The Turks, after conquering Arabic Egypt (1517), delegated its government to pashas and viceroys. The Mamelukes, who had ruled Egypt since 1250, were allowed to retain local power as the beys of the twelve sanjaks into which the country was divided. While the pashas lost their vigor in luxury, the beys trained their soldiers to personal loyalty, and soon challenged the authority of the hated viceroys. The most enterprising of these local rulers was ‘Ali Bey, who in boyhood had been sold as a slave. In 1766 he deposed the pasha; in 1769 he declared Egypt independent. Feverish with success, he led his Mameluke troops to the conquest of Arabia, captured Mecca, and took the titles of Sultan of Egypt and Khakan of the Two Seas (the Red and the Mediterranean). In 1771 he sent abu’l-Ahahab with thirty thousand men to conquer Syria; abu’l-Ahahab conquered, but then allied himself with the Porte, and led his army back into Egypt. ‘Ali fled to Acre, organized another army, met the forces of abu’l-Ahahab and the Turks, fought till he was disabled by wounds, was captured, and died within a week (1773). Egypt became again a province of the Ottoman Empire.
Beneath such oscillations of power and ecstasies of homicide the ships and caravans of trade, the industry of craftsmen, the annual overflow of the Nile, and the labor of fellaheen in the fertile mud, maintained in Egypt an economy whose profits went to a minority dowered by nature or circumstance with ability or place. The toil and yield of fields and seas fed the cities—here, above all, Alexandria, one of the greatest ports, and Cairo, one of the most populous capitals, of the eighteenth-century world. The streets were narrow to obstruct the sun, and were made picturesque by latticed windows and balconies from which the women of the harem could look unseen upon the life below. The larger streets hummed with handicrafts that defied capitalistic intrusion or machine production. In Islam every industry was an art, and the quality of the product took the place of quantity. The poor made beautiful things for the rich, but they never sold their pride.
Three hundred mosques supported the poor of Cairo with hope, and adorned it with massive domes, shady porticos, and stately minarets. One mosque, El Azhar, was also the mother university of Islam; to it came two or three thousand students, from as far east as Malaysia and as far west as Morocco, to learn Koranic grammar, rhetoric, theology, ethics, and law. The graduates of universities constituted the ulema, or body of scholars, from whom were chosen the teachers and judges. It was a regimen made for a rigorous orthodoxy in religion, morals, and politics.
So morals hardly changed from century to century. Puberty came earlier than in the north; many girls married at twelve or thirteen, some at ten; to be unmarried at sixteen was a disgrace. Only the rich could afford the polygamy that Koranic law allowed. A cuckolded husband was not only permitted by law, but was encouraged by public opinion, to put the offending wife to death.15 Islamic theology, like the Christian, considered woman a main source of evil, which could be controlled only by her strict subordination. Children grew up in the discipline of the harem; they learned to love their mother and to fear and honor their father; nearly all of them developed self-restraint and courtesy.16 Good manners prevailed in all classes, along with a certain ease and grace of motion probably derived from the women, who may have derived it from carrying burdens on their heads. The climate forbade haste, and sanctioned indolence.
Polygamy did not prevent prostitution, for prostitutes could provide the excitation that familiarity had allayed. The courtesans of Egypt specialized in lascivious dances; some ancient monuments reveal the antiquity of this lure. Every large town allotted to prostitutes a special quarter where they might practice their arts without fear of the law. As in all civilizations, women skilled in erotic dances were engaged to vibrate before male assemblies, and in some cases women also took pleasure in witnessing such performances.17
Music served both love and war; in either case it aroused attack and soothed defeat. Professional musicians, of either sex, could be engaged to provide entertainment. “I have heard the most celebrated musicians in Cairo,” said Edward Lane in 1833, “and have been more charmed with their songs … than with any other music that I have ever enjoyed.”18 The favorite instrument was the kemengeh, a kind of emaciated viol, with two strings of horsehair over a sounding box made of a cocoanut shell partly cut open between center and top, and covered with fish skin tightly stretched. The performer sat cross-legged, rested the pointed end of the instrument upon the ground, and stroked the strings with a bow of horsehair and ash. Or the artist sat with a large chano on, or zither, on his lap, and plucked the strings with horn plectra attached to the forefingers. The ancient lute now took the form of a guitar (the co’d). Add a flute, a mandolin, and a tambourine, and the ensemble would provide an orchestra whose strains might suit a civilized taste better than the primitive music that now agitates Occidental gatherings.
The “Barbary States,” or lands of the allegedly barbarous Berbers—Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco—entered history in the eighteenth century chiefly through the exploits of their corsairs or the assassination of their beys or deys. These governments, by sending occasional “presents” to the sultans at Constantinople, maintained virtual independence. The people lived predominantly by agriculture or piracy; the ransoms paid for Christian captives were a substantial part of the national income; the corsair captains, however, were mostly Christians.19 The arts maintained a precarious existence, but the Moroccan builders kept enough skill to blazon with radiant blue and green tiles the lordly “Bab-Mansur” that was added as a gateway in 1732 to the immense seventeenth-century palace-mosque of Mulai Ismail at Meknes, then the seat of the Moroccan sultans. Mulai Ismail, in a reign of fifty-five years (1672-1727), established order, begot hundreds of children, and thought his achievements warranted him in asking for his harem a daughter of Louis XIV.20 It is difficult for us to appreciate ways of life much different from our own, but it is helpful to remember the remark of the Moroccan traveler who, on returning from a visit to Europe, exclaimed, “What a comfort to be getting back to civilization!”21