Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

The true father of Egyptology

Reviewed by John Rodenbeck

Description of Egypt. Edward William Lane, edited and with an introduction by Jason Thompson, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2000. pp588

For Egyptologists and for Egyptophiles everywhere, the appearance of this hitherto legendary text is a major publishing event. The editor, Professor Jason Thompson of the American University, and his publisher, the American University in Cairo Press, deserve all our applause, not only for their initiative, but also for the care they have clearly taken. A few quibbles will be made here later about technical shortcuts, but in the main this book is a remarkable production and a deeply impressive piece of work.

The subtitle of Lane's Description of Egypt announces that it consists of "Notes and views of Egypt and Nubia, made during the years 1825, -- 26,--27: Chiefly consisting of a series of description and delineations of the monuments, scenery, & c. of those countries; the views, with few exceptions, made with the camera lucida." Never published in his lifetime, these notes and views languished in manuscript and on drawing paper, served as an occasional quarry for other projects, and were eventually distributed among several bound volumes, which are now in the British Library.

The full story of the composition of the present text is told by Professor Thompson in a brilliant preface, where he also explains his editorial choice of Lane's third and final draft as the basis for his edition, the first ever published. Had the book appeared at any time between 1829 and 1833, as Lane intended, Professor Thompson observes, "it would have been a landmark in Egyptology."

This judgment is no exaggeration. It would certainly have had far more value and impact, for example, than the famous Description de l'Egypte produced by a succession of imperial, royal, and private-sector French presses between 1810 (the date 1809 given on its title page is false) and 1829. Based on research carried out by Bonaparte's engineers and savants during his army's occupation of Egypt, 1798-1801, this enormous monument to investigative enterprise -- it ultimately bulked out at between 20 and 37 volumes, depending on the edition and the binding -- has acquired an equally inflated reputation. One scholar has even suggested that it inspired both Edward Lane and David Roberts to visit Egypt, a preposterous canard for which there is no proof whatever.

The standard clichés about Bonaparte's Description de l'Egypte are that it is "unique" and "unprecedented," that it "opened up the country," that it "inspired the beginning of Egyptology," that it remains "an invaluable contribution to knowledge," and that it "had enormous cultural impact." None of these claims is remotely true.

Precedents for this monster run from the Domesday Book to the famous Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1780), published in 34 volumes, and the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1781-1830), which eventually ran to well over 200 volumes. The amount of usable Egyptology offered by the Description de l'Egypte was actually quite small; and its high cost, unwieldy size, and low availability -- only 1000 copies were produced -- meanwhile limited its readership to a handful of rich amateurs. The long delays in publication meant that by the time the whole work finally appeared much of its information about modern Egypt was two or three decades out of date and had only historical interest. Today its value is seen to reside far more in what it tells us about Bonaparte and his Expédition than in what it tells us about Egypt.

Costumes of Cairo

The savants' visual experience of Pharaonic objects was considerably less than that of ten-year-old schoolchildren anywhere in the world today. They were unable to read hieroglyphics -- Edmé-François Jomard, the

editor-in-chief, actually sought to thwart the efforts of Champollion in that direction -- and were thus unable to identify most of the monuments they were looking at. That fact and their general ignorance of Ancient Egyptian architecture may explain why they preferred to draw fanciful reconstructions rather than make accurate records. Their graphic renditions of monuments, in any case, were constructed without the benefit of the camera lucida, normal apparatus for such work in Lane's and Roberts' time, which insured a standard of accuracy the savants' could hardly have been able to imagine.

The graphic work Lane did for his Description is stunning; and Professor Thompson has managed to rescue 160 of the surviving illustrations to accompany the text. Lane came from a family of artists and engravers and had received a thorough technical grounding in his early years. Outstanding are panoramic views of Alexandria, Bulaq, Cairo, and of major archaeological

sites, which -- thanks to the camera lucida -- show us what they truly looked like rather than how they might have struck the fancy. Renditions of costumes, street scenes, and interiors are equally striking; and some of them were copied for inclusion in Lane's masterpiece of ethnography, his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published in 1836 and never out of print since.

Manners and Customs continues to be regarded as one of the greatest of the classic Egyptological texts, even by Edward Said, who has expressed hostility towards virtually all works in English about the Middle East. Professor Said's arguments create a genetic double bind, rendering any Westerner who is indifferent to or ignorant of the Middle East contemptible, but making any Westerner who actually comes to know anything deeply suspect. Written without consulting Laila Ahmed's well known biography of Lane, which Professor Thompson generously describes as "definitive," Said's famous onslaught on Lane actually centres on his own imaginary construction of Lane's personal character and makes many fundamental errors of fact. It attempts to put Lane's bona fides in doubt and to question the validity of the information in Manners and Customs, using innuendo rather than proof.

Whatever his virtues as a political commentator, for which this reviewer admires him enormously, Edward Said's remarks about Lane leave a great deal "including the truth" to be desired.

Badly muddled in Said's account, which ascribes motives to Lane that he could not possibly have had, the relationship of Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians to his Description of Egypt is thoroughly explained in Professor Thompson's introduction. Likewise explained is how the manuscript of Lane's Description served as the quarry for another important work, Letters of an Englishwoman in Egypt, a collection of ethnographic writings published in expanding versions in 1844, 1846, 1851, and 1853 under the name of Sophia Lane Poole, Lane's sister. It also supplied the basic materials for Cairo Fifty Years Ago, published by Stanley Lane-Poole, Lane's grandnephew, in 1896, two decades after Lane's death.

High points of the text for this reviewer are Lane's brisk and enthralling 53-page account of the career of Mohamed Ali and his extended description of the Ramesseum on the west bank at Luxor, which quietly refutes a century of error. Lane was in a position here to make use of real Egyptology, not amateur guesswork, as represented by the discoveries of Gardner Wilkinson and Champollion; and the consequent difference between what he tells us and what Napoleon's savants were able to say is simply enormous.

No doubt other readers will have other favourite passages about their favourite places in Egypt. Fans of KV5, for example, will find a short paragraph here to interest them, as will devotees of Karnak. We wish them joy. We also wish them luck in locating and retrieving relevant passages, for this wonderful book comes without an index. The lack of one is perfectly comprehensible -- to add an index would obviously have meant that the book would have had to appear in two volumes, rather than one, and therefore at twice the price -- but it is still a pity, a forgivable flaw in what is otherwise a remarkable editorial and publishing achievement.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
   Top of page
Front Page