In December 1831, the Egyptian army marched through the city as ‘happy and delighted’ Jerusalemites ‘celebrated with illuminations, dancing and music in every street. For the five days Muslims, Greeks, Franciscans, Armenians and even Jews made merry.’ But already the Muslims were worried by the sight of the Egyptian soldiers in ‘tight trousers, carrying terrible firearms, music instruments and moving in formation after the European fashion’.

Jerusalem’s new master was the Albanian soldier Mehmet Ali, who created a dynasty that still ruled Egypt when the State of Israel was founded over a century later. Now forgotten, he dominated international Near Eastern diplomacy for fifteen years and almost conquered the entire Ottoman empire. The son of a tobacco trader, he was born in what is now Greece, in the same year as Napoleon, and contemporaries saw him as an Eastern Bonaparte: ‘Alike distinguished for military genius, the characters of these chieftains are equally marked by insatiable ambition, and unreposing activity.’ The white-bearded Albanian, now in his sixties, always dressed simply in white turban, yellow slippers and blue-green gown, ever puffing on a gold and silver seven-foot tall diamond-studded pipe, had a ‘Tartar face with high cheekbones’, and a ‘strange wild fire’ in his ‘dark grey eyes [which] beam brightly with genius and intelligence’. His power was based on the curved scimitar that always rested by his side. He had arrived in Egypt in time to command his Albanian troops on behalf of the Ottomans against Napoleon. When the French departed, he took advantage of the ensuing power vacuum and seized Egypt. He then summoned his able son (or some say his nephew), Ibrahim, who lured the mamluk–Ottoman elite to a military ceremony and slaughtered them. The Albanians next plundered and raped their way through Cairo, but the sultan appointed Mehmet Ali as vali of Egypt. He needed only four hours’ sleepa night and claimed to have learned to read at the age of forty-five. Each night, his favourite concubine read him Montesquieu or Machiavelli, and this brutal modernizer started to create a European army, 90,000 strong, and a fleet.

At first, the Ottoman sultan, Mahmoud II, was glad to exploit this rising power. Embarrassed that the puritanical Wahabi sect, led by the Saudi family, had seized Mecca, the sultan asked for Mehmet Ali’s help. The Albanians duly retook Mecca and despatched Abdullah al-Saud’s head to Istanbul.* When in 1824 the Greeks rebelled against the sultan, Mehmet Ali sent his forces, which savagely repressed the Greeks. This so alarmed the European Powers that in 1827 the British, French and Russians together destroyed Mehmet Ali’s fleet at the Battle of Navarino and sponsored Greek independence. But this did not stop the Albanians for long: encouraged by that earlier visitor to Jerusalem, now French foreign minister, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, they coveted their own empire.

In late 1831, Mehmet Ali conquered present-day Israel, Syria and most of Turkey, defeating every army the sultan threw at him. Soon his armies were poised to take Istanbul. Finally the sultan recognized Mehmet Ali as ruler of Egypt, Arabia and Crete with Ibrahim as governor of greater Syria. This empire now belonged to the Albanians: ‘I have now conquered this country with the sword,’ declared Mehmet Ali, ‘and by the sword will I preserve it.’ His sword was his generalissimo, Ibrahim, who had commanded his first armies and organized his first massacres as a teenager. It was Ibrahim who had defeated the Saudis, ravaged Greece, conquered Jerusalem and Damascus and marched victoriously almost to the gates of Istanbul.

Now in spring 1834, Ibrahim, known as The Red, and not just for the colour of his beard, set up his headquarters in the palatial compound of David’s Tomb. Shocking Muslims by sitting on a European throne instead of cushions and openly drinking wine, he set about reforming Jerusalem. He eased the repression of Christians and Jews, promising them equality under the law, and ended the fees that had to be paid by all pilgrims to the Church: they could now wear Muslim clothes, ride horses in the street and no longer had to pay the jizaya tax for the first time in centuries. Yet as Turkish-speaking Albanians, they despised Arabs above all: Ibrahim’s father called them ‘wild beasts’. On 25 April, Ibrahim met the leaders of Jerusalem and Nablus on the Temple Mount to order the conscription of 200 Jerusalemites. ‘I want this order carried out without delay, starting here in Jerusalem,’ said Ibrahim. But Jerusalem was defiant: ‘It’s better to die than give our children to everlasting slavery,’ retorted the Jerusalemites.

On 3 May, the Albanian presided over Orthodox Easter: 17,000 Christian pilgrims filled a seething city on the verge of outright revolt. On Good Friday night, the crowds packed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ready for the Holy Fire, watched by Robert Curzon, an English traveller who left a vivid memoir of what happened next. ‘The behaviour of the pilgrims was riotous in the extreme. At one point, they made a racecourse around the Sepulchre and some, almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if possessed.’

Next morning, Ibrahim entered the Church to witness the Holy Fire but the crowd was so dense that the guards cleared the way ‘with the butt-ends of their muskets and whips’ while three monks played ‘crazy fiddles’ and women started to ululate ‘with a very peculiar shrill cry’.


Ibrahim was seated. Darkness fell. The Greek patriarch, in ‘magnificent procession’, entered the aedicule. The crowd awaited the divine spark. Curzon saw the flicker then the flame of the Miracle which was passed to the pilgrim ‘who had paid the highest sum for this honour’, but ‘a furious battle’ broke out for the Fire; pilgrims fell to the floor in ecstatic faints; blinding smoke filled the Church; three pilgrims fell to their deaths from the higher galleries; an old Armenian lady died in her seat. Ibrahim tried to leave the Church but could not move. His guards, attempting to beat a way through the crowd, started a stampede. By the time Curzon ‘got as far as the place where the Virgin stood during the Crucifixion’, the stones felt soft under his feet.

There was actually a great heap of bodies on which I trod. All dead. Many of them quite black with suffocation and others all bloody and covered with brains and entrails, trodden to pieces by the crowd. Soldiers with their bayonets killed a number of fainting wretches, the walls splattered with the blood and brains of men who had been felled like oxen.

The frenzied stampede became a ‘desperate and savage’ fight for survival – Curzon saw people dying all around him. Ibrahim only just escaped with his own life, fainting several times until his guards drew their swords and sliced a path through human flesh.

Bodies were ‘lying in heaps even upon the Stone of Unction’. Ibrahim stood in the courtyard ‘giving orders for the removal of the corpses and making his men drag out the bodies of those who appeared to be alive’. Four hundred pilgrims perished. When Curzon escaped, many of the bodies were actually ‘standing upright quite dead’.


As news of this disaster spread throughout a shocked Christendom, the Families of Jerusalem, Nablus and Hebron raised the rebellion. On 8 May, 10,000 armed fellahin attacked Jerusalem, but were repulsed by Ibrahim’s troops. On 19 May, in a scene that recalled King David’s taking of Jerusalem, the villagers of Silwan, below the City of David, showed the rebels a secret tunnel through which they crawled into the city and opened the Dung Gate set in the southern wall. The peasants pillaged the bazaars, the troops attacked them, only to join in the plundering. The Bimbashi – garrison commander – arrested the leaders of the Jerusalemite Families, the Husseinis and Khalidis. But 20,000 peasants were now rampaging through the streets and besieging the Tower. Two young American missionaries, William Thomson and his pregnant wife Eliza, cowered in their digs: he left her to seek help in Jaffa while she locked herself in their room, amid ‘the roar of cannon, falling walls, shrieks of the neighbours, terror of the servants and the expectation of massacre’. She gave birth to a boy, but by the time her husband made it back to Jerusalem she was dying. He soon left ‘this wreck of a country’.*

Ibrahim, who had retreated to Jaffa, now fought his way across the hills, losing 500 men. On 27 May, encamped on Mount Zion, he attacked, killing 300 rebels. But he was ambushed near the Pools of Solomon, and besieged in David’s Tomb. The rebellion flared again led by the Husseinis and the Abu Ghosh. Ibrahim called his father for help.

Mehmet Ali himself and 15,000 reinforcements sailed into Jaffa: ‘a fine looking old man’, bowing regally on a ‘splendid horse, natural, dignified and in perfect keeping with the character of a great man’. The Albanians crushed the rebels and retook Jerusalem; the Husseinis of Jerusalem were exiled to Egypt. The rebels rose again, but Ibrahim the Red slaughtered them outside Nablus, sacked Hebron, despoiled the countryside, beheaded his captives – and launched a reign of terror in Jerusalem. Returning to the city, he appointed the chieftain Jaber Abu Ghosh as a poacher-turned-gamekeeper governor, and beheaded anyone found with a weapon. The walls were bedecked with severed heads; prisoners rotted in the new Kishleh jail near the Jaffa Gate, since used by the Ottomans, British and Israelis.

The Albanians were enthusiastic modernizers who needed European backing if they were to conquer the Ottoman empire. Ibrahim allowed the minorities to repair their smashed buildings: the Franciscans restored St Saviour’s; the Sephardic Jews started to rebuild the ben Zakkai Synagogue, one of the four synagogues of the Jewish Quarter; the Ashkenazis returned to the Hurva Synagogue, destroyed in 1720. Although the Jewish Quarter was now poverty-stricken, a few Russian Jews, persecuted at home, started to settle there.

In 1839, Ibrahim made his bid for Istanbul, smashing the Ottoman armies. King Louis Philippe’s France backed the Albanians, but Britain feared French and Russian influence if the Ottomans fell. The sultan and his enemy Ibrahim both bid for Western support. The teenaged Sultan Abdulmecid issued a Noble Rescript promising equality for minorities, while Ibrahim invited the Europeans to establish consulates in Jerusalem – and, for the first time since the Crusades, permitted the ringing of church bells.

In 1839, the first British vice-consul, William Turner Young, arrived in Jerusalem not only to represent London’s new power but to convert the Jews and accelerate the Second Coming.

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