FIRST WIFE and Consort OF MUHAMMAD ALI
Out of the annals of history emerges the story of Amina Hanim, the embodiment of feminine dignity, intelligence, and quiet steadfastness, her life intertwined with the illustrious founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali. From a young, innocent girl in the tranquil coastal town of Kavala on the shores of the Mediterranean to the “Queen of the Nile” in the palaces of Cairo, Emina’s tale is one of resilience and strength, navigating a world of love, political intrigue, and ambition behind the secret gates of palaces in the age of the Ottoman Empire.
Of course, we can’t know Emina’s thoughts or emotions; we can only wonder about the thoughts and emotions she experienced while witnessing the untimely deaths of her beloved children and grandchildren. Let alone the betrayal she may have felt after the first few years of marriage. As we set out on our journey back through time, let imagination be our guide as we explore her world and weave a story around the scant information that we do have on Emina and her extraordinary life with “the father of modern Egypt”.
Emina Hanim, “Hanim” being a title meaning “wife” or “lady”, graced the world with her presence in the picturesque town of Kavala, nestled in the lands of modern day Greece, in the year 1770. Her father, the formidable Ali Agha, was a Corbaci,” – military commander connected to the noble lineage of Khalil Ahmad Agha, Governor of Drama. Educated and then betrothed at a tender age to the ailing Ali Bey Serezli, her fate appeared to be set in stone. Yet destiny, snatched her husband away before their marriage could be consummated, leaving her with an unexpected fortune and a new path to follow, where her name would be written in history beside that of the most illustrious Khedive of Egypt.
Muhammad Ali – “the Father of Modern Egypt
The same small town that witnessed the birth of Emina also witnessed the birth of her second husband-to-be, a boy named Muhammad Ali. At just 11 years old, Muhammad Ali lost his father and was taken to live with his aunt Kadriya and her husband, Ali Agha, and raised alongside his cousins. Kadriya was sister to Zeynep, Muhammad Ali’s mother. Ali Agha was impressed with the intelligence and charisma of the young Muhammad Ali, and, at the age of 16, he secured for him the position of tax collector in the region. Additionally, the young lad began a military career, training with the local Ottoman volunteer force in Kavala, laying the groundwork for a remarkable future.
In the year 1787, destiny worked its magic, uniting Muhammad Ali and his cousin, Emina Hanim in marriage. Little could either of them have foreseen the dazzling destiny that lay ahead, nor the sorrows. Over the next 12 years, as Muhammad rose through the ranks of the army, Amina Hanim dutifully produced his heirs, though the exact number of her offspring remains cloaked in mystery. Some historians suggest that Muhammad Ali fathered at least 22 children, but we will leave those stories for another day as it is Emina’s story we are weaving here.
In the realms of my imagination, I initially pictured Emina and Muhammad’s love story as one transcending time. An endearing take on devotion and exclusivity, as I found no record of children by any other wife or concubine prior to 1799. However, my illusions were shattered when I stumbled upon the reason for no other children: the existence of three other wives, all former slaves, who entered Muhammad’s life. Among them, a second wife named Shams uz-Zafar Khanum graced him with four children, who sadly all died in infancy. His third wife was Nuraj Khanum, but she never bore him children. His fourth wife was Shams-i-Nur Khanum, and in 1799 she gave birth to a daughter whom they named Zeinab. Shams-i-Nur became First Lady of the harem in 1824 after the death of his first wife, Emina.
We may use this short video tour of Mohamed Ali’s house in Kavala brought to life by Sheila Simkin, to aid in our imagination’s journey:
Stumbling through the hazy corridors of time, we find the children born to Emina Hanim and Muhammad Ali. First, we meet a daughter named Tewhide, destined, as her mother was, to marry her cousin, Moharram Bey. And, in the pages of time, another child emerges: Ibrahim, destined to be the right hand of his father, in the Kingdom of Egypt. Then, with pride and hope, Emina gave birth to Muhammad Ahmed Tusun.
The blissful journey of Muhammad Ali and Emina continues together with the birth of Abdel Halim, followed by Khadija Hatice Nazli, and the young Ismail Iskandar Ali Kamel.
Their Paths Diverge – is this Love’s breaking point?
Then fate intervenes once again, and their roads diverge, with Emina now ruling the harem in Kavala and Muhammad traveling onwards alone.
It was 1799 and Muhammed Ali was sent with his cousin Aly as commanders in the Ottoman army, to fight Napoleon in Egypt. However, their adventure did not last long and they returned home to Kavala, having been defeated at the Battle of Abukir. Little did Muhammad Ali know that Napoleon’s army was the training ground for a man who was destined to become very important to his own future and that of Egypt – nor that their offspring were fated to become inextricably intertwined through several generations to come – that man was Suleiman al Faransawi – Joseph Anthelme Seve
But the parting of Emina and Muhammad Ali in 1799 was just a hint of the longer separations to come. In March 1801 Muhammad Ali’s destiny took him far from the quiet streets of Kavala forever, as he embarked on a decisive and life-altering journey back to Egypt as part of the Ottoman army’s efforts to expel the French invaders. The path to greatness had been laid, and as he rose through the ranks to become a Major General, Chief of the General Command, and head of the palace guards, memories of Kavala receded further from memory.
The year 1805 heralded a new chapter in Muhammad Ali’s life when he was declared Viceroy of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan Selim III, who didn’t have much choice in the matter as the Emirs in Cairo were clamoring for Muhammad Ali to rule Egypt. Life and rulership level with the Ottoman Sultans now beckoned Muhammed. It was now obvious to all, with this announcement, that Muhammad Ali would never be returning home to Kavala. But pride was tinged with sorrow for Emina as she bade farewell to twelve-year-old Tousson and sixteen-year-old Ibrahim, and watched as they set out for Egypt to join their illustrious father.
Emina Hanim’s Lonely Path
Emina’s maternal journey seemed to have come to it’s conclusion by 1799, but uncertainty shrouds the exact timeline as we are unsure of the birth date of Khadija Hatice: 1795 or 1799?
A fascinating twist unfolds as we discover that after 1799, Muhammad Ali’s harem expanded exponentially, yet curiously, it appears that each concubine or wife bore him a child only once. Was this a reflection of an old Ottoman tradition that allowed only one child per woman in the harem?
Instead of packing everything up and following her husband to Cairo in 1805 with her sons, Amina chose another path, venturing instead to the court of Sultan Selim III in Istanbul with her two daughters, where she remained for the next two years.
Below is one of the rooms in the harem of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where Emina Hanim and her daughters would have spent much time. The harem was not only where the women of the Sultan’s household lived, it was also the living quarters of the Sultan’s family incl the male members and men who were very close to the royal family or served them would also have been received here.
In the end, it may have been the upheaval in Istanbul, culminating in Sultan Selim III’s deposition and subsequent murder in 1807, that influenced Emina’s decision to journey onward to her husband in Cairo rather than a personal desire to go to Egypt.
In 1808 Emina finally reached Cairo, tired and perhaps a bit apprehensive where she likely settled into one of the palaces within the Citadel.
Rumours of the Estrangement of Emina Hanim and Muhammad Ali
There are two popular stories suggesting that Emina Hanim was estranged from Muhammad Ali after her arrival in Cairo in 1808. One rumor says it was because of his massacre of the Mamluks at the Citadel in Cairo, but that event did not take place until 1811. The other one attributes the supposed estrangement to the growing number of concubines in Muhammad Ali’s harem. What is true? Who knows? The truth remains elusive. While Emina would, no doubt, have been aware of the existence of big harems in the palaces of the Ottoman rulers and the elite prior to marrying Muhammad Ali, she had no way of knowing, at the time of their marriage, the heights to which her husband would ascend and what her role would be.
In the years that followed, Emina’s story takes on a lonely hue, marked by much personal loss and suffering. While Muhammad Ali’s harem expanded with new concubines and new births, the number of children attributed to Emina remained static after 1799. This peculiar circumstance, coupled with the fact that most births after 1805 occurred in another of Muhammad Ali’s palaces in Alexandria, and those within the Citadel occurred only after Emina’s passing in 1824, fuels speculation about her stance on the concubines.
On 6 January 1814 a joyful event with much public celebration marked the marriage of their daughter, Khadija Hatice Nazli, at age 19, to Major-General H.E. Muhammad Khushru Bey al-Dramali in Cairo. the son of Khalil Ibrahim Agha al-Dramali. At the time, he was Treasurer of Egypt and retained this position until 1821. After the marriage, he was made Governor of Upper Egypt from 1816 until 1820 and again from 1824 to 1825.
Later in 1814, we read of a remarkable event as Emina embarked on a PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA. In the same year, Muhamad Ali begins construction of a new Palace in the Citadel; later, on completion, it would be called Gawhara Palace in honor of his latest wife at the time. Amina’s awe-inspiring entourage included 500 camels to carry her possessions, household goods, and servants. Muhammed Ali met her publicly in Mina, in public recognition of her status as his wife and first consort. It is said the entourage was so magnificent that it earned her the title “Queen of the Nile” from the people along the way.
While Muhammad Ali experienced the deaths of several children born to his other wives and concubines over the years, which I will not detail here as this is Emina’s story, the years from 1815 onward were particularly sorrowful for Emina. We could imagine that these sorrowful years drained the very essence of life from her. In 1815, the loss of her grandson, Tousson’s young child, was a crushing blow. And in 1816, another grandson, this time 3 year old Umar, son of Ismail Eskander Ali Kamel, passed away suddenly.
The plague claimed the life of her beloved son, Tusun, in 1816, followed by the untimely deaths of his three daughters in the subsequent year, 1817. Emina Hamin insisted that Tusun’s only surviving son, Abbas Helmi I and his mother, Bambi Hanim, come to live with her in Cairo. Abbas Helmi I would become ruler of Egypt later in 1849.
Tragedy struck once more in 1818, as Emina bid farewell to her son, Abdel Halim, who departed from this world at the early age of 23.
The year 1822 witnessed the death of Emina’s son, Ismail Iskander Ali Kamel, in a harrowing incident during a military campaign in Sudan. He had been burned alive in his sleeping quarters by the enemy, who had infiltrated his camp under cover of darkness on the night of 5 November 1822, he was only 27.
Two short years after the death of Ismail Iskander Ali, in the somber halls of the Citadel, Emina Hanim breathed her last, at the age of 54. The year was 1824. Her final resting place became the hallowed grounds of Hosh al-Basha, the mausoleum of Imam-i Shafi’i in Cairo.
Emina Hanim was spared the sorrow of witnessing the harrowing death from Tuberculosis of her firstborn child, Tawhide, who passed in 1830 in Alexandria. And from experiencing the shadows of uncertainty engulfing her other daughter, Khadija Hatice Nazli, whose husband’s mysterious death in a Cairo coffee shop sometime around or before 1834 left many unanswered questions. Rumors of suicide or execution for his murder swirled around Khadija’s death in 1860.
Emina HanimThe MOTHER of MODERN EGYPT
Though the annals of time may never fully reveal the depths of her thoughts and emotions, her presence in the picturesque town of Kavala and her extraordinary life with “the father of modern Egypt” will forever spark the flames of imagination. Let us remember the lines of the Irish poet, Padraig Pearse, for indeed, “Lord, thou art hard on mothers: We suffer in their coming and their going.” Emina Hanim’s story, while still shrouded in mystery, stands as a testament to the resilience and strength of women like her, whose love and lives, though entangled and sometimes apparently only in the background with those of great historical figures, survived life’s trials and tribulations with grace and dignity.
If Muhammad Ali was the father of modern Egypt, then Emina Hanim, his first wife and consort, mother of his children and their offspring who ruled Egypt, can be called “the mother of modern Egypt.