Egypt's Age of Transition: Unintentional Cosmopolitanism during the Reign of Muhammad 'Ali (1805-1848)

By El Ashmouni, Marwa; Bartsch, Katharine | Arab Studies Quarterly, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Egypt's Age of Transition: Unintentional Cosmopolitanism during the Reign of Muhammad 'Ali (1805-1848)


El Ashmouni, Marwa, Bartsch, Katharine, Arab Studies Quarterly


The Alabaster Mosque: A Selective Hybrid

In 1849, the remains of Muhammad 'All Pasha (b. 1771-1849),' governor of Egypt in the name of the Ottoman Turkish sultan since 1805, were interred in a splendid marble tomb. The tomb is located in an eponymous mosque, also known as the Alabaster Mosque (Fig. 1), which dominates the Citadel of Cairo. From its lofty perch, it proclaims the reign of the Pasha whose dynasty (of prodigious nation builders, including Khedive Ismä'11 who remodeled Cairo after Haussmann) prevailed until the abdication of King Farouk in 1952.2 The design of the mosque is attributed to the Greek architect Yusuf Boshnak and it is modeled on the plan of the mosque of Sultan Ahmad in Istanbul.3 The completed scheme is, however, an unusual hybrid of European neo-classicism and classical Ottoman precedents. The construction was undertaken by Rumi (European) artisans hailing from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Albania. The lead cladding of the domes and minarets was completed by Turkish craftsmen, the alabaster facing is attributed to Egyptian masons supervised by the foreigner Khwäja Simon, and the copper windows were based on drawings by an Armenian artist.4 Not least, the iron clock (Fig. 3) was a gift from King Louis-Philippe in 1845 in exchange for the Pharaonic obelisk which stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.5

This scheme was built in favor of an earlier design proposed by the eminent French architect and engineer Pascal-Xavier Coste, who lived and worked in Egypt for more than ten years (1817-27) (Fig. 2). He was recommended to the Pasha by the French geographer, and contributing author to La Description de l'Egypte (1809-29), Edme-François Jomard.6 Coste's design for the mosque was based on Mamlük precedents which he had documented in his memoir and identified as being the most authentic style to Egypt;7 this memoir has now been compiled in the lavishly illustrated publication Toutes les Egypte (1998).8 Although Coste was willingly engaged by the Pasha for other projects, Muhammad 'All rejected his Mamlük-inspired design outright. This is perhaps not surprising. Not only was the Pasha responsible for the destruction of a number of Mamlük palaces, demolished to make way for his new mosque, but he was also associated with the murder of 500 Mamlüks whom he had invited to a party in the Citadel in 1811.9 The Mamlüks, who had ruled Egypt from this stronghold for the previous six centuries, were also the Pasha's most immediate political rivals.10 Originally military slaves (Arab, mamlük, slave, from malaka, to possess) drawn from Circassia, a region in the Caucasus, the Mamlüks converted to Islam, rose to power and ruled Egypt from 1250-1517, and maintained local power during both the Ottoman rule (1517-1789) and the French occupation (1798-1801) until their downfall at the command of 'All in 1805."

Given its hybridity, the mosque is suggestive of a broader cosmopolitan project within the Mediterranean region that was actively supported by Muhammad 'All. The cosmopolitan character of Egypt is widely acknowledged by Middle East scholars. However, the primary focus of previous studies of Egyptian cosmopolitanism is the mid-late nineteenth century, after Muhammad 'All's reign.12 Notably, a longer history is identified by the sociologist Sami Zubaida, who acknowledges the formation of cosmopolitan enclaves in Egypt over the course of the nineteenth century, while Maya Jasanoff and Robert Ilbert offer intriguing insights into cosmopolitan Alexandria in the late eighteenth century.13 One may even argue that cosmopolitanism has a far longer history in Egypt given the cultural intersections which stem from the region's antique trade with Nubians, Phoenicians and Greeks. Subsequent invaders have prized the imperial Roman grain basket leading to intermittent periods of colonization, whether they were lured by the Nile's fertile floodplains or antique treasures. However, as Zubaida has argued, cosmopolitanism in general is:

not the fact of multi-cultural coexistence, but the development of ways of living and thinking, styles of life which are deracinated from communities and cultures of origin, from conventional living, from family and home-centredness, and have developed into a culturally promiscuous life, drawing on diverse ideas, traditions and innovations. …

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