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Moroccan diplomats #9 : Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali, an ambassador who loves science and art

In the 1720s, Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali was sent to England as Moulay Ismail’s ambassador to the English court. Once in London, he attended arts events and visited the country’s prestigious educational institution.

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A portrait of Moroccan ambassador Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali by Polish painter Enoch Seeman./Ph. DR

Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali is Sultan Ismail’s last ambassador to England. In the 1720s, he was appointed by the Alaouite emperor and sent to London to meet King George I. Few sources recall, the mission of the Moroccan diplomat but London still has a significant piece of Abgali’s diplomatic voyage.

All British historical sources agreed that Abgali spent 18 months in London, during which he was granted an audience with the King of England. The Alaouite diplomat arrived in the British capital on the 22nd of August in 1725.

According to «The Political State of Great Britain, Volume 31», a document that tracks King Charles official audiences and visits, on the 25th of January, 1726, «his Excellency Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali, Ambassador from the emperor of Morocco, had his first private audience of his Majesty (King George I); as he had the next day of their Royal Highnesses; and on the 28th of the young princesses».

Although the treaty or the agreement Abgali discussed with King Charles during his voyage to London remains unknown due to lack of sources, his activities in the United Kingdom were recorded by several historical books.

Art and science

In a book edited by Stephen Bernard, Rebecca Bullard and John McTague and entitled «The Plays and Poems of Nicholas Rowe, Volume I: The Early Plays», (Routledge, 2016), it was indicated that on Tuesday 8th of March Abgali was able to attend one of the plays of English dramatist, poet and miscellaneous writer Nicholas Rowe.

«For the entertainment of his Excellency Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali Ambassador from the emperor of Morocco», noted the same book, referring to the plays presented that day.

Abgali had also attended theatrical pieces that «mainly featured Comedia dell’ Arte characters», an early form of professional theatre, originating from Italy, that was popular in Europe from the 16th through the 18th century, reported «Foreign Theatrical Companies in Great Britain», (Society for Theatre Research, 1955).

During his stay in England, Abgali had the opportunity to meet distinguished figures and discover the civilized and artistic part of London and most precisely Europe. In an article published in 2011 by Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, Syrian-born astrophysicist Rim Turkmani said after searching the Royal Society’s archives that she found letters sent by Abgali to other fellows at the educational institution after he was appointed ambassador.  

«It was clear that he had strong relations with the Royal Society», stated Turkmani adding that documents at the institution showed that he visited its headquarters and took a look at some scientific experiments it conducted.

The portrait

While in England, the Moroccan diplomat had his portrait painted by Polish artist Enoch Seeman. The painting portraying Abgali is still preserved in England.

The 400,000-euro worth portrait shows the ambassador in his traditional robe, cape, and turban. It has been exhibited several times in the UK and sources claim that there are two versions to it.

On the 14th of February, 1727, Moulay Ismail’s ambassador to England, Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali had to head back to the Kingdom. His last audience with King Charles was recorded by «The Political State of Great Britain, Volume 33».

«His Excellency Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali, Ambassador from the Emperor of Morocco, had a private Audience of leave of his Majesty; as he had, the Prince and Princess of Whales, and the next day, of their Royal Highnesses the young princesses», indicated the same source.

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