Egyptian Architectural Revival in the Context of Orientalism

The nationalistic atmosphere of the early twentieth century in Egypt affected people’s thinking and was the impetus behind their search for cultural identity in all different aspects of life including literature, music, art, and architecture.

The British occupation to Egypt in 14 September 1882 provoked native opposition to alien rule and fostered among Egyptians the aspiration to self-government. A nationalist orientation was developed by several leaders, whose efforts extended for about 70 years and culminated with the Egyptian revolution and Egypt’s independence in 1952. The nationalistic atmosphere of the early twentieth century inevitably affected people’s thinking and was the impetus behind their search for cultural identity in all different aspects of life including literature, music, art, and architecture. Architects’s opposition to the concept of Westernisation was the result of the hegemony of the west on their country as well as the taken-for-granted idea that the East is inferior to the West. Architects’ anti-westernisation attitude, which was reflected in many of their architecture, could be interpreted in the context of orientalism, which was thoroughly discussed by Edward Said in his seminal book Orientalism in 1978.

 

Akil House, Egypt, Al-Fayoum, Egypt

Said defined “Orientalism” as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. In the context of Egypt, orientalism is mainly a British and French cultural enterprise based on the assumption that the relationship between West and East is a relationship of power, hegemony and domination. Since antiquity the “Orient” was a European creation and represented the negative image of post-Enlightenment Europe. For Egypt, colonisation and Western imperialism was different before and after the British occupation. From the time of Napoleon, Egypt was an “academic example of Oriental backwardness”, but it became “the triumph of English knowledge and power”. However, it is likely that the quest for an authentic vernacular architecture was not only to fashion architecture for the people but also an expression of people’s intention to liberate their country from ongoing westernisation during the second half of the twentieth century.

 

Hamid Said House and Atelier, Cairo, Egypt

Many intellectuals were the product of this period including the late architect Hassan Fathy, who wrote “Architecture for the Poor” in 1972, the late artist Hamid Said, who expressed his nationalistic attitudes in his book “The Contemporary Art” in 1962, and the late architect Ramses Wissa Wassef, who established an art centre to teach a group of village children to weave tapestries according to the children’s own designs. They shared the same traditional architectural and artistic approach, and were concerned about national issues and the decline of the traditional architecture and handicrafts of Egypt. The adoption of traditional and local materials is now widespread, as is the use of historical references.

 

Ramses Wissa Wassef Center, Giza, Egypt

Bibliography

1. P. J. Vatikiotis, The History of Egypt: from Muhammad Ali to Sadat. London, 1980, pp. 170-174.

2. Said, Edward W., Orientalism. London, 1978. p. 3, 5, 35.

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