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 firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to +202 578 6089.
Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)
traces the development of Egypt's modern educational system during the reign of Muhammad Ali
Even though Muhammad Ali himself had not received any school education in his childhood or youth, and had in fact remained illiterate until the age of 40, he urged Egyptians to seek knowledge and educate themselves through reading and study. The Egyptian historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti, in his celebrated chronicle Aja'ib al-athar fil tarajim wal-akhbar, notes that Muhammad Ali grew intent on establishing schools when he noticed that Egyptians were intelligent and receptive of learning. He gives the example of a young man from Rosetta, a certain Hussein Jalabi Ajwa, who invented a devise for grinding rice in a simple manner. Ajwa presented his invention to the Pasha, who was impressed and awarded him in cash. According to Jabarti's narrative, Muhammad Ali concluded that the people of Egypt were clever and ordered the construction of a school in the palace courtyard to instruct local residents and the Pasha's Mamluks in the rules of arithmetic.
In his book Manahij al-albab al-misriya fi mabahij al-adab al- 'asriya, Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi noted that it pained the Pasha to see Egyptian minds wasted and thus resolved to rescue Egypt's wealth of intellect in order to serve the country. He focused his attention on modern education, as Egypt's education system had at that time been limited to Islamic law and religious studies. Muhammad Ali was intent on transferring modern sciences to Egypt, especially given that European states had used them to advance their societies. Despite this focus, however, Muhammad Ali did not neglect the former education system ó in fact he exploited it to serve new purposes.
Muhammad Ali believed that building the modern state he envisioned required a strong army, competent in modern military methods based on science and experience. It also required engineers, doctors, teachers, translators and experts of all kinds. To this end, the Pasha established specialised schools to serve the government's need of experts and to meet its need of blue collar employees. He sent academic missions of all specialisations abroad and ordered the translation of numerous foreign books into Turkish and Arabic to facilitate accessibility to the benefits of their information.
Through these three methods, schools, academic missions and translation, Muhammad Ali sought to transfer knowledge from the West to Egypt to further his aim of building a modern state. Yet despite this, he did not attempt to transfer Egypt itself to the West, but rather preserved its heritage and Eastern customs, albeit mixed with Western civilisation and science. He thus connected Egypt's present to its past while creating a modern Egyptian renaissance based on development in both the Eastern and Western worlds.
Education developed in various stages during Muhammad Ali's reign. During the first stage, from, 1811 to 1836, a total of 67 schools were established in various fields. All these schools were under the authority of the department of the military and their main focus was military. However, the education system itself was decentralised, thus the director of each school devised the rules he saw fit for his institution. And since the government was intent on graduating employees irrespective of their nationality, Egyptians formed a small proportion of the student body. In fact, Italian cultural influence dominated the schools during this period as Italian was the first foreign language to be included in Egyptian school curricula and Italy was the first destination for state academic missions. Furthermore, many of the instructors at these schools were foreigners.
The most important schools of this period were the School of Medicine, the School of Agriculture, the School of Engineering and the Language Academy.
The School of Medicine is in fact the oldest advanced institute in Egypt. It was established in 1827 at Abu Zaabal, north of Cairo, with the aim of producing Egyptian doctors for the army. The school's establishment can be traced to the efforts of the French doctor Antoine Clot, whom Muhammad Ali had hired to serve as a doctor in the army and awarded the rank of a bey. The School of Medicine supplied the army with local doctors. Its prestige grew further when it added the School of Pharmacology in 1830 and then established the School of Obstetrics in 1831. The School of Veterinary Medicine then moved next to it. Within a decade, the school had graduated 420 doctors and pharmacists for the army.
Yet the school's location in Abu Zaabal was deemed inappropriate lying as it did near the cemeteries in a forsaken area; patients were often startled awake by the night time howling of hyenas. Since the school administration wanted to build a large hospital nearby to house medical cases and provide practical experience for its students, the school was relocated in 1837 to a palace near the eastern bank of the Nile in Cairo built by Ahmed Al-Aini, which gave the traditional name for Cairo University's Hospital: Qasr Al-Aini.
Several specialised agricultural colleges were established during Muhammad Ali's reign. The first, al-Darsakhana al-malakiya (The Royal Academy), was established in 1830. Its students studied agricultural sciences, Arabic and Farsi. Next came the agricultural college in Shubra Al-Kheima, in 1833, in which returnees from agricultural missions in Europe taught. The agricultural college in Nabruh was established in 1836, and its entire student body was Egyptian.
Muhammad Ali established five engineering colleges, the longest surviving of which is the school established in Boulaq in 1834, which was organised according to the model of the engineering college in Paris. This college produced generations of specialists who were essential to the success of Egypt's renaissance.
Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi, who had accompanied an educational mission to France, recommended the establishment of the Alsun (Languages) Academy to serve as a meeting place for the cultures of the East and West. It was a piece of advice Muhammad Ali followed. The Alsun Academy was inaugurated in 1835 and its headquarters were located in the Alfi residence in Ezbekiya. Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi was commissioned to direct it upon his return from Paris.
The academy took charge of cultural affairs in Egypt and became a national support for the development of education during the reign of Muhammad Ali. It confirmed the fact that Muhammad Ali's reign was truly an age of translation with the aim of adopting Western arts and sciences in the fields of the military, agriculture, and construction. It met the goal of its establishment, which was to train translators in various fields and instructors of French to teach at preparatory schools and specialised institutes.
In addition to these schools, a number of specialised institutes of agricultural practice, engineering, metallurgy, and chemistry, among others, were established during the same period. A number of military academies were also established, including the Infantry Academy in 1820, the General Staff Academy in 1825, the Cavalry Academy in 1830, and the Artillery Academy in 1831.
Students from among the Mamluks and Muhammad Ali's own family were selected to form the initial core of officers of the Infantry Academy. At first the academy was located at the Cairo Citadel, but was later moved to Aswan to distance its students from the distractions of Cairo and be closer to Sudan, which was expected to be a primary centre for conscription to the army. This academy was placed under the authority of Colonel Seve, who faced numerous difficulties training students unaccustomed to learn military arts from Europeans. Muhammad Ali's backing helped him overcome these challenges. The academy was later transferred to Akhmim and then Al-Nakhila (south of Assiut), then to Al-Khanqa near Cairo in September 1832, and finally to Damiette and Abu Zaabal.
The Artillery Academy was established in Tora in 1831 to provide the army with the necessary officers required by the new divisions formed. The academy was reorganised in 1836 when two new rules were put in place, one for the school's organisation and the other for its curriculum, which was full of varied courses and charged with graduating competent officers. This academy developed until the signing of the London Treaty in 1840, after which the need for division officers was limited.
The Cavalry Academy was established in April 1831 and housed at Murad Bey's palace in Giza with the aim of training officers to teach in the army. It also graduated bugle blowers and drummers.
Muhammad Ali also established a naval academy on a battleship to graduate naval officers. A number of naval officers who made a name for themselves in naval warfare emerged from this school. The Pasha also selected officers to complete their studies and practice military arts in France and Britain. Eventually this Egyptian naval fleet came to equal its Ottoman counterpart in both size and competence.
Having decided to organise the Egyptian army on the model of European armies, Muhammad Ali felt it was necessary to establish a military music corps, hence the Military Music Academy. The necessary musical instruments were brought from Europe and European musicians were hired to teach Egyptians Western military music. The military music academy was set up in Al-Khanqa, but as its curriculum was based on the transfer of Western melodies and songs to an Eastern environment, it failed to ring the desired resonance among its students, leading to its ultimate shut down.
A second stage in the development of Egyptian education took place between 1836 and 1841. It was during this period that the educational system became more organised. Schools were better connected to each other and many students returned from academic missions abroad to participate in organising education in their hometowns as well as to work in government agencies. Muhammad Ali decided to separate the role of education from the Department of the Military and formed a technical committee to organise educational affairs and devise a good system of organisation. It was later formally named Diwan al-madaris: the Department of Schools.
This technical committee set guidelines for each stage of education. Primary education was limited to three years and served two principal goals: educating the populace and preparing students for preparatory school. Preparatory schools also served two goals, the first of which was furthering the education of primary school graduates. Its second goal was to prepare students for specialised institutes that aimed to train employees for government agencies and administrations. During this period there were two preparatory schools, one in Cairo and the other in Alexandria. Their curriculum covered four years.
Specialised institutes sought to produce a professional cadre, specifically in medicine, agriculture, engineering, administration, and translation, as well as other fields. The most important of the institutes established during this period were the two royal administration schools.
Muhammad Ali felt a need to establish a school to produce cadres capable of regulating and supervising the work of government agencies as well as employees and translators for all administration branches. The regulations of this school required students to be tested every three months and then be given a general exam at the end of each year. Once students completed their theoretical studies they were given practical training in administration. Directors of all government agencies were assigned a student to work as an assistant for one year and then they were appointed to government departments and offices and military brigades.
During this period, Muhammad Ali also focused on the printing press as a means to spread knowledge.
Finally the third stage in the history of education under Muhammad Ali came from the year 1841 to the end of his reign. A period of political stability followed in the wake of the settlement between the Pasha and the Ottoman Empire in 1840-1841 and the Egyptian armed forces were downsized and reorganised. Muhammad Ali dismissed many of his soldiers and the education system was reconsidered. A committee was formed to re-examine the system in light of the new political and economic circumstances and new guidelines were devised. The primary level was downsized to one school in Cairo and four in the provinces. Preparatory and specialised schools remained as they were, although their student body decreased as the government's need for employees became less urgent.
In 1844, Muhammad Ali established an academy for the Egyptian military mission in Paris that taught military sciences as studied in advanced French institutes. It had 70 students selected by Suleiman Pasha Al-Faransawi from the Egyptian academies and included four princes, two sons of Muhammad Ali himself: Abdel-Halim and Hussein, and two of Ibrahim Pasha's sons: Ismail (later Khedive) and Ahmed. This school was put under the authority of the French minister of the military. Its principal and instructors included French military men. Its students were closely monitored and dedicated themselves to their academic studies. They were never far from the constant advice and warnings of Muhammad Ali; even their daily schedules were sent for his approval. This school was shut down towards the end of Muhammad Ali's reign, but was reopened during the reign of Ismail. It did not remain active for long, however, as the Franco-German War of 1870-1871 caused the return of the Egyptian missions home from Paris and the ultimate closure of the school.
In conclusion, Muhammad Ali created a new system of education in Egypt. He did so to meet his government's need for employees and to supply the army with officers. Muhammad Ali focused first on institutes of higher learning, in particular on technical and specialised institutes, as he was uncomfortable with the control of foreigners over education. He wanted to speed up the replacement of foreigners with Egyptians and so sent educational missions to Europe because he believed in the value of specialists. When the missions' students returned from abroad they indeed replaced most of the foreigners.
Education during the reign of Muhammad Ali was characterised by its military nature in terms of school life, the manner of recruiting students, and the schools falling under the authority of the department of the military. This explains people's initial aversion to education and refusal to send their children to school. The Egyptian government, however, took interest in students and did everything possible to assist them to complete their studies in terms of finances, health care and other concerns.
And thus Muhammad Ali succeeded in shoring up support for the modern Egyptian renaissance by anchoring the education system. Yet this success did not last for long; when his grandson Abbas I took power from 1848 to 1854 he closed most of the schools his grandfather had established, included Al-Alsun Academy. Its founding principal, Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi, was relocated to Sudan, and most of the mission members who were studying abroad were recalled. Under Abbas the state of Egyptian education degenerated significantly.
* The writer is a specialist on the history of education policies in 19 century Egypt and professor of modern history at Fayoum University.