Egypt’s history in maps

Mai Samih , Tuesday 27 Feb 2024

Mai Samih visits the Egyptian Geographical Society in Cairo as it begins to digitise its collections

The Egyptian Geographical Society



Scientists and geographers in the European Middle Ages would approach map-making or geography in general through Biblical accounts, imagination, and tradition and not through scientific investigation.

They would typically draw the Earth as a circle composed of three continents of the same size, Asia, Africa, and Europe, separating these by water. They used to put the Garden of Eden and Paradise at the top and Jerusalem in the middle.

It was not until the Arab geographer Mohamed Ibn Mohamed Al-Idrisi, who was born in Morocco in around 1100 CE, that things began to change as a result of Al-Idrisi’s more accurate map of the world produced in the 12th century. Al-Idrisi studied in Cordoba, a city in Andalusia in southern Spain that was then under Arab rule. He was particularly interested in North Africa and produced what is considered to be one of the first ethnographic studies of its peoples.

He travelled extensively in the Mediterranean and visited Atlantic coastal regions as well as the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula and the coast of southern France to gain more information for his studies and his mapmaking.

Al-Idrisi’s work interested Norman king Roger II of Sicily who reigned from 1130 to 1154 CE, and it was Roger who provided the patronage that allowed Al-Idrisi to produce his masterpiece Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The Pleasure of He who Longs to Cross the Horizons), the first descriptive geography of the world’s major population centres.

Al-Idrisi’s work was influenced by the Geography of the second-century CE Greek writer Ptolemy, which had been translated into Arabic by Mohamed Al-Khuwarizmi and Al-Battani. It took him 15 years to prepare his famous map of the world and the ethnographic studies in his book, often drawn from comparing information and interviewing travellers about their encounters.

He drew some 70 maps of population centres and collected information about the climate of each country, as well as its rivers, lakes, mountains, coastal configurations, soil types and even roads, buildings, monuments, crops, crafts, imports, exports, culture, religion, customs, and languages.

Hundreds of years later, the French general and later emperor Napoleon Bonaparte led a military campaign to Egypt with the aim of occupying the country. Arriving in 1798 with the French army were scholars in various fields who worked on a detailed atlas of Egypt and a comprehensive account of the country, the Description de l’Egypte published between 1809 and 1821. This describes every aspect of the daily lives of the Egyptian population, including their customs, traditions, arts, and crafts.

Al-Idrisi’s work and the Description de l’Egypte are just two examples of documenting Egyptian geography. In order to make the country’s geography better known, and to secure its borders, the Khedive Ismail established the Egyptian Geographical Society (EGS) in 1875.
He gave it generous gifts and grants of books and equipment, and he headed it himself due to its scientific importance. The EGS is the ninth-oldest geographical society in the world. It is the first geographical society to be founded outside Europe and the Americas and the oldest scientific society in Africa and Asia.

Today, its premises in Cairo include departments like the Ethnographic Museum on the right-hand side of the entrance that displays aspects of life in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, also known as the Cairo Hall, and the Africa Museum that displays aspects of life on the continent bought back by Egyptian explorers. There is also the Suez Canal Panorama and the Royal Hall in which seminars are held.

However, the most important department is the Maps Hall which has about 13,000 maps, including Al-Idrisi’s famous map of the world, more than 600 atlases, including the French Expedition’s Atlas of Egypt, the first modern atlas of the country, and the first Egyptian-made atlas of Egypt published in 1926 by the Egyptian Survey Authority.

The EGS Library contains more than 30,000 volumes, not to mention oil paintings and pictures of scientific and political figures from Egypt’s modern history. There are also pictures of travellers and explorers of the Nile Basin and the African continent, as well as statues of Mohamed Ali and his sons, the rulers of modern Egypt, and other collectables of great importance.


The Minister of Communications and Information Technology Amr Talaat and the Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabbaj met with the President of the EGS Mohamed Al-Sudaimi recently to discuss digitising its collections as a way of restoring its pivotal role in safeguarding information about the geography of Egypt.

This would also enhance Egypt’s hosting of the International Geographic Union (IGU) Conference in 2025, according to ministry press releases.

The ministers discussed mechanisms for supporting the EGS in mobilising financial resources and providing the information technology that it needs in order to document its scientific and geographical wealth. The EGS has records of abundant intellectual production from the scientific life of the past, and these can enrich the development of geography in Egypt and be enhanced by the digitisation process.

“The EGS is the oldest geographical society outside Europe and the Americas. It was established in 1875 in its current premises in Cairo, and it has extensions that are supervised by various ministries. It is a scientific society under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity,” Al-Sudaimi said.

“Its main function today is to organise cultural and scientific activities. These are organised through schemes like the cultural season. After I took charge of the EGS Council I started organising the cultural season outside the EGS with seminars in Cairo and others on various university campuses as most of the relevant staff there are members or working members of the EGS.”

These campuses have included the University of Suez and Ain Shams University in Cairo, Al-Sudaimi said. Topics relevant to current events or Egypt or on important international issues such as climate change are chosen by scientists and experts in the field.

“We are the right people to discuss climate change and sustainable development since geography studies all these things and also studies parts of the processes of development and the planning for development,” he added.
“The second main function of the EGS today is to promote research. It accepts research from scientists willing to publish in its English and Arabic journals after being peer-reviewed,” Al-Sudaimi said. The journals are published twice a year in June and December.

“We compile the journals in a digital knowledge bank that is open to all,” he added, saying that they also produce publications for geographers and those interested in reading about geography. A researcher only pays the cost of publishing his work and nothing else, as the journal is non-profit and aims at encouraging researchers to publish their work in the field. “There are other fields of knowledge that are related to geography like geology and commerce,” Al-Sudaimi said, adding that the EGS is also open to contributions on such subjects.

The EGS has records of its activities since it was established up to the present day. These were once kept in French, but today they are kept in Arabic and English.

“The third main activity of the EGS is its Ethnographic Museum that helps visitors get acquainted with its history,” Al-Sudaimi said.


The EGS was established in the house of Zeinab Hanem, a daughter of Mohamed Ali Pasha, and later it was given objects that originally belonged to the family of Mohamed Ali Pasha such as the khedive Ismail, the khedive Tawfiq, and king Fouad I.

According to Al-Sudaimi, the EGS has collectibles that were bought back by explorers of the Nile who went to the Nile Basin countries in the 19th century in search of the origins of the river. These include weapons and the remains of rare animals and other objects.

The society’s Cairo Hall represents the lives of Cairenes in the 19th century and earlier, and Al-Sudaimi adds that the EGS has another hall containing instruments for working with brass including for creating arabesque patterns, a main element of Islamic art that consists of rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage.

The Suez Canal Hall contains maquettes of the Suez Canal’s route from Suez to Ismailia and objects relating to the digging of the canal and its inauguration in 1869. In the middle of the hall, there is a huge stereoscopic map of the Suez Canal and its surroundings. A Suez Canal panorama takes visitors on a virtual journey from Suez, the beginning of the Suez Canal, to Ismailia, its end. The hall also features a statue of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps who planned and supervised the digging of the Suez Canal.

“The most important department is the Maps Department, which contains many rare maps, both ancient and modern,” Al-Sudaimi said. “We have all types of maps, including of Palestine and Africa long before they were divided by the Europeans. There is also the Al-Idrisi world map and atlases of Egypt produced by Youssef Kamal, Al-Falaki, and Omar Tosun.”

“We have an original copy of the Description de l’Egypte, which contains many maps of the country, and we also have all the historical maps of Egypt and nearby territories,” he added. “We are digitising all this content and putting it on the Internet in different languages, as we aim to produce a complete online record.”

“The visit of Talaat and Al-Qabbaj is the cornerstone of the cooperation that will help in the digitisation process. A website will record every aspect of the Egyptian heritage, and we will sign a protocol with the two ministries to digitise all our content. This will also enable us to have our own website and financial revenue,” he added.

Content that is already in digital format will be handed to the ministries to upload on the website. Content that is not digital will be digitised by a company in the field. “This company will help us because we do not have the technology to digitise the EGS content ourselves,” Al-Sudaimi said.

“The Minister of Social Solidarity has promised to give the EGS financial support. And the Minister of Communications will provide us with computers to set up a computer lab to show visitors the content they are about to see.”

According to Al-Sudaimi, visitors to the EGS come from organisations such as the EU and include the wives of ambassadors from many countries as well as visits from schools and universities.
“I started informing people about the EGS through the media, and we received many comments after that. During various interviews I would express the view that one of my main aspirations was to digitise the services of the EGS,” he said, adding that the annual subscription is only LE50.

This fee includes a membership card that gives access to EGS museums and to lectures and seminars organised by it. A member is also allowed to submit studies to the EGS journals. The only condition is that members must be university graduates.

“When I first took charge of the EGS, it would only organise seminars in Cairo, and the result was that not many people attended them from other governorates. So, I decided to organise lectures in different universities in different governorates to reach the maximum audience,” Al-Sudaimi said, adding that the result was that even non-specialists now often come.

There are about 2,000 members of the EGS, and so far they have organised six seminars outside Cairo. It also organises a lecture each month at its building.

“We have organised a lecture about the symbolism of geographical names that explained to the public how places were named. We organised another lecture about the importance of the Suez Canal at the Suez Canal University in Ismailia. We also organised a lecture at the Cairo Opera House about geography and culture,” he said.

Videos of these lectures are posted on the EGS Facebook page so more people can watch them. They have organised lectures at the Cairo International Book Fair and are planning to organise more in Kafr Al-Sheikh, Alexandria, and Port Said.

Among the projects they are working on now, Al-Sudaimi says that the aim is to assist the government in developing areas of study.

“We are currently studying the Western Desert and are forming a research group representing different Egyptian universities specialising in bio-geography and climate geography with the aim of providing the necessary research. The group will work on research that will be published at a conference in September 2024,” he said.

“But we need technology that will help us to digitise the collections of the EGS instead of depending on companies to do this for us. We would also like to build a sort of sound-and-light show or panoramic hall to display the collections and the buildings,” he concluded. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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