The Making of a Pasha: Charles Moore Watson

Dr Michael Talbot 

Lecturer in the History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Middle East, University of Greenwich 

BBC & AHRC New Generation Thinker 

‘My dear Watson,  Long live the Pasha! May Your Excellency enjoy every bliss, and flourish like the palm in which the doves sit and sing their love songs.’  

Herbert Kitchener, cited in Stanley Lane-Poole, Watson Pasha (1919) 

With this rather teasing note, Herbert Kitchener congratulated Charles Moore Watson on being awarded the rank of mirliva, or major-general, in the Egyptian army in 1885. This high office came with the Ottoman title pasha, with the result that Watson would ever be known as “Watson Pasha“. An engineer by training with an interest in surveying, Watson was keen supporter of the Royal Geographic Society. A visit to Palestine in 1891 sparked an interest that would eventually lead him to becoming involved with the Palestine Exploration Fund, the chairmanship of which he would assume in 1905. However, he had cut his teeth in the Middle East surveying the White Nile in the mid-1870s, before participating in the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. Watson subsequently took on a number of senior duties in the military administration of that country. His involvement in organising the Egyptian armed forces led to him publishing an English-Arabic vocabulary for military use, and being awarded the title of pasha.  

Figure 1: Charles Moore Watson, 1887, from 

Kitchener’s mockery of Watson’s new title was not, however, directed at Watson himself, but rather at the ornate and elaborate style of writing found in the Middle East. In the archives of the PEF, there is a document that gives us an idea of what he was talking about, and it relates directly to Watson’s promotion. When I first saw the document, I’d expected it to be something to do with the British consulate in Jerusalem. From a brief initial glance over, it seemed to be a bog-standard Ottoman command, but with no mention of any of the usual names or places in Palestine for the period. In my haste, I’d missed out the key detail – the name of the subject of the command. This was in part because I hadn’t expected to see an English name followed by an Ottoman title. It was therefore a nice surprise to read out “Vatson Pasha” when I sat down and read through the document properly. 

Figure 2: “Watson Pasha”, PEF-DA-MISC DOCS-1 

Dated 21 Safer 1304 in the Islamic hijri calendar – that’s 19 November 1886 – this source is the official confirmation by Sultan Abdülhamid II of Watson’s new rank. Although Egypt had been under British military occupation since 1882, Abdülhamid II was still ruler of his province of Egypt on paper. Egyptian coins continued to bear his name, and commands issued by the Khedive in Cairo – technically a viceroy but basically an autonomous ruler – still had to be approved by Istanbul. Indeed, the dramatic flowery squiggles on the bottom left of the page indicate that this document was produced ‘in the locality of Well-Protected Constantinople’.  

 As proof of its genuineness, Watson’s imperial order is headed by the tuğra, the calligraphic cartouche of the sultan’s name, declaring to the entire world that this is the true command of ABDÜLHAMİD KHAN SON OF ABDÜLMECİD KHAN, THE EVER VICTORIOUS! 

Figure 3: The tuğra of Sultan Abdülhamid II and the first two lines of the command, PEF-DA-MISC DOCS-1 

Underneath the tuğrathe text itself is formulaic, but in the typical Ottoman court style is written in the beautiful divani script, intended to be both aesthetically pleasing and hard to copy. It also contains the grand and poetic imperial language contained in most kinds of official Ottoman correspondence. Let’s take a look at the opening line of text: 

“Most august commander of the commanders, pillar of the esteemed noblemen, possessor of might and honour, beneficiary of the of limitless benevolence of the all-knowing king, one of the commanders of my imperial Egyptian soldiers, Watson Pasha, who at this time has been bestowed and gifted the duty of the eminent rank of major-general by the lofty hem of my robe.”

Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? But it sounds even better in the original, because in Ottoman Turkish the first part (from “Most august” to “all-knowing king“) makes up the formal epithet (elkab) attached to Watson’s new rank – and it rhymes. I’ve included a full transcription of this document the end of this post for those who might be interested, but it’s worth trying to give this part a read out loud in the original Ottoman Turkish to appreciate the flow of the title; I’ve highlighted the rhyming bits for emphasis:  

“Emir ül-ümera ül-kiram, umdet ül-kübera ül-fiham, zü’l-kadir ve’l-ihtiram, el-muhtass bi-mezid-i inayet ül-melik ül-allam”

So Kitchener’s ridicule of the poetic nature of Ottoman writing had a bit of a point. But mockery aside, this shows Watson being formally tied in to the centuries’-old practices of the Ottoman court, even if the circumstances in the late nineteenth century were rather different.  

The command goes on to explain the rationale behind how and why this promotion was to be confirmed: 

“Through my high imperial sign let it be known that: By virtue of the skill and competence of your knowledge, you who are the aforementioned pasha have been bestowed the duty of the eminent rank of major-general by the declaration and communication made by the Khedive of Egypt. Having done so in this manner, my high imperial command and order decrees that, the attainment of the said rank being in accordance with the necessary requirements received from the Imperial Council, this my present mighty and supreme command has been issued and [the rank] conferred. “

Here we can see the chain of events. Khedive Tawfiq of Egypt, in the rather awkward position of being both Ottoman viceroy and British protectee, granted Watson his promotion within the British-run Egyptian army. But the Egyptian army, as the command noted above, was still technically the Ottoman sultan’s. Keeping up so far? So the command went to the sultan’s imperial council in Istanbul, finally to be approved by the sultan’s order. This process took quite a while. Watson received his initial promotion in Egypt in July 1885, so well over a year had elapsed by the time he received this formal confirmation in November 1886.  

Figure 4: Lines three to five of the command, PEF-DA-MISC DOCS-1 

Now recognised as an Ottoman general and pasha, Watson had to be presented with the standard terms and conditions for an Ottoman imperial military appointment: 

“You have in this way received your promotion by the requirements of my favour and authority, and in taking on the rank of major-general, on all occasions you will show the proofs of your expertise and integrity and give all your care and effort in discharging the affairs of your office. Beware! You shall never in any way do anything in contravention of my imperial consent, nor contrary to the order of the state. May you prosper, thrive, and grow in strength.”

The irony in the text is delicious. Watson, a military officer who had taken a prominent part in the British invasion that had seized control of Egypt, and who was now acting as a senior administrator of the occupation, had been warned not to do anything that would betray the sultan.  

Ottoman official commands may not have spoken of doves in palm trees as Kitchener jested, but in the flowing poetic script of a formulaic promotion document, we can witness the imperial transition in Egypt, with the British firmly set in the country but with the Ottomans still making their claim. We also have a new document in the archives of the PEF to add to our knowledge of the life and career of that pillar of the esteemed noblemen, Watson Pasha.   

Transcription of the original Ottoman Turkish text 


(1) Emirü’l-ümeraü’l-kiram umdetü’l-küberaü’l-fiham zü’l-kadr ve’l-ihtiram el–muhtass bi-mezid-i inayetü’l-melikü’l-allam  asakir-i Mısriye-i şahanem ümerasından olub bu defa uhdesine mir-i livalık rütbe-i muteberesi tevcih ve ihsan kılınan Vatson Paşa damen-i muallaya 

(2) tevki-i refi-i hümayunum vasıl olıcak malum oldur ki sen ki paşa-yı muma-ileyhsin senin derkar olan dirayet ve liyakatın cihetiyle uhde ki mir-i livalık rütbe-i muteberesi tevcihi Mısır Hidiviyeti canibinden ifade ve işar olunmuş ve ol vecihle icrası  

(3) hususuna emr ve irade-i seniye-i mülukanem müteallik şerefsüdur olmak olmağın mukteza-yı münifi üzere rütbe-i mezkureye nailiyetini mutazammın Divan-ı Hümayunumdan işbu emr-i celilü’il-kadrım ısdar ve ita olundu   sen dahi bu vecihle nail olduğun 

(4) iltifat ve itibara mütehattim ve mir-i livalık rütbesine müterettib olduğu üzere her halde umur-u memurende ibraz-ı asar-ı dirayetmendi ve istikamete mezid-i itina ve sarf-ı makderet ve zinhar hilaf-ı rıza-yı şahanem ve muğayir-i nizam bir gune hal ve hareket 

(5) vukua gelmemesine bezl ve say ve kudret eyleyesin  tahriren fi’l-yevmü’l-vahid ve’l-ışrin min şehr-i Saferü’l-hayr li-sene erbaa ve selasü mie ve elf 

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