Many have heard of T. E. Lawrence, and maybe some of you out there have heard of Gertrude Bell, but I bet you didn’t know that there was a Middle Eastern researcher that came almost century before either of them! The man’s name was Edward William Lane, perhaps the most well known for translating the “Arabian Nights” stories. Edward William Lane was born in England in 1801. He started off as an engraver’s apprentice in London, which will come in handy later on in life… At the time, Napoleon’s explorations of Egypt fascinated England and many books were written on Egypt. This fervor for all things Egyptian helped shape the young Edward’s interest in the Middle East. At that time, “Middle Eastern” was referred to as “Oriental”. Soon enough, he wished to travel to Egypt himself, and read up about the culture and learned Arabic. His dream came true when a family friend, Lord Bexley financed his trip to Egypt in 1825. At first, Lane was apprehensive, and nervous that he would not fit in or be welcomed, but his fears subsided once he got there! Lane traveled to Cairo and admired the web of narrow streets and buildings as well as observing the people. He found a house in Cairo, but far away from where Europeans lived, and immersed himself in Egyptian culture. He wore Turkish clothes, to look like the Turkish elite in Egypt, ruled by the Ottoman Empire. He almost exclusively socialized with the locals, adopting their habits and rituals as his own. He even had an Egyptian persona, named “Masur Effendi”! There was a small circle of other Europeans who came to study the Egyptian people Lane hung around who also adopted the local culture and dress including Sir Gardner Wilkinson, the founder of British Egyptology. He stayed in Egypt until 1828 and then went back home to England. However, he brought back quite the souvenir!- A little Greek slave girl! He had his mother raise her and when she was a grown woman, married her!
Lane wrote a book about his experience in Egypt, chronicling the culture and many other aspects. He called it “Description of Egypt”, but it never got published due to the expense. This disappointed Lane, as it was his favorite work.During the next several years, Lane found it hard to adjust to life back in England and missed Egypt greatly. However, he did not have the funds to go back. A stroke of luck happened when (I’m not making this name up!) The Society for he Diffusion of Useful Knowledge funded a return trip to Egypt to record more culture for another book. Lane went back in 1833. This time, he meticulously detailed many aspect of Egyptian culture and made many illustrations for his book. (Told you the engraving career came in handy!) He drew his own illustrations and they’re remarkably detailed! In a world where such fine arts is all but gone in books, his speak to what was achieved. On his return , this new book was called “The Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians” detailing things like the houses, the land, customs, their religion etc… It was a huge success and still is to this day, with copies still currently in print!
After this masterpiece, Lane had a bit of a mid life crisis, not knowing what to do next. In the 1840’s he took his sister, Sophia Poole, with him back to Egypt, as he realized since Egypt was a gender segregated society, his knowledge of the women was superficial. His sister could enter places and have access to things he could not as a man. She published her own book on that, titled “An Englishwoman in Egypt”. Edward William Lane himself started to work on an Arabic-English dictionary in his later years but died in 1876 before it was complete. His son finished it and published this last work. Lane’s legacy still lives on, as his work in Egypt really enlightened the western world on Egypt, and provided he most comprehensive and unbiased account of Egyptian culture. What resonates with me is, his love for the culture, and how he learned the language and immersed himself in it, when many Europeans thought themselves above any non-Europeans and superior. I loved his humility in adopting the other culture and not being above them, as well as his meticulous scholarship in his insights into their culture. T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell did the same things, immersing themselves in the culture and really connecting on a deep level with the people. The only difference is, Edward Lane’s studies were purely civilian, and he had no military involvement there whatsoever! I think that’s part of what made all of these historical figures great, immersing themselves in the culture, and really appreciating those cultures instead of being above them and looking down on them. Just think, who knew a guy was already achieving greatness studying the Arab world close to 100 years before either Gertrude Bell or T. E. Lawrence came into being!
Here’s a more detailed article on his life! An Account of The Journeys and Writings of the Indefatigable Mr. Lane
And his book “The Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians”