El-Gabarti in Tahrir?
What would the 18th-century Egyptian historian Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti think were he to be transported to today's Tahrir Square, wonders Samir Sobhi
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Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti; Mohamed Ali; Omar Makram; Pages taken from El-GabartiOCOs book chronicling the history of Egypt's revolutions
The events that unfolded in Cairo's Tahrir Square in January 2011 recall those of other revolutions, including the earliest in modern times: the two short-lived revolutions that took place first against the occupying French army of Napoleon Bonaparte and then against the ruling Mamluk caste some 200 years ago.
The links are not just historical and political. Geography too is a factor, for the mosque which featured prominently in the January protests, that of Omar Makram, is named after a major figure in Egyptian history, since Makram was the chief of the ashraf, the descendants of the Prophet and his immediate family (sing. sharif).
Makram, who helped catapult Mohamed Ali to power at the beginning of the 19th century, was tired of the political control exercised by the Mamluks, the originally slave-soldiers who were routed by the French invaders in 1798 and who tried to regain power after the withdrawal of the French in 1801. The dynasty that he helped bring to power, that of Mohamed Ali and his descendants, enjoyed 150 years at the head of the Egyptian state before being overthrown by the 1952 Revolution.
Makram was not well-rewarded for his efforts, however. Soon after Mohamed Ali had consolidated his power, the two men fell out and Makram ended his life in exile in Damietta, a great trading centre on the Mediterranean at the time.
The drama of Mohamed Ali and the Mamluks, as well as the manoeuvrings of the three-year French rule, received blow-by-blow documentation from the contemporary historian Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti (1756-1825), one of the most meticulous chroniclers Egypt has known. El-Gabarti's records of the period go into details of the revolution brought about by Mohamed Ali, the military tactics of the French, and the reaction of the Mamluk chieftains to foreign occupation.
I sometimes wonder what El-Gabarti, an intrepid chronicler, would think of today's events were he to come back to life. What would he think were he able to pay a visit to Tahrir Square?
Would he recognise his contemporary, Omar Makram, whose statue stands close to the mosque bearing his name? Would he feel the same way about the people who rose up against Hosni Mubarak as he felt about those Egyptians who rose up against the French?
Would he inquire into the politics of the events, finding out about the main players and scouring the streets nearby, in order to put together all the pieces?
Were he able to do so, the account he would leave would surely be thrilling, involving, as it would, the sight of people shouting for freedom, their courage in the face of death, and their stubborn resolve to keep up the fight.
No doubt, his worst moment would come when he heard of the burning of the Science Institute of Egypt, which housed one of the world's most valuable historical collections. The institute's premises, only metres away from the Omar Makram Mosque, have now been rebuilt, at least from the outside, but the loss of its irreplaceable content will remain a painful memory of the January 2011 Revolution.
I can almost see El-Gabarti's face fall when he hears of the burning of original copies of the Description of Egypt, the 800-page work that detailed life in Egypt at the chronicler's time. Written over many years by nearly 160 scientists, the book was one of the greatest achievements of its time.
How long would El-Gabarti decide to stay in Tahrir? How much research would he do? Would he ever want to leave in order to go back to his own time?
On some level, the current scene would be somewhat familiar to this early 19th-century figure. Cairo is much bigger, of course, then it was then, at least 10 times larger in terms of population and 100 times larger in terms of area. But the city's spirit is perhaps the same: anticipation mixed with hope, fury mixed with resentment, an old world that is disappearing and a new one that is uncertain and hard to decipher coming to replace it.
One source of satisfaction to the famous chronicler would be the fact that a major mosque has been dedicated to the memory of a key figure of his own time. I can imagine El-Gabarti walking over to Makram's statue to admire the workmanship. And I can imagine the statue coming to life for a moment to speak with this familiar figure.
"So, what's the latest joke?" I can hear El-Gabarti asking Makram.
"Well, I haven't heard a joke for a long time, but I have a story that you may like," Makram might say.
"People around me have been comparing notes about Egypt's last three military leaders. They recall Gamal Abdel-Nasser saying, after the loss of Sinai, that what has been taken away by force must be restored by force. They recall Anwar El-Sadat, before winning back Sinai, saying that he would travel to the end of the world to restore the country's rights."
"Then they recall Hosni Mubarak, in court having lost his presidency, telling the judge, 'I am here sir.'"