic, and religious makeup. One of them, Mehmet Ali made a name for himself first at home and then abroad in Egypt. He was a man of extraordinary administrative and military skill who moved Egypt into the modern world. Modern Egypt is a legacy of Mehmet Ali. His extraordinary story is worth retelling.

Click here for: The Empire Builder – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Two)

A Book By Its Cover – Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part Two)

Dubrovnik leaves me with a range of complex and contradictory feelings. It is a town sized spectacle sculpted in stone. The quaint grandeur and sophisticated monumentalism of its historic structures are beyond compare. As blinding rays of sunlight strike the Dalmatian stone, radiance in its purest form becomes apparent. Areas in the later afternoon that become consumed by shadow are the settings of refinement and repose. Nothing could be more pleasant than the Old Town’s magical splendor in these moments, but it can also be spectacularly unnerving. There is something a little too perfect about the walled Old Town for my taste. It has reached such a level of refinement that it does not feel quite real. Dubrovnik is one of the finest examples of the impulse for historic preservation and structural restoration. Nonetheless, something about it does not feel right. Rebecca West, author of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, also had misgivings about the Old Town.

Two faced – Detail in Dubrovnik

Positively Pedestrian – Staying In Gruz
In the first of two sections in her book devoted to Dubrovnik, West begins in Gruz. This outlying district was where she and her husband stayed. I could not help but feel a certain kinship with West since Gruz is where my wife and I have stayed on two different visits to Dubrovnik. Gruz offers a reminder of a much more normal world than the one found within the Old Town’s walls. Reading West’s description of Gruz brought the place back alive within me. It was fascinating to think I had unwittingly walked in West’s footsteps. We had crossed paths by traveling in the same spaces, separated by an interval of eighty years. She did not really care for Dubrovnik. West thought Gruz was much more tolerable. I would never call Gruz normal – I doubt West would either – but when compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town it is positively pedestrian.

Like Rebecca West, I found Gruz more pleasurable than Dubrovnik. For me, this had to do with the fact that prices were nowhere near as extortionate as those in the Old Town. For West and her husband, it was not a question of affordability. The couple stayed in Gruz because they were unable to find accommodation in the Old Town and so picked this bucolic district in which to stay. When West told her husband that she did not care for Dubrovnik, he wrongly thought that it might be because they had been unable to secure accommodation in the Old Town. On the contrary, it was the Old Town which left West in a state of semi-depression. This did not surprise me. What did was that West had the courage to say it. She mentions among other things, “the appalling lack of accumulation observable in its history.”

Looking up – Old Town Dubrovnik

Splendor On Steroids – A Seductive Intensity
Dubrovnik has been prone to collapse on occasion due to natural cataclysms. This has caused a discontinuity with its past. Dubrovnik would rebuild its way back to a look of prosperity after each catastrophe. This has continued right up into contemporary times with damage from the 1991-92 siege all but swept under the marble. The Old Town does not feel like an organic development. Instead, it appears as a showpiece, a baroque display case with Renaissance and Gothic elements thrown in for good measure. One gets an overwhelming sense of wealth. Likes anything based on wealth and vanity, its character is profoundly superficial. If one cares to only judge a book by its cover than Dubrovnik’s is a gilded, beguiling. leather bound rare edition, The Old Town plays to that overweening desire for artifice that man welcomes as a corrective to the harshness of life. Dubrovnik proves that man can only stand to suffer so much of reality. The Old Town eschews the real, for a type of splendor on steroids. Its charms are showy, flagrant, and intensely seductive.

I love and hate Dubrovnik in unequal measure for its beauty and the pervasive pathos that lurks in the design of every detail in the townscape. The Old Town comes as close to attaining perfection as any place I have ever been. I find that to be terribly disturbing because in my mind, nothing could be worse than perfection. It is the end, a point of no return. Where does a person or place go after perfection? Reading West’s sections on Dubrovnik I got the sense that this bothered her as well. She does not explicitly say so, but I could sense it in her words. West admires Dubrovnik, but does not like, let alone love it. For this I can commiserate with her. The Old Town is like walking into a fairy tale, except this one is real. At times, it can seem downright ahistorical. That seems like a strange thing to say about a place that lives off its legacy.

Picturing the perfect – A photographer in Dubrovnik

Core Values – Easy On The Eyes
One would be hard pressed to find another place – other than Venice – whose present existence almost totally relies on its adherence to the past. To this end, all the main sights in the Old Town look as though they have had the past refined right out of them. I was surprised – though I should not have been – to find that even the old “medieval” walls are quite modern in places. The ramparts that afford tourists the opportunity to walk along the walls did not exist in their present form until the 1980’s. Dubrovnik is deceptive like that. Relying as much upon a restored artifice to make one believe that this was always the way it has been. In truth, Dubrovnik is one of the youngest “medieval” towns in existence today.

Besides its main attractions, the Dubrovnik that exists today is a product of the post 1667 earthquake era. The idea that the Old Town is a perfect picture of preservation turns out to be a false one, but truth and historical verisimilitude have always had an uneasy relationship. Dubrovnik is history as we want it to be. The present state of the Old Town says as much about modern historical sensibilities as it does older ones. Rebecca West saw Dubrovnik for what it was, rather than what it wanted her to believe. It may have been easy on the eyes, but that was hard for her to tolerate. I can vouch for the fact that it still is.

Penetrating The Depths – Black Lamb & Grey Falcon In Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part One)

Go into any bookshop in Dubrovnik selling English language titles and it is almost impossible not to run across a copy of Rebecca West’s magisterial travel opus, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia.” One of the most recognizable aspects of the books is its girth. Size wise, the book is a doorstop, a free weight, a tome. My dog eared copy which always sits close at hand has 1,171 pages. The print on those pages is not very big either. An inveterate reader would need several weeks at the seaside in Dalmatia to get through the book. It would be well worth their effort. West traveled with her husband for six weeks Yugoslavia in 1937 at a time when the prospect of war loomed ever larger. It was a very important moment in Balkan history, one that West catalogs with erudition, wit, and scintillating descriptions. She records for posterity a world that was to vanish into darkness a few years later. West ominously alludes to this in her dedication: “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are all now dead or enslaved.”

An encyclopedia work – Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Imagination & Interpretation – Black Lamb & Grey Falcon
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published in 1941, the same year that the German Army invaded Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs that accompany West in the book would become collateral damage in a multisided war that spared no one. The fascist German, Italian and Hungarian regimes all had their bestial ways with the land and its people. And various ethnic groups had their way with each other. Ethnic nationalism caused internecine conflict which resulted in vile atrocities being committed by Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. Yet West’s book is so good that it can transport the reader to a place in time through her writing she makes seem eternal. Her powers of descriptive observation are magical. Reading the book is as close to a metaphysical travel experience a reader can have.,

The synthesis of imagination and interpretation, the depth of intellect, the incisive commentary, are hallmarks of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The breadth of coverage West offers of the country is unprecedented. There is no way to compare the work to other English language books on both well-known and obscure European countries at that time. Such was the density of West’s coverage that it is easier to point out the areas she does not cover – Slovenia and the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia – than the ones she does. It is interesting to note the amount of coverage given to each region. Croatia, including Dalmatia gets 210 pages, Bosnia and Herzegovina 175, Serbia (including what she terms Old Serbia which includes Kosovo) 348, Macedonia 201, Montenegro 73. Perhaps that is why some commentators have stated that she has a pro-Serbian bias. Those accusations did not come from contemporaries, they arose during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s.

Imagination & Interpretation – Rebecca West

An Encyclopedic Work – Comprehending & Comprehensive
West foresaw violence in the Balkans, but this was nothing new especially considering the context of those times. During the late 1930’s, the gathering storm of world war was getting ready to break across Europe. Yugoslavia was far from the only place where the population was seething with ethnic tensions. The fact that West did such an extensive job of describing the people and places, disparate customs and diverse cultures of Yugoslavia during the two months she spent traveling with her husband around the country, had a lot to do with her book becoming a resource of encyclopedic proportions in the English speaking world.

Diplomats, policymakers and area specialists were purportedly influenced by her observations and opinions to such an extent that some commentators blame West for the way Yugoslavia would be perceived during its dissolution in the early 1990’s. As if many of these wonks took the time to read a book which rivals War and Peace in length. They were doing nothing more than taking a contemporary conflict in the Balkans and trying to understand it through the retroactive prism of West’s book. While Rebecca West was certainly capable of foresight, she was hardly clairvoyant and could not see a half century into the future. Many of her insights have the ring of truth because she was one of the few outsiders to come with an open mind and try to understand the region.

Reviewers have commented that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is so powerful because of the sincerity with which West writes. I would add that it is her ability to empathize which comes though so strongly in the text. She seeks to understand, then describe and finally interpret. It is a potent combination that yields powerful results. Her prejudices are pro-Balkan, the opposite of stereotypical attitudes towards the region both then and now. Ironically, the book was not translated and published in Serbian until 2004, almost eighty years after it was published. Most of those who now live in the former Yugoslavia have no idea who was West was or what she wrote. That includes Serbians. West does have a great love for Serbia which shines through in her writing. It can also be ascertained by the number of pages she devotes to it. Of course, Serbia made up the largest territory in Yugoslavia, so there was a lot more ground to cover.

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Another world – Pristina, Kosovo in the 1930s (Credit: Markéta Čcheidzeová)

A Memory Of Misgivings – Tourist Haunts 
Several places that are famous tourist haunts along the Croatian coastline in modern times, get some coverage, but not nearly the amount one might expect. A couple of sections in the book are given over to shorter entries entitled, Journey and Expedition. Several sections of the book are broken down into cities or towns that West spent time exploring. Some of these have multiple sections (such as Zagreb 1, Zagreb 2 and so forth) which provide extensive coverage and by extension, insights. Dubrovnik gets two sections all to itself, even though West was less than keen on the Dalmatian crown jewel. I was especially interested after my most recent visit in rereading the sections on Dubrovnik. It had been at least five years since I perused those pages. I vaguely recalled West’s misgivings about the town. In this case, my memory served me right.

Click here for: A Book By Its Cover – Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part Two)


The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)

Ada Kaleh was a survivor, until one day it was not. The island survived World Wars I and II, the collapse of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and a quarter century of communist rule. What it could not survive was progress. Sooner or later the modern world was bound to intrude upon the island. It was a miracle that Ada Kaleh survived as an outpost of Ottomanism for as long as it did. The Danube. which created, sustained, and protected it, ended up engulfing it. The same force of nature that allowed Ada Kaleh’s community to survive and thrive would end up drowning it. Ada Kaleh greatest sin was getting in the way of progress. When Romania and Yugoslavia’s leaders decided that the Danube would be harnessed for hydropower, the island’s inhabitants could do nothing about it.

The idea of progress – Iron Gate 1 hydroelectric power plant

Dammed If They Do – From Rivers to Reservoirs
The sight of a reservoir fills me with sadness. In my career, I have been lucky enough to work along such majestic American waterways as the Missouri, Bighorn and North Platte Rivers. While they are all still considered rivers, each of them was dammed in multiple places during the decades following World War II. The craze for dam building in the United States was in response to floods, hydropower needs, and irrigation projects. While capitalist and communist systems of governments were opposites in almost every respect, dam building was something both east and west had in common. Several of the Soviet Union’s most famous projects, for instance the Dnipro dam in Ukraine, harnessed waterpower. These were part of the rapid industrialization of the country. Many other communist countries believed that they could benefit from damming rivers.

Dams could improve navigation, flood control, and generate massive amounts of hydropower. For these reasons, particularly the latter, Romania and Serbia agreed in 1964 to jointly construct what would become known as the Iron Gate Hydropower Project. It took six years before the construction on the project began. Iron Gate Hydropower project was aptly named since it would be located at the 117- kilometer-long Iron Gate Gorge. A more scenic spot could hardly have been selected. Tragically, construction of the largest dam on the Danube – which would take place between 1970 – 72 – meant that Ada Kaleh’s days were numbered. The mile long, quarter mile wide island, was no match for the 220 square kilometer reservoir to be created by the dam. There was nothing Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants could do about the project. Protests in authoritarian Romania offered a path to imprisonment. The one question looming in everyone’s mind was what would happen to those living on Ada Kaleh.

Lost in time – Women in Ada Kaleh (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Moving On – Lands of Opportunity
In 1967 the island was visited by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who offered its inhabitants the opportunity to resettle in Turkey. This was an offer many would accept since Turkey offered a more dynamic economy and greater personal freedoms than they could ever enjoy in Romania. On the other hand, Turkey was a foreign country to the inhabitants on Ada Kaleh. While they shared a common language, the Turkish spoken by those living on the island had developed into a distinct dialect. In a sense, they were always going to be outsiders. The cloistered world of Ada Kaleh could not have been much more different than the modern world. A couple of other options were also offered to the island’s inhabitants.

For those who wanted to stay in Romania, they were offered the opportunity to relocate in the Dobruja region in eastern Romania where there was a significant Muslim population. Another option seemed to offer greater promise. Downriver from Ada Kaleh and the proposed dam was Simian Island. It stood within sight of Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the largest city in the Iron Gates area. The island was also located across from a town that bore the same name as the island. The idea was to construct a “New Ada Kaleh” on the island by first moving the most significant structures to Simian Island. The inhabitants were then to follow. One of the first structures to be moved was the fortress for which the island had been named. Unfortunately, it would also be one of the last. The resettlement project never happened.

The end of Ada Kaleh was both a slow and swift process. As the water rose, the island which had sheltered an improbable community for two hundred thirty years was slowly submerged. Soon there was nothing left of the island except for memories. Even the towering minaret from the turn of the 20th century mosque, which had been one of the island’s most notable landmarks, no longer existed. Instead of leaving it standing partially above the water line, it had been dynamited so as not obstruct navigation. Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants were scattered across Romania and Turkey. They had trouble integrating into larger societies. An insular, island world was the only life they had ever known. Those who chose to stay in Romania belatedly realized that the promises previously made to them would not be kept. Those who moved to Turkey had more freedom, but soon discovered they had little in common with a fast paced, urban society. The only world in which they truly fit was now buried thirty meters beneath the Danube.
Ada Kaleh was now history.

Floating away – Ada Kaleh in 1966 (Credit: Leo Wehrli)

Latent Ottomanism – The Slow Burn of Memory
There will never be another Ada Kaleh. That distant and mystical world of latent Ottomania which continued long after the empire’s expiration date, that culture of exoticism which organically grew on the edge of the Iron Gates is gone forever. An entire world had once existed in an area smaller than most villages. Customs that had long since faded into obscurity were still obeyed. Coffee and tea houses with the low hum of endless conversations, old men sitting in the streets while smoke rose from cigarettes that burned to the edges of their fingertips, bad teeth and black bread, the habitual haggling in the bazaar, the children hiding within the fortress walls, the unseen women who were the backbone of every family and that society all that would flicker and fade in the slow burn of memory. Ada Kaleh survived for centuries against incredible odds. The island had finally been beaten by the one thing it had passively resisted for so long, the idea of progress.

Click here for: Nothing About Us Without Us – Ukraine & A Macron Peace (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #81)


Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

“An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island was the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” – Between The Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A strange thing happened while Ada Kale enjoyed its insular obscurity, World War I. While the island was a bastion of tradition, many other time honored traditions across Europe were being destroyed. As war raged in the nations that surrounded the island, Ada Kale’s sublime existence continued much as before. The island was much too far from the battlefields on which the Ottomans fought for that fading empire to show interest in their subjects. Nine hundred kilometers separated the empire and the island. They empire continue to send gendarmes to the island, but other than that, Ada Kaleh was an afterthought.

Since the Ottoman Empire fought along with the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Ada Kaleh made it through the war unscathed. In contrast, two of the nations which were just a short ferry ride from the island, Serbia and Romania, suffered grievously during the war. In 1915, Serbia suffered an invasion from the Central Powers which led to occupation during the war. The same happened to Romania after they entered the war in 1916. Meanwhile, the Danube stayed secured through the efforts of Austria-Hungary’s naval flotilla. By the end of the war, the situation reversed. Serbia and Romania were triumphant. Both expanded their territory, gaining much of it at the expense of Austria-Hungary which dissolved. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ada Kaleh was now alone.

The old guard – Men having coffee on Ada Kaleh

Tourism & Tobacco – An Exotic Outpost
With neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire in existence after the war, Ada Kaleh found itself stranded in a geo-political netherworld. Every side that had fought in the war wanted to either acquire or hold on to territory. The problem for Ada Kaleh is that its former masters had vanished. Whereas Austria-Hungary had willfully ignored it and the Ottomans treated the island as a loose appendage, other rising nation states might see things differently. It was not until five years after the war had ended that Ada Kaleh learned of its new overseer. The successor state to the Ottomans came about through Turkish victories on the battlefield. When the newly formed Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, it ceded any authority over the island. The residents of Ada Kaleh then decided to join Romania. Unfortunately, this also meant that the residents would be relinquishing their privileges. The latter had played a role in stimulating the economy.

Ada Kaleh was now part of the mainland, at least in an administrative sense. This would cause a high degree of economic hardship. The island would become impoverished, Sadly, this was at least one thing it had in common with post-World War I Romania. Restoration of privileges was foremost on islander’s minds. They were lucky enough to get a visit from King Carol II in 1931. Touched by the suffering that he witnessed, the king decided to restore Ada Kaleh’s privileges. This allowed the island to regain its economic footing. Tourism and tobacco were once again mainstays of the economy. Smuggling also became a lucrative enterprise. The island soon settled into a new existence which was much like its old one. Obscure and overlooked, Ada Kaleh was a backwater on Romania’s western frontier. An exotic outpost on the fringes of a struggling nation. It reminded visitors of what life must have been like when the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans. Coffee houses proliferated, the bazaar sold textiles and jewelry along with other consumer accoutrements, smoking was not so much a habit as a way of life.

Historic rendering – Ada Kaleh drawing from the 19th century

The Literary Vagabond – In The Form Of Fermor
After the restoration of Ada Kale’s privileges, it was not long before the economy picked back up. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors came to the island to shop at the bazaar or along the Eruzia, the main shopping street where a range of goods were on offer. It is the type of tourism seen today in the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo or Old Bar in Montenegro. Unlike those places, Ada Kule was not marketing the past. It was a dynamic, vibrant community. A mystic form of the Ottomans to outsiders, but this was a reality for the approximately six hundred inhabitants on the island. The scent of tobacco mixed with coffee was pervasive, the fetid environment lush with exoticism, a slice of the Orient along the Danube, Ada Kale’s aesthetic resonated with those who visited.

One of its visitors during the 1930’s was none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, the literary vagabond who was in the second year of his epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He took a keen interest in Ada Kaleh. Fermor read anything he could find about the island prior to his visit. In his book, he relates a bit of legendary background by reciting the story of the Argonauts passing through the island before making a historic portage to the Adriatic. The legend is quite enchanting and patently false which Fermor surely knew. He then provides a rundown of the island’s more recent history, giving the classic description of Austria-Hungary holding “a vague suzerainty” over the island during the pre-World War I era.

Shadows from the past – Ada Kaleh street scene

Atmospheric Rendering – Down By The Danube
After landing, Fermor finds the usual Ottoman aesthetics when invited to partake of coffee with a group of grizzled men. He is a keen observer of these descendants of the Turks. They were unlike any other people he had met thus far on his journey. Fermor’s descriptions are colorful in the extreme with boleros, sashes and fezzes all making appearances in the most eyepopping colors imaginable. Fermor describes the island’s otherworldliness, as though he had set foot on an entirely different planet. The residue of Ottomania wafts through his narrative. In true Fermor fashion, he spends the night sleeping out in the open down by the Danube as fish splash in the river and meteors streak across the sky. That night he has a dream where half a millennium before, King Sigismund’s crusading force cross the Danube at this very same spot while going to battle the Ottoman Turks. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent and atmospheric rendering of an island that would cease to exist a mere three and a half decades after the intrepid wanderer’s visit.

Click here for: The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)