Colonel Ahmed Orabi Pasha was an Egyptian nationalist, revolutionary, and army leader back in 1881.
A figure that would later on serve as an inspiration to Gamal Abdel Nasser, Orabi led a social-political movement that expressed the discontent of the Egyptian educated classes, army officials, and peasantry with foreign control.
This culminated in the revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of khedive Tewfik Pasha in 1879, in which Orabi participated.
Threatened by Orabi's rising popularity, khedive Tewfik asked the French and British for help, who went on to stage a naval demonstration in the bay of Alexandria. Riots in the northern port city followed and the British fleet bombarded the city in July of 1882.
As the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, Orabi organized the resistance and proclaimed the khedive a traitor.
However, his army was defeated at Tall al-Kabīr on September 13 of that year. Shortly thereafter, Orabi was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to death.
British intervention, however, reduced the sentence to exile in Sri Lanka from 1883 up until 1901, after which he was allowed to return to Egypt.
Ahmed Orabi, aka Orabi Pasha (1841-1911)
During the 18 years of exile in Sri Lanka, Orabi became a local hero.
He influenced the nation in various ways:
1. He introduced the Fez
When an esteemed Egyptian leader like Orabi was seen wearing the red fez, a growing number of local Muslims started mimicking his wardrobe.
By the time he left Sri Lanka, the fez had already been adopted by local communities.
2. His house was turned into a museum and a street was named after him
Orabi’s residence in Kandy was a meeting point for the island’s Muslim intellectuals, other members of the small exiled Egyptian community in Sri Lanka, as well as the many foreign visitors who were keen to meet the famous rebel.
With the encouragement of the Sri Lankan government, the Egyptian Embassy purchased the house in 1983 and turned it into the Orabi Pasha Museum and Culture Center.
A few years later, the government also decided to rename a street after him, the Orabi Pasha Street in Maradana, Colombo.
3. He established the first Muslim school
At the time, formal Arabic teaching was non-existent in Sri Lanka, and local Muslims could not read the Quran in its language of origin.
When leading Muslim intellectuals expressed concerns regarding this, Orabi, with no other option but to register his own children in English schools, stressed the importance of Islamic teachings.
Thus, it was under his patronage that a local philanthropist founded the first Muslim school in 1892, Zahira College in Colombo.
4. He left his daughters behind
Orabi married a Sri Lankan woman whom he had children with. While the sons of that woman returned with him to Egypt, the girls were left behind by an order of the Sri Lankan government.
According to a published interview with his family, one of his Sri Lankan descendants, Ibrahim Ansar, served as the country's ambassador to Egypt for some time.
5. He created political unity
Orabi’s stay in Sri Lanka changed the local Muslim community in many ways.
Prior to his arrival, the local Muslims were torn between two identities: the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamil.
He brought them together under one united voice.
This impacted their community on a spiritual level but also helped them in winning seats in parliament.