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A secular regime is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers. Caught between interventionists at home and fundamentalists abroad, a prime minister flounders as his ministers betray him, alliances fall apart, and a runaway general makes policy in the field. As the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos, the armies of God clash on an ancient river and an accidental empire arises.
This is not the Middle East of the early twenty-first century. It is Africa in the late nineteenth century, when the river Nile became the setting for an extraordinary collision between Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. A human and religious drama, the conflict defined the modern relationship between the West and the Islamic world. The story is not only essential for understanding the modern clash of civilizations but is also a gripping, epic, tragic adventure.
Three Empires on the Nile tells of the rise of the first modern Islamic state and its fateful encounter with the British Empire of Queen Victoria. Ever since the self-proclaimed Islamic messiah known as the Mahdi gathered an army in the Sudan and besieged and captured Khartoum under its British overlord Charles Gordon, the dream of a new caliphate has haunted modern Islamists. Today, Shiite insurgents call themselves the Mahdi Army, and Sudan remains one of the great fault lines of battle between Muslims and Christians, blacks and Arabs. The nineteenth-century origins of it all were even more dramatic and strange than today's headlines.
In the hands of Dominic Green, the story of the Nile's three empires is an epic in the tradition of Kipling, the bard of empire, and Winston Churchill, who fought in the final destruction of the Mahdi's army. It is a sweeping and very modern tale of God and globalization, slavers and strategists, missionaries and messianists. A pro-Western regime collapses from its own corruption, a jihad threatens the global economy, a liberation movement degenerates into a tyrannical cult, military intervention goes wrong, and a temporary occupation lasts for decades. In the rise and fall of empires, we see a parable for our own times and a reminder that, while American military involvement in the Islamic world is the beginning of a new era for America, it is only the latest chapter in an older story for the people of the region.
Clash-of-civilizations buffs will relish the historical parallels Green draws between the late British Empire's conflict with fundamentalist Islam in Sudan in the nineteenth century and the West's similar conflict today. Other readers will appreciate Green's tale of political intrigue and colonial warfare in a different era. The three empires of the title refer to the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the brief Mahdist attempt to establish a caliphate in Sudan during the 1880s. With snappy writing and many telling anecdotes, Green chronicles the decline of Ottoman control over Egypt and the rising British influence in Cairo. The United Kingdom initially had little interest in Sudan but was drawn south militarily on behalf of Egypt (and nominally to oppose slavery). The emergence of the religious mystic al-Mahdi and his army of followers led inevitably to conflict. When the charismatic General Charles Gordon was killed defending Khartoum at the end of a long and almost entirely unnecessary siege, the resulting uproar ended with the military annihilation of al-Mahdi at the hands of another Victorian hero, Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener, and the expansion of British colonial ambitions into Sudan. No doubt partly for marketing reasons, Green exaggerates the extent to which his story has implications for the current relations between the West and the Muslim world. Still, the strategic miscalculations, ignorant decision-making, callous violence, and sway of highly misguided individuals that he documents are all evocative.<
Port Said, 1869
On the morning of November 17, 1869, Africa became an island. A modern waterway severed the sandy isthmus between Africa and Asia, mingling the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. From that day, maps would show that the two continents lay 250 feet apart, and shipping schedules would announce that Britain had moved more than four thousand miles closer to India. With fanfares, fireworks, and a great expenditure of borrowed money and Egyptian lives, the Suez Canal was open.
At Port Said on the Mediterranean, sixty ships from over a dozen nations sheltered in the largest artificial harbor yet built, waiting for the signal to enter the Canal. To the triumphal piping of military bands, the guests of honor took their seats in the viewing stands: the host, Khedive Ismail of Egypt, and his guest of honor, Empress Eugenie of France; the bishop of Jerusalem and the sharif of Mecca; the emperor of Austria-Hungary and the prince of Prussia; the empress's Catholic confessor and the sheikh of al-Azhar, the Islamic world's premier university; and all flanked by complementary battalions of European consuls and Egyptian ministers.
A sea of smaller fry washed around the feet of the stands. In the scrum on the quayside, the Turkish fez mingled with the spikedPrussian helmet, the frock coat with the jellaba, the veil with the parasol. French financiers elbowed for room with the international crust of the Ottoman Empire -- Greek, Armenian, and Jewish businessmen from Alexandria, Turkish cotton magnates, Coptic army officers -- and the mute extras of Egyptian society, the Arab peasant farmers and African slaves who in the chaos wandered onto center stage.
The French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps waited amid the robes, plumes, and uniforms in his dark business suit. This was the culmination of his fifteen years' struggle against sand, politicians, and bankers. No obstacle of diplomacy or geology had been too great for de Lesseps's calm mania. He had burrowed around or dynamited through every obstacle. Displacing the opposition of the Turkish sultan and the British prime minister like so much wet sand and bedrock, he raised diplomatic support and funding in France, romancing Emperor Napoleon III with a mirage of empire, and the French public with a share flotation that promised a stake in the global economy to the smallest investor. He had supervised every detail, devising elaborate financing deals that tied both France and the Egyptian government to his Suez Canal Company, designing mechanical diggers when the shovels of his Egyptian laborers proved useless against the water table, even planning the guest lists and firework displays for the opening festivities.
Now he waited fretfully. The bottom of the Canal was only seventy-two feet deep and twenty-six feet wide. Protocol dictated that the first ship to enter should be the Eagle, Empress Eugenie's broad and ungainly yacht, sixty feet in the beam and three hundred feet long. In a trial run the previous day, a sprightlier vessel from the Egyptian navy had run aground. To remove it before the guests arrived, de Lesseps had blown it up. An accident now meant economic and diplomatic catastrophe. The eyes of the world were on the Suez Canal.
At the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Canal was intended as a unifier of civilizations, a conduit for the modern obsessions of trade and transit. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the global economy boomed. In Europe and America, new machines and mass production created an unstoppable, uncontrollable economic revolution that turned rural peasants into urban factory hands. A machine pulse raced across the world, girdling the seas with coal-fired, iron-hulled steamers, crossing continents and borders with smelted rivulets of railway tracks, bounding immensities of land and water with the electric cables of the telegraph. It created a global civilization, based on Western technology and speaking English or French. "We are capable of doing anything," Queen Victoria marveled after visiting the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
This was the spirit of the age: industrial potency and runaway optimism. In France, the Saint-Simonians, a utopian group of technological cultists whose adherents included Ferdinand de Lesseps, prophesied that the convergence of technology, trade, and communication must culminate in the triumph of liberal, mercantile civilization. Free Trade, the British ideologue Richard Cobden had predicted, was "God's diplomacy," its mutual dependencies the best guarantee against war. Between the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the opening of the Suez Canal, this vision leaped into reality. Innovation in transport and communications opened new sources of raw materials, and new markets for finished factory goods. In 1840 the major nations of the world had exchanged annually 20 million tons of seaborne merchandise; by 1869 the figure had more than quadrupled to 88 million tons. The volume of coal shipped rose from 1.4 million to 31 million tons; of iron from 1 million to 6 million tons; of grain from 2 million to 11 million tons; with a further 1.4 million tons shipped of a commodity new to international trade, petroleum.
Britain, the most industrialized economy, saw a manifold increase in its exchanges with the rest of the world. Its earnings from exports to the Ottoman and Persian empires rose from £3.5 million in 1848 to £15 million in 1869. Integrating India into the global economy through the construction of a domestic railway system that allowed the export of cash crops and the distribution of imported goods, Britain's exports to its most profitable possession grew from £5 million in 1848 to over £20 million.
As communication and travel accelerated, the world shrank. In 1869 the telegraphic system between Britain and India generated nearly half a million telegrams. Earlier that year, American engineers had connected the coasts of America with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Now the path to the East was open. Optimism and share prices ran high, and expectation rippled out from Suez. The European economies had to reach abroad to the south and east in order to grow. The Canal would allow the raw materials of the East to flow more quickly and cheaply to the factories of Europe, whose finished goods would wash back east in a great tide of civilization and profit. Just as the flooding of the Nile had fed ancient Egypt, so the transit tolls of the Canal would be the commercial artery of modern Egypt. Progress, the presiding deity of the age, would follow in the wake of the ships taking the Suez shortcut.
On the quayside at Port Said the military bands segued into a three-part harmony of religious platitudes. First a Muslim imam claimed the Canal for a new, modern Egypt. Then the bishop of Jerusalem bestowed the blessings of Greek Orthodoxy on the Canal's commercial aspirations. Lastly Father Marie-Bernard Bauer, Catholic confessor to the Empress Eugenie, closed the service with the hope that Christianity and Islam, two faiths with common roots and a history of violent competition, might be reconciled in the Canal's union of "splendid Orient and marvellous Occident."
"Today, two worlds are made one," he announced. "Today is a great festival for all of humanity. Bless this new highway. Make of this Canal not only a passage to universal prosperity, but make it a royal road of peace and justice; of the light, and the eternal truth."
The international flotilla anchored beyond the breakwater issued a thunderous broadside and lined up behind Empress Eugenie's Eagle and Khedive Ismail's Mahroussah. Edging into the Canal without accident, they began their lurid progress. Narrow and shallow but perfectly executed, the Canal ran south from the new city of Port Said, down through the desert to the Bitter Lakes and another new city, Ismailia, and into the Red Sea at the port of Suez.
Halfway down the Canal, the fleet paused at Ismailia for a wild carnival. Fire-eaters and acrobats vied with the "Whirling Dervish" dances of Sufi ecstatics and the horseback shooting competitions of the thousands of curious Bedouin who had camped outside the city. That night the flicker of Chinese lanterns lit the sandy road to the khedive's new palace. The invited and uninvited elbowed for room at the buffet, admired a midnight firework display, and watched the khedive and empress waltz to Leaving for Syria, a romantic legacy of the Napoleonic age.
The fleet left for Suez the next day, where its triumphal arrival fired off another round of theatricals and pyrotechnics. It took days for the stragglers to return north. Those who could not squeeze onto the express train to Cairo were left stranded by the Red Sea, and missed a final ball at Cairo and horse races at the Pyramids. Khedive Ismail paid for everything. The hawkers handing out Turkish coffee to rally the flagging revellers, the cafè proprietors offering honeyed tobacco and nargila pipes when they had to sit down, and the hoteliers in whose rooms they collapsed, all sent their invoices to Ismail's Coptic accountants at Cairo.
The Canal opened for business. De Lesseps married a woman a third his age and started work on his idea for a canal at Panama. The guests returned to the courts and counting houses of Europe, aware that as geography had changed, politics must follow. The Canal was a new artery for the global economy, but would it bring peace and prosperity? Would the religious harmony and internationalist optimism of its opening ceremonies fade with the fanfares? And what would happen when the new age of nation-states and technological innovation met the old order of faith and autocracy?
From his palace on the Bosphorus, Sultan Abdul Aziz ruled over a million square miles of Africa, Europe, and Asia: from Cairo in the west to Baghdad in the east, from the Balkan foothills in the north to the rocky coasts of the Arabian peninsula in the south. Thirty-third in a lineage of Ottoman autocrats, warriors, and maniacs that reached back six centuries, Abdul Aziz was also the twenty-sixth Ottoman khalifa, the "successor" of Allah and his Prophet. In the Islamic blend of temporal and religious authority, the sultan was the Commander of the Faithful, the spiritual leader of the world's Muslims, and the guardian of the Arabian holy places of Mecca and Medina.
He was also the world's largest absentee landlord. Rotten with corruption, conservatism, and xenophobia, his empire crumbled like a neglected summer palace. European exports besieged his ports, European weapons battered his armies, European loans mortgaged his future, and the European virus of nationalism nibbled at his borders. In 1683, a Turkish army had laid siege to the gates of Vienna, and been repulsed by a European coalition using modern arms and logistics. Now, less than two centuries later, another European coalition had carved a gate to the East through the geographic center of the Ottoman Empire, and at the invitation of the rebellious khedive of Ottoman Egypt.
The sultan was powerless to resist. The emperor whose motto was "The Ever Victorious," whose forebears had terrorized half of Europe, was reduced to junior membership of the Great Powers, as the Europeans now styled themselves. They still addressed him as the Sublime Porte -- after the building that housed his foreign ministry -- but this was an exotic sham. Among themselves, they called Turkey the Sick Man of Europe, and his treatment the "Eastern Question": to keep him alive for profit or to finish him off for his legacy?
The Russians, first to diagnose his condition, wanted to kill him for a warm-water port on the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean. The Austrians and the Italians wanted to preserve him, mainly to block the Russians. The French, who had precipitated his terminal illness, sustained him in order to be the sole beneficiaries of his will. And the British, whose "Overland Route" to their Indian empire passed through Turkish territory, appointed themselves the guardians of his sickbed. To Abdul Aziz, the Suez Canal was a Western bridgehead in the heart of his empire, but it was also an opportunity. If he played the Europeans against each other, he might yet recover Egypt.
It was in Egypt that the encounter between rising West and declining East would play out with the most spectacular results. In 1798, Napoleon had broken the Ottoman hold on Egypt. British and Turkish troops swiftly displaced him, but the cultural impact endured. The Napoleonic blueprint for the modern state remained in Egypt: an army, a bureaucracy, and the printing press that Napoleon had stolen from the Vatican. Exploiting the chaos, Mehmet Ali, an Albanian tobacco dealer turned Turkish mercenary, forced the sultan to appoint him pasha of Egypt. Encouraged by France, Ali set up an efficient despotism. He massacred the Mameluke aristocracy, imported French technical experts, and sent batches of his subjects to Paris for training.
Ali needed men and money for his struggle against the sultan. So he turned south to Bilad al-Sudan, the "Land of the Blacks." The black animists of the Sudan had always been Egypt's reservoir of human material, a resource to be exploited like gold, ivory, and ostrich feathers. In the pattern of his twin inheritances, Ali combined the Ottoman model of military slavery with the European model of industrial slavery. Sudanese slaves labored on his cotton plantations, campaigned in his army, and passed through the giant slave market at Cairo.
When Ali's troops reached the Turkish border, the Great Powers pushed him back. His consolation was the hereditary governorship of Egypt. He had the dynasty he wanted, but not the empire he desired. Increasingly senile, and haunted in his clear moments by the ghosts of his victims, he faded with his dreams. When European tourists visited Ali at the Cairo Citadel, they found him sitting in dingy candlelight like a mangy lion, one eye "incessantly rolling about."
Ali's heirs struggled to escape the cage of international consensus. The first, Abbas Pasha, was a portly, paranoid xenophobe who hid in a palace outside Cairo with a menagerie of dogs, horses, peacocks, and bodyguards, entertaining himself with mad tyrannies. It was rumored that when he caught a harem slave smoking, he had her lips sewn together, that he buried men alive in the brickwork of his palace, and that he was "notoriously addicted" to "filthy sensualities." When Gustave Flaubert visited Abbas's palace in 1850, he found the coffee "execrable," the bodyguards dressed like "servants supplied by a caterer," and Abbas "a moron, almost a mental case." In his French-run military hospital, an entire ward was filled with syphilitic bodyguards. "Several have it in the arse."
In 1854, two of Abbas's eunuchs strangled him in his sleep. His uncle Mehmet Said succeeded him. Said had been educated in Europe. French became the language of the court, the frock coat replaced the kaftan, and dinner ended with brandy and cigars. He was so tame to European interests that he trembled in the presence of the French consul. To oblige British travelers en route to India, he built a railway between Alexandria and Suez. To oblige the French, he agreed to de Lesseps's Suez Canal proposal at ruinous terms. Egypt would provide the labor, but it would receive only 15 percent of the profits, and would cede the land on the Canal's banks; irrigated by the Canal, these sand dunes would soon become some of the most expensive agricultural land in the world. To oblige Britain and France, Said took huge loans from foreign banks. In 1863, he bequeathed to his nephew Ismail a 40 percent stake in an unfinished Canal, a revenue of £3.5 million, and a debt of £9 million.
While the French saw the Canal as an opportunity to recover lost influence in Egypt, the British saw it as a threat. Their foreign policy centered on the defense of India, and the Canal complicated the picture. Britain already had an impregnable "India Route": around the coast of Africa. She also had the "Overland Route" through Turkey and Persia. Why divert British shipping through a narrow canal that could be easily blockaded?
The Conservative premier Lord Palmerston derided de Lesseps as a con artist, tricking "small people into buying small shares." All Britain wanted from Egypt, said Palmerston, was "mutton chops and post horses" along the road to India. A patriot to the wisps of his sideburns, Palmerston believed in Free Trade and gunboat diplomacy, not territorial conquest. He saw the Canal as a French conspiracy, "founded on intentions hostile to British views," and a step toward "the future severance of Egypt from Turkey."
As if to confirm Palmerston's suspicions, the French emperor Louis Napoleon stepped in as the Canal's patron. When the first shovels of sand turned in 1859, Britain realized that its greatest rival would soon sit astride the fastest route to the East. This forced a sudden revision of strategy: For the sake of British India and the balance of trade, Egypt and the Suez Canal must be prevented from falling under hostile influence, Arab or European. In turn, this produced a second strategic creep. As in ancient times, Egypt's stability rested on the annual Nile flood. Therefore, the River Nile was integral to the security of the Canal. So were its sources, although it was not yet clear where exactly in central Africa they lay.
Apart from being Mediterranean, Egypt was also an African country, and in 1869 Britain had no African policy. It had strands of interest -- strategic, moral, and economic -- and a sweeping ignorance. Britain possessed several ports on the African coast, but they all faced outward; they were stations on the India Route, or bases for the interdiction of slavery. Luxuries from the African hinterland arrived through Arab intermediaries. For centuries, Europeans had found this arrangement so congenial, and the climate so terrible, that they showed little interest in the African interior.
Three factors disturbed this casual arrangement. The first was strategic: the Canal, Egypt, and the India Route. The second was moral. Britain had turned from one of Atlantic slavery's most enthusiastic practitioners to its most earnest scourge. The Royal Navy blocked the Atlantic trade so successfully that in 1868, the court established at Cape Town for the trial of slaver captains closed for lack of business. Having triumphed over the Christian-run trade from West Africa, British abolitionists turned on the other great slave trade, the Muslim-run trade from East and North Africa.
The abolitionists were overwhelmingly Evangelical. They attributed Africa's poverty, ignorance, and slavery to the "degraded" state of the Africans and the "false religions" of paganism and Islam. The answer was the "Three Cs": Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. British history showed that an economy geared to slavery could be redeemed by a simple appeal to self-interest. Once the Africans had been converted, clothed, and incorporated into Britain's global economy, slaving would naturally give way to "legitimate trade." The abolition of slavery, and its sister cause, the conversion of Africa, would be enabled by Free Trade.
The third factor blended economic optimism and Evangelical urgency with another aspect of the Victorian mentality. Africa was a mystery, and this, the age of Darwin, Sherlock Holmes, and the crossword puzzle, was the great age of problem solving. Even the Africans had no idea how many Great Lakes their continent contained, which mountain was the highest, which river the longest. This blankness was an affront to science. For, apart from being the age of popular religion, this was also an age of popular science.
Pious explorers walked into the steaming forests and disappeared for years. They emerged skeletal wrecks, bearing the tablets of a national drama: tales of months lost to fever dreams, of native porters evangelized in forest clearings, of natural wonders never seen by a white man. They also reported the devastation of slavery: children chained like animals in convoy for the coast, highways littered with bleached bones, the weak dying by the road.
Each report caused a fresh burst of interest and outrage. Never before had a public been so literate, so deluged in newsprint, so connected to the outside world. Britain's industrial and military power already reached around the globe. Now its citizens took part in the march of civilization without leaving their armchairs. The adventurers and evangelists became a familiar cast of favorites, their names coupled like music hall double acts: Burton and Speke, who argued in public about who discovered what; Sam and Florence Baker, who most certainly did not; Henry Stanley, the American self-publicist, and David Livingstone, his Scottish straight man.
When the hero returned, a further burst of glory awaited: the packed lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, the newspaper editorial calling for more money and more discoveries, and the private audience with an admiring Queen Victoria. Then came the apotheosis of Victorian celebrity, akin to the raising of a monolith among the ancients: the book. Great bricks of memoir clad in red pigskin, they mixed flora and fauna with God and geography. Every reader could share the first sight of a new Great Lake. Folding out the soft linen map, he could trace the paths of slavery, the hut where the burning chill of malaria first struck and, discreetly, the village where batches of underdressed native girls had been offered as brides. In the 1850s, a bestseller sold 10,000 copies; in 1853, Dickens's Bleak House sold 35,000 in its first year. In 1857 alone, Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Explorations sold 70,000.9
The missionaries and explorers agreed that a strong dose of the "Three Cs" would cure Africa. The values seemed universal, the debate limited to deciding how vigorously the light should be poured onto the Dark Continent. No one consulted the Africans.
This was Britain's interest in Africa: abolitionism and mapmaking, Evangelism and strategy, the coastal ports and the India Route, the ivory that Britain coveted for the piano keys in the parlor and the billiard balls at the club, the slavery that it abhorred. Little seemed urgent, unless to evangelists accounting souls lost and saved, and little seemed significant, until the Canal arrived, and securing the Canal, and with it Egypt and the Nile, became so crucial. After 1869, these African threads began to tangle and knot, until they could cause the dispatch of armies and the death of a hero, the rise of a messiah and the fall of a government, the spread of the British pink across the map of the world and an arms race that threatened the peace of Europe, a Scramble for Africa and the subjection of millions of African Muslims to a Christian empire.
It was a long way from Port Said to Lake Victoria.
Copyright 2007 by Dominic Green
Excerpted from Three Empires on the Nile by Dominic Green Copyright © 2007 by Dominic Green. Excerpted by permission.
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