Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2005
Issue No. 742
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary or faxed to +202 578 6089.

"At first he declined; then he accepted," Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti wrote of Mohamed Ali Pasha in his 12 and 13 May 1805 chronicle entries. "They brought him a fur pellise and a gown. Sayyid Umar and Shaykh al-Sharqawi put them on him." Commemorating the day on which Mohamed Ali Pasha became the ruler of Egypt in answer to a popular uprising, Al-Ahram Weekly presents a range of takes on him and his seminal contribution to the development of modern Egypt
Sabri Al-Adl

All the Pasha's papers

Sabri Al-Adl*, provides an overview of the acquisitions of the Egyptian National Archives on the Mohamed Ali era

Upon assuming the rule of Egypt in 1805, Mohamed Ali began seeking a form of centralisation that would facilitate total state control over society. In his view, the only means of securing such dominion began with a centralised registration of individuals, activities, and locales.

Click to view caption
The Pasha
On Sunday morning the 12th (May 12) the shaykhs rode to Bayt-Qadi. A great number of turbaned shaykhs, common folk, and youth gathered there so that the courtyard and hall were filled with people. they shouted, "God's law decide between us and this tyrant of a pasha!" Some of the youths were shouting, "O God, the Benevolent!"; others, "O God, who makest thyself manifest, destroy the Ottomans!"... They demanded that the qadi summon the leading men of the government to a council.'

From the very start, Mohamed Ali's primary challenge was a lack of control over the movement of individuals in villages and cities, and the flight of many outside of Egypt. This led him to the idea of registering all individuals and their activities, in their locales, through various types of records in an attempt to control the movement of both individuals and groups.

Mohamed Ali's establishment of a centralised administration headquartered in Cairo had a significant effect on the production of documents that appropriately represented the various administrative agencies. There were four primary government bureaus during the Mohamed Ali era, the khedival bureau, the revenue bureau, the military bureau, and the naval bureau.

The Boulaq printing press, established in 1820, produced records that outlined the information clerks were required to enter. For the first time in Egypt, records were printed for the state's administrative agencies with a framework for their content. Columns were printed in the records for the serial number of correspondence, from and to whom it was sent, the date of receipt and name of recipient, the subject, the date entered into the records, and so on.

It was no longer left to clerks to write what they would in records, as the case had been during the Ottoman period when records merely consisted of blank pages on which employees wrote as they saw fit. The Ottoman system had resulted in clerks occasionally overlooking the date or making a mistake in names or the subject of the record, which led to crossed out material being rewritten elsewhere. Sometimes empty spaces were left, often omitting important parts of the document such as the name of one of the parties to a legal case.

The policy of documentation during the Mohamed Ali era was not a new one, for documentation in the form of records had been utilised during the Ottoman era. Ottoman documentation included the recording of firmans and decrees, taxes and state property, and transactions between individuals such as purchase and sale, marriage and divorce (including khul "divorce initiated by women"), endowments, and so on. Transactions between individuals were the most commonly produced documents in the Ottoman era, and are found in the records of the Islamic legal courts within the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo. These kinds of records document internal social relations, whereas documentation in the Mohamed Ali era represented, to a large degree, the relationship between the authority and the people.

Mohamed Ali's new composition for recording activities of the state and individuals produced records that were similar in appearance, framework and organisation of information, but different in terms of content. Yet the documentary production of the Mohamed Ali era, from 1805 to 1849, never received due attention until the period of King Fouad (1917-1936), who was keen to record his family's history.

He assembled a group of specialists to aid him in meeting this goal, and contracted the French Orientalist Dény for the task of examining Turkish documents and organising them for researchers and historians. Based on Dény's recommendations, King Fouad later established the department of historical archives at the Abdeen Palace in 1932. This department was something like the Egyptian National Archives of that time, despite the fact that it was overwhelmingly concerned with preserving documents related to the Mohamed Ali family.

King Fouad's interest in collecting his family's documents was not limited to those in Egypt; he collected documents related to his family that were located in European archives as well. He recruited Europeans to copy the documents found in the British archives, particularly those related to the Mohamed Ali era, and these handwritten copies are still kept in the Egyptian National Archives. The Abdeen Palace collection (which was transferred to the Egyptian National Archives upon its establishment in 1954) forms the most important collection of documents related to the Mohamed Ali era. In turn, Egypt's documents from the Mohamed Ali family era form the most significant collection of the Egyptian National Archives. If they were removed, nothing would be left save for a few meagre collections.

Despite that, the Egyptian National Archives do not possess all of Mohamed Ali's documents. They are in fact distributed among several agencies, the most important being the Public Record Office at the Citadel, which preserves the files of employees in the 19th century and the records of land costs during the Mohamed Ali era and until the beginning of the 20th century. There are also documents scattered here and there between various government agencies that feel it is important to hold on to them, such as the Ministry of Irrigation, which preserves documents of water-related installations, barrages, dams and so on. There are also some documents in Egyptian museums such as the Military Museum, which possesses documents related to the Egyptian army in the Mohamed Ali era.

There are also documents in European archives that address the Mohamed Ali era, the most important of which are the French archives. As is well known, most of the academic missions during the Mohamed Ali era travelled to France, and its archive possesses documents on the Mohamed Ali era and the Saint Simon group, which Mohamed Ali relied upon when devising an education policy for Egypt. There are also documents in the Italian archives related to the Mohamed Ali era. As for the British archives, most of Mohamed Ali's documents were copied by hand and deposited in the Egyptian National Archives.

The most important collections in the Egyptian National Archives that address the Mohamed Ali era are the documents of the Al- Maaiya Al-Sanniya [the supreme retinue] bureau, local administration documents, service documents, and financial and economic documents. Al-Maaiya Al-Sanniya was the name given to the governor's board of advisors or retinue. It was its task to follow the course of government activities and place regulations for various types of administrative work. This bureau had two types of records, one in Arabic and the other in Turkish. The oldest of them dates to 1829 (1245 AH).

This bureau held the records of the khedival, military and naval bureaus, as well as those of the law society, the Egyptian statutes council, the private council, the royal court council (at a late period), the first instance councils, the appeals council, and the provincial councils. The local administration documents, on the other hand, addressed the matters in the provinces. Mohamed Ali had divided Egypt into governorates and provinces, and the governorates included cities with strategic importance such as Cairo, Alexandria, Rashid, Damietta, Arish, and Suez, while the remaining areas were called provinces.

Documents related to services were produced by government agencies that provided services, such as Al-Kheiriya Barrages, the Khedival post, the slaughterhouses, the Al-Aziziya and Al- Majidiya Company, the public health council, the Upper Egypt engineering inspection office, the education bureau, the traffic and railroad bureau, the shipyard bureau and the Rashid harbour. Documents related to finance and the economy were produced by bureaus and agencies related to money, such as the monetary bureau, the revenue bureau, the Mohamed Ali commerce bureau, the tradesmen's council, the country estates bureau, the civil list and the wood bureau.

WHAT'S TO BE DONE: The National Archives is currently developing the services it offers in order to facilitate accessibility to its acquisitions for researchers and the public in keeping with the demands of the age.

The first of its kind in the Arab world, a pilot project sampling 55,000 documents has now been completed after an entire year of work. This project was guided by similar activities around the world, either through field visits to international archives or through Internet research.

This document collection, of which there is now an electronic copy, has been made available on the archives' website, in addition to published documents and other pages that aim to serve researchers and to publicise the archives and its activities.

Through this pilot project the archives acquired an experience that forms the basis for further development. The National Archives is now undertaking a comprehensive survey of its acquisitions, building on the recommendations produced by the pilot project.

The survey of the National Archives' acquisitions forms a preparatory stage for the digitization project, in which final documentation of all of the archives' collections will be entered into a primary database. This database will then be used to form a strategy for preserving documents, and will be made available to researchers and those interested in the historical development of Egyptian society.

The survey of the archives' acquisitions is taking place according to international archive standards through the use of cards with detailed and uniform descriptions that will ultimately form a database. The goal is to eventually publish this database on the archives' website, and work on the survey is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

Another archives activity currently underway is the implementation of a plan for document preservation through the establishment of a restoration centre built according to modern global standards. The restoration, preservation and microfilm centre will be established with technical assistance from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. The Mohamed Ali era left us with a wealth of documents reflecting the efforts this man undertook in modernising Egypt's infrastructure. We hope that in the near future these documents can be all collected in a unified archive.

* The writer is director of the Document Studies and Research Unit at the Egyptian National Archives.

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