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What Was a Pasha?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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A pasha was a high ranking official or military officer within the framework of the Ottoman Empire, a massive empire which endured for over 600 years in various forms. The word is still heard as an honorific in some regions which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, especially in Egypt and Turkey, although it holds no formal meaning anymore. Students of Ottoman history may also be familiar with the use of “Pasha” as an honorific, much like the English word “Lord.”

At one point in history, the Ottoman Empire controlled a huge swath of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and parts of Southern Europe. The huge empire required a complex bureaucracy to function smoothly, and pashas were only a small part of the complex political structure of the Ottoman Empire. The First World War spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire, as it was partitioned by treaty agreement at the conclusion of hostilities.

Originally, a pasha was a high ranking military officer. The Sultan was the only person who could bestow this title, and it was reserved for particularly distinguished members of the military. Within the Ottoman ranking system, a pasha was above a bey or an agha, but below a vizier. The rank of pasha entitled the bearer to certain privileges in his coat of arms and ceremonial regalia, much as varying ranks in the English Peerage come with special ornaments and decorations.

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Over time, the Sultanate began offering the rank of pasha to high ranking regional officials, or to members of the court it wished to honor. Civil officials might be addressed as “Pasha” by the populations they supervised as a mark of respect, even if they didn't hold that rank. Unlike the West, the Ottoman Empire did not have a tradition of inherited nobility; people had to earn their ranks with their accomplishments, and different honorifics were used to refer to the children of people with rank.

When the Ottoman Empire dissolved in 1922, various social reforms led to the ultimate abolishment of “Pasha” as an official title by 1934. However, many respectful Turkish citizens continued to use the term, and it endures among older Turkish people. Egypt continued to have pashas until 1953, although they were considerably less powerful than they once were.

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