This early Bulaq book is a translation of a French biography of Catherine the Great Vie de Catherine II, Impératrice de Russie, by Jean-Henri Castéra (1749-1838), published in 2 volumes in Paris in 1797. The book was exceedingly popular in Europe and was translated to many languages. The text was the first Western text translated to the Ottoman Turkish and printed by the Bulaq press in Cairo, at the time of complex relations between the Ottoman Empire, Russia and consequentially Egypt.
The translation has been made by the order of the governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (1769 – 1849), who admired Catharine the Great as a political leader. He also had published biographies of Napoleon and Peter the Great, whose politics he also held in highest regard.
The first edition of the text was published in by the Bulaq Press in 1244 (1828) with 160 pages. This enlarged second edition, with annotations by the editor Sadullah Said Amedi was issued two years later, in 1246 (1830).
There appears to be two versions of the second edition, differing in the pattern of the heading and numeration of the index pages. Possibly the heading was replaced with a new one, after the first printing plate broke.
The translator was Iakovos Argyropoulos (“Yakovaki Efendi” (1776–1850)), a linguist and an official translator of the sultan, appointed as an official dragoman in Vienna.
Historical Context: The Brief Russo-Ottoman Alliance
Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been mutual arch-nemeses for centuries, fighting innumerable wars against each other, contesting large areas of territory. While the Ottomans were traditionally the dominant power, beginning in the 1770s, during the reign of Catherine the Great, Russia turned the tables, conquering all the Ukraine.
Russia came out of the Napoleonic Wars with a strong hand, determined to press its advantage against the Sublime Porte, placing pressure upon Ottoman-held territories in both the Danube and Caucuses regions, while supporting Greek and Slavic separatists in the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire, although ruled by Sultan Mahmud II, a skilled and reforming leader, was bedevilled by internal problems. The Sublime Porte’s direct authority barely extended past the area around Constantinople and Anatolia, as powerful regional separatist movements developed, while even local leaders normally loyal to the Sultan, jealously guarded their autonomy. Beyond that, Mahmud II had to contend with powerful opposition within his own court from conservative elements who resented his reformist polices.
Interestingly, the fierce Russo-Ottoman military rivalry had overshadowed what was a mutually beneficial commercial relationship. Russia and the Ottoman Empire were almost perfectly complementary trading partners, with each having an overabundance of goods that the other had in short supply, but very much desired. For instance, the Turks had a need for Russian firs, timber, precious metals and wheat; on the other hand, the Ottomans could provide Russian with semi- and tropical produce (ex. coffee, tobacco), and exotic luxury items such as ivory, as well as leather, metalwork and carpets. During peacetime, trade between the two empires boomed, to great mutual advantage. Even during wartime, products from each nation fetched high prices on the black market (vast, high volume smuggling networks always operated by between Russia and the Ottoman Empire).
Events during the 1820s ended up creating a unique set of circumstances whereby Russia and Ottoman Empire became allies, albeit begrudgingly. In 1826, Mahmud II successfully suppressed the Janissaries, the conservative, elite military class that had been the main opposition to his reformist agenda. Nevertheless, this caused a great deal of turmoil at the Sublime Porte, such that officials came to lose sight of events further afield. Russia entered the Greek War of Independence (1821-9), assisting the combined fleet of Greece, Britain and France, crushing the main Ottoman-Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino (1827), effectively securing the succession of the Peloponnese as the sovereign Kingdom of Greece two years later. This conflict dovetailed into the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-9, during which Russia pressed its advantage, defeating the Ottomans in the Caucuses and the Danube.
The Treaty of Adrianople (1829), which ended the war, compelled the Sublime Porte to cede territories along the Danube and the Caucuses to Russia, as well as to agree to pay a large war indemnity. While the harsh terms of the treaty would, at first, seem to feed the continued cycle of mutual animosity, it ended up sowing the seeds for a Russo-Turkish rapprochement.
Mahmud II was feeling diplomatically isolated, as France and Britain, traditionally Turkey’s leading trading partners and, at times allies, were giving him the cold shoulder. Muhammad Ali, the Vali (Governor) of Egypt, while technically the Sultan’s subordinate, was in the process of not only asserting his country’s autonomy, but he also seeking to gain control of the Ottoman Levantine provinces.
Meanwhile, the first rumblings of The Great Game, the epic contest between Russia and Britain for control of South-Central Asia, was driving a wedge between St. Petersburg and London, while Czar Nicholas I personally detested the House of Bourbon that ruled France. Russia therefore came to find itself a bit isolated, and like the Ottoman Empire, was eager to recharge its economy which was in bit of doldrum.
In this context, in Constantinople, both Russian and Ottoman officials and leading merchants reached out to each other. At first, they had informal conversations, but at one point in 1830, this dialogue gained official sanction.
Both nations believed that if they could cut and regularize the customs duties between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, that it would both greatly stimulate legitimate trade, as well as disincentivising the black-market. To this effect, Alexander Ribeaupierre, the Minister Plenipotentiary of the Russian Embassy in Constantinople, authorized a team led by Paul Pisani, the Director of the Commercial Chancery, and Antoine Franchini, the Chief Interpreter of the Embassy, to officially commence negotiations with an Ottoman delegation appointed by Sultan Mahmud II. The Turkish side was headed by Tahir Bey, the Chief Inspector of Munitions Factories, and Salih Bey, the Chief Customs Officer. After many meetings over several months, both parties agreed to a schedule of tariffs (both imports and exports) that would be uniformly applied to both parties. The hundreds of itemized goods listed on the present work were assessed fixed tariffs, while products not listed were to be assessed a 3% tariff. While the 3% was the same as called for during the last Ottoman Russian tariff agreement (1799), the rates placed upon the itemized goods were, generally, dramatically lower. As noted, the present agreement was signed in Constantinople on July 7, 1831.
Only a few months later, the First Egyptian-Ottoman War (1831-3) broke out. Egypt, under Muhammed Ali, openly rebelled against the Sublime Porte, and his modern, energized army, led by his son Ibrahim Pasha, surged up though the Levant, easily defeating the Ottomans. Through much of the following year, the Egyptians fought their way into Anatolia, crushing the main Ottoman army at the Battle of Konya (November 21, 1832). The Egyptians were then poised to march upon Constantinople, which they would almost certainly have been able to take, barring some unforeseen, extreme circumstances.
Through the same channels that negotiated the 1831 Customs Agreement, Mahmud II reached out to Czar Nicholas I for assistance – something that was extraordinary in and of itself! After some internal debate, the Russians decided that it would be far preferable to preserve a weakened Ottoman Empire, dependent on Russia for its survival, then to allow Constantinople to be taken by the Egyptians, clearly an aggressive force with an unknown attitude towards Russia. Simply put, the Czar elected to stick with the “devil he knew”.
Russia sent a large fleet and army to Constantinople, occupying the city with Mahmud II’s uneasy consent. It was then made very clear to the Egyptians that the Russians were prepared to confront them. Ismail Pasha, who had no desire to permanently control Turkey, and seeing his supply lines over extended, wisely agreed to parley.
At the Convention of Kütahya (May 1833), Egypt agreed to immediately withdraw its forces from Turkey and to publicly declare Mahmud II to be their legal overlord. In return, Mahmud II would appoint Muhammed Ali as the Vali of the Levant (in effect making the region a part of a sovereign Egypt). Even though this allowed the Sublime Porte to save face, while giving Egypt what it essentially wanted (the Levant), both sides signed the pact under duress, leading the Sublime Porte and the Egypt would a have rematch six years later, the Second Egyptian–Ottoman War.
Russia, while not intending to permanently occupy Turkey, hoped to permanently replace Britain and France as the Sublime Porte’s premier military and economic partner. To this effect, Russia compelled Mahmud II to sign the Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi (Treaty of “the Sultan’s Pier”, July l8, 1833), which gave highly favourable diplomatic and commercial rights to Russia. A ‘secret clause’ within the treaty (which like most secrets in Constantinople soon got out!) had the Sultan agree to close the Turkish Traits to all foreign military traffic upon Russia’s request. This threatened to make the Black Sea, if not much of the Eastern Mediterranean into a Russian lake.
Not surprisingly, Britain and France were livid upon learning details of the Turco-Russian alliance. Not only did the new agenda threaten their trade in the Near and Middle East, but it forcefully called for the projection of Russian naval power into the Mediterranean, something that the Royal Navy found unacceptable.
Britain and France proceeded to place immense pressure upon the Sublime Porte. These efforts were supported by the innumerable franco- and anglophiles at Mahmud II’s court, who were always uncomfortable over the relationship with St. Petersburg.
The pressure resulted in the Treaty of Balta Limani (1838), which gave Britain massive commercial privileges in the Ottoman Empire, far outstripping those which were offered to Russia in 1833. Czar Nicholas I was indignant, and while he did not annul his alliance with the Sublime Porte, the bloom was clearly off the rose. Meanwhile, France, frustrated by Britain’s success in Constantinople, decided to throw its lot in with the Egyptians, such that it was for a time ‘on the outs’ with the Sublime Porte.
During the Second Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-41), the Ottomans were, once again, throttled by Muhammad Ali’s armies in the Levant. It did not help that Mahmud II’s death on July 2, 1839, placed the empire in the hands of his untested 16-year old son, Abdülmecid I. In 1840, in what was known as the ‘Oriental Crisis’, Britain and Russia intervened to support the Ottomans, while France abruptly pulled back its support of Egypt, fearing conflict with Britain.
At the Convention of London (July 15, 1840), Britain and its allies offered Muhammad Ali a face-saving way out; he would be permitted to maintain his autonomous rule over Egypt and Sudan (a status which Muhammad Ali’s successors would be permitted to inherit), in return for withdrawing from the Levant. While he would have to recognize the Ottoman Sultan as his overlord, that arrangement would be in name only. Seeing that Britain and her allies would be able to defeat his forces, four months later, Muhammad Ali reluctantly accepted the Conference terms.
Sultan Abdülmecid I was an even more radical reformer that his father, famously ushering in the liberal, pro-Western policies of the Tanzimat Era (1839-76). He was grateful to Britain for its decisive role in saving his empire, and over the course of 1840s, Britain’s economic and military influence at the Sublime Porte grew dramatically. France also managed to regain its preferred status in Constantinople, while the Turco-Russian alliance was progressively side-lined.
Czar Nicholas bitterly resented the dissolution of the alliance, and by the late 1840s, the relationship between Constantinople and St. Petersburg could only be described as sour. While the Ottoman economy grew, and many aspects of the empire befitted greatly from the Tanzimat Reforms, the country was still beset by internal problems and was militarily weak – a factor Russia elected to exploit.
During the Crimean War (1853-6), Russia unwisely provoked a conflict with the Ottomans without realizing that Britain and France would go to immense lengths to preserve the Sublime Porte. While a difficult conflict for both sides, the Ottomans and its allies defeated Russia, so continuing the old cycle of mutual Russo-Turkish animosity and warfare that would persist until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk singed the Treaty of Kars (1921) with the Soviets.
The Bulaq or Al-Amiriya Press (Amiri Press, Amiria Press), the first Muslim official and governmental printing press established in Egypt, was founded in 1820 by the viceroy of Egypt Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), and is still active today.
Already in 1815, the first delegation was sent from Cairo to Milan to learn the printing techniques. After the construction of the press was finished in the autumn of 1820, it took another two years to transport the machines and school the employees. The first book, an Arabic-Italian dictionary, was published in 1822. In the next decades the Bulaq Press became the leading publishing house for the Arab world, also printing books in Ottoman Turkish.
References: Johann Strauss. An den Ursprüngen des modernen politischen Wortschatzes des Osmanisch-Türkischen. Radoslav Katicic. “Herrschaft” und “Staat”. Untersuchungen zum Zivilisationswortschaftz im südosteuropäischen Raum 1840-1870.Eine erste Bilanz, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp.197-256, 2004, p. 208; Hsu Cheng Hsiang, The First Thirty Years of Arabic Printing in Egypt 1238-1267 1822-1851, Part 2, The Checklist, 1985, No. 371, Edn2, p. 434.