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Lesson 5.4A: Portrayals of Mehmet Ali: Windows on Politics and Culture Across the Mediterranean


Lesson 5.4A: Portrayals of Mehmet Ali: Windows on Politics and Culture Across the Mediterranean


Topic 3: Mehmet Ali and Reform in Egypt


Topic Overview

Mehmet Ali ruled the Ottoman province of Egypt from 1805 until his death in 1849, after which his heirs ruled Egypt up until 1953. Mehmet Ali grew up in the Ottoman domain of what is today Macedonia, the son of an Albanian merchant.  He arrived in Egypt in 1801 as part of an Ottoman military contingent sent to re-establish Ottoman power in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.  Mehmet Ali stayed on to seize the reins of power and to expand Egypt’s sphere of influence, eventually challenging Ottoman rule itself.  His many reforms of Egypt included modernization of the military, administrative reforms of agricultural lands and religious endowments, and the reorganization the economy.  How the name of the founder of modern Egypt is spelled reflects his multiple roles in the Egyptian or Ottoman context: he is known as Mehmet Ali or Mehmed or Mehemet Ali in Turkish, and Muhammad Ali in Arabic.

Lesson Overview

Historical portraits hold the potential to connect students to the human side of history, helping them to imagine what the actors looked like, as well as how they were seen by others. This lesson introduces students to Mehmet Ali of Egypt (1769-1949) through a series of images painted by European visitors to his court. The portraits are chosen to help students visualize the man and the power he wielded, as well as the respect he earned across the Mediterranean and beyond. Through a study of juxtaposed images students come to understand that a “mutual admiration society” existed in all directions across the Mediterranean that transcended fixed categories.

First, students Zoom In* to look closely at one painting of Mehmet Ali by the French painter Auguste Couder (1790-1873). As they study only one third of the painting at a time, they are asked to form hypotheses about what they see and what it signifies. Afterwards, students Zoom Out to acquire greater historical context through analyzing related primary source images, and primary and secondary texts. Finally students revise their hypotheses about Mehmet Ali and how he is portrayed in the Couder painting Other options include writing an imaginary account of a visit to Mehmet Ali’s court, or researching and analyzing how he is memorialized in Egypt today.

It is important for students to realize that, like real historians, they may not find answers to all of the questions they have about the portrait, even with additional research. Thus the subject of this lesson is not only Mehmet Ali’s reform measures in Egypt, but also the process of making hypotheses based on evidence.

* The Zoom In concept for this activity is an adaption of the methodology introduced at the Clarice Smith National Teacher Institute 2011 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is based on Ron Ritchart’s book Making Thinking Visible. The term Zoom Out as used here is the author’s term.


Joan Brodsky Schur


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


This lesson can be implemented in one or two 45-minute class periods. Allow additional time to implement some assignments in the Debriefing and Assessment Activities


National Standards for World History, Era 7 Standard 3: Analyze the efforts of Muhammad Ali to found a modern state and economy.


• Students will formulate historical questions

• They will obtain historical data on the basis of which they will reformulate hypotheses

• They will marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place, and construct a viable interpretation given the evidence available.

• They will consider multiple perspectives


• PowerPoint 5.4.1 Portrayals of Mehmet Ali: Windows on Politics and Culture Across the Mediterranean

• Student Handout 5.4.1a Zoom In and Zoom Out questions for the PowerPoint

• Student Handout 5.4.1b Hypothesis Chart

Lesson Plan Text

1. Activity 1: Zoom In and Zoom Out: In today’s world, students often “pose” for photographic self-portraits, presenting themselves in images they post on line. How do they “read” a snapshot-cum-portrait of a peer – his or her posture and costume, the photo’s social context and setting? For further information about teaching with portraits, see the Smithsonian Institution’s Website “Reading” Portraiture Guide for Educators

2. Hold a class discussion on the power of images in which you raise the following points:

a. Why do class members prefer one photograph of themselves to another?? Why do you think people keep changing their Facebook photos, for example? What is the difference between a formal yearbook photograph and an informal one taken by a friend? Does it matter who took the photograph and when in terms of how the subject is presented?

b. What can paintings tell us about how rulers wielded power, how they viewed themselves, or were seen in the gaze of those who painted them? Tell students that they are going to learn about Mehmet Ali, ruler of Egypt, first by studying a portrait that was painted of him. Introduce basic information about Mehmet Ali at this point to provide historical background information about the Ottoman Empire and Mehmet Ali’s rule of Egypt. For example, read aloud the Overview in Student Handout 5.4.1.

3. Option 1: Project the PowerPoint for this lesson for the entire class to see as you pose the questions from this lesson, slide by slide as per the suggested questions.

4. Option 2: Break the class into small groups and assign each group to run through all the slide images on a computer, or print out images from the PowerPoint to distribute to groups. Alternatively assign certain groups to analyze only specific images and then to report back to the whole class. If students work in small groups you will need to print out the Zoom In and Zoom Out questions for each group’s images.

5. Debriefing/Assessment Activities: Ask students to revise their Hypothesis Chart in Student Handout 5.4.1. one last time. Ask the following questions:

a. How did each new source provide new angles for interpreting the original Couder image of Mehmet Ali?

b. To what extent do the images in this lesson reflect cross-pollination of social, political and cultural influences across the Mediterranean in the 19th century?

c. How do the images in the lesson reflect about the ways in which Mehmet Ali wielded power across the Mediterranean? Was he on the periphery or at the center?

6. Stage a “Tableau Vivant” in which students assume the pose of each person in the Slide 14, “Mehmet Ali in his Palace at Alexandria (1839). Subsequently, ask students to break out into dialogue in a scripted sequence that might have taken place at this moment in time in Alexandria.

7. Do you think Mehmet Ali was manipulated by Orientalist imagery, or manipulated it for his own purposes? Write an analytical essay on this topic.

8. Show Slide 17: How is Mehmet Ali Memorialized? How is he dressed in the statue in Alexandria? Why do you think Americans were interested in viewing his image? How is Mehmet Ali memorialized today in Egypt? Challenge students to find other images to analyze to make a presentation to the class.

9. Based on the paintings, describe an imaginary visit to Mehmet Ali’s court.

10. Write a script for a podcast about Couder’s painting of Mehmet Ali in which you explain/deconstruct each element in the painting, bringing to bear all that you have learned in this lesson. Be sure to draw on your Hypothesis Chart as you create the script for the podcast. For information about making a podcast about a painting see the Smithsonian Museum’s Website at



Joan Brodsky Schur, “Lesson 5.4A: Portrayals of Mehmet Ali: Windows on Politics and Culture Across the Mediterranean,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed September 25, 2020,