Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 November 2008
Issue No. 921
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rereading history

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina makes reading history a pleasure, writes Dina Ezzat

Click to view caption
From top: the first photograph of Cairo taken in 1849; 19th century images of Al-Haram Street and Al-Azbakeya Gardens;

Under the title of " Memory of Modern Egypt" and "Alexandria: an Italian Itinerary", the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, last month, launched a project and exhibition to unveil some new pages in the history of Egypt. The first is an ambitious ongoing project to digitally document the history of Egypt from 1802 to 1981 and to make it available online to keen readers. Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, for her part, has taken the responsibility to personally sponsor this project. The second is a month-long exhibition of photos and sketches that reflect the cosmopolitan nature of Egypt in the early 19th and 20th centuries, capturing the characteristically Italian influence over the era's Egyptian architecture. While on a visit to Egypt late last month, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano inaugurated this exhibition which will also be on show in Cairo next month.

The rich volumes of photos, documents, sketches and other historical material and information, offered online at http://, and in the library's main hall may well not be specialised enough to serve the needs of scholars, but they certainly are fit to inform visitors about Egypt's lifestyle, politics, economy and society during the period.

The website for the Memory of Modern Egypt offers a reading of the evolution and revolutions that the Egyptian state and society have undergone, illustrating history with over 20,000 photographs of historical events, 11,000 documents, 1,200 essays and biographies and 5,800 news clippings. The site also offers some 1,000 speeches that Egyptian leaders delivered throughout this period on historic junctures, as well as some 250 videos recording political events. Audio recordings of political speeches as well as songs, interviews are also available, as well as digistised versions of front pages of newspapers and magazines in the hundreds.

According to Khaled Azab, media director at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Memory of Modern Egypt supervisor, the project repository includes 14 different types of material gathered from multiple local and international sources. Special family collections, archives and photo albums alongside collectors' rare items, as well as institutional archives from the nation's leading newspapers and its legislative and executive bodies, were combined and worked on for over three years, all in a bid to ensure that the website was successfully launched last week. Azab added that material continues to be collected, to add further volumes to what is already available online. "The launching of the Memory of Modern Egypt [last week] was not meant to mark the full completion of the project, but rather the completion of its first phase. There are so many more phases to come," Azab said.

According to its architects and designers, the Memory of Modern Egypt is a very ambitious project that will take years on end to complete -- not just because the Bibliotheca Alexandrina still has vast amounts of material to digitise but also because the search for material is still on, particularly among privately owned collections.

"We are still contacting prominent Egyptian families, as well as known collectors. We are still looking through neglected archives stored by different governmental institutions. And we are still going through library shelves in a bid to dig out more material that we can make available to the public" Azab said. He added that the objective is to "provide website visitors with as a comprehensive a picture as possible of the many shades of Egypt's history through these crucial and formative years."

There is also another objective, according to the Bibliotheca's Information and Communication Director Noha Adli, who is in charge of digitising the material, and that is "to make sure that this wealth of material is preserved" beyond the inevitable tattering of paper and the decline of old voice recordings. One more goal, Adli added, is the successful collection of different types of material relating to one specific period in history. "When you click on the name of King Farouk, for example, you get to access all at once photos of the king, his speeches, articles and news stories written about him [before and after the July Revolution], as well as coins and stamps produced during his time, just as you get to learn about the make- up of political life during his rule and the most important events that he took part in," Adli said. All this material is offered in a user-friendly way, and presented under a concise timeline.

On the other hand, the Memory of Modern Egypt is not just about documenting major events. "It is about everything that happened in Egypt during these years, big and small. It is about the wars that Egypt went through just as much as it is about the feuds between small families in Upper Egypt," Azab emphasised. In line with this thinking, the website both reproduced pages from the memoirs of leading politicians as well as clippings from crime pages in the newspapers. There are also interesting paintings featuring members of Mohamed Ali's family and the Free Officers. There are also copies of vintage advertisements for soap, fashionable women's wear and local beverage brands. In addition, there is and progressively will be more cultural material gathered, ranging from rare recordings of Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, to the hand- written manuscripts of prominent poets and authors, and to the family photos of prominent journalists Mustafa and Ali Amin. "In our collection we have 63 albums of rare photos of King Farouk, and we have almost as many given to us by [former first lady] Jihan El-Sadat, depicting the life of late president [Anwar] El-Sadat," Azab added.

Prominent and influential families including those of Boutros Ghali, Mohamed Mahmoud, Rashad Mehanna as well as the Abazas and Serageddins have all donated material to the Memory of Modern Egypt. It is no doubt these family collections that offer the newest in-roads into a better understanding of the history of modern Egypt, as traditionally read by researchers, argued Magdi Guirguis, lecturer of history at the American University in Cairo. Having provided his assistance in archiving parts of the family collections and therefore had his share of expert insight into all that they offer, Guirguis is certain that the process of collecting new material for the Memory of Modern Egypt is "opening new windows onto the history of Egypt. As I worked on the private archives of the Ghali family, for instance, I personally learned much, as a researcher, on the history of Copts during these years."

The composition of the Coptic community, the relation between leading secular figures in this community and the church, ties between Copts and Muslims and the role of the state are also detailed in many indirect ways in the Ghali family's collection. For instance, Guirguis said, the memoirs of a member of that family who was a merchant in Ethiopia offers unprecedented detail on the fall-out between the Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as "the religious and national security consequences" of this separation.

The documents of the family of Ali and Mustafa Amin, and Akhbar Al-Yom daily's archives, account to a great extent for the political influence that the founders of that daily enjoyed, as it appears they spent hours and days at the home of the family of national leader Saad Zaghloul. As retold in the words of Mustafa Amin, the Amin twins in their early years would regularly sit in the company of Zaghloul. In one incident that Mustafa Amin details, Zaghloul was amused to learn that he was criticised by Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Islam in Egypt, for appointing two Copts into his cabinet. For Guirguis, this explains the allocation of power to Copts in government, just as it goes to show just how uninhibited Zaghloul was on the issue of Coptic Egyptians. The Amins volumes also offer much about the history of journalism in Egypt in the periods following the 1919 and 1952 revolutions.

The pioneering role of women in Egyptian art and journalism is detailed through the photos, articles and documents of Fatemmah El-Youssef. The political battle that she underwent in order to beat censorship, as well as the development of her own special brand of journalism, are open for sharing.

Meanwhile the diaries of Biram Al-Tunsi written from exile, his editorials as published in Al-Shabab, and his poems offer a remarkable insight into what really mattered to and worried Egyptian citizens. And the recordings of songs by Sayed Darwish, whose lyrics were written by Al-Tunsi, also account for a good part of the history of the 1919 Revolution. In addition, documents produced by the Beau Lac Printers -- whose remains are preserved at the Bibliotheca -- during the rule of Mohamed Ali offer overwhelmingly rich evidence on post- French invasion Egypt.

Overall the Memory of Modern Egypt is the outcome of what was initially intended to be a series of special projects documenting different parts and parcels of the nation's history. Then it evolved to become a promissing project that some historians describe as a unique attempt to make history available in an easily digested way for an increasingly interested Egyptian audiance.

"Obviously this is not necessarily the kind of material that targets historians and researchers. Instead it is the kind of material that could satisfy public curiosity. There is an obvious trend towards learning more about history, as we can see from the massive popularity enjoyed by historical dramas such as Bawabat Al-Halawani [a multi- series soap opera depicting Egypt under Khedive Ismail], and King Farouk [a 2007 production offering an alternative reading of the history of the toppled monarch of Egypt]," said historian Emad Abu-Ghazi, a senior consultant to the Memory of Modern Egypt. Moreover, he argued, the interest shown in the debates over the cultural and military impact of the French invasion of Egypt, and the books printed on this issue, are among the many examples that demonstrate an unmistakable interest in history among the Egyptian public.

So far the project has used up a budget of over LE1.5 million. This does not include donations presented to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina by families and institutions, and the efforts of over a dozen of historians and close to 50 computer engineers. Production for the second phase would require similar allocations of funds and human resources. According to the Director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina Ismail Serageddin, the Memory of Modern Egypt is meant to constitute the collective memory "of all Egyptians with no exception," and of Egypt as it used to be during the years from 1802 to 1981.

The cosmopolitan nature of Egypt during those years is clearly emphasised by a rare collection of photos taken by Armenian and Greek photographers, as well as by the names of Italian architects who designed and built palaces, schools, churches and even mosques.

The exhibition inaugurated by Napolitano offers an account of exactly that: the place of Italian architects and engineers in Egypt through the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Roberta Bonalunme, representative of the Italian Cultural Centre in Alexandria, what the collection of over 20 photos and sketches offers is a representation of the integration and contribution of the Italian community in Egypt. "During the 19th century many Italian professionals and experts were arriving in Egypt for different political and economic purposes, and of those many were eventually recruited to design and build palaces and schools," Bonalunme said. As the influx grew the Italian community grew to be the second in size after the Greek. Indeed there can be no doubt that Italian contractors and architects contributed significantly to urban development, especially in Cairo and Alexandria, over the past two centuries.

Pietro Avoscani, for one, arrived in Alexandria in 1837 and was hired to supervise 300 workmen executing the architectural design and interior decoration of the palace of Ras Al-Tine. For Avoscani, this was the start of what Ezio Godoli and Milba Ciacomelli qualify, in a special catalogue for the Italian exhibition, as the start of a "brilliant career as a court architect in the service of the founder of Modern Egypt and his successors."

Meanwhile, for Khedive Said, architect Ciro Pantanelli designed the palace of Qasr Al-Nil, and for Khedive Ismail and his mother he designed Sabil-Kuttab Al-Walda. Antonio Lasciac and Alfonso Maniscalco are believed to have made some important contributions to the renaissance of Islamic architecture in some of their projects in Cairo.

Visitors to the Italian exhibition in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on the one hand and the website of the Memory of Modern Egypt on the other, according to supervisors for both facilities, are of different national and professional backgrounds. This diversity serves the purpose behind the efforts of the Bibliotheca Alexadrina: disseminating knowledge about Egyptian history to all those interested.

But does all this mean that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is now taking over the full responsibility for protecting and representing Egyptian history? And what does this mean for institutions such as Dar Al-Mahfouzat (the Public Record Office) and Dar Al-Wathiq (the National Archives)? Is there cooperation among these three bodies?

According to Azab, the Bibliotheca is working closely with all individuals and institutions that show interest in cooperation. Currently, for instance, the Bibliotheca is working to digitise a wealth of documents from the Public Record Office, which will be added to the Memory of Modern Egypt. No such cooperation has yet been agreed to with the National Archives, in spite of the fact that it houses millions of documents on Egyptian history.

For Abu-Ghazi, however, there is a difference in the role played by these bodies and the library. What the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is doing, he said, becomes available for any reader with no restrictions, and this is completely unlike the case of the Egyptian National Archives which is strict in granting access to documents to authorised historians and researchers alone. As such, the two types of body play "two different functions, for two different types of audience," he said.

Meanwhile for Abu-Ghazi, Guirguis and Azab the complimentary nature of the roles could provide a holistic picture and a diversification of readings of Egyptian history for all interested readers and keen researchers. And, they also argue, that there is room for the expansion of these and other functions to serve the purpose of history education. "The fact of the matter is that in Egypt there is a big problem in history education. At schools history is taught in a style and through curricula that defy the basic purpose of research and analytical thinking. And at university it is only taught to those who fail to register at other faculties," said Guirguis. Consequently, he suggested, the quality of young Egyptian historians is not impressive. Indeed "even locating sufficient enough qualified historians to work on the private collections and family archives for the Memory of Modern Egypt was not an easy task," Guirguis said.

The upgrading of the quality of school and equally university curricula is only part of what it takes to give rise to a generation that is truly well-acquainted with its history. "It takes much more. It takes a strong will to deal with history in a rigorously academic way. This is about accepting different readings of history and about releasing the long-overdue classified documents," said Abu Ghazi.

Where would such a venture lead to? For Abu-Ghazi and Guirguis, just as for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, it is by studying history and learning from the past that nations can move forward. And as First Lady Suzanne Mubarak noted in her remarks while launching the Memory of Modern Egypt, "It is the way to promote a clear awareness of identity among the younger generations."

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