Aida and Egyptian Nationalism

By the time Aida was brought to the stage, global rediscovery of Egypt was already occurring. Its culture was becoming popular in Europe, but the financial instability from the cost of the Suez Canal and the opera itself put Khedive Ismail into even more debt. Aida embodies the relationship between Europe and Egypt, with Egypt as an object to be conquered. Aida represented a shift in political power not only by its plot but the circumstances surrounding it that led Egypt to its history of British occupation, colonialism, and thwarted nationalist movements.

The opera itself told a story of imperialism as the reality of colonialism unfolded during the planning of the Suez Canal. When Ismail commissioned an Egyptian Opera, he wanted to create a vision within the story of grandeur amongst a highly ordered, disciplined state. However, the opera was written by an Italian, Giuseppi Verdi. Verdi used a conception of ancient Egypt which had been popularized globally. The political climate contributed greatly to how the story unfolded. While Egypt was intimately involved in the Western World, they were not yet under direct power from the British. Aida reflected more about European conceptions and culture than it does of Egypt’s. Ismail’s political ambitions of moving into East Africa would stop efforts from the French and Italians in those areas, securing the British a path to India. The underlying political message in the story is argued by some to represent real international relations at the time. Radames’ attack on Ethiopia was an allegory for support from the British of Ismail’s ambitions. The French were opposed to Ismail’s plans, which could be what prompted Mariette to support the commissioning of Aida in the first place. Another view looks more at Verdi’s perspective as sympathetic of the Ethiopians, and portraying them as the misrepresented country in the opera. In some analyses, Verdi equated Ethiopia with his own Italy, and Egypt with hostile Hapsburg-Austria. The content of the opera itself became a collection of agendas from all of the actors involved, and the agendas of their respective countries.

The argument blaming France for using the opera to coerce Ismail into certain political decisions is thin, at best: the French convinced an Egyptian to commission an Italian to write an opera about imperialism. There are obviously more views at play than that of the Europeans, or the Egyptians. Aside from the story itself, the political and financial environment leading up to the opera left a perfect opportunity for the British to slip into a position of power. The real story of the British occupation begins almost a century prior, with Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt and the opening of Egypt to the European world. Aida’s role in British colonialism goes further than the motives of its creators, and was the contributed to the impending British involvement.

Economic instability was ultimately the green light for the British invasion in 1882. Aida was just one of many costly endeavors paid for by Ismail with borrowed European money. The push to commission the opera ultimately fell to Ismail, but with French encouragement in making a grand, royal splendor on the Nile with the opening of the Suez Canal following only a few years after the premiere of Aida. After reaching bankruptcy from Aida and the canal, he sold the Suez Canal to the British Prime Minister. Aida simply added to a debt that could never be settled by the Egyptians. It was a perfect set-up for the Europeans, who were reaching for an inevitable takeover of Egypt and created a weakness in the economic and political fabric of the country first as a pretext for invasion and occupation.

The British thought the Suez Canal was far too useful to let it fall into the hands of any power but themselves. All the displays of modernization supported by Ismail allowed European bankers to take control of Egyptian finances. With control of railways, ports, and post offices it was only a matter of time before Britain invaded, making Egypt and its Sudan territory a colony. The Suez Canal was invaluable to trade with Asia, and with such a commodity at stake the events that later unfolded came as no surprise. Aida ultimately brought Egypt to her knees in the face of European power, acting as a tool in its colonization.