When the first edition of the book “The English Woman in Egypt” appeared in London in 1884 AD by Sophia Paul, sister of the most famous British orientalist, Edward William Lane;

It was well received by the English reader, as evidenced by what came in an article by the traveler “Kanglik” who said: “This excellent book, which is the result of the writer’s personal observations, gives us, in a few pages, information about the mysterious secret of the eastern harem that surpasses any source in its abundance. else".

A year later, an American edition of this first part appeared in 1845. The second part of the book, which contained a description of the celebrations for the wedding of "Zeinab Hanim", the daughter of Muhammad Ali Pasha, was printed in London in 1846, and no other editions of the book have been issued since then. .

The foreign travelers were trying as much as possible to visit the “harem” and get acquainted with this mysterious world whose secrets orientalists could not penetrate, and thus they excelled over them. Kojak Hanem, a friend of the French writer and novelist Gustave Flaubert, who relished the suffering of the East and the Orientals, and focused his attention on the manifestations of injustice, perversion, ugliness and chaos in it.

As for respectable, veiled women who were kept in their harems, foreign women succeeded in visiting them in various ways, and the servants were often the intermediaries.

There is no doubt that curiosity came from both sides, as the ladies of the harem also longed to see open-minded women who were absolutely free to travel wherever they wanted.

And these visits often failed, as they were dominated by sophistication and usually did not go beyond talking about some words of courtesy and superficial observations by reference or translation.

Therefore, most of the stories of the foreign visitors came closer to superficiality and an expression of their previous ideas about the Orient. They did not see in the harem anything but ugly and trivial, as described by Dr. Azza Karara, translated “Sofia’s Journey to Cairo 1842-1846 AD.”

An English family with a passion for the East

Sophia Paul's trip to Cairo with her two sons after her separation from her husband was nothing but an expression of the passion instilled in her by her well-known orientalist brother, Edward William Lane.

Edward wrote about the Islamic world and Egypt in very important books, far from the superficial and trivial that other orientalists wrote, including the book "The Customs and Traditions of the Modern Egyptians" and the unpublished "Description of Egypt", and the largest Arabic lexical dictionary was translated into English based on On "The Crown of the Bride" by the scholar Al-Murtada Al-Zubaidi, and he had the greatest impact on his sister Sophia and her grandson "Stanley Paul", the author of the most important book "The History of Egypt in the Middle Ages".

When Edward completed his book Customs and Traditions of the Modern Egyptians, he realized that a large gap still needed to be filled in his book, an original and important gap related to the world of the harem in Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 1840s and 1850s.

He took advantage of his beloved sister Sophia's aspiration to learn about the East and Egypt in particular, and assigned her the task of writing about this world, and facilitating access to it through English women who had lived in Egypt some time ago because of their husbands' work in trade, education and preaching.

Sophia was impressed by the idea, and she loved adventure at a time when the East embodied the meaning of adventure by learning about its secrets, traditions, customs and antiquities.

When Edward completed his book "The Customs and Traditions of the Modern Egyptians", he realized that a large gap still needed to be filled in his book, a gap related to the world of the harem in Egypt under the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha (communication sites)

Sophia arrived in Egypt and landed in Alexandria in the summer of 1842 AD. Since that date, she has been writing down her observations of everything that surrounded her, especially when she drew her attention to the misery, poverty, disease and malnutrition that children and their mothers suffered in the poor classes at the time.

She also began writing about the antiquities of Egypt, Giza and Upper Egypt, and then devoted many chapters of her journey to the world of the harem in the two layers;

The High, which followed Muhammad Ali Pasha and his sons, and the Middle, which owned its own customs and traditions, also in running the affairs of the Haramlek.

Sophia left us her tales in a descriptive style, in which she was keen to write what she saw and witnessed for herself, with previous and biased European impressions that she could not abandon, of course, as a result of education and culture.

Sophia wrote in the introduction to her book that her brother Edward had put at her disposal unpublished notes of him to quote from her what she needed, and she did so, as we find large paragraphs of her letters containing information taken verbatim from her brother's writings, mostly from the manuscript "Description of Egypt".

What concerns us in Sophia’s memoirs about Egypt and the secrets of the harem in it is that when she visited them, she wore the European dress instead of the Turkish one that she usually wore at home and outside, because, as she said, she was more respected when she wore the European, [1] a phenomenon that illustrates the respect and high status that she enjoyed. Foreigners in the state of Muhammad Ali Pasha.

"Sofia" presents an accurate portrait of oriental women

The book "The English Woman in Egypt" by Sophia Paul (communication sites)

Sophia was amazed at the prevalence of the value and affection of compassion on which the family was based in the East, and upon which the pillars of social and civil solidarity in the country were based. When we saw in it paragraphs under the headings of death due to starvation or a painful state of misery as we see in the English newspapers, but what is the reason for this? Although there are no homes here to house the poor as there are in England. There is a strong family bond that prevails in the whole East, and that the poor Rightly bears the concerns of his brother.I noticed this same family bond between members of the upper and middle classes that I visited, where the mother remains in the family the head, and her soft and gentle dominion lasts throughout her life, and the older she gets, the more the love and respect of her relatives for her, and it is mentioned that Muhammad (peace be upon him) ) He answered warmly when he was asked about the most deserving of relatives with kindness and respect. He said to his questioner emphasizing:Your mother, then your mother, then your mother.”[2]

Sophia denied the stereotypical image of the women of the harem at the time that they were weak and submissive to the power and arrogance of men. The freedom and power for the women of this class is available, as Sophia confirmed, saying: "I personally agree with them that high-class women in the whole East have dominance in many areas. You may find it difficult to Believe that the master of the house may be prevented for several days from entering his harem if, by order of his wife or wives, a pair of babuj (a light shoe for the harem worn inside the house) is placed on the doorstep from the outside, indicating that there are female visitors inside.”

[3] Sophia also blew up the stereotypical image of the women of the harem that they are without a job. She celebrated the embroidery industry in them, saying that it is “a sign of beauty, and despite its differences, it surpasses any embroidery practiced in England, and it seems to have a special kind of taste..

If Sophia had refuted the common and false orientalist image of the affluent and lavish woman served by dozens of maidservants in terms of her love of working, supervising food and drink, cleaning and embroidering herself, to the extent that she saw with her own eyes the daughter of Muhammad Ali Pasha supervising the washing and polishing of marble while she was barefoot with her maidservants;

She also refuted the image of complete ignorance with which oriental women were stigmatized at the time, as I knew some families whose "daughters obtained a very sophisticated culture, and in their library there are works of the most important Italian poets and the best Turkish literature, and the girls read these books and understood what they contained."


Inside the walls of the Dubara Palace

In September 1843, Sophia was able to visit Muhammad Ali's harem with the help of her dear friend "Mrs. Leader", the wife of the most famous English missionary in Egypt at the time, "Reverend Leader." Like the family of Habib Effendi, the Turkish ruler of Cairo in the 1840s, they respected foreigners in Cairo, and received French and English European women and tourists in the homes and palaces of the harem, a common thing sought by upper-class women as well as European women.

For this reason, the women of Muhammad Ali Pasha, his wives, and then his concubines in many of his palaces, especially the Dubara Palace, which was allotted for them at that time in western Cairo on the Nile in the Garden City neighborhood of today, always received these European visitors.

Muhammad Ali Pasha allowed them these visits because he was interested in improving his image and reputation in Western circles, especially after the wars that took place between him and the Ottoman Empire, and after the London Agreement of 1840 AD, which guaranteed Muhammad Ali Pasha and his sons the rule of Egypt a hereditary rule.

It was not surprising, then, that the women of Muhammad Ali and his concubines converged with the tourists and orientalists who wanted to explore the world of the harem in Eastern society.

Sophia and her friend, Mrs. Leader, entered the Dobara Palace, which was reserved for some of the harem of Muhammad Ali, and she described it to us as a boring description. Umm Khedive Abbas later.

Sophia was astonished by the greatness of the mattresses, curtains, marble, gold and silver utensils, the maidservants, and the "eunuchs", and saw the two wives of the Pasha, who were at his disposal and in their youth at the time, one of them "a handsome and majestic appearance, while the other is a sign of beauty, overflowing with tenderness and sweetness," as she described it. .


The lunch scene in the afternoon is something that deserves to be marketed according to Sophia, “There were many small silverware stacked on top of the tray that were filled with various types of pudding, ice cream and other things. As for the middle of the table, a rib of lamb was placed over spiced rice, which I did not expect to belong to me.” The widow of Toson Pasha al-Nayah, the mother of Abbas Pasha and the oldest of the women present, and she had the highest status among them, as she was honored to offer me with her own hand almost every morsel I tasted during the feast, and after the meat came the stew followed by vegetables, then delicious cream, and other things There were countless other sweets; the plate was lifted after we tasted what was in it, to be replaced by another, after which the different kinds of sweets were arranged one by one.”

Sophia went on to describe the clothes, jewelry, food, and luxury of the Pasha’s harem, but she also paid attention to the extent of the order followed in those high palaces, and whose women, relatives and in-laws took precedence over others.

She saw that the system was simple;

The mother is considered the head of the family and the first lady of the harem. If she is deceased, then his sister or sisters take the lead, followed in rank by his favorite wife, and the first wife who gave birth to the governor remains the respected and the most loving and honorable. The upper classes have their separate wing, and their followers in particular. The harem is a small world of women in which many spend their lives from an early age; it is the scene of their joys and sorrows, their happiness and their anxieties."

The mysterious world of the harem was among the worlds that were brought to Europe in a distorted image, because the Orientalists who transmitted this image, but they transmitted it by listening and according to their previous imagination, as they were not allowed to see what Muslims and Orientals considered a sanctuary that could not be outside Muslim men, let alone non-Muslims. Muslims to transgress to him or know his secrets.

Hence, the well-known literary works such as “One Thousand and One Nights” were overly extravagant and deviate from Sharia and others, the primary source of the noisy, imaginary and unreal, on which orientalists relied in conveying the image of the harem and the eastern woman.

And when Sophia saw the falsehood of these claims, and realized the vast difference between the imaginary world of the harem and the real world of them, she wrote: “The ideas which prevail among many in Europe about immorality in the harem are, I believe, wrong. But her concubines are under strict control, and the order to which the young girls of the eastern harem are submissive can be compared only with that of the monasteries, and any deviation from absolute decency results in a grave punishment.


Muhammad Ali's harem in the castle

In April 1844, Sophia, with new help from her friend, was able to gain access to the Harem Palace in the castle, which is the most important and finest of the palaces. And its privileged location, which overlooked all of Cairo, saying: “We ascended the steps of a huge marble staircase to the upper reception hall on the first floor, and here a very splendid scene exploded before our eyes. We looked dazzled by all the important areas north and west of Cairo, "and even the areas near the delta.


Sophia met the two wives of Muhammad Ali, the eldest of whom was the mother of his son, Prince Halim, who was twenty years old at the time, as she described it.

And it is true that they were not as beautiful as the ones she met at the Dobara Palace, but the manifestations of richness and outrageous wealth in their clothes and jewelry were evident, as Sophia reported, saying: “The pearl necklaces that were worn by the First Lady and two other women (made up of) the largest pearls I have ever seen and around the neck tightly".

Sophia was the first British tourist and orientalist to arrive at this palace, and she was told at the time, "No Frank has ever set foot in this harem."

Sophia points out that the women of the High Harem, the wives and maidservants of Muhammad Ali or other wives and daughters of senior politicians, were closely informed of the political situation and diplomatic relations between Egypt, France and Britain.

I feared that the meeting would be lukewarm, given the heated negotiations taking place at that time between France and Britain on the one hand, and Muhammed Ali Pasha on the other, regarding obtaining a privilege that "every Christian desperately desires and cannot, as a Muslim ruler, grant it in any way."

The French and the English may have been negotiating a concession for the river transportation of the Nile from Alexandria to Aswan, and Muhammad Ali eventually chose to make it exclusive to the Egyptian government.

In any case, Sophia acknowledged, "The conversation during the visit is always polished, and often revolves around political matters, so as soon as we took our council yesterday (in the harem palace in the castle) we discussed current political events, and soon we approached the issue of freedom in religious matters." .

[8] Thus, it appears from the quick description through which we preferred to get acquainted with Sophia Paul's book "The English Woman in Egypt", which described the Egyptian harem society in its upper and middle classes, that it presented a picture that is very different from the limited stereotype presented by orientalists from He accepted it about the breathless and debauched woman who was just a body that the oriental man enjoyed in his harem.

Sophia painted what we know from many sources today to be a much more complex portrait of the woman who lived in the harem of the men of the East.



  • Harem of Muhammad Ali Pasha, introduction translated by Azza Karara, p. 22.

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