Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – The Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture (affiliated to the Ministry of Culture in Egypt) in cooperation with the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in Turkey recently concluded an international conference entitled, ‘Egypt During the Ottoman Era’ that lasted four days and was held in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
A number of rare manuscripts dating back to the period of Ottoman rule in Egypt that encompassed three centuries were showcased as part of the conference in an exhibition entitled ‘Egypt in the Ottoman Documents’. Over 80 manuscripts, images and maps were put on display, all of which dated back to the Ottoman Empire era in Egypt (1517-1914). In those four centuries of rule, the empire’s political power fluctuated between strength and weakness.
The manuscripts included an Ottoman decree dating back to 1568 that was issued by the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (1566-1574). The decree referred to the necessity of building a channel to link the Red Sea and the Mediterranean long before the Suez Canal was built at the beginning of the 19th Century, which was officially inaugurated by Ismail Pasha (1830-1895) as part of a grand celebration in 1869. The exhibition also displayed manuscripts from 1573 sent to the ruler of Egypt and the treasurer instructing that the necessary funds be sent for the restoration of the Kaaba and to build aqueducts in Mecca.
One of the most interesting documents featured at the exhibition that reflected official Ottoman policies was a manuscript from the 17th Century sent by Mohammed Pasha to Ottoman bureaucratic officials in which he made a number of points that included general political queries, such as the need to improve coexistence between Egyptians, the preservation of security and stability, and the need for contractors and officials to comply with laws and the system with respect to tax collection. It also makes mention of the need to ensure the wellbeing of notable members of Egyptian society and that they do not get unjustly treated, and moreover states upon the need to treat tribes well and to abide by the law on all occasions.
The exhibition also presented a letter of gratitude from Mohammed Ali Pasha of Egypt to the Ottoman Porte [Bab al Ali] in 1840 for granting him the title of “Khedive of Egypt”. It also featured photos of the stock market in Alexandria, mosques and cafes in Cairo, the Egyptian Museum and examples of Egyptian celebrations such as weddings, Eids and groups of Muslim pilgrims embarking on the Hajj pilgrimage, as well as maps that outline the borders of the Egyptian state.
Dr Yusuf Sarinay, the Director-General of the Prime Ministry State Archives in Turkey explained that due to the Ottoman Empire’s authority over Egypt for such a long period, Ottoman archives play an important role in writing the history of contemporary Egypt, indicating that this exhibition aims to shed light on Egypt and Turkey’s joint history.
As part of the conference, there were various talks on the Ottoman presence in Egypt on a number of levels in an attempt to research this era in a systematic and realistic manner away from the classical readings of this period that Egyptian history has described as one of deterioration and depression.
The conference, through its discussions and readings of the Egyptian reality, appeared to be an attempt to respond to the Egyptian perspective of the Ottoman presence in the country since some historians who took part in the conference believe that the building of contemporary Egypt under Mohammed Ali Pasha would not have been possible had it not been for the existence of an economic, social and cultural basis.
Additionally, historians consider that the focus of Orientalist studies on the Mamluk era in Egypt, and the reign of Mohammed Ali Pasha when Egypt was a strong regional power, contributes to overlooking this important period of Egyptian history by Orientalists. Some historians believe that despite the lengthy rule of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt and the number of records from that period, the subject of Ottoman rule in Egypt is disregarded and that this era should be re-examined and reassessed.
IRCICA was established in 1980 and the history of Islamic nations is one of the many fields that it focuses on. The results of such studies manifest in publications and conferences. The center organizes conferences that examine Islamic history and civilization in areas including South East Asia, Central Asia, Volga-Ural, the Caucuses, the Balkans, the Middle East and East and West Africa.
In 2005, IRCICA held a similar symposium in Syria that surveyed society, culture and science in the Levant during the Ottoman era, alongside the history of the region from various standpoints.