The German Jew Who Became an Ottoman Pasha

March 18, 2016 | Gil Troy
About the author: Gil Troy is distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of  nine books on the American presidency and three books on Zionism, including, most recently, The Zionist Ideas.

Born to a Jewish family in the Prussian city of Oppeln in 1840, Isaak Eduard Schnitzer was baptized into the Lutheran church by his mother at age five. As an adult, he attended medical school, learned Turkish and Albanian, and lived in Germany, the Balkans, and Istanbul before setting off for Sudan, then a nominal part of the Ottoman empire under Anglo-Egyptian control. Gil Troy writes:

Arriving in Khartoum in December 1875, [Schnitzer took the name] “Mehmet Emin,” and returned to practicing medicine. He also participated in the 19th-century European traveler’s zoology and ornithology mania, sending specimens to museums [in] the capitals of Europe. The governor of Equatoria—a territory covering modern-day northern Uganda and southern Sudan—invited Emin to become chief medical officer. In 1878, Emin was appointed governor [or] bey.

In this largely symbolic post, Emin championed a noble, quixotic cause: the fight against slavery. Two decades after America’s Civil War, Gaetano Casati, an Italian explorer who befriended Emin, noted that “the Arabs, despising a people who had no religion, and trampling on every right of humanity, hunted the natives as if they had been wild beasts. Egypt and Zanzibar became the great emporiums of human flesh.”

Sudan was [soon] roiling with the messianic Arab-African Mahdi Revolt of 1881, causing chaos. In 1885, Emin’s popular dispatches to European newspapers described his adventures. The next year the Ottoman empire made Emin a pasha [a title roughly equivalent to a knighthood], confirming his prominence in North Africa and Western Europe.

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