Search billions of records on

October 2004
Far and Away
Muslims in Sri Lanka recall exiled Egyptian revolutionary Ahmed Orabi, who 120 years ago affirmed their identity and helped lay the foundation of their political presence
By Cam McGrath


FIVE THOUSAND kilometers from Cairo, bathed in the warm tropical showers of a seasonal monsoon, is a rusting sign dedicated to an unlikely hero: Ahmed Orabi. Exiled to Sri Lanka in 1882, the Egyptian nationalist is an icon of political unity for Muslims living in this predominantly Buddhist island nation.

“Orabi Pasha taught us that the best way to preserve our Muslim identity was to be educated,” says commerce student Ashkar Ahamed. “He showed us a new way of thinking.”

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, the tropical island of lush jungles and white sand beaches, is steeped in legend.

Seafaring Arab traders first set foot on Sri Lanka’s shores in the 8th century, settling in port towns to trade spices, gems and silk. The fragrant and lucrative scent of spices also attracted the Portuguese, who arrived in 1505 and quickly established a monopoly on the cinnamon trade. Local rulers enlisted the help of the Dutch to drive out the increasingly abusive Portuguese, only to find the Dutch had colonial ambitions of their own. Some 140 years later, the British sent the Dutch packing and declared Sri Lanka a crown colony in 1802.

By this time, Muslims or Ceylon Moors, as they were called accounted for about five percent of the population. Some were descendents of Arab traders; others more recent arrivals from Malaysia and India. All agreed that living under British rule was far preferable to the Catholic fervor of the Portuguese, the avaricious commercialism of the Dutch, or the despotic Sinhalese kings who held sway over the island’s mountainous interior.

“The British treated the Moors more fairly than any previous rulers,” says Ahamed. “They removed the heavy burden of taxation imposed by the Dutch and gave Muslims more rights.”

Cam McGrath/Egypt Today

The British granted Muslims as well as the island’s other ethnic groups the right to formulate legislation dealing with their own personal rights, abolished punishment by torture and repealed a Dutch property law that segregated ethnic minorities.

The softer rule of the 19th century made room for an emerging Muslim consciousness. The Ceylon Moors began formulating symbols of their identity and reviving the Arabic language, religious education and a watered-down form of social traditions. They knew what they wanted to create, but had no model to follow.

Then, on a breezy January morning in 1883, a man with some answers strolled down the gangplank of a steamship and into the Sri Lankan Muslim consciousness.

Exiled Egyptian nationalist Ahmed Orabi became a local superstar.


Born in 1841 in Horiyeh, near Zagazig, Ahmed Orabi was the peasant son of a village sheikh. Conscripted into the army at age 13, his meteoric rise through the ranks saw him promoted to full colonel before his 20th birthday.

Orabi saw Egypt sell itself into slavery in his youth. Said Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, commissioned the Suez Canal project to French and Ottoman stockholders in 1854. Egypt covered most of the capital and corvée labor to build the canal, but was eventually forced to sell its shares in the project to the British to cover the massive debts it incurred.

Said Pasha and his successor, Ismail Pasha, squandered Egypt’s cotton wealth on palaces, canal debts and misguided mega-projects.

“Egypt was drawn into a debt trap and it became impossible to repay this debt because Egypt had to make more loans just to pay the interest,” explains Raouf Abbas, president of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies (ESHS). “European powers intervened under the claim of protecting the investments of their financial institutions and established a mechanism for bringing Egypt under foreign occupation.”

As customs, houses, railways and tax collection fell under foreign control, landowners, intellectuals and disgruntled army officers led an emerging nationalist movement.

Cam McGrath/Egypt Today
Zahira College, the crowning achievement of Lebbe’s Muslim Education Society

“The debt crisis made it impossible for the government to honor its promise to reduce the land tax imposed on landlords to cover the building of the Canal or to give them their title deeds,” says Abbas. “Meanwhile, Egyptian army officers were angry because they were not paid for almost a year and were badly treated by high-ranking officers of Turkish and Circassian origin.”

In 1881, Orabi led 4,000 nationalist officers on a march on Abdeen Palace to demand that ruler Tawfik Pasha dissolve his autocratic government and replace it with a constitutional model. The khedive recognized his weak position and agreed to appoint a new prime minister.

“Of course, this development annoyed the foreign powers because it looked like the nationalist movement would introduce changes that worked against their interests,” Abbas says. “It was high time for them to interfere.”

European powers dispatched their fleets to menace Alexandria. Tawfik Pasha, who was summering in the Mediterranean city at the time, hurriedly surrendered, but Orabi (now the wildly popular minister of war) and the army under his command refused to yield to colonialist demands. They vowed to fight any foreign aggression against Egypt.

British warships shelled Alexandria in 1882 and set sail to secure the Canal, and British troops seized Port Said, Ismailia and Suez before proceeding toward Cairo. Orabi led the Egyptian army to block their advance at Tel El-Kebir.

Cam McGrath/Egypt Today
Maradana Mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka

“Orabi Pasha was without support and, within 40 minutes of desultory fighting, his forces were rounded up by the British,” a British officer boasted following the battle. “Orabi himself took refuge in flight.”

Orabi’s defeat at Tel El-Kebir opened Egypt to British occupation. Orabi and his followers were soon arrested and charged with inciting rebellion. After a show trial that lasted just three minutes, the court sentenced to death Ahmed Orabi, Abdel Aal Helmy, Ali Fehmy, Mahmoud Fehmy, Toulba Ismet, Yacoub Sami and Ahmed Abdel Ghaffar. The khedive promptly issued a royal pardon revoking the death sentences, but condemned the “traitors” to exile and expropriation of their property.

“The British had no interest in making martyrs of Orabi and his officers, so they chose to exile him,” says Abbas. “Ceylon was an obvious choice because no Egyptians lived there and it was far from Egypt.”


When word reached Sri Lanka that a boatload of Egyptian revolutionaries was on its way, local officials debated where to settle them. F.R. Saunders, the government agent of Western Province, recommended that Orabi and the exiles be housed in the sleepy Mutuwal district.

Cam McGrath/Egypt Today
Ashkar Ahamed, one of the many Sri Lankans inspired by Orabi

“That side of the city would be more suitable for the residence of these foreigners, who doubtless desire retirement and seclusion, than the more fashionable and conspicuous parts,” he wrote in a letter to the Colonial Secretary.

In all probability, Saunders’ intention was to keep the Egyptian rabble-rousers from interacting with the local intelligentsia. Governor James R. Longden, however, wasn’t convinced this would be a problem. After all, Orabi spoke only Arabic and most Ceylon Moors (who spoke Sinhalese, Tamil or Malay) would be unable to communicate with him.

The governor confidently sent notice to Saunders that houses in Colombo’s leafy Lake District had already been selected, though, “Ultimately the exiles, like any other refugees, will be allowed to choose their own residence in the island.”

That wasn’t exactly correct. The British had specifically ordered that the exiles be prohibited from settling in the remoter sections of the island. A police constable was assigned to each exile to keep tabs on their movements.

On December 27, 1882, the exiles and their families boarded the S.S. Marriott, a chartered passenger ship. The boat steamed out of Suez harbor with seven ‘chiefs’ and their wives, children and servants. Inexplicably, Abdel Ghaffar and his family were not aboard; the families of Helmy and Ismet, as well as Orabi’s pregnant first wife (of four), stayed behind.

“The Egyptian government [expropriated] the assets of the exiles, but they were clever to keep some property in their wives’ names,” says the noted Sri Lankan historian M.A. Sherifeddin. “Orabi’s first wife probably planned to use these holdings to generate income until his return.”

The S.S. Marriott arrived in Colombo harbor on January 10, 1883, and dropped anchor for the night. The following morning, most of the city’s 32,000 Muslim residents came down to the harbor to greet the man they dubbed the “King of the Egyptians.” The crowd cheered as the exiles and their families disembarked with their police escorts.

A procession followed Orabi to his assigned residence at Lake House, and many of his admirers camped out in the garden for several days. The other exiles had their own fan clubs, which followed them around town as if they were celebrities.

In the eyes of local Muslims, Orabi was a hero. Not only had he stood up to the British; he seemed to have somehow earned their respect as an adversary. Clearly the British felt threatened by him, or they would not have gone to the trouble of exiling him to a distant land. Muslims seeking a political voice felt they could learn a lot from the Egyptian nationalist.

“We still remember him as a hero,” says Sherifeddin. “He was not a successful military leader, but his courage to fight oppression and injustice is respected by all Muslims.”

Orabi’s first public foray after arriving in Colombo was a visit to the Maradana Mosque to attend Friday prayers. The large mosque was (and still is) a focal point for the local Muslim community and an obvious choice for an exile seeking a few good alliances.

According to the Ceylon Times, Orabi arrived at the mosque on the morning of January 12, 1883, in a carriage trailed by a long procession of admirers. He met Muslim community leaders in the mosque’s courtyard then entered the prayer hall. The crowd streamed in behind him.

“Of course everyone went to the mosque that day,” says Sherifeddin. “The people tried to imitate the Egyptian’s piety and mannerisms.”

Even Orabi’s wardrobe developed a following as Muslim élites adopted the former politician’s mode of dress. Local tailors received a deluge of orders for “Orabi suits” and a strange new type of hat: the Turkish fez. For many, the velvet cap was a respectable way in which a gentleman could boldly proclaim his Muslim identity while still being permitted into jacket-and-tie social functions. (Two decades later, the nation’s Supreme Court ruled the fez too seditious to be worn in court.)

British authorities were taken aback by the attention the Egyptian visitors received. A police report issued several months after their arrival observed: “The advent of Ahmed Orabi and other exiles to our shores was the cause of some excitement among the native population, prior to and after their arrival and particularly on the day of landing. The novelty, however, soon wore off and the exiles now move about attracting scarcely any attention.”

While local interest waned, Orabi’s fame spread to distant shores. His more notable early visitors included Lord Gifford, Russia’s Count Boutourline and a rowdy Australian cricket team on tour. By 1886, Orabi was Colombo’s most marketable tourist attraction, second only in popularity to an unusually large and ancient tortoise discovered living in nearby Mutuwal. Visitors to the city aspired to see both.

Sir William Gregory, a former governor of Sri Lanka, observed that the exiled nationalist was “subjected at every hour to intrusions, without introduction, from all the vulgar riffraff which lands at Colombo and which goes to see the large tortoise and then to see Orabi.”

British sailors on shore-leave taunted Orabi, throwing liquor bottles at his house and labeling him a coward for not dying with the rest of his regiment at Tel El-Kebir. After years of harassment, Orabi petitioned authorities to intervene. In a rare English letter, he wrote:

Dear Sir, I am beg to inform you that I have too trouble for the sailors who always come at my house by dranking [sic] and wishes come inside without regards our assure, they broking the doors and beating my servants. I hope you will attend to this case.

Yours faithfully,


Ahamed Arabi

The officer sent to investigate the complaint reported that while he was at Orabi’s home, three carriages of rowdy hooligans arrived and “were turned away only with difficulty.” He recommended that a British constable be assigned to guard the house, but the request was flatly denied.

Orabi changed houses several times over the course of a decade, but the constant harassment eventually drove him out of Colombo to Kandy, 115 kilometers inland. His house there on Halloluwa Road is now a museum dedicated to his memory.


The Egyptian exiles were forbidden to work in Sri Lanka, so they had to rely entirely on the meager allowance provided by the Egyptian government, which arranged with the Imperial Ottoman Bank of Alexandria to pay each of the exiles £362 per year. One British parliamentarian complained this was “too much for convicted rebel leaders.”

The exiles, however, countered that this was far too little to support their basic needs. Ali Fehmy’s wife appealed to high officials: “I have parted with everything I had, selling all my things under their value, till now I possess nothing whatever by which to support life. I am reduced with my children to remain within doors. Not having proper clothes for myself and my children whom you saw at Cairo.”

Sir William Gregory added a note to Madam Fehmy’s letter, adding he had seen the interior of Ali Fehmy’s house and found it “absolutely destitute of furniture.”

But other officials doubted the exiles were truly hard up. One questioned whether Yacoub Sami, for instance, really needed a gardener and a horse and carriage. Sri Lanka’s Inspector General studied the matter carefully, concluding that the exiles were living modest lives given their former titles. He wrote:

“They live very quietly and inexpensively in much the style in which a lieutenant colonel commanding an English regiment would live there. If this is considered a suitable style for those who are ex-pashas and ministers and before were colonels, at the lowest, then their incomes are hardly sufficient, and those of six of them might be increased from Rs4,000 to Rs5,000 per annum, Orabi’s left at Rs6,000 as at present.”

The proposed increase would have brought their allowances in line with local military officers of similar standing. At the time, the annual income of a Sri Lankan army colonel was Rs5,400, while a lieutenant colonel earned Rs4,800 and a cadet in the civil service Rs3,750.

Meanwhile, a debate raged on in Egypt over whether or not the exiles’ personal property in Egypt should be thrown into the equation. Many of them had wives, land and assets that could, if tapped, generate income to augment their basic allowances. Determining the value of these personal assets proved prohibitively difficult, and eventually the Egyptian government resigned to treat each exile as having no private means unless proven otherwise.

Consequently, the government in 1886 agreed to increase the annual allowance of all exiles to £435. It also ordered an additional £20 per month “for the maintenance of Orabi, who is the poorest.”

Whether it was deliberate or not, the additional funds allocated to Orabi seeded envy amongst the exiles. “There is a strong feeling of dissatisfaction among the others at Orabi being pensioned more liberally,” one official wrote in a memo to the governor. He noted that Orabi didn’t share any of his extra allowance with his compatriots. The remark irked one commentator, who said Orabi’s integrity and strong moral character were “unassailable.”


Orabi’s arrival in Sri Lanka came at a critical time for the island’s Muslim community. Indigenous Sri Lankan Muslims, the so-called “Ceylon Moors,” were struggling to find their identity and political voice. Orabi’s presence and personality helped shape this emerging consciousness.

When the exiles arrived in Sri Lanka in 1883, the total Muslim population on the island numbered less than 100,000. The majority of these Muslims were poorly educated merchants looked down upon by British administrators as less intelligent and resourceful than the industrious and educated Indian Tamils.

“Orabi was influential in changing this perception,” says Sherifeddin. “He encouraged education as a way of improving our lives and helping others.”

During the late 1880s, a debate raged over the ancestry of the Ceylon Moors. Politics superseded science as the outcome of the debate would ultimately determine the composition of the nation’s Legislative Council. The council was formed in 1833 to offer representation to each of the island’s distinct ethnic communities. Without recognition as a distinct race, Muslims were ineligible for a designated seat on the council. Tamil elitists hoped to keep it that way.

On one side were the wealthy Tamils of Colombo, led by barrister Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. In a thesis presented to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1888, Ramanathan argued that the Ceylon Moors were actually Tamils who had converted to Islam, and that Tamil-speaking Muslims were racially superior to their co-religionists.

On the other side were the Muslim followers of newspaper editor and activist I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, who argued that the Ceylon Moors were the descendents of Arab traders who had settled on the island centuries ago. He boasted that these Muslims were racially superior due to their putative descent from the Hashemite clan of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

After fierce wrangling, the state recognized the Ceylon Moors as a distinct ethnic group and restructured the Legislative Council in 1889 to include a Muslim representative. While Orabi stayed clear of the debate, his close friendship with M.C. Siddi Lebbe, one of the main Muslim proponents, thrust him into the political spotlight.

Lebbe was a charismatic community leader from Kandy with a dream of modernizing Muslim education. At the time, only 30 percent of Muslim men and a mere 1.5 percent of Muslim women were literate. The low literacy rate deprived the Muslim community, and particularly its women, from social mobility and economic development.

“Muslim schools existed, but they were poorly funded and overcrowded,” notes Sherifeddin. “Families who could afford it would send their children to English boarding schools to get the best possible education.”

Orabi had already enrolled his own children in English Christian schools when he met Lebbe, but the idea of improving Islamic education struck a chord. He recognized that well-funded Muslim schools could enrich the religious identity of youth and protect them from the proselytization practiced in English Christian schools.

Lebbe founded the Muslim Education Society in 1891. Liberally financed by philanthropist Wapchi Marikar and propelled by Orabi’s glowing endorsements, the organization proceeded to build segregated schools and libraries in Colombo and Kandy. Students, most of whom spoke only Sinhalese or Tamil, received instruction in Arabic and English. For many, it was the first time to read the Qur’an in its original language.

The society’s crowning achievement was the opening of Zahira College on the shady grounds next to the Maradana Mosque. Orabi conducted the 1892 opening ceremony.

“Zahira College was the first higher education facility specifically for Muslim students,” says Rada Ratnam, the university’s head librarian today. “It marked a revival of the Arabic language and religious teachings that had been neglected.”

By 1896, some 150 students attended Zahira College. Today, the busy college has several thousand students. Lessons are held in English, Tamil and Arabic. All students are required to study the Qur’an.

“Many graduates of Zahira College went on to become the most influential and respected leaders of our community,” says Ratnam.


Health concerns plagued the exiles. Toulba Ismet was reportedly ill for months during every monsoon season. His doctor said in a report that Ismet suffered “so much ill health that he cannot remain in Ceylon without danger on his life.”

A medical board appointed in 1890 to assess the health of the exiles confirmed Ismet’s poor state of health, but said the damp climate posed no credible threat to the other exiles. The Consul General of Egypt reviewed the report, but ruled out any repatriation.

Mahmoud Fehmy, the only exile to go on record as saying the rain and humidity were not affecting his health, keeled over and died a few weeks later. Abdel Aal Helmy soon followed him to the grave, dying of a brain hemorrhage in 1892. His illegible grave marker is lost among the weathered tombs of Kuppiayawette Cemetery in Colombo.

The khedive of Egypt finally pardoned Ismet in 1899 on the grounds of his declining health, but warned the other exiles not to get their hopes up: “At present no hope can be held out that the permission now given to Toulba Ismet will be extended to others in the same category,” he said in a missive.

It was too much for Yacoub Samy to take. Orabi’s right-hand man took ill and died. His death caused a furor in the British parliament and a push for clemency. The Duke of Cornwall visited Orabi during a tour of Sri Lanka in early 1901, sparking speculation that the nationalist’s release from exile was imminent.

“I am an old man nearly 60 years of age and all I ask is to be allowed to die in my dear homeland and that my bones be buried in peace,” Orabi pleaded.

A pardon came in May. The Egyptian government arranged free passage for Orabi and his entourage, which according to the ship’s manifest included four wives, 15 children, one nephew, four Sinhalese female servants and five others.

If Orabi expected a hero’s welcome home, he was sorely mistaken. During the intervening 18 years, history had painted him as a traitor. Moustafa Kamel, the new leader of Egypt’s nationalist movement, took aim at the tired revolutionary.

“Kamel accused him of betraying Egypt and making it possible for the British to invade Egypt,” says the ESHS’ Abbas. “The new generation who had never known Orabi believed the rumors that Orabi was bribed by the British to facilitate defeat [at Tel El-Kebir].”

Half blind and wary of politics, Orabi retired to a small home in Helwan, where he died a poor man on September 21, 1911. His memory was largely effaced until the 1952 Revolution, which reinvented him as a hero who failed in what the Free Officers accomplished.

In Sri Lanka, however, Orabi’s significance was never forgotten.

“Every [Muslim] student learns of Orabi Pasha and his great struggle in Egypt and Sri Lanka,” says one religion instructor. “He is remembered above all for his moral strength.”