Book Review: Khedive Ismail's Army


by John P. Dunn

New York & London: Routledge, 2013. Pp. xviii, 240. Maps, gazetteer, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $44.95 paper. ISBN: 0415645956

A military history of Egypt in the era of Ismail Pasha (1863-1879).

Soon after becoming the Ottoman governor (later khedive) of Egypt in 1805, Mohammed Ali Pasha initiated a series of reforms that, with some reverses, matured during the reign of his grandson, Ismail Pasha.  These had turned Egypt into a major player in the Middle East, with efficient armed forces and an empire that for a time reached into Asia, the Sudan, and the Horn of Africa.  Prof. Dunn (Valdosta State) appropriately devotes four of his fifteen chapters to the 50 years preceding Ismail’s accession .  In these he examines the military reforms and operations that saw Egyptian troops campaigning in the Balkans, Anatolia, the Sudan, and even Mexico, where a small Egyptian contingent earned remarkable honors during the abortive French attempt to turn the country into a satellite. 

Dunn then spends three chapters on military policy and organization under Ismail, covering his efforts to develop a domestic munitions industry and the complex relationship between the Khedive and the Ottoman Sultan.  He then addresses Egyptian expansion into the Sudan in one chapter.  This expansion led almost inevitably to a clash with Abyssinia (1873-1876), a protracted encounter that takes up the bulk of the book, and resulted in defeat and Ismail’s deposition.  Shortly after Ismail’s deposition, internal disorder and foreign intervention brought an end to this brief period of Egyptian expansionism, reducing the country to a British dependency.

Dunn does an excellent job explaining complex and even contradictory cultural, political, and military institutions in Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and adjacent areas.  His accounts of military campaigns and battles are clear, and he introduces the reader to some interesting characters along the way, including a number of American Civil War veterans, from both North and South, and several local leaders such as the Emperors Tewodros and Yohannis of Abyssinia, and even a look at the early career of the great Menelik.  These help make it easier for readers unfamiliar with the history of the region to follow and understand the events.  

A volume in the groundbreaking series “Cass Military Studies,” Khedive Ismail’s Army is an excellent discussion of how Egypt almost managed to turn itself into a modern military power, and why it failed.   

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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