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Egypt Atlas: اطلس ابتدائى للقطر المصرى [Elementary Atlas of Egypt].



A very rare and important Arabic language school atlas of Egypt, commissioned by the country’s Education Ministry and Ministry of Finance, emblematic of the country’s emerging national awakening whereby Egyptians gradually regained control over their country’s economy and institutions from the British quasi-colonial regime; in this vein, such cartographic works in the Arabic language, made for the use of Egyptians, played a key role in the country’s ultimately successful quest to reclaim its national identity; the atlas features 12 scientifically accurate maps.


Square 4°. Title page, 12 full page colour lithographed maps, bound in original red card covers with title printed on front cover (Very Good, cover with tiny folds , old bookseller’s stamp on the inner side of the front wrapper, margins with hardly noticeable soiling and tiny tears).


1 in stock


This very rare school atlas of Egypt features text entirely in the Arabic language, and was commissioned by Egyptian officials working in the country’s Education Ministry in 1912. This is the second edition, published one year after the first one. It features 12 scientifically accurate colour lithographed maps, including detailed maps of the populated and economically important regions of the country.

The General Survey Department of Egypt was founded by the British in 1898 and soon became one of the most professional and ambitious mapping agencies in the world, making rapid progress towards systematically mapping the entire country in exacting scientific detail to a large scale. The Department was the only operation in Egypt that could create top notch maps in sizable quantities in a cost-effective manner. As Egypt was a British protectorate, the Department was a quasi-colonial entity whose priorities were to serve British military and commercial interests, and not those of the Egyptian people, who were alienated from the exploration of the geography of their own country.

By contrast, the present atlas was expressly made for the use of Egyptian students in their own language. This was of great significance, as the atlas’s objective was nothing less than to return the mapping and geographical exploration of Egypt to its people. The atlas was completed in 1912, during the era, which saw the rise of a confident Egyptian nationalism, in which the people sought to gradually take back control of the country’s narrative – including its cartography.

The atlas features a title page with a table of contents, followed by 12 full-page, colour lithographed maps. Importantly, the maps are scientifically accurate, reduced from advanced trigonometrical surveys executed by the General Survey Department. The first map features an overview of Egypt within its greater region and map no. 5. Embraces the area of the Red Sea. The remaining 9 maps, executed to a scale 1:1,200,000, are connecting regional maps of the Nile Valley and Delta, along with the Suez Canal. The maps divide the country into muhafazat (governates), which are each distinguished by shading in bright hues and divided by bold red lines. Areas of elevation are defined by careful hachures, while the map labels every city and town of note, along with railways, major roads, and desert caravan routes.

Importantly, one will notice that the atlas’s regional maps only cover the populated and economically important parts of Egypt, as it intentionally excludes the virtually deserted bulk of the Sinai, the vast Western Desert regions, and the Red Sea coast. This is consistent with how the country was often represented; the gargantuan Finance Ministry’s Atlas of Egypt (2 vols., Cairo: General Survey Department of Egypt, 1914), which featured amazing ultra-large-scale maps, only covered the Nile Valley & Delta and the Suez Canal, as all other areas were not seen to be sufficiently interesting to warrant their own maps (also many these remote desert locales had not yet been surveyed – so there would not be much to show, even if one wanted to!).

The present atlas appears to be a pioneering work of its kind, as we are not aware of any earlier Arabic language educational atlases of Egypt, at least not one with scientifically accurate maps.


A Note on Rarity

The present atlas is very rare. We could not find any institutional examples in Western libraries.

The atlas’s rarity is not surprising, as such works made for active use in schools had very low survival rates due to wear and tear. The present example comes down in remarkably stellar condition.

Historical Context: The Long Roads towards Egypt Regaining its National Identity

Egypt has been for 5 millennia one of the great cultural centres of the world and was the nucleus of a succession of great empires. It was also often on the forefront of scientific and geographic discovery, the world’s first great geographer, Ptolemy, was from Alexandria. During the early Islamic period, Egypt was a regional superpower and Cairo was one of the world’s greatest places of learning.

Following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, the country became the wealthiest part of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Mamluk regime that governed Egypt on behalf of Constantinople, concentrated on the agrarian economy and neglected scientific advancement, such that the country fell well behind Europe and Turkey in such fields.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief but highly consequential invasion and occupation of Egypt (1798-1801) introduced the most advanced European scientific techniques to the country, including the printing press and advanced topographic surveying. The Albanian Ottoman military commander Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769 -1849) took advantage of the power vacuum that developed in the wake of the French withdrawal, taking over the country in 1805. A bold, visionary and hyperactive leader, instead of returning Egypt to it former state and eschewing Western influences, Muhammad adopted the best of European knowledge, spending vast resources to hire foreign advisors and to educate Egyptians in Europe on printing, medicine, manufacturing, etc. He turned Egypt into a de facto independent state (although Egypt remained a de jure part of the Ottoman Empire) and created a military-industrial complex that was the envy of the Islamic world. European leaders and the Ottomans Sultan were weary of crossing him, and he harnessed Western technology to Egypt’s advantage, as opposed to it being a tool for foreign interference in the country’s affairs.

Muhammad, who reigned for 44-years, died in 1849, and was succeeded by far less competent and vigorous leadership. Beginning in the 1850s, the Western technology that had made Egypt strong and independent now became a Trojan Horse, as Britain and France attempted to take over the country by convincing its leaders to sign unequal business deals. The construction of the Suez Canal (commenced in 1858, completed in 1869), that made Egypt a nexus for global trade, and the railway boom which linked up the country, served only to place the Egyptian government into an untenable debt trap and economic crisis. Britain brutally leveraged this chaos, to compel Egypt to become a British protectorate in 1882, effectively making the country into a colony. Egypt was militarily occupied by Britain, and it was British officials, in addition to French business interests, who took virtually complete control of Egypt’s military and economy. The Egyptian Khedive became not much more than a puppet ruler. Apart from Islamic education, scientific and technical bodies in the country became increasingly Europeanized, with the Arabic language reduced to a sideshow, or eliminated altogether.

The British-controlled regime founded the General Survey Department in 1898, a highly advanced mapping organization whose mandate was to map every inch of Egypt to the highest scientific standards, as had been done in many European countries, and by the British in India. The Survey recruited some of the British Empire’s best engineers, surveyors and draftsmen to map the country, while Egyptians occupied supporting roles. Over the next 16 years, they made tremendous progress, mapping the entire Nile Valley and Delta to total exactitude, resulting in the Finance Ministry’s aforementioned gargantuan Atlas of Egypt (1914), one of the most impressive national mapping projects ever endeavoured.

While the General Survey Department’s mapping projects were hugely impressive, they were executed largely by Europeans to benefit their quasi-colonial regime in Egypt. While some maps were bilingual (English – Arabic), most were only printed in English, such that they could only be used by Europeans or the few Europeanized Egyptians. Ironically, while Egypt became one of the best mapped countries in the world, 99% of Egyptians had no acquaintance with these accomplishments, and were thus disenfranchised from the exploration of the geography of their own country! However, it was not that the Survey Department categorically refused to create works in Arabic for the use of Egyptians, it was simply that it was not a priority.

The alienation of Egyptians from the mapping of their land became more absolute during World War I. The General Survey Department’s mandate changed to concentrate 100% on supporting the Entente war effort in the Near and Middle East. Any ‘superfluous projects’, such as the production of the present atlas, were suddenly mothballed. The Survey Department’s vast resources were refocused to make maps of potential battlefronts, not only of places in Egypt, but of subjects abroad, such as Gallipoli. Almost all of these maps were in English (some with French subtitles), made for the use of British and French soldiers, and virtually nothing was made to benefit Egypt’s native market.

The situation with cartography mirrored the broader reality, in that Egypt was essentially being ‘used’ by Britain. It served as its main base for military operations in the Near and Middle East and, as such, it made Egypt a prime target for Ottoman-German attacks. The Central Powers invaded the Sinai and came uncomfortably close to breaching the Suez Canal (which would have left Cairo virtually defenseless), while their spies caused trouble by riling up tribal communities in the Western Desert. Average Egyptians suffered from wartime rationing, curfews and other deprivations, even though they did not consider the conflict to be their war. Egyptians increasingly came to resent the British presence in their country as it cost them much but delivered little in return.

The immediate postwar period saw the rise of a new confidant type of Egyptian, and pan-Arab, nationalism. While such a movement had been developing since the 1870s, the wartime experiences ensured that is spread dramatically, from being the province of elite circles in Cairo and Alexandria, to gaining widespread support amongst the common people, both in the major cities and in the provinces. As the weak and callow Egyptian Sultan and his court seemed only to follow Britain instructions, the initiative to enact change was often left to Egyptian business leaders, journalists and lower ranking officials.

The key to Egypt regaining it independence was not just to ensure the people had a greater say over their own government, but it was also crucial that Egyptians gradually take back control of the country businesses / monopolies, secular education institutions, and technical matters, such as cartography.

During the postwar period, the General Survey Department, formally renamed the ‘Survey of Egypt’, was increasingly commissioned by Egyptian bureaucrats and community stakeholders to produce more maps in the Arabic language for the use of Egyptians (as exemplified by the present atlas). Importantly, the Survey remained the only institution in Egypt capable of producing high quality cartography in decent volumes, in an affordable manner. Cash strapped and with a lighter workload, the British-controlled Survey was only too happy to oblige. While it still prioritized the creation of maps for British civilian and military uses, increasingly more Arabic maps were published for secular educational purposes and for the use of Egyptian businessmen and community leaders. Slowly but surely, Egyptians took a larger share in the creation and use of the mapping of their own country. This was quite significant, as the being able to view maps of one’s own land in your own language was integral to realizing one’s national identity in the modern era.

During World War II, Egypt and the Survey reverted to their behaviour during the last global conflict. Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps came surprisingly close to taking Alexandria, while the civilian population endured similar wartime deprivations. The Survey focused all of its energies on producing maps for the Allied war effort, and Arabic language cartography was placed, once again, on the backburner.

After World War II, it became clear to everyone (except the British) that the quasi-colonial overlords had overstayed their welcome. As colonies all around the world were gaining their independence, Egypt, being a large, proud land with unparalleled historical stature, also demanded its freedom. However, the Anglo-French desire to retain control over the Suez Canal caused Britain to stubbornly maintain its presence in Egypt even though its regime had lost virtually all public support.

During the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, nationalist military officers, eventually led by the ultra-charismatic nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the pro-British monarchy. Britain was famously caught flat-footed when Nasser forcibly nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, evicting the British forces from the country. Egypt had regained both its de facto and de jure independence for the first time in centuries.

Under Nasser, the Survey of Egypt continued its stellar work, but under Egyptian leadership. The main language of its publications was changed to Arabic, and mapping of the country was henceforth produced by Egyptians for Egyptians.

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