Daniel A. Stolz, The Lighthouse and the Observatory: Islam, Science, and Empire in Late Ottoman Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Daniel A. Stolz (DAS): I have long been fascinated by science in late Ottoman society. What first grabbed me was the sense that people living under Ottoman rule were thinking about science in a variety of contexts that we usually study in isolation. Science was supposed to allow the state to transcend its political circumstances; it was going to renew religion; it was going to make the social order more just. It reminds me a lot of our own technological moment, in the sense that the promise of radically new possibilities also meant a lot of uncertainty and, sometimes, very sharp disagreement.
As for the book’s focus on the specific science of astronomy—that was unexpected! It came from a desire to reconsider this radical moment in Ottoman society from the perspective of what was old and continuous, rather than what was new and disruptive. In the end, the book still traces a trajectory in which science became part of new state powers and forms of communal piety. By focusing on astronomy, however, it becomes clear that this trajectory starts in a place where Ottomans already had a sophisticated, mathematical tradition of natural inquiry. In contrast to our usual understanding of this period, very little of the science in the book was “new” for late Ottomans.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DAS: One of the interesting things about astronomy is that it was distributed across a variety of social contexts in late Ottoman Egypt. The book follows Muslim scholars (ulama) who used astronomy to measure time, compute calendars, and predict planetary motion—mostly still within a geocentric system. In this respect, the book builds on the literature in the history of Islam and science, which has pointed to the vitality of science in post-classical Islamic scholarship. But the book is also about astronomy among the state-building bureaucrats of the Khedivial government, and later of the British occupation, who used astronomy to survey land and draw maps. It is very much a study of science and empire, not only science and religion. In fact, I think of the book as using the history of science to draw together our understanding of imperial state-building with our understanding of Islamic reformism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DAS: This is my first book. I had done earlier research on science and Islamic reformism in the late Ottoman Arabic press, including an article on Rashid Rida’s views on scientific materialism. In the book, I expanded the lens to look not only at what people like Rashid Rida wrote about science, but also how they did science. Most of the book is concerned with practice, whether it is the scribal and observational practices of ulama who studied astronomical timekeeping, or the measurement practices of British surveyors. I think this is a departure not only from my own previous work, but also from a lot of work on science in late Ottoman society, where the focus has tended to be on debates in the press or on institutions.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DAS: I hope that Middle East historians and scholars of Islam will appreciate the book’s argument that the late Ottoman state’s institutionalization of science generated new kinds of religious authority and piety, rather than being only a secularizing force. I also hope that historians of science will appreciate the book’s argument that non-Western empire (the Ottomans) and networks of religious scholars (ulama) were instrumental for the globalization of a modern science.
I would also love for the book to inspire graduate students to pursue some of the many trails that I came across in my research but chose not to explore. As one example, the book points to a whole world of astrology in late Ottoman society. We know that this was a period when practices like astrology were increasingly designated as “superstitions,” as signs of backwardness—things to be repressed. Yet we are only just beginning to understand the social history of the practice itself (the work of Gülçin Tunalı Koç is a pioneering example). The sources exist and are relatively accessible.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DAS: I have begun research for a new book project on the Ottoman and Egyptian public debt administrations of the late nineteenth century. This is a topic that looms over the late Ottoman period’s historiography, in which scholars have focused on the debt administrations’ significance for the state’s economic and political constraints. I am approaching the topic with a different set of questions, which come out of my interest in the history of expertise. My focus is on the new problems of knowledge that the debt administrations confronted—beginning with the surprisingly difficult task of quantifying the debt itself. Ultimately, I am interested in how the debt administrations gave rise to new forms of knowledge production both within and about the Middle East.
J: What is your favorite image in the book?
DAS: The book contains an image of a map of Qalyubiyya, produced under the direction of Mahmud al-Falaki in the 1860s (the print date is 1872). In a detail, you can see clearly how the draughtsman marked the Great Pyramid of Giza as the point through which the line of zero longitude (prime meridian) runs. The image is striking, in the first instance, because it seems to represent a vision of Egyptian nationhood that is ahead of its time. The word “Egyptology” had only appeared in 1859, and the flourishing of interest in Pharaonic history as the basis of Egyptian nationalism was several decades in the future at this point. Yet here is a map, in Arabic, intended to show the entirety of the Nile Valley and Delta (parts were never finished), with the Great Pyramid at its center. The catch is that Mahmud al-Falaki used the Great Pyramid in this way because French cartographers had measured its longitude from Paris during the Napoleonic invasion. Whatever its symbolism, in other words, using the Great Pyramid’s longitude as prime meridian was also a way of making the map French. To be clear, there was nothing nefarious about this. It is just a very tactile illustration of the fact that twentieth-century nationalism emerged out of (not simply in opposition to) imperial ways of defining and representing the state and its territory.
Excerpt from the Book:
Chapter 2, pp. 74-78
The total eclipse of the sun on 18 July 1860, was visible across a long, narrow strip of the northern hemisphere. As the sky went dark, two Egyptian observers stood ready at positions along the path of totality. One, Mahmud Bey Hamdi, was in Dongola, in today’s Northern Sudan, about 1,000 miles up the Nile River from Cairo. The other, Ismaʿil Effendi Mustafa, was in the Santuaria del Moncayo , in the Spanish Pyrenees, about 200 miles northeast of Madrid. As the crow flies, Mahmud Bey and Ismaʿil Effendi were almost 3,000 miles apart that day. Both, however, stood where they did because they served the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha. In similar ways, they had both arrived at their distant locations thanks to the new, difficult, potentially quite rewarding path that led through the schools of Egypt’s “new order” into government employ. And in different ways, the work each did in July 1860 contributed to two important and closely related viceregal projects.
The first of these projects was to seize the opportunity “to enter Egypt into the scientific concert of Europe,” as Said Pasha’s scientific advisor, Edmé- François Jomard, had pitched the idea of an eclipse expedition to the viceroy. Fittingly, one outcome of this proposal, Mahmud Bey’s report on his voyage to Dongola, was eventually presented to the Académie des sciences in Paris. Ismaʿil Effendi, meanwhile, observed the eclipse as a member of the expedition party of the Observatoire impérial de Paris itself.
The second viceregal project that occupied Mahmud Bey and Ismaʿil Effendi was cartography. The previous year, Said Pasha had tasked Mahmud Bey with producing an “astronomical map,” meaning a map of the viceroy’s domains based on astronomically determined positions. Dongola, the northernmost of the Sudanese territories conquered by Mehmed Ali Pasha in 1820– 21, was emphatically a part of those domains. Said Pasha commissioned the map not long after deciding to maintain Ottoman- Egyptian rule in the Sudan, which he had considered relinquishing. For Mahmud Bey, therefore, the grueling voyage to Dongola (much of which, south of Wadi Halfa, had to be crossed on land by camel) was about more than an eclipse. It provided a rare opportunity to determine the longitude and latitude of locations – ultimately about forty – between Cairo and La Nubie, as he called it.
For Ismaʿil Effendi, meanwhile, it was no coincidence that his most noteworthy contribution to the Paris Observatory’s eclipse expedition was to determine the observation party’s position. Surveying techniques occupied a major part of his training in Paris; when he eventually returned to Cairo, in 1864, it was to direct a newly established Viceregal Observatory that supported the making of the astronomical map.
Muhammad al-Khudari, from whose perspective we explored the practice of Muslim scholarly astronomy in mid nineteenth-century Egypt, was very interested in eclipses. Several of the claims to novelty in his Commentary on the Brilliancy are based on his analysis or tabular presentation of eclipse predictions. Yet it is unlikely that Khudari observed the eclipse of 1860. As an Azhari scholar living in Damietta, with no position in the viceregal bureaucracy, he could hardly have made the voyage up the Nile to the other end of the viceroy’s dominion – a trip that was almost too much for Mahmud Bey, who had all the resources of the state behind him. Needless to say, it is even more difficult to imagine Khudari in the Spanish Pyrenees with a team from the Observatoire de Paris. Moreover, had Khudari somehow found himself in a position to observe the eclipse, he would have seen it in a different light from Mahmud Bey or Ismaʿil Effendi. Khudari wanted readers of his Commentary on the Brilliancy to observe eclipses in order to help resolve a disagreement between Ulugh Beg (d. 1449) and Ibn al- Shatir (d. 1375) over the correct procedure for eclipse prediction. The motives that brought Egyptian astronomers to Moncayo and Dongola – joining the European “scientific concert,” mapping the Sudan – did not concern him in the least.
As this contrast suggests, while Mahmud Bey and Ismaʿil Effendi were both known popularly by the moniker al-falakī, “the astronomer,” their careers marked the rise of new meanings for that word in Egypt, meanings that emerged with the making of a newly close relationship between science and the Ottoman-Egyptian state in the middle of the nineteenth century. Within the growing ranks of technically trained bureaucrats who served the “Khedives” or Ottoman viceroys of Egypt in this period, few had longer and more consequential careers than Mahmud and Ismaʿil. This chapter traces their footsteps in order to understand how astronomy entered the service of the viceroys through new sites, career paths, and networks – in sum, a new form of authoritative astronomical knowledge, situated differently from the scholarly astronomy of ʿulamaʾ like Muhammad al- Khudari: in military academies and observatories, rather than in homes; in bureaucracies, rather than relationships of patronage; in Paris as well as in Cairo; in French as much as in Arabic.
Viceregal astronomy grew out of, and in turn shaped, the Ottoman-Egyptian state’s efforts to position itself as an empire akin to and in concert with European counterparts, particularly the second French Empire. It is no accident that the origins of modern Egyptian state astronomy lie in the middle of the nineteenth century, a period when Ottoman Egypt grappled with fundamental questions about its territoriality, as Mehmed Ali’s heirs, particularly Ismail Pasha (r. 1863–79), consolidated Egyptian rule in the Sudan and sought to expand their empire into East Africa. Eve Troutt Powell has shown that the project of viceregal imperialism in Africa gave shape to some of the earliest thinking about Egyptian nationhood, as “the Sudan helped Egyptians identify what was Egyptian about Egypt, in an idealized, burgeoning nationalist sense.” After the Mahdist movement seized control of the Sudan in 1881 and Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, the importance of restoring Egyptian rule in the Sudan acquired increasingly nationalist and racial overtones: by colonizing black Africans, Egyptians – “colonized colonizers,” in Troutt Powell’s formulation – demonstrated their fitness for national independence.
The making of an Egyptian empire under these circumstances raised questions about space and time that state astronomers were particularly equipped to answer. Mahmud Hamdi and Ismaʿil Mustafa helped to create some of the first widely seen Arabic maps of Egypt, representing the space of the viceroy’s domains with new specificity. Just as significantly, they argued for particular interpretations of the relationship between the space of Egypt, its history, and the people who now inhabited it. At times using the very instruments and techniques that they deployed in their cartography, viceregal astronomers also sowed the seeds of a new Egyptian historiography, most famously in Mahmud’s studies of Alexandria and the pyramids. Through such cartographical and historiographical work, astronomers joined the viceroy’s domains with the “scientific concert of Europe” by virtue of Egypt’s past as well as its present.