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by Samir Raafat
Egyptian Mail, Saturday, June 11, 1994

statue of Khedive Ismail in Alexandria
statue of Khedive Ismail in Alexandria

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire's distant pashaliks and Vilayet (provinces) were governed through a network of provincial governors, mostly generals holding the non-hereditary title of pasha. So when a little known solider from Macedonia by the name of Mohammed Ali, son of Ibrahim Aga, rose through rank and file to become Pasha Egypt from 1805 until 1849, he was quite naturally perceived by his peers as yet another ambitious provincial officer on the make. Like his counterparts in Basra, Aleppo, Bosnia and Cyrenaica, Mohammed Ali was expected to routinely report to his superiors in the Sublime Porte (Ottoman government) in Istanbul as well as contribute a hefty annual tribute to the Sultanic coffers. This, while making the necessary pledges of allegiance to his benefactor, the great Padishah (Sultan).

But submission and allegiance were not among Mohammed Ali's (1769-1849) favorite characteristics. Instead, the new governor's ambitions took him on the hairy path of insurrection, a trjectory for which he and his eldest son Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848) became famous for over the years. Had it not been for Europe's self-serving intervention on behalf of the panicking Sultan, Mohammed Ali would have assuredly crossed the Rubicon of defiance and toppled the Khan dynasty. Yet instead of the displacing the sultan in Istanbul (Constantinople), Mohammed Ali was eventually and reluctantly coerced in settling for the hereditary pashalik of Egypt together with the governorship of Sudan and accepting the subordinate title of Viceroy.

Despite dynastic and geopolitical ambitions that prompted taxing military campaigns, Mohammed Ali implemented a rigorous program to modernize Egypt, steering it from the pits of economic and social abyss to the forefront of the 19th century. His capable reforms were unfortunately interrupted due to his advancing age and waning mental capacities.

The viceregal throne thus passed on to his eldest son Ibrahim who ruled Egypt for less than a year. Ibrahim was succeeded by Mohammed Ali's grandson, Abbas son of Tousson who reigned until he was murdered in 1854 by his slaves.

Because the Ottoman Law of Succession decreed that the throne should pass to the eldest living member of the dynasty regardless as to whether the sitting ruler had five or ten sons. This meant that as long as an older brother, uncle or nephew was alive, that person, and not the ruler's direct descendent was heir presumptive. If this system had its merits, it promoted clannishness with successive rulers making ample provisions to ensure their lines would never want for money and riches should their successors prove to be inconsiderate, selfish or squandered.

Hence the throne reverted once again to one of Mohammed Ali's sons, this time to Mohammed Said Pasha, who reigned until 1863. It was during his reign, that the Suez Canal project was conceived by his childhood friend and latter day advisor, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Mohammed Said's heir-presumptive was the Viceroy's nephew, Ahmed (1825-1858) the eldest son of the late Ibrahim Pasha.

But unlike Said the Munificent, Ahmed was known for his steadiness and frugality. Whether these traits would have been his attributes once seated on Egypt's throne, no one can tell since he died prematurely in a drowning 'accident' at Kafr al-Eiss. The term accident is used here with reservation since many loose tongues would have it that Ahmed's death was orchestrated by an ambitious half-brother, Ismail, who was next in order of succession. Or perhaps, it was lsmail's mother who willed his Ahmed's death -- the harem women were notorious for their ruthlessness when it came to protecting or promoting their son's interests. With Ismail on the throne, she would become Walda Pasha, the first lady of the realm.

In any case, there were several versions surrounding this prequel to Death On The Nile. Whether it was fate or foul play which took Ahmed's life, his premature demise remains a subject for speculation to this day.

Version 1 claims that some four years after his accession, Viceroy Mohammed Said gave a great fantasia at his palace in Alexandria. Commands were addressed to the princes of the house to attend even though most were reportedly in Cairo at the time. According to Pierre Crabites who had unrestrained access to the Royal Egyptian Archives in the 1930s, "they [the princes] all hurried by the sea except Ismail, who was not well.

The Pasha put on a splendid show. When the festivities were over, two princes, with their retinue of about 25 friends and attendants, boarded a special train for Cairo. Midway between the two cities, the railway passes over the Nile at Kafr al-Zayat. There the river was spanned by a great bridge built by Robert Stephenson. It opened and shut to permit the passage of river craft. As the train bearing its viceregal freight approached the river, the driver saw to his horror that the bridge was open. He applied his brakes. But it was too late. The locomotive dashed into the a yawning chasm and fled into the raging flood fully fifty feet below, dragging all the carriages in its wake. Only one of the occupants escaped, Prince Mohammed Abdel Halim; all the rest were drowned." Crabites's version mentions that Ismail remained in Cairo.

Version 2 is based on James Bland's biography of Prince Ahmed's grandson, Seif al-Dine. "As the train approached the Nile at Kafr al-Zayat, the English engine driver saw to his horror the swing bridge across the Nile had been left open. It was too late to prevent the ensuing catastrophe and the train dashed down the slope and fell into the river. Prince Abdel Halim (who was the late Viceroy Mohammed Ali's youngest son) escaped by forcing open the carriage door and jumping out at the instant that the carriages were trembling on the brink of the river. The others were not as fortunate, and almost all the passengers, together with Prince Ahmed, went into terrible death. Thus Ismail became heir to the throne."

This second version talks of a drawbridge and compares favorably with Crabites. The divergence arises however where it states earlier that the train was traveling northwards implying it was bringing the princes to Alexandria. If this were indeed the case, instead of a fantasia and rejoicing in Alexandria, there would have been a court in mourning olus a state funeral. Moreover, this discrepancy contradicts the next version which sheds details on the fantasia that preceded the accident.

statue of Nubar Pasha in Alexandria
statue of Nubar Pasha in Alexandria

In the Memoirs de Nubar Pasha (written between 1890-94 and published in Beirut with a preface by Merit Boutros Ghali) we learn that the Armenian Nubar Nubarian Bey (1826-99) was in charge of the Egyptian Railways during the period when the accident took place which was precisely on May 15, 1858, a date whcih coincides with the first day of the Small Bairam right after the month of Ramadan.

The princes had arrived in Alexandria on the eve to present their compliments to the Viceroy. As they took leave to return to Cairo, Princes Ahmed and Abdel Halim asked Nubar to arrange it so they could remain on board as the train crossed the Nile at Kafr al-Zayat. There is no mention of a bridge. Instead, Nubar explains that because Stephenson's bridge was still under construction, the train wagons had to be ferried across the river on barges pulled by a steam tug.

Nubar also explains how his own wife had at around the same period but on a different trip crossed the Nile by barge "not wishing to walk the distance from the western railway station to the ferry pier. Moreover, she would have to walk some more on the opposite bank to regain the eastern station." By remaining in her carriage Madame Nubar had made a peaceful crossing by barge without ever leaving her train compartment.

Nubar also states that the reason why Ismail did not accompany the other princes on their journey to Cairo was that because he "had been taken ill and was asked by his physician to remain in Alexandria. This request had nothing unusual to it." It is as though Nubar, in his memoirs, is denying rumors and accusations to the contrary.

As a result of a telegram sent from Kafr al-Zayat to the attention of Nubar's office in Alexandria at around 15:00, the head of the State railways accompanied by his chief engineer Mr. Rouse, immediately set off by locomotive for the scene of the accident. There it was confirmed by the English quartermaster on duty that the princes had indeed remained inside their carriages to avoid the long walk and the crowds. Nubar learnt that three wagons had toppled off the barge and that Prince Ahmed together with Khorshid Pasha and another notable had drowned. That by jumping from the carriage door, Prince Abdel Halim had saved his own life.

Based on witness accounts Nubar writes "that when the train arrived there was a gusty wind. The princes, who had remained on board, gave gratuities to the men whose task it was to push their carriage onto the barge. It was Bairam. Suddenly, there was an influx of alms seekers who helped push the wagons in anticipation of financial reward. As a result, the carriages were pushed some more and fell into the Nile at the opposite end of the barge."

As though dispelling the malicious rumors, Nubar also writes that Viceroy Mohammed Said was above suspicion in view of his impeachable character. "No one could accuse the Viceroy of foul play." Since Nubar's wrote his account of the accident many years afterwards, one wonders if he was not trying to absolve Mohammed Said. Or was this the Armenian's crafty way of also deflecting suspicion from his latter day master and benefactor, Khedive Ismail.

In 1879, Jerrold Blanchard presented his own account of the accident mentioning Stephenson's drawbridge at Kafr al-Zayat and that the fated voyage was made aboard a special train placed at the disposal of the princes by the Viceroy. A contemporary of Blanchard's also describes the accident in the same terms adding that it was "the courageous efforts of one of Prince Abdel Halim's servants that saved him." This of-course contradictis other reports which claim Abdel Halim survived because he was a strong swimmer.

Meanwhile, a book on the history of railways in Egypt states that the entire 208 kilometer long, standard gauge single track line linking Alexandria to Cairo with its 12 railway stations was inaugurated in 1856, thus two years before the accident. The stations included the one at Kafr al-Zayat "where passengers took their meals while the coaches were transported across the Nile's Roseta Branch by ferries from Kafr al-Eiss to Kafr al-Zayat". No mention of a bridge.

Conversely, the same book states that a railway bridge built by Stephenson already crossed the Nile's other branch at Benha known as the Damieta Branch crossing.

Yet another book entitled 'Takwim al-Nil' by Amin Sami and which also dealing with bridges, states the Kafr al-Zayat bridge was still under construction during 1857-59.

These conflicting versions regarding Prince Ahmed's fatal accident not only relate a pivotal turning point in Egypt's history, but also show how the public craved sensation and drama particularly when it involved royalty, power and technology ÷ the steam train being today's equivalent of the Concorde.

When Said Pasha died on January 18, 1863, Ismail became Egypt's fifth Viceroy. Four years later, in June 1867, he became its first Khedive. And while Egypt was slowly bled to bankruptcy, Nubar Bey's financial and political fortunes flourished. Elevated to pasha status during Ismail's first year of reign, Nubar was appointed Egypt's prime minister in 1878.

Sensing perhaps that he would be perceived as a court favorite and in Ismail's debt for his rapid rise to fame, in his memoirs Nubar commiserates on how the fate of Egypt would have been so different had Ahmed survived "for unlike Ismail, Prince Ahmed was frugal wise and reserved. Had he lived, Egypt would not have had Ismail, whom destiny blinded and whose loss, and that of Egypt, seemed to be interwoven and premeditated."

Although Prince Ahmed's branch was amongst the richest of Mohammed Ali's descendants, fate relegated it to a secondary position. Moreover, tragedy pursued it for two more generations, first, when Ahmed's son died suddenly while still in his 20s in 1893, and again when Ahmed's eldest grandson, Mohammed-Ibrahim perished in a car accident in 1909. The prince's vehicle was run over by a train near Paris!

Meanwhile, Ahmed's second grandson, Seif al-Dine (1879-1937), lived the better part of his life in an asylum in England the victim of palace intrigues and nationalist politics. Another grandson, Prince Youssef Kamal, was a patron of the arts and spirituality. Prince Ahmed's only daughter, Ain al-Hayat, launched a major nationwide charity which she named l'Oeuvre Mohammed Ali in honor of the founder of the dynasty. Ain al-Hayat's charitable organization survived three generations and was the precursor of countless others.

For House of Mohammed Ali family tree click HERE

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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