From Pharaohs to Presidents: Heroic Leaders of Egypt

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At his inauguration last week, Egypt’s new president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi spoke about the journey on which Egypt is now embarking, describing it as “a new age of strength, not oppression, and preserving peace, not conflict. A new age of economic growth and great national ventures for both public and private sectors.”

As we look forward to a new era led by a strong, dedicated leader, TNN takes a look back at Egypt’s long illustrious history and highlights some of the courageous rulers from the past.

Thutmose III was the sixth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty. He is considered a military genius by historians and called Egypt’s greatest conqueror, or sometimes even the ‘Napoleon of Egypt’. 

Thutmose III

He captured 350 cities during his rule and conquered much of the Near East, at its height an area extending from the Euphrates to Nubia.

Thutmose is regarded as one of the greatest of Egypt’s warrior pharaohs, who transformed Egypt into an international superpower by creating an empire that stretched from southern Syria through to Canaan and Nubia.

In most of his campaigns his enemies were defeated town by town, until beaten into submission.

Thutmose III smiting his enemies

Akhenaten

Akhenaten was a pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt who ruled for 17 years and died around 1336 BC.

He was perhaps the most controversial because of his break with traditional religion. Some say that he was the most remarkable king to sit upon Egypt’s throne.

There can be little doubt that this king was far more of a thinker and philosopher than his forebears.

A rebel and a prophet of arguably the world’s earliest monotheistic religion, Akhenaten has been called history’s first individual.  He is especially noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship centred on the Aten.

He preserved Egypt’s control over her Near Eastern Empire (which consisted of present-day Israel as well as the Phoenician coast) while avoiding conflict with the increasingly powerful Hittite Empire.

Ramses the Great

Ramses II (c. 1303 BC – 1213 BC) was the third Egyptian pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty.

He is seen as the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian empire who led several military expeditions into the Levant, reasserting Egyptian control over Canaan.

Ramses II led the Egyptian army against several enemies including the Hittites, Syrians, Libyans, and Nubians. He expanded the Egyptian empire and secured its borders against attackers.

During the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses fought the Hittites and led his smaller force of 20,000 men against the Hittite army of 50,000 men. He established one of the first major peace treaties in history with the Hittites and created a peaceful northern border.

Ramses II smiting his enemies

Amr Ibn Al-As (c. 585 – 664 AD) was an Arab military commander who led the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 AD.  A contemporary of the Prophet Mohamed, and one of the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet), he founded the Egyptian capital of Fustat and built the mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As at its centre.

The Mosque of Amr Ibn Al -As

His invasion of Egypt began as he crossed the Sinai Peninsula with 3,500-4,000 men and headed towards the Babylon Fortress (in modern-day Coptic Cairo). Amr marched north towards Heliopolis with 12,000 men against the Byzantine forces in Egypt, under general Theodorus.

The Muslim victory at the Battle of Heliopolis brought about the fall of much of the country.

Sculpture of Saladin in the Military Museum in Cairo

Salah Al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub  (1137/1138 –1193) better known to the Western world as Saladin, was the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.

At the height of his power, his sultanate included Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hejaz, Yemen, and other parts of North Africa.

He did a great deal of fortifying and reconstructing in Cairo. The city walls were repaired and their extensions laid out, while the construction of the Cairo Citadel was started.

The Citadel of Saladin in Cairo

The chief public work he commissioned outside of Cairo was the large bridge at Giza, which was intended to form a defence against a potential Moorish invasion.

Saladin remained in Cairo supervising its improvements, building colleges such as the madrasa (school) for sword makers and ordering the internal administration of the country until 1174.

Al-Nasir Muhammad (1285–1341) was the ninth Mamluk sultan of Egypt.  His long reign was the height of Mamluk power and the high-water mark of culture in Egypt.

Public works were set in motion and he re-dug the canal connecting Alexandria with the Nile and it was opened to traffic in 1311. 

Some of his works in Cairo were the huge square called Al-Midan Al-Nasiri, Qasr Al-Ablaq (Al-Ablaq Palace) and the restructuring of the diwan, or high governmental administrative body. 

He built madrasas, public baths and renovated more than thirty mosques which are splendid examples of Islamic architecture. His own mosque in the Citadel was decorated with stone brought from the ruined cathedral of Acre.

He built Cairo’s first sabil, a drinking fountain for the use of all, especially welcome to the poor who might not have access to a well.

Al-Nasir Muhamad Madrasa

Portrait of Muhamad Ali by Auguste Couder

Muhamad Ali Pasha Al-Mas’ud Ibn Agha  (1769–1849) was an Albanian commander in the Ottoman army, who became self-declared khedive,of Egypt and Sudan.

He is the founder of modern Egypt because of the reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres that he instituted. He also ruled Levantine territories outside Egypt.

He reorganised Egyptian society, streamlined the economy, trained a professional bureaucracy, and built a modern military. He bolstered the agricultural sector, and built an industrial base for Egypt.

By the end of the 1830s, Egypt’s war industries had constructed nine 100-gun warships and were turning out 1,600 muskets a month.  He sent promising citizens to Europe to study European languages, so they could translate military manuals into Arabic. He used both educated Egyptians and imported European experts to establish schools and hospitals in Egypt.

Mohamed Ali Mosque in Cairo

Ismail Pasha, known as Isma’il the Magnificent, was the khedive of Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879.

He modernised Egypt and Sudan, investing in industrial and economic development, urbanisation, the expansion of the country’s boundaries in Africa, remodelled the customs system and the, stimulating commercial progress, created a sugar industry, built palaces, entertained lavishly, and maintained an opera and a theatre.

He expanded Cairo, building a new quarter of the city on its western edge modelled after Paris.

Khedive Ismail statue in Alexandria

He launched a vast railway building project that saw Egypt and Sudan rise from having virtually none to the most railways per habitable kilometre of any nation in the world. Ismail tried to reduce slave trading and extended Egypt’s rule in Africa. 

Gamal Abdel-Nasser Hussein (1918–1970) was President of Egypt from 1956 until his death.

He planned the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy, and was deputy prime minister in the new government. After a 1954 Muslim Brotherhood-led attempt on his life, he ordered a crackdown on the organisation and assumed executive office.

Nasser made Egypt independent of British influence, and the country became a major power in the developing world under his leadership. He established social justice and ordinary citizens enjoyed access to housing, education, jobs, health services and nourishment.

President Nasser addressing the crowds

Egypt experienced a ‘golden age’ of culture during Nasser’s presidency, particularly in film, television, theatre, radio, literature, fine arts, comedy, poetry, and music.  Nasser was known for his intimate relationship with ordinary Egyptians and gave 1,359 speeches between 1953 and 1970, a record for any Egyptian head of state.

Anwar Sadat

Muhamad Anwar Al-Sadat (1918–1981) was the third President of Egypt, serving from October 1970 until his assassination on 6 October 1981.

Sadat was a senior member of the Free Officers in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and a close confidant of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, under whom he served as Vice President twice and whom he succeeded as President in 1970. 

Though his country faced internal economic instability, Sadat was awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for entering into peace agreements with Israel. He was assassinated soon after on 6 October 1981, in Cairo.

President Sadat, US President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Begin shake hands

Egypt has an especially glorious history, and an equally impressive repertoire of dynamic distinctive leaders. From the valiant warriors of antiquity, administrative ingenuity, and forward thinking bridge builders, Egypt now looks ahead to its next historic chapter.

It is with great hope that the Egyptian citizenry and the international community alike welcome a new successful leader in Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.