Edward William Lane: Early Anthropologist
by The Egyptian Government
Edward William Lane (1801 - 1876), an English scholar was born at Hereford, England, on September 17, 1801. A trip to Egypt for his health in 1825 marked the beginning of a distinguished career. In three years, he completed a detailed description of Egypt, along the lines of similar works by the scholars who accompanied the French Expedition to Egypt.
Due to the high cost of printing the voluminous book, it was kept in original manuscript at the British Museum. This book still remains as one of the important references for Egyptologists, in view of the minute details it provides for certain places or practices that have become now extinct.
A Masterpiece on Egyptian Social Life
The book was compiled in 8 volumes with over 100 drawings showing scenes of daily life in Egypt.
The book was in fact one of the most important works on Egypt in the 19th Century as well as a comprehensive guide to the customs, manners and morals of Egyptians at an important historical period.
Lane's Objective Approach
At that time, the prevailing European vision of the Levant was one of mystery and magic.
Unlike earlier travelers, Lane elected to adopt a closer and more objective approach, through which he integrated into the Egyptian society. This allowed him to have a deeper understanding of the people.
He rented a house away from the European quarter, and addressed in his research all aspects of life in Egypt. He took up the native name of Mansour Effendi and adopted the Islamic and Egyptian way of life. It is interesting to note that, upon his return home, he was addressed by his English friends with his adopted name.
Back in Egypt for the second time, he hired tutors of Arabic language and Islamic Sharia' and creed, so as to acquire an honest, realistic and objective vision of Egyptian life. Lane was, thus able to differentiate between form and content and properly interpret extremely complex manifestations. With his impartial outlook, he could associate them with firmly established social thoughts, customs and traditions.
Lane's book "An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" is organized in several chapters including Islamic creed, system of government, state administrative machinery, household life, women's ornaments, men's costumes, industry, means of entertainment, wedding habits, etc..
According to Lane, Egyptians' costumes show no dramatic changes. Bright colors and loose dresses are more preferred. Men like to wear belts where daggers ornamented with precious stones are inserted. They are as also fond of rings with inlaid precious stones and water pipes " nargilles" of varying designs and decorations.
On the other hand, popular classes normally use only three or four dresses replaced only when their fringes have been worn out. Men usually wear linen or cotton loose pants with embroidered waistbands. Men's shirts are made of linen , muslin or a blend of silk or white cotton, with sleeves reaching down to the wrist.
In winter, a cotton or silk sleeveless vest with color stripes is worn on the shirt. Above both, there comes the "caftan", an outer loose garment open in front, with long sleeves. The caftan is fastened with a shawl of cashmere or a muslin waistband.
Similar to an overcoat, the Jubbah is an outer garment of various colors, with sleeves that hardly touch the wrist. In very cold weather, a black gown ( "Abaya ) is used.
The turban as head dress is composed of a red- colored fez with dark- colored tassels surrounded by a shawl of cashmere.
As regards lower classes, men' wear were less simple, consisting of a long, wide- sleeved, blue linen or cotton shirt. Their turbans consist of a white, red or yellow, woolen shawl or a cotton fabric wound around a fez above a skull cap.
Egyptian women's garments were an index to her level. They were usually dressed in costly garments ornamented with magnificent jewelry, golden necklaces , with a miniature version of the Quran and a bottle of perfume dangling.
Women of the well-off class wear gold bracelets , anklets and precious- stone rings. As soon as a woman went out of her home, she would veil up all her ornaments.
Clothing of popular classes reflected their humble standard of living. Description of Buildings
According to Lane's account, Cairo at that time covered about 5 sq. km, with a population of 240,000 out of Egypt's total population of 2.5 million. Dominated by a citadel lying on a high hill, the city was surrounded by a wall with gates that were closed on nightfall.
Cairo's roads were narrow, winding and unpaved. Streets were lined on both sides with shops with separate houses on top, scarcely occupied by shop lessees.
Most alleys and lanes were closed on nightfall at both the entrance and exit with wooden gates watched by guards.
Residential buildings were generally composed of two or three floors. Almost each house comprised an unpaved inner courtyard accessible through a vestibule. The inner courtyard, that performs the function of air conditioning the house, is the most interesting element in house architecture. On both northern and southern sides of the courtyard there are two Iwans , a recess- like reception with a raised floor with screened lattice as a protection against sun rays during the day. Each Iwan has a terrace ( Miq'ad ) open to the courtyard. During noontime the house occupants stay in the Iwan and at sunset, they move to enjoy the view of the water- fountain or pond.
Mushrabiya, a projecting oriel window with a wooden latticework enclosure, is an appropriate solution to problems of ventilation and outward view. While screening and alleviating sun light, a mushrabiya secures privacy of the occupants.
Oftentimes, a street may, wholly or in part, comprises exclusively shops of a specific trade after which the Souq ( marketplace ) is named, unless it is named after the nearby mosque. For example, there are separate souqs for coppersmiths, spice dealers, goldsmiths etc., together with al-Ghouriya Souq, so named after Sultan al- Ghouri's mosque.
Separate public baths are assigned for men and women. Should the vicinity has only one public bath, different timings are set separately for men and women.
Like public baths, barber shops were favorite meeting places for men. The public scribe was also a public figure at that time. At certain places in the souq, squatting on a wooden sofa or a raised stone step, he wrote down for pay personal letters or complaints to the ruler or senior state officials.
As a close and honest observer, Edward William Lane could produce a valuable masterpiece on the manners and customs of Egyptians at his time. In addition to his aforementioned works, Lane also produced a translation of the Arabian Nights ( 1838- 1840 ) and an exhaustive Arabic lexicon, the last of which appeared posthumously. He died at Worthing , Sussex on August 10, 1876.