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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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A Diwan of contemporary life (362)

On the face of it, an international conference on geography held in Cairo in 1925 might not appear to have been of much consequence. But so important was it at the time for the country's international standing that the king himself attended the opening. The ceremony was preceded by not only months of preparation but also controversy, including pessimism in some quarters over the selection of Egypt as host, a snub to Germany -- then a science superpower -- which prevented its participation. Al-Ahram and Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *followed the debates in and out the conference hall

On the subject of geography

"At 5.00pm on Wednesday, 1 April 1925, the General Geographic Conference was inaugurated. The opening was attended by His Majesty the King, the Egyptian cabinet and a large assembly of Egyptian ulama, or notables, men of science, literature and the press. All nations participated with the exception of the countries of Central Europe." With this announcement, Al-Ahram launched its coverage of this academic event in Cairo.

Such was the international profile of the conference that the opening ceremony was accorded full state pageantry. Al-Ahram reports, "At approximately 5.00pm the procession of His Majesty the King began to move towards the conference hall where the 450 participants, including foreign political figures, had taken their seats. At the front was a long table behind which sat the conference chairman. To his right was Prime Minister Ahmed Ziwar Pasha and the heads of the Italian and French delegations. To his left was former Prime Minister Adli Yakan Pasha, chairman of the preparatory committee, the American and Japanese delegates and Adolph Qatawi Bek, secretary-general of the Royal Geographic Society, who introduced the speakers."

Police had been stationed along the path taken by the royal procession. As the king neared the premises, "people held their breath and women stopped chattering. Then His Excellency the Chief Master of Ceremonies announced the arrival of the king, at which point all rose as His Majesty proceeded to the podium to declare in French the opening of the General International Geographic Conference."

Leading up to this landmark occasion was a lengthy period of preparation and conflict. The idea of the conference had its origins two years earlier, in 1923, when the Royal Geographic Society neared its 50th anniversary. The society was founded during the reign of the Khedive Ismail in 1875. Over the years it had been chaired by a number of prominent Egyptian and foreign figures, the first of whom was the noted German geographer, George Scheinfurth. It continued to enjoy direct royal patronage under Ismail's successor, the Khedive Tawfiq who, in 1889, appointed Crown Prince Abbas as the society's chairman.

In spite of the political vicissitudes that saw Egypt move from occupation to a British protectorate then to independence -- and saw the title of the occupant of the Egyptian throne change from khedive to sultan to king -- this degree of royal patronage remained constant and uninterrupted. Indeed, the idea of celebrating the society's golden jubilee came in the form of a royal decree issued to ex-premier Yakan on 26 May 1923. It stated:

Members of the General Geographic Conference, after visiting the Egyptian Museum, pose for a photo at its entrance

"In view of the approaching 50th anniversary of the Egyptian Royal Geographic Society, founded by our august father, the Khedive Ismail, it is our wish that this occasion be commemorated with a call to hold the 11th Conference on Geography and Anthropology in Cairo in 1925. And in view of the importance these two sciences have with respect to our country's contribution to intellectual activities and the advancement of science, and in view of those superior qualities we know you to possess, it is our wish to entrust you with the chairmanship of the conference's organising committee."

Indeed, such was the importance the king attached to the conference that his decree also stipulated the names of members of the preparatory committee. All of them were prominent figures in government or in relevant institutions. Thus, membership consisted of current and former ministers, the members of the board of directors of the Geographic Society, the governor of Cairo, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, director of the Egyptian Library, Ali Bahgat, curator of the Egyptian Museum, and the curator of the Graeco-Roman Museum.

Within two weeks of the decree, the secretary-general of the Royal Geographic Society submitted a draft proposal for the conference agenda to Al-Ahram with a request to readers to offer their observations. The topics he suggested included physical geography, biogeography, anthropology, geographical discoveries, cartography and topography, economic and social geography and the teaching of geography.

However, the anticipated dialogue with the public did not materialise as planned. The following year, Al-Ahram readers discovered that politics had elbowed its way into the planning for the eminent occasion. The first indication of this appeared in Al-Ahram of 25 February 1924, which reported that the German government had asked its minister plenipotentiary in Cairo to inquire as to why the Egyptian government had not extended an invitation to Germany to attend the conference.

King Fouad
King Fouad Prince Touson
Prince Touson Ahmed Ziwar Pasha
Ahmed Ziwar Pasha Adli Yakan Pasha
Adli Yakan Pasha
This news must have raised some eyebrows among those familiar with the history of the Egyptian Royal Geographic Society. Not only was its first chairman German, but German scholars continued to account for a significant proportion of its membership until World War I when the German expatriate community was expelled from Egypt.

Two weeks later Al-Ahram revealed the reason for this omission. The conference organisers, it explained, had sent invitations to the 16 foreign governments that had diplomatic missions in Cairo and to the foreign ministries of 10 other governments. The organisers were perplexed when only three of the 26 nations responded. When they inquired further they realised they had distributed the invitations through the wrong channels and that protocol dictated they go through the International Research Council. Established in 1919 with its headquarters in Brussels, the council brought under its wing various international scholastic societies, including the International Geographic Federation. Al-Ahram added that before proceeding with its plans, Egypt had to join the council and its subsidiary, the International Geographic Federation.

Once the Egyptian government assumed these memberships, it sent out another batch of invitations. Much to Germany's consternation, it still did not receive one. Angered at what it said was a deliberate slight, Berlin instructed its ambassadors to those countries that had remained neutral during the war to convey to them the harm such behaviour would cause to the advancement of science. In addition, the ambassadors were to remind these governments that the aim of the International Geographic Federation "is to coordinate the conduct of major scientific research projects by bringing together scientists from all countries. Germany has long established academic and cultural links with a large number of these countries and it would be extremely regrettable if German scientists were to be excluded from these activities, as science should know no national boundaries and should remain the collective pursuit of all peoples."

The German press also took up the protest, reminding the relevant organisations that a German, Scheinfurth, was the first to chair the Egyptian Geographic Society. In a scathing attack, the Cologne Gazette said the distinguished participants at the conference should "either demonstrate their respect for the German scientists whose portraits bedeck the walls of the Egyptian Geographic Society or draw the curtains over them if they fail to commemorate Scheinfurth, the father of that society which, itself, held a magnificent celebration in honour of his 50th birthday in 1913."

When politics enter the halls of academia and culture, it can only spell trouble, an opinion Al-Ahram expressed when all appeals to permit Germany to attend the conference in Egypt fell on deaf ears. "It is most unfortunate that the regulations of the International Research Council prohibit the participation of countries of the Central Powers. Egypt, which greatly reveres the contribution German science has made to the growth of scientific wealth, fervently wishes that science and the arts could have remained above the ambitions and disputes of nations."

When the storm finally blew over, preparations got in full swing for the second major international conference to be held in Egypt; the first, the International Medical Conference, having taken place in 1902. The venue of the conference, it was decided, would be in an auditorium to be constructed on the premises of the Geographic Society. When Al-Ahram's correspondent visited the hall in December 1924 he was taken aback by its "beauty and harmony." He continues, "The walls, ceiling and columns of this vast auditorium are all finely decorated with arabesque motifs. Four magnificent chandeliers are suspended from its ceiling and the doors have been embellished with French and Arabic inscriptions. Almost 225 seats in stepped rows will seat participants."

The reporter also informed his readers that the conference had commissioned maps to be drawn up of Egypt. He writes, "I myself had the opportunity to see a large relief map of Egypt, from Wadi Halfa to the mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean, which is being created by a team of experts using plaster colourings. There is also another map with a series of progressive overlays showing the development of Cairo and its suburbs from the date of its founding to the present. In addition, there are three maps depicting the various changes that have taken place in the course of the Nile over time."

To mark the opening of the conference, the Survey Department drafted a number of designs for commemorative postage stamps to be issued on the occasion and for a medallion to be worn by conference participants. Out of the 12 designs submitted by the department, the conference organisers selected one representing an ancient Egyptian deity.

Although the conference was scheduled to open on 1 April 1925, visiting delegations began to arrive more than a month earlier. On 20 February, Al-Ahram announced that the Italian delegation was en route by ship to Alexandria, adding that these scholars "will be presenting to the conference papers and publications of considerable importance, including an international atlas containing several maps of Egypt, a large map based on the recent census taken of the Egyptian people, foreign communities in Egypt and a folder containing the memoirs of Hippolito Rosalini, Champollion's assistant during his expedition to Upper Egypt."

At this time it was announced that the chairman of the International Geographic Federation would chair the conference -- General Nicoli Cafelli, also an Italian. "Currently 55 years old, he graduated from the military academy and was appointed to the general staff in which capacity he worked in the military geographic academy. Following the conclusion of the peace treaty, he served as director of the commission appointed to define the borders between Italy and Serbia and later was elected member of parliament."

Undoubtedly, this snippet of information fuelled the curiosity of Al-Ahram readers who wanted to learn more about the Egyptian role in the conference. Towards this end, the newspaper solicited the assistance of Tawfiq Iskaros, head of the European section of the Egyptian Library whose article, "The General Geographic Conference," was accorded extensive front-page space in the newspaper's 4 March 1925 edition.

Perhaps Iskaros' most important contribution to advancing the public's knowledge of the conference was the information he provided on the Egyptian participants and the contributions they were to make. We learn that several members of the Egyptian royal family were scheduled to deliver papers. Prince Omar Touson would deliver an introductory speech in French on the history of the Nile; Prince Youssef Kamal would present ancient maps of Africa and Egypt based on the research he conducted in various European libraries the year before; and Prince Haydar Fadel, who would deliver seven lectures on the history of Egypt in the age of Mohamed Ali.

There were a number of non-royal participants as well. Sadeq Bek, assistant curator of the Geological Museum, was scheduled to read out a paper on the geography of Egypt and its topographical layers; Hussein Kamel Selim was to present Egyptian commerce in the Middle Ages; Sami Kamal on medicinal geography; Mansur Fahmi on geographical pedagogy in the Middle Ages; Murqus Sedorus on a journey through the Bahariya oases "complete with maps and photographs;" and Taha Hussein, whose lecture Al-Ahram described as an "entertaining geographical subject."

Iskaros also discussed a rather sensitive issue. In all the previous geographic conferences, the official languages were French, Italian and English. However, "since the 11th International Geographic Conference is to be held in Cairo, Adolph Qatawi Bek has been exerting his utmost effort to have Arabic adopted as one of the official languages because it is hardly reasonable to prevent lectures from being delivered at a conference in the capital of a country the official language of which is Arabic." Iskaros notes in this regard that Arabic was not an official language in the medical conference held in Cairo in 1902. On the other hand, he expressed regret that in spite of the fact that the conference organisers had extended invitations to many Arab academies in the Levant, only a few accepted.

The article interested Al-Ahram readers, one of whom was a lawyer, Mohamed Lutfi Gomaa. In a letter to Al-Ahram, Gomaa expressed his belief that the anthropological and ethnological portions of the conference would serve as an excellent forum for scholars of jurisprudence who could contribute their findings with regard to the conditions of the Egyptian people. Unfortunately, by then it was probably too late to extend the scope of the conference to include the contributions of the members of the legal profession.

On 28 March 1925, Al-Ahram published a detailed agenda of the conference. It would feature lectures, seminars and round-table discussions. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the society, tuxedos were required. The high tea hosted by the king on the Pyramids Plateau was attended in evening dress. More comfortable travelling clothes and umbrellas would be de rigueur on the Nile outing to the Sakkara Pyramids, and perhaps also on the visits to Heliopolis, the Tree of the Virgin and the Citadel.

Following King Fouad's official opening of the conference on 1 April the conference chairman Cafelli delivered the opening address. The International Geographic Society, he said, now had a membership of 14 nations: South Africa, Belgium, Egypt, Spain, France, Britain, Holland, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Czechoslovakia. He took delight in the recent membership of Egypt, "the cradle of the science of geography by virtue of the great geographers it has produced, its contribution to the body of geographical knowledge and information, and the opportunities it has offered and continues to offer researchers and scholars in conducting major practical and theoretical geographical research... Egypt has now become the focus for geographers from distant parts of the world to acquaint themselves with one another, exchange ideas and opinions and review their findings."

The next to speak was Professor Stevenson, head of the American delegation, who devoted a significant part of his speech to paying tribute to the work of Arab geographers. Over the centuries, Stevenson said, the Arabs "have accumulated and disseminated their geographical knowledge and expertise, along with their knowledge of astronomy, which is closely associated to geography. To some extent, the Arabs worked in accordance with the basis laid out by the Greeks, but on these foundations they constructed the edifice of their own independent research."

Stevenson was followed by Paul Billieu, the head of the French delegation, who spoke about the misgivings many had when they first heard that the conference was to be held in Cairo. "They shook their heads and wondered how it could possibly be done," he said, "and one could only admit that the pessimists were right in view of the difficulties involved. But if these difficulties were overcome, enabling us to assemble in this great number, the credit for this goes to the Egyptian Royal Geographic Society and the organising committee which so dutifully helped."

The next day, following the formation of the various committees, it was decided that the conference would be divided into five specialised sections. The first dealt with geographical mathematics, topography and cartography which would include papers on the recent developments in the geographical surveys of the Egyptian deserts; the art of British map-making since the war; a proposal to upgrade maps on Egypt; meteorology; and the Arab art of the manufacturing of sundials.

The topic of the second section was physical geography and included papers on the mysteries of the great earthquake that struck Japan in 1923, the science of deciphering ancient Egyptian manuscripts, the history of the formation of the Egyptian Delta, relativism in meteorological events, the study of natural catastrophes and a study on the formation of sand dunes.

Biogeography and demography were the focus of the third section, which featured lectures on livestock migration in the Atlas Mountains, an overview of the development of irrigation in Egypt, a photographic expedition to the Bahariya oases, land routes through Egypt in the 19th century, the acclimatisation of newly-introduced plants in Egypt and the fertility of Egyptian soil. Most of these papers, it is interesting to note, were delivered by Egyptian scholars.

The fourth section was the natural history of man, which included a study on the ethnology of Egypt and the Greek role in modern Egyptian civilisation. The fifth was on the history of geography, including a paper by Prince Touson on the geography of Lower Egypt in the Arab era and a study by a Japanese scholar on ancient ties between Egypt and the Far East.

A fortuitous, if unplanned, development in the conference was that it paid tribute to Ahmed Hassanein Bek for his recent expedition to the Great Sahara. Credit for this development was due to the US plenipotentiary to Egypt, Martin Hall, who, on one occasion, asked permission to address the conference and presented to the Egyptian explorer the medal of the Philadelphia Geographic Society "amidst the applause of all present."

Before the nine-day conference drew to a close, Al-Ahram urged that the occasion be used to introduce a number of measures towards improving geographic studies in Egypt. It recommended increasing the number of Egyptian scholars in this field towards which end qualified candidates would be sent to Europe on two or three-year study missions. The newspaper also urged that geographers and associated scholars who were in government employ "only be assigned tasks that have a direct bearing on their field of expertise and which should not occupy more than half their daily working hours. This is the only way to generate in Egypt a climate conducive to research, which is the only climate under which the growth of science can advance naturally and fruitfully."

At the closing session, held on 9 April, the conference announced its recommendations -- aspirations and suggestions in the jargon of the day. They included creating an authority for the dissemination of international geographic information, drawing a map of the world on a scale of 1:1,000,000, promoting the use of film in the instruction of geography, adding demography on the agenda of the following conference and drawing up a map of the areas deprived of waste water disposal systems in Egypt.

After nine days of intense activity and profuse intellectual exchange, with the occasional interlude offered by various excursions and receptions, all that remained was for the visiting conference participants to pack up and leave Egypt which proved that it was capable of organising such international conferences.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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