Early Modern Egypt: In the Crosshairs of Orientalism

Orientalism1“Orientalism” as defined by Edward Said, is “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”  Under the influence of foreign powers for years, Egypt has often been a country whose image was affected by colonial discourse and Orientalism in things such as art, literary works, and exhibitions at world fairs.

A major one is the Description de L’Egypte, which documented various characteristics of the country as a part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in the early 19th century.  It is in the Description de L’Egypte where a number of scientists and scholars had meticulously noted hundreds of architectural structures and landmarks, as well as recorded intrinsically detailed depictions of hieroglyphics, flora, fauna, and many other facets of Egypt at the time.


Through the eyes of the French expedition, Egypt was a land full of resources and colonial potential.  It was also a land that had held esteem since antiquity, and it was a location worthy of trade interest.  As researched by Edward Said in his article Orientalism on Napoleon’s Expedition, taking control of Egypt would have allowed the French (and Napoleon) to demonstrate their influence and strength as a modern power.  Even looking through the Description de L’Egypte, contemporary depictions of Egyptian life can be difficult to find.  The focus was on the exoticism of Egypt’s ancient past.  Here was the beginning of Egyptomania, in which contemporary Egyptian society was pushed aside for the spectacular imagery and glamour associated with its ancient past.


The layout of world fairs is also a remarkable example of how there can be dominant discourses. As described by Edward Said on Orientalism, those who experienced the ‘non-western’ exhibits of world fairs received a Western representation of timeless, primitive exoticism.  Examples of this can be seen by the Cairo Street from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago as well as the Universal Exposition of 1867 in Paris (Celik).  Another great example would be the 1866 Egyptian Exhibit at the world fair in Paris.  Egypt was represented by architectural pieces such as a pharaoh’s temple, a medieval palace and a ‘modern-day’ bazaar, all propagating an ‘exotic’, Arabic style atmosphere.  To top it all off was the presence of Egypt’s new viceroy Ismail Pasha, who smoked a hookah while accepting visitors in a area made to look like the luxurious place he was born.  The author of “Verdi’s Egyptian Spectacle” referred to his as a “sumptuous spectacle” that “expressed a political idea”.


Like Edward Said’s interpretation of ‘The West” and “The Rest”, elements of discourse were expressed through power and power relations.  Colonial discourse was evident through the demarcation between those countries that were ‘Western’ and those that were not.  For example, in the Street of Nations in the Universal Exposition of 1878, in Paris, the displays of the three Muslim countries present were much smaller compared to the size of Western countries.  Also, Non-western countries were often placed next to each other in world fairs, such as in the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1867 and the Universal Exposition of Vienna in 1873 (Celik).  By placing them together and making their representations smaller, non-western nations such as Egypt would appear inferior and primitive.  French architects even deliberately made streets ‘irregular’ in accordance with what they expected was real, despite the fact that in the 1860’s, Istanbul and Cairo were attempting to establish more urban, updated street networks (Celik).

OrientalismFinalSo, in conclusion, images of non-western countries were often luxurious, mysterious and filled with intrigue despite its ‘inferiority’ to Western nations.  This was present in many forms, such as art, literature and exhibitions.  These examples suggest that Egypt was depicted in alien, inferior and mysterious ways through ‘Western’ eyes.  In such circumstances, the ‘Orient’ transcended history, and at the same time encouraged the image of technologically progressing Western countries like France and the United States in comparison.

Works cited:

Islamic Quarters in Western Cities by Zeynep Celik, 1992

Orientalism by Edward W. Said, 1977

Excerpts from the Description De L’Egypte

Orientalism on Napoleon’s Expedition by Edward W. Said, 1978

Verdi’s Egyptian Spectacle: On the Colonial Subject of Aida by Katherine Bergeron, 2002