A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cairo in the 19th Century: Essential Readings

 I'm on vacation this week. Lest my loyal readers storm the Bastille, I've prepared, ahead of time, a series of rather lengthy posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, one or more of which will automatically go up daily. Should something really earth-shattering happen (e.g. Ayman al-Zawahiri decides to practice medicine again),  I may check in live, but otherwise I hope these posts both entertain and inform.
From Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians

When I introduced my Cairo History Series of posts last month, I did so with a list of what I deemed five essential books for understanding the overall history of Cairo, from its pharaonic predecessor cities to its hectic present. Now I intend to move on to closer looks at essential works on earlier periods, beginning with the 19th century.

This is not intended as an exhaustive bibliography. In the 19th century Cairo became a stop on the European Grand Tour, especially after the Khedive Isma‘il spruced the place up for the opening of the Suez Canal. Memoirs and letters of one's "Oriental" tour to Egypt and the Holy Land were legion; everybody from British Maiden Ladies to Gustave Flaubert passed through, and after 1882 we also have a whole series of British civil servants' memoirs. That's not what I'm talking about here; that was European Cairo, the city of Imperial administration. Those works mostly are filtered through the conversations at High Tea in the European hotels and clubs (the maiden ladies and the civil servants at least; Flaubert was recording the brothels); that's not the essential Cairo I'm talking about here. If you're interested in their Cairo, you can check out Trevor Mostyn's 2006 Egypt's Belle Epoque: Cairo in the Age of the Hedonists (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006) for a good account, though there have been many. For the multiple travelers, the Travelers in the Middle East Archive website is useful. That literature is entertaining and important for imperial history, and is a part of the city's past. But I want to drill down to the street level.

I am also making`an assumption that all my readers read English (if not, what do you think this is?), and that substantial numbers read Arabic and French, the native language and the cultural language of 19th century Egypt respectively. (Well, there was also the Court Language, Ottoman Turkish, but it wasn't used in books in Egypt at the time.)  If there are any great works by Hungarian or Japanese visitors, they are opaque to me, but I also haven't heard of any.

So here are my (again five, but I may vary the number in the future) "essential" selections:

1. The Déscription de l'Égypte. Conveniently, I just blogged about the Déscription de l'Égypte earlier this month, and linked to the Biliotheca Alexandrina's wonderful if somewhat clunky online access to the text and plates. It isn't particularly Cairo-heavy; it includes a lot of botanical, astronomical, and other descriptions, but the Atlas volume contains a great map of Cairo and environs, and the plates include the first really well drafted plans of many of the mosques and monuments. Based on the information gathered in Napoleon's expedition of 1798-1801, it appeared in 20 volumes from 1809 to 1829. (Other artists also recorded the life and monuments of Egypt in subsequent years, perhaps most famously David Roberts.)

Edward William Lane
2. Edward William Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Longtime readers may know that every September 17 (which I'm sure you all honor as the birthday of Edward William Lane), I put up my original post from 2009 on the man who created one of the great classics of cultural description. He was a pioneer Orientalist before that became a bad word, a pioneering cultural anthropologist at a time when the word anthropologist meant only physical anthropology. I post every year on his birthday because I am proud to say we share the same birthday. Lane also wrote the huge and irreplaceable Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon and a once-popular translation of the 1001 Nights (far more readable than Sir Richard Burton's better known version, but without all the salacious notes), but Cairo-lovers know him for Manners and Customs, which was published in the 1830s..

If you didn't already click through to the link, here's the real take-away from that post on Manners and Customs:
Manners and Customs is a great book: dated to be sure, after a century and three quarters; quaint at times in its attitudes and curious in its transliterations of Arabic, but still a gem of description of another culture by a man who managed to learn a great deal by living within it. It was first published in 1836, after years of gestation. I still have, and often refer to, the Everyman's Library edition I picked up in Beirut in 1972; the paper dust cover is even still intact. An earlier version of the Everyman's edition is available in full text on Google Books, [2011 Note: This link now takes you to a free online Google e-book] as are some other editions, so you don't need to rely on a paper copy as I did. (Though if you want a paper copy, it's still in print.)

It is one of those books that cannot be excerpted with any utility: it's the small joys that make it so interesting, and it may be a complete wash for those who've never been in Egypt. It's the flashes of recognition of continuities and the clear evidence of change and evolution that make it interesting. I have favorite sections and passages, but can't find one that would represent the whole. But there are few, if any, other works of the period by Western orientalists that so neatly encapsulate a country and its culture. There are, certainly, plenty of descriptions of Damascus and Istanbul and other cities by diplomats and historians and linguists, but Lane was more of an anthropologist than anything else, although I don't think the word had been coined then, except perhaps for physical anthropology: this is cultural anthropology before the words existed. He captured Egypt in the later years of Muhammad ‘Ali's reign, but also provided descriptions of practices and habits that long predated his era, and many of which survive today. But he also captured a great deal that does not survive today, and that is part of the book's charm and importance. Most Arabic authors of the time were recording the events and institutions of the ruling classes; Lane was out there with the folks in the coffeehouses and local gathering places and mosques. He captured Egypt at the human level better than any Arabic author of the 19th century that I know of: probably better than any author prior to Naguib Mahfouz, who finally gave an Egyptian voice to ordinary Egyptians.

3. Lane, Cairo Fifty Years Ago. Manners and Customs, though Holy Scripture to some (well, mostly me), is a description of just what its title says: a great picture of daily life in Egypt, from home life to trade to religious practices to superstition. It is not a description of Cairo per se, but a picture of how Egyptians lived in the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali. Lane intended to expand it (he did update his first edition once I believe), and had written several chapters describing the city, its streets, neighborhoods, markets, etc. He didn't see it published in his lifetime, but in 1896 his nephew and literary heir, Stanley Lane-Poole, published it as Cairo Fifty Years Ago. Though not as polished as Lane might have liked to see it, it's a valuable work, and it, too, is available as a Google E-book free of charge, if you don't mind reading online.

6. The Lane Extended-Family Franchise. Lane wasn't just a great man; he was a franchise. Just as a lot of novels today with Tom Clancy's name on them are written by somebody else "with" Tom Clancy, Lane's extended family first wrote with him and later succeeded him. I mentioned Stanley Lane-Poole above. His mother, Sophia Lane Poole (no hyphen; that was born with Stanley apparently), also spent time in Egypt and wrote The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo During a Residence There in 1832, 3, and 4, With E.W. Lane, Esq., Author of the "Modern Egyptians." Note, in keeping with my Clancy comparison, the "with." Sophia's work, originally in two volumes and available free as a Google e-Book for online reading, is about women's lives in Cairo. The "with E. W. Lane, Esq." has led some critics to conclude that parts of the book may contain information that Lane acquired in his researches but which neither Muslim Egyptian nor early Victorian English mores would have seemed proper for a man to publish; or perhaps Sophia really did all the research herself. Stanley, once he had acquired that hyphen, became a prolific literary heir to his uncle. He finished the Arabic-English Lexicon after his uncle died while working on the qafs, edited Cairo Fifty Years Ago,  and wrote numerous works on Egyptian history, on Cairo (also a free Google e-Book), on Islam, and other topics. He remains both a scholar in his own right and an important popularizer, but not the pioneer his uncle was. Many of his works have been supplanted by later scholarship; Manners and Customs cannot be.

5. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya al-Jadida li-Misr al-Qahira. This is for the hardcore Cairo buffs. First, it's never been translated from Arabic; second, I doubt it ever will be. (Modern Arabic editions don't sell well: even Cairenes aren't this interested in the history of their city.) It is, however, a document that may rank even above the Déscription de l'Égypte and Manners and Customs. It's not for everyone. It's for the obsessives. For the hikers, the walkers, the monument stalkers, the people who want to know what's down that alley, and why it's there, and what's that little shrine/tomb thing at the end? It works for me, but it won't work for everyone.

‘Ali Mubarak Pasha
Let's start with the title. The author(s) of the current Wikipedia entry on Mubarak Pasha translate Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya as "Tawfiq's New Plans." This is a bit like some of those Chinese machine translations everyone likes to make fun of: it's a literal translation of the words in contemporary Arabic, but it misses the Pasha's point entirely. Actually, "Tawfiq's New Plats" would come closer, since in this case it doesn't mean a plan in the future planning-sense, but in the mapping sense (the basic root has to do with drawing lines); but even that misses the real point. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak was evoking the greatest work ever written on the topography of Cairo (and coming up in this series, you can bet on it), 14th Century Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi's indispensable Al Mawa'iz wa al-I‘tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar. As usual the title is burdened with words to create a rhyme, but it's usually just called the Khitat al-Maqrizi, with Khitat here being the old word used for the laid-out-quartered (thus both planned and platted) in the foundation of Cairo. Maqrizi described medieval Cairo in elaborate detail. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak set out to do a new Khitat for the era of Khedive Tawfiq, hence, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya.

If you don't read Arabic there's little I can do. The work is divided into those parts that were there in Maqrizi's day and those that were newer, and describes the city street by street. The organization is not geographical exactly, but deals with each area's streets, alleys, (various subsets of alleys), mosques, etc. It is both a catalog and a wondrous record of an age.

But for those who do, it's a marvelous resource. The old original Bulaq edition, in several volumes, can even be found at archive.org and other places on the Internet. (Google الخطط التوفيقية. Cut and paste if you need to.) The Bulaq edition, however, is awfully hard to read as it has only topic dividers, not paragraph breaks. If you can find one of the 20th century editions (Dar al-Ma‘arif did one in the 1980s, and I understand there's a more recent one), you'll find it much easier to read.

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