Egyptian and Syrian Intellectual Life

Egyptian and Syrian- Intellectual Life and the Early Modern World.

A number of approaches to modern world history and regional intellectual history benefit from an intertextual study of the literary life and works of Jibrīl Farḥāt Mattar (1670-1732) who took the name of Jirmānüs Ferḥāt when he became Archbishop of Aleppo (Kratschkowsky, I.; Karam, A.G 2016).  A poet, philologist and liturgical scholar he reflected the cultural milieu of the minority Christian communities in the early modern Mashreq and Eastern Mediterranean.  The research will compare the relations and interactions of both Christian and Muslim communities, through an examination of the architectural and public space emerging in the period from the late 17th to early 20th centuries.  A secondary literature on the intellectual life of Farhat has discussed his contributions as a scholar of Arabic literature. His wider body of work, including his poetry and his History of the Maronite Christians needs to be read within the developing trends of 18th century Arabic literature and history writing. In both Syria and Egypt we find the place of Christian and Muslim scholars reasserting themselves in relation to both the Ottoman Empire and the modern world (Hanna 2014). We may also connect this literary development to visual culture found in Syria and Egypt as in Coptic portraits and architectural projects and space of the same period. These minority communities were found useful by the empires and states of the Mediterranean and functioned as commercial and cultural intermediaries and as a group that could produce intellectuals and philosophers.

The fuller context of Archbishop Farhat and early modern Syrian Christian intellectual influence on the Arab Naḥda literary renaissance of the 19th century may be studied further and is best seen in the in the publishing of these works in Malta and Beirut. This was the same period when Fāris al-Shidyāq, (1805-87) the Syrian novelist and convert from Christianity to Islam was actively employed in Malta as a translator (Johnson 2013).  Al-Shidyāq was responsible for the editing of many of the works published by the Christian Missionary Society in Malta, which included the republishing of Archbishop Farhat’s works (Zaydan 1982, 222).  The choice of publishing the earlier works of Farhat reflects the cosmopolitanism of the Mediterranean and early modern contributions to intellectual life and world history.  Farhat’s wide range of literary production included several grammars of the Arabic language (Farḥāt 1841), This grammar is revealing for its secular and modern approach to the language. Farhat’s Diwān of poetry and his Tarīkh ar-Rahbāniyāt al-Marüniyāt(History of the Maronite Order) may be placed in context with other contemporary Syrian-Christian intellectuals of this period, including the philosopher Buṭrus al-Tūlawī (d. 1746) who was active at the Maronite College in Rome;  the clerics, Joseph al-Bāni and ‘Abdallah al-Masiḥ Lebyān, and the poet and writer P. Zendi, who together make up what may be called part of a wider Arab and Ottoman Enlightenment in the 18th century (Ferghali 1966).

Another way is to examine Farhat Square in Aleppo as an example of a modern urban space shared by Christian and Muslim communities that survived as an example of cosmopolitan coexistence between Christians and Muslims in early modern history. The square named after Archbishop Farhat was located in the Djeideh quarter of Aleppo, a large modern structure, St. Elias Maronite Church was built in the square in 1873 (Archnet 2016). The tragedy of major loss of life and damage to the structure in the current civil is integral to this topic.

Ultimately, the results of this research will cast light on the current crisis of Syria and the modern world system that resulted in the total destruction not only of the this cosmopolitan neighbourhood, but of the entire city. Through this project I also hope to make comparisons of interfaith or sectarian relations in Egypt, Istanbul and Ireland as a challenge and problem of early modern history. For example both Maronite Christians in Aleppo and the Catholic Irish were sending their elite to study in Rome preferred to send their elite to Rome from the 17th century onward.  Lessons from the production of social space and interaction of the neighbourhood of Farhat Square may shed light on the possible alternatives and hope for a reconstructed Aleppo.

Egypt in the 19th Century

 Conventional histories of the Arab world cite the invasion of Napoleon and his armies into Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801 as the start of modernization for Arab society and civilization.  That this is a false notion may be seen in the substantial literary, scientific and historical writings found in the 18th century archives in Egypt and in Istanbul as revealed in Peter Gran’s Islamic Roots of Capitalism (Gran 1998). After the defeat and departure of the French in 1801, a power vacuum emerged in Egypt that was exploited for a while by British naval forces who occupied Alexandria and parts of the coastal delta towns.  By 1805 the Ottoman Sultan appointed an Albanian born military leader as Governor of Egypt.  This was Muhammad Ali who would reign until 1849 and become the sole ruler of Egypt for nearly half a century.  During his rule, Egypt underwent an aggressive modernization program with attempts at developing modern textile manufacturing in Rashid and other northern towns.  These attempts were ultimately hindered by British opposition who wanted to retain the dominance of their own textile industry and keep Egypt as a suppier of raw cotton, which it grew in increasing quantities.  Muhammad Ali’s expansion of the state using large amounts of conscripted (corveé) or forced peasant labor was directed at military and canal building projects.

Muhammad Ali and the Modernization of Egypt

By 1805 the Ottoman Sultan appointed an Albanian born military leader as Governor of Egypt.  This was Muhammad Ali who would reign until 1849 and become the sole ruler of Egypt for nearly half a century.  During his rule, Egypt underwent an aggressive modernization program with attempts at developing modern textile manufacturing in Rashid and other northern towns.  These attempts were ultimately hindered by British opposition who wanted to retain the dominance of their own textile industry and keep Egypt as a suppier of raw cotton, which it grew in increasing quantities.  Muhammad Ali’s expansion of the state using large amounts of conscripted (corveé) or forced peasant labor was directed at military and canal building projects.

In 1826 Muhammad Ali ordered the dispatch of a special mission of diplomats and students to France to study for a five year period.  One of these was the young educated Al-Azhari scholar Rifa’at al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), who would become the most distinguished of the students in France.  His chronicle of his student years in France where he studied at the Sorbonne and other colleges in France was his memoir, al-takhlis fi Paris (The Description of Paris), that was full of comparative comments on French and Egyptian, Christian, secular and Muslim culture and ethics.  He also became interested in and translated the French constitution of 1814 into Arabic.  He was also sympathetic to the revolution in Paris of July 1830 in which the Bourbon king Charles X was overthrown.  Upon his return to Egypt in 1831, Tahtawi with his newly developed fluency in French was put in charge of establishing a national program of translation studies, languages and education reform in Egypt.  In time, however, his views and republican or constitutional preferences led to his exile or banishment to the Sudan and to Upper Egypt, where he was born.

Muhammad Ali’s Successors and the Building of the Egyptian State

Muhammad Ali’s expansion of the state using large amounts of conscripted (corveé) or forced peasant labor was directed at military and canal building projects.  After his death in 1849, his son Ibrahim Pasha and his other descendants in the royal family who ruled successively, borrowed great amounts of money to develop railroad projects and the Suez Canal.  These projects bankrupted the government of Egypt as the European powers and banks that lent money to Egypt demanded large amounts in guaranteed sums and interest.  When Egypt defaulted on her debts in   1881-1919

After Muhammad Ali’s death in 1849, his son Ibrahim Pasha and his other descendants in the royal family who ruled successively, borrowed great amounts of money to develop railroad projects and the Suez Canal.  These projects bankrupted the government of Egypt as the European powers and banks that lent money to Egypt demanded large amounts in guaranteed sums and interest.  When Egypt defaulted on her debts in  1881 this gave Britain the excuse to invade and occupy Egypt.

North African history is an especially important area of Arab history and worth studying through its rich history from the early and middle Islamic periods and its struggle against the French invasion and colonialism by France, Britain and Italy in the 19th and 20thcenturies (Abu-Nasir 1987).

Bibliography

Abu-Nasir, Jamil. 1987. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Archnet. 2016. St. Elias Maronite Church. Accessed May 5, 2016. http://archnet.org/sites/3049.

Farḥāt, Jirmānüs. 1841. Al-ajwibat al-jalīyah. (An elementary manual of Arabic grammar). Malta.

Ferghali, Joseph. 1966. “Germānos Ferhāt: Archevêque d’Alep et arabisant (1670-1732).” Parole de l’Orient : revue semestrielle des études syriaques et arabes chrétiennes : recherches orientales : revue d’études et de recherches sur les églises de langue syriaque. 2 (1): 115-29.

Gran, Peter. 1998. Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt 1760-1840. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Hanna, Nelly. 2014. Ottoman Egypt and the Emergence of the Modern World 1500-1800. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Johnson, Rebecca. 2013. Foreword. Vol. 1, in Leg over Leg, by Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, edited by Humphrey Davies, translated by Humphrey Davies, ix-xxx. New York: New York University Press.

Kratschkowsky, I.; Karam, A.G. 2016. “Farḥāt.” Edited by P. Bearman and et al. Encyclopedia of Islam (Brill Online). Accessed May 5, 2016. http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/farhat-SIM_2282.

Zaydan, Jurjī. 1982. Tārīkh ādāb al-lugha al-‘arabiyyah (A History of Arabic-Language Literature). Vol. 16 of Mu’allaffāt Jurjī Zaydān. Beirut: Dār al-Jīl.

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