A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 3, 2011

Historical Vignette: The Scholarly Royal: Prince ‘Omar Toussoun

My post last week at this time on Sir K.A.C. Creswell has drawn private comment from some fellow old Cairo hands of that era, who claim my occasional historical and nostalgic vignettes are one of the blog's strengths. Watch out, folks, it only encourages me.

As I noted then, Creswell was a classic amateur, a man who lacked formal academic training but went on to dominate the field. He represented the positive side of a tradition that would one day become a pejorative, the "Orientalist," but which is the underpinning of modern Middle Eastern scholarship. But this week I want to offset any impression readers might have that only Europeans and Americans produced all the serious scholarship of the last century about the Middle East. Though Egyptians will recognize the name I want to talk a bit about a man often forgotten in modern Western scholarship but who contributed to a broad range of scholarship in Egypt, from archaeology to history to geography to agriculture, and even Coptic studies though he was a Muslim. He was not just a dilettante dabbling in these fields either: he produced many works in both Arabic and French, and those I have used — mostly in my case his La géographie de l'Egypte à l'époque arabe — were solid scholarly contributions that are still valuable today. And — improbable though it may seem if your image of the Egyptian Royal Family is King Farouq — he was a Prince of the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty to boot. This is Prince ‘Omar Toussoun (‘Umar Tusun, but the French spelling is what you'll find in many bibliographies, since he published in French when not publishing in Arabic).

I was astonished to find that he apparently has no English Wikipedia biography, or even (unless my search for various transliterations left something out), in French, the language of much of his oeuvre. Even his Arabic Wikipedia biography is somewhat short, though you'll find longer bios online among followers of the Egyptian royals, such as here, and also here. Those who don't read Arabic will have to settle for what I'm about to write, though the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has a biographical monograph out called Omar Toussoun: Prince of Alexandria, though it's outside my price range.

Anyway, Prince ‘Omar Toussoun (1872-1944) was royal on both sides of his ancestry and both a great-grandson and great-great-grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali; his father, Prince Toussoun, was a son of Sa‘id Pasha, Wali of Egypt 1854-1863 and fourth son of Muhammad ‘Ali, while the Prince's mother, Princess Fatima Isma‘il, was the daughter of  the Khedive Isma‘il, whose lavish modernization of Cairo and grand opening of the Suez Canal created the modern city but bankrupted the country. Isma‘il was a grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali and a nephew of Sa‘id Pasha.

His father died when he was a child; his mother, Princess Fatima, seems to have been the inspiration for his scholarly career: she famously agreed to sell her royal jewelry in order to bail out the newly-founded National University (ancestor of the University of Cairo) when it was about to lose its quarters due to lack of funds.

His royal ancestry gave him access to education and wealth, and after studying business and languages in  Switzerland he traveled in Europe before returning to Egypt. In addition to Turkish (still the language of the Egyptian court in his youth) and Arabic, he spoke French and English, and apparently had some knowledge of classical languages as well. In a Royal Family where no King before Farouq spoke Arabic natively, he became an authority on Egyptian history and geography, fields which demanded a facility in classical Arabic.

In 1936
He headed the Royal Agricultural Society; actively engaged in archaeological research and carried out and published digs, including a famous head of Alexander the Great, was a member of the Geographical Society and published the aforementioned La géographie de l'Egypte à l'époque arabe, a multi-volume study on Egyptian geography in the Islamic period, wrote a study on the branches of the Nile in ancient times, was a member of the Arabic Academies of Cairo and Damascus, was a patron, like his mother before him, of the University of Cairo, helped found the Sporting Club of Alexandria, headed the Alexandria Museum, and so on.

Though a Muslim, one of his books was an account of the Coptic monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, and he was a President of the Coptic Archaelogical Society. He joined the Coptic Patriarch in opposing the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

But again, he was not just a Royal dabbler. His scholarly contributions were real. He was also a committed Egyptian nationalist, not always typical of the Royal Family. He supported the Ottomans against the Italians in Libya when Libya invaded, but also backed the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. He was a friend of Sa‘d Zaghloul, and was at least a sympathizer with the Wafd Party.

He was also a philanthropic benefactor of many scholarly and educational societies, and is said to have personally subsidized hundreds of Egyptian villages; he was the only Royal to pay much attention to the fellahin, perhaps a legacy of his interest in agriculture. Although he had a palatial estate in Cairo, he was associated primarily with Alexandria, the city of both his birth and death. On his death in 1944, he was given a lavish funeral widely attended by the Alexandrian people, who considered him their own.

The Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty is remembered for the excesses of King Farouq and the sometime remoteness of the Royal Court, but Prince ‘Omar Toussoun, who was outside the line of succession but a prominent figure nonetheless, was popular with his fellow Alexandrians, among the peasantry, and in the academic community. A figure worth remembering, I think.


Elizabeth said...

Can you tell me whether Omar Toussoun had any children?

Sean (williamscold@gmail.com) said...

I believe the man in the second picture is Prince Said Toussoun, son of Prince Omar. It looks like Prince Omar had at least three children: Said, Hassan, and Amina.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this illuminating article on Toussoun. I recently stumbled
upon his "Memoire sur l’Histoire du Nil." out of interest in
environmental history. It appears the data on the nile water levels at
Cairo is still used these days. I was astonished that a member of the
royal family would write such a tome of lasting relevance, and was glad
this blog-post helped me learn more about Toussoun's background.

The monograph issued by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, mentioned in the post,
has been made available online
at bibalex.org

@Elizabeth: According to that monograph, Toussoun had two daughters and
two sons, one son died rather early. You can find more details in the book.