A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

‘Umar Makram: The "Patron Saint" of Tahrir Square

‘Umar Makram Statue
Over the past year, as Egypt's drama has played out, I have periodically noted some of the deeper historical aspects of some of the scenes of the action. On the day Husni Mubarak resigned, I posted "A Brief Biography of Tahrir Square," and when the religious clash occurred near the Radio-TV building, popularly known as "Maspero," I explained how an innocent antiquarian/archaeologist named Gaston Maspero ended up with his name gaining notoriety.

‘Umar Makram Mosque from Tahrir
In that same vein, I thought I'd introduce another historical note: ‘Umar (or Omar) Makram. We've had occasion a number of times to mention the ‘Umar Makram Mosque, which sits on Tahrir Square and has functioned as both a prayer center and, more than once, a field hospital for the demonstrators. In more peaceful times, the mosque is a popular site for celebrity or prominent funerals (and weddings), given its prominent location on Cairo's main square (which as we have noted before, is round.) In fact, a funeral from ‘Umar Makram is a sign of prestige (a sign the departed has, so to speak, arrived.)

I have used the phrase "patron saint" of Tahrir Square in my title, but ‘Umar Makram is not even buried in the mosque named for him, but in one of the city's vast cemetery complexes. Despite its popularity and prestigious role, given its location, the mosque (left) is not an ancient one: it dates only from 1948.  The statue of ‘Umar Makram looking out at Tahrir Square (above right) is even newer, dating only to 2003.

Egyptians who paid attention in their history classes should know who ‘Umar Makram was, but I suspect most foreigners, even those living in Cairo, probably don't.

‘Umar Makram
Naqib al-Ashraf Sayyid ‘Umar bin Husayn Makram (1750 or 1755-1822) was a leading religious figure of his age, a center of resistance to Napoleon's French invasion in 1798-1800, and a key figure in winning religious support for the recognition of Muhammad ‘Ali as viceroy of Egypt, and thus the establishment of the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952 (and reigned until 1953). Ultimately like many kingmakers, he fell afoul of the king he had made too well.

I should note that I can't post a lot of links for further reading here; there isn't that much about him on the Internet; even his Arabic Wikipedia page is pretty sparse. There is a longer account with more detail here, however, also in Arabic. So for my account I am forced to find other sources as well, and, since I'm old enough to predate the World Wide Web by a considerable margin, I still have a collection of an older information retrieval system technology, known as books. I'm drawing much of this from Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot's Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali and from various accounts of the French expedition.

‘Umar Makram was born in Asyut in Upper Egypt around 1750 or 1755. He attended Al-Azhar, and was also a descendant of the Prophet. In 1793 he was chosen as Naqib al-Ashraf, a post in Ottaman administrative system that had both religious and civil functions as head of the body of descendants of the Prophet. In effect he shared religious leadership with the Azhari leadership and the heads of the Sufi orders. He was politically active in leading resistance to high taxation even before the French arrived.

When Napoleon's French expedition landed near Alexandria in 1798, Makram helped organize resistance to the French. After the French defeated the Mamluk military forces at Imbaba, Cairo was left undefended except for local militias raised by Makram and the other religious leaders. After Napoleon took Cairo he declined an offer of a position and retreated to Bilbays, leading a resistance in Sharqiyya province. He retreated to Gaza and eventually to Jaffa, where in 1798 the French, during their invasion of Palestine, caught up with him. He was returned to Egypt and sent into internal exile in Damietta.

After Napoleon's return to France, Makram returned to Cairo, and in 1800 led a new uprising against the continuing French occupation.  With the French departure, Makram's prestige as an activist who could mobilize the religious establishment and the street (including organizing boycotts by shopkeepers and other forms of protest) enhanced his influence in the anarchic years that followed the French withdrawal.

The French occupation had severely crippled the power of the Mamluks, and struggles for power among various Mamluks and Ottoman attempts to reassert authority in Egypt led to several years of internal struggle. Makram and the religious ‘ulama'  plaid an activist role. In 1805 he and the other religious leaders to depose the Ottoman viceroy, Khurshid Pasha, and replace him with the Albanian military leader and adventurer Muhammad ‘Ali. Thus he and his allies were instrumental in bringing to power the man who would dominate Egypt for a generation and found the dynasty that would rule onto the mid-20th century.

Muhammad ‘Ali in 1840
For several years, the alliance between Makram and Muhammad ‘Ali held. The religious establishment supported Muhammad ‘Ali's rejection of the Ottoman Sultan's firmans attempting to transfer him out of Egypt, land backed his ongoing struggle with the Mamluks (which would end with the destruction of the Mamluks in 1811). When a British expedition took Alexandria in 1807 (the Ottomans were allied with France in the Napoleonic Wars, so Britain was at war with the Porte from 1807 to 1809), Makram helped organize resistance in Cairo while Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha was fighting a Mamluk insurrection in Upper Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Pasha frequently used Makram and the religious establishment for justification in his efforts to tax and control the Mamluks' iltizam feudal lands. Eventually, though, the alliance frayed, as Muhammad ‘Ali's efforts to centralize power led him to covet the rizqa endowment lands of the religious establishment. Makram's frequently demonstrated ability to organize the Cairo street and mobilize against a political figure. Kings tend to distrust the kingmakers who made them, fearing they might do it again with someone else; Pashas apparently entertained similar suspicions.

In 1809, Makram sought to lead a revolt against this taxation and was stripped of his posts. He had finally met a match he could not outmaneuver, and was retired to internal exile in Damietta and, eventually, to Tanta, where he died in 1822.

Makram's resistance to the French made him a symbol of opposition to foreign occupation, leading to a revival of interest in him during the national struggle against the British. Ironically, the now-iconic mosque on Tahrir Square was erected during the reign of King Farouq, the great-great-grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali.

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