Primordial History, Print Capitalism, and Egyptology in Nineteenth-Century Cairo

By Adam Mestyan

Some years ago I came across a fragmented, nineteenth-century Arabic manuscript in Cairo. The work, The Garden of Ismail’s Praise, caught my eye as one of a number of compositions written in praise of Ismail Pasha (r. 1863–1879), the “khedive”, or Ottoman governor, of Egypt. Ismail Pasha is well known as the man behind the Suez Canal grand opening in 1869, his commissioning of Verdi’s opera Aida, staged in 1871, and his disastrous finances. But the work differs from much of the other panegyrics composed in Ismail’s honor. It has much to say about a range of other issues usually overlooked in panegyric works, notably the legacy of ancient Egypt in nineteenth-century Egypt. With my interest thus piqued, I resolved to produce an edition and English translation of the work, and this resulted in the book Primordial History, Print Capitalism, and Egyptology in Nineteenth-Century Cairo: Mustafa Salama al-Naggari’s The Garden of Ismail’s Praise, published by the French Institute of Oriental Archeology (Ifao) in Cairo.

The Garden of Ismail’s Praise is the work of Sheikh Mustafa Salama al-Naggari. As I relate in the Introduction to the book, Sheikh al-Naggari had an extremely active life, serving as a poet in the khedivial court, the Arabic editor (in partnership with a Turkish colleague) of the official journal, an entrepreneur in the early Arabic book market, and one of the founders of the first Egyptian literary society. As a poet, he mastered the Arabic chronogram, the art of marking time through text relying on the number-values of the Arabic letters and forming a date out of a number of words. He could “write” a date in every second hemistich in very long (and, I have to confess, very boring) panegyric poems. His chronograms appear on khedivial artefacts ranging from poetry books to a cupboard in the Paris World Exhibition of 1867. Upon his death in February 1870, just a few months after the Suez Canal opening ceremonies (November 1869), he bequeathed to his heirs hundreds of books, which I found itemized in probate documents held in the Egyptian National archive (see our start-up digital humanities Project Naggari). The list of his books shows that he had a particular interest in time, and possessed several printed and manuscript works belonging to the Muslim genre of calendarial computations.

In writing The Garden of Ismail’s Praise, al-Naggari gave full expression to his chronological interests. The work is a poetic, Muslim world history of Egypt from the Creation to the days of Ismail Pasha. As is conventional in a panegyric work of this nature, the author presents the wonders of earlier ages as intimations of the future achievements of the khedivial ruling family. But this universal history differs from the numerous other works in the genre. Al-Naggari was writing in an age when Egyptologists and natural scientists were revealing findings about a deep past that challenged long-standing Judeo-Christian and Muslim stories about divine creation. And al-Naggari was evidently disturbed by these revised chronologies of the human past. In one remarkable part of the work he explicitly rejects the claims made by Egyptologists and instead proposes a chronology of primordial (which is to say, pre-human) history, based on Muslim legends about the pyramids and magic. This Muslim chronographic approach to ancient Egypt’s temporal space fascinated me.

Before the institutionalization of national, linear, and secular historical scholarship in Western universities in the late nineteenth century, the predominant mode of historical writing in imperial societies was universal, cyclical, and religious, as Aziz Al-Azmeh and Prasenjit Duara have shown. The method in these histories was chronography, the science of computation. Perhaps the most well-known of this type of metaphysical computation is the calculation of the Christian Easter, whose origins Alden A. Mosshammer has so brilliantly described. The method of metaphysically rationalized time was used for many other religious enquiries: the date of the Flood, the date of the Fall of Adam, and ultimately the date of the Creation – indeed, the age of the created world. For European historians, the ultimate codifier of this branch of knowledge in Christendom is Joseph Scaliger in the late sixteenth century, whose “historical chronology” was explained so well by Anthony Grafton. But in the nineteenth century, things began to change.

Writing in the 1860s, al-Naggari was evidently troubled by the implications of recent archeological findings by Egyptologists – even if his understanding of these implications seems in places to have been rather confused. Somewhat strangely (given that to the best of my knowledge no serious scholar ever stated anything of the kind), al-Naggari seems to have believed that Egyptologists were claiming that some of the ancient Egyptian rulers had reigned in the “antediluvian” period between the Fall of Adam and the Flood. He was thus troubled at how Egyptological scholarship seemed to imply that the duration of the antediluvian period was much longer than the 2242 years that had been hitherto calculated according Muslim, Jewish, and Christian chronographers. As he writes:  

Some recently deciphered the old Egyptian script. They established that the calendar of the [ancient] peoples and the extent of their kings’ epochs determine that there was a long period before the Flood, that we should consider when we count the age of the world. They refuse to be led by the trusted calculations about the duration of the previously mentioned period … They argue that the period of time that passed before the Flood was much, much longer than what is described in the trusted calendars.

Hence the very Victorian problem of al-Naggari, standing between the metaphysical and empirical regimes of historical evidence. To reject the supposed longer antediluvian period, he turned to Muslim legends in order to construct a computed period between the Fall of Adam and the Flood. He insisted that the period between the Fall and the Deluge was 2242 years. In order to compute this period he invented a new dynasty: the mythical being, the giant (or long-living) Niqrawush and his descendants, who were the first rulers of Egypt – and magicians and priests at the same time. Al-Naggari carefully provided the number of years for the reigns of all descendants. Hence, he creates a chronographic time, the reign of the Niqrawush-dynasty, in what I call “After the Fall of Adam” (AFA) period in the book.

The chronographic screw in the wall of primordial time is the history of revelation. Al-Naggari anchors the Niqrawush dynasty in time through the shared Jewish-Christian-Muslim tree of patriarchs, which runs parallel to those giant kings. This is how he can compute: He takes the accepted lifespan and death dates of patriarchs and matches those to the Niqrawush dynasty. He points at the biblical figure of Jared as being in the original group that accompanied Niqrawush when he occupied Egypt in the dawn of time. The biblical prophet Enoch also appears as the Muslim prophet Idris and goes to heaven at one point – a moment in time that chronographic traditions actually mark with a precise year. Thus, the Bible and the Koran equally help al-Naggari to create a computed period of the Niqrawush dynasty between the Fall of Adam and the Flood. This part of the manuscript quickly ends, so we never learn how he would describe the post-diluvian world.

The attempt by a minor Muslim writer in the 1860s to argue against a long antediluvian period was not an anti-scientific or anti-European polemic. At other parts of the manuscript, he celebrates trains, steamers, and the new age of machines. Al-Naggari’s problem was a professional one: He thought the Egyptologists had simply calculated incorrectly. His solution was a computing based on a different understanding of evidence from that of the positivist archeologists who were excavating the remains of ancient Egypt. The fragments of his manuscript perhaps attest to more than meets the eye. Despite his misunderstandings, or perhaps more accurately because of his misunderstandings, al-Naggari’s manuscript is an immensely rich example of Muslim engagement with positivist science. And as such, it is as articulate a testimony to cross-cultural interaction as the better-known activities of Westernizing Ottoman bureaucrats and merchants.


Adam Mestyan is Assistant Professor in the History Department of Duke University. He is currently working on his second monograph, Modern Arab Kingship. His recent publications include Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) and Primordial History, Print Capitalism, and Egyptology in Nineteenth-Century Cairo (Cairo: Ifao, 2021). A graduate of Eötvös Loránd University and Central European University (Budapest), and a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, he has been the recipient of various research grants and fellowships, most recently at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris, 2018–2019. In 2011/2012, he was a EUME fellow


Citation: Adam Mestyan, Primordial History, Print Capitalism, and Egyptology in Nineteenth-Century Cairo, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30494


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