INTERVIEW: A plunge into the national archives

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 19 Feb 2022

More must be done to document Egypt’s modern history by preserving archival material and making it available to the public, historian Emad Abou-Ghazi tells Al-Ahram Weekly.

Emad Abou-Ghazi
Emad Abou-Ghazi

Over 10 years ago, historian and author Emad Abou-Ghazi wrote an article in the then daily Al-Dostour newspaper appealing to prominent journalist and commentator Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to make his personal archives available to the public and researchers. The archives cover some of the most crucial decades of Egyptian history from the late 1940s until the first decade of the 2000s.

At the time, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina had started an initiative to collect and scan the archives of prominent Egyptian figures willing to pass on their documents and photographs to public collections. Abou-Ghazi was hoping that Heikal would join this trend, joining a project launched by founding chair of the Bibliotheca Ismail Serageddin and Khaled Azzab, former head of its Memory of Modern Egypt documentation programme.

Last week, Abou-Ghazi said he was delighted to see the Heikal archives being passed by the Heikal family to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “What we saw last week is a celebration making the documents and photographs available to the public, but the project has been in the works for some time,” he said.

Heikal passed away in February 2017 at the end of a very eventful life that allowed him to be an uncontested source of political news in Egypt and elsewhere around the Arab world since his early reporting on the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and his scoops on the 1952 Free Officers takeover of power in Egypt.

Through his close rapport with former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser from the early days of the July 1952 Free Officers takeover of power until the death of Nasser in 1970 and his subsequent close contact with Nasser’s successor former president Anwar Al-Sadat, Heikal was often enough almost also a policy-maker and not just a journalist reporting the news.

In the collection presented for public examination at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina this week there was the original order for the start of military operations on 6 October 1973 that Heikal had drafted for Sadat, for example. Even after his subsequent falling out with Sadat, Heikal continued to be well connected, as is demonstrated in his books and articles from the time.

According to Abou-Ghazi, while the Heikal archives are a treasure, other archives, either of other high-profile public figures or even of private individuals, are also important for researchers wanting to learn about the history of modern and contemporary Egypt.

“This is why I think it was very important for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to work on collecting and scanning the archives of leading public figures, including those of the Boutros Ghali family, which was in politics from the 19th century and political and union activists and others,” Abou-Ghazi said.

The fact that these documents have been scanned and available online is also “very important” in terms of the quality of the preservation it grants to the material and the scope of accessibility it offers to a wide audience. He said that while the collections are at times incomplete, they are all of great value for the public and researchers. The fact that they are available online is also important in that it can inspire other initiatives elsewhere.

After all, he added, the task of collecting the personal archives of leading figures and those of other individuals is not something that can be done by any one entity alone. “However, it has to be done,” he added.

Abou-Ghazi acknowledges the work of other initiatives that started in the 1990s, including the Women and Memory Forum dedicated to the history of women and the documentation of the Egyptian Communist Movement until 1965 that has been preserved by the Arab and African Research Centre in Cairo.

According to Abou-Ghazi, some universities have made archival contributions as well. The central libraries of Cairo University have managed to acquire documents relating to the French Expedition to Egypt in 1798. The faculty of art also has a quite extensive archive.

The American University in Cairo has interesting material that was either bought or donated, including the archives of prominent 20th-century Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi. There are also the archives of the foreign archeological missions that have been working in Egypt, with some of them having been there for well over a century.


The real work when it comes to archiving the history of Egypt has for over a century been the responsibility of two bodies: first, the Public Archives (Dar Al-Mahfouzat Al-Oumoumiya) established in the 19th century and then the National Archives (Dar Al-Watheiq Al-Qawmeiya) established in the mid-1950s.

The first have what are arguably the most comprehensive archives of Egypt from the 19th century, meanwhile the archives of the then Sharia Courts (Al-Mahakem Al-Sharaiya) were originally kept at the notary registrar’s office (Al-Shahr Al-Aqary). But Egypt has also lost other priceless documents, including parts of the collection of Arab papyri (Magmouat Al-Bardi Al-Araby) that documented the Arab rule of Egypt in the early centuries after the Arab conquest which was originally written in both Arabic and Greek.

It was in the early decades of the 19th century that these collections were first located and examined. “Unfortunately, a great many of them slipped out of the country prior to the introduction of laws prohibiting the transfer of historic documents,” Abou-Ghazi said. The Egyptian authorities cannot regain these priceless collections despite attempts to shed light on their contents, especially those undertaken by prominent writer Aisha Abdel-Rahman in the 1960s.

Egypt, Abou-Ghazi argued, should have done better in saving its documents and other materials in view of the fact that it established a national archiving system early on. However, there was confusion in the management of this institution, especially from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, he said.

Other problems related to the definition of archived documents, which for many years fell short of including the necessary range of government and parliamentary papers, administrative documents, and official exchanges of letters or notes. “The problem was not just with what constitutes a document worth archiving, but also with the capacity to archive it in terms of archival work and space,” he added.

Up until the 1990s, the assumption was that it was material coming from government authorities of finance relevance, usually kept for auditing, that most needed to be kept. This meant that other material from other government bodies was compromised, Abou-Ghazi said. “As a historian, I find this to be an enormous loss; but also as a historian, I think that any document is part of a format, whether a state budget or a bus ticket, and all of it should have been subject to some form of documentation.” However, he argued “there were priorities and capacity limitations at the time.”


With advances in archiving technology, there are now new opportunities to upgrade the archival material on Egypt’s modern history. “The work of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Women and Memory Forum is exemplary in putting the material on line,” Abou-Ghazi said.

Today, he added, Egypt’s concerned authorities need to allocate budgets to scanning older archives before they fall into disrepair, and they could consider fund-raising to acquire important volumes. “Businessmen could work with intellectuals to start endowments that could be designed to serve this purpose,” he said.

 “There is plenty of work to be done. We don’t have an archive dedicated to photographs, though this is crucial, and the archive of Egyptian cinema has never really picked up despite plans to launch it a few decades ago. The personal papers of leading figures from the 20th century are still looking for dedicated archives,” Abou-Ghazi said.

Having been on several government and non-governmental boards addressing the need to improve the quality of archiving and having been party to the release of several books on the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Revolution a few year ago, Abou-Ghazi has been a first-hand witness of the work that has been done to preserve the papers of leading political figures in Egypt in the early decades of the 20th century.

The Cairo publisher Dar Al-Shorouk initiated an ambitious scheme overseen by Mona Anis, a former editor at Al-Ahram Weekly and editor at Dar Al-Shorouk, to publish the papers of the leaders of the 1919 Revolution, including Mustafa Al-Nahhas.

“It was very fortunate that the diaries of Saad Zaghloul were bought by the National Archives, and although it was not easy to get them and it took quite a bit of time to have them assembled, it was certainly worth the effort,” Abou-Ghazi said. Today, he added, more work and resources need to be allocated to try to retrieve and acquire as many documents, letters, diaries and photographs as possible from this and other periods.

The work should also cover buildings of historic significance, including those where prominent figures lived. According to Abou-Ghazi, the success of preserving the house of prominent early 20th-century Alexandrian painter Mahmoud Said or those of prominent literary figures Taha Hussein and Ahmed Shawki had shown what can be done.

The same, he said, should have been the case with the house of the famous singer Umm Kolthoum and other prominent figures whose houses were demolished to allow for the construction of high-rising buildings. “For sure, we have lost treasures in terms of documents, houses, and much more. Awareness has been increasing over recent years of the need to protect and document our history, and it is important to give a boost to the work on this front,” Abou-Ghazi said.

He added that it is unthinkable today for the state to be the sole actor, and there is room for as many civil society initiatives as possible. “We are talking about endless archives and many architectural gems. There needs to be a lot of work and ample resources to get the job done,” he said.

Meanwhile, Abou-Ghazi said, there needs to be more attention paid to locating the diaries of prominent figures that merit publication. “We saw the work done by Dar Al-Shorouk and Dar Al-Maraya and that of the Ministry of Culture for the centenary of the 1919 Revolution. This kind of work should not be confined to any specific occasion,” he argued.

He also said that republished historical works could become commercially successful. Journalist Ahmed Baheddin’s Ayam Laha Tarikh (Days of History) that first came out in the 1950s has since been reprinted successfully, for example. Hussein Fawzi’s Sindebad Masry (An Egyptian Sinbad) and many books by journalist Salah Eissa, “whose talent in bringing history to readers is remarkable,” have also been reprinted over recent years.

Most important of all, Abou-Ghazi said, is the issue of accessibility. “It is not enough to acquire the documents and photographs. They need to be made available to an interested audience and researchers,” he said.

“There are regulations for the protection of classified information and for the management of sensitive documents, and there are regulations for the protection of the privacy of individuals who donate documents and photographs to public archives. Beyond these regulations, accessibility should be granted,” he added.

This accessibility is essential for researchers who would have otherwise to depend on foreign archives. “There is no single narrative in history, and there should be no wish to impose any narrative. This means there should be an interest in including the narratives of national policy-makers in the reading of the history of regional political developments and other matters,” Abou-Ghazi said.

Moreover, with the growing public interest in history, as demonstrated in the attention given to history-based TV drama since the 1980s and the attention of the past two decades to history books and history-based novels, the archives should be opened to this growing audience.

The work should be done in parallel with the task of improving the quality of the history books on the school curricula and the methods of teaching history in universities. This, Abou-Ghazi said, would require a lot of work, but it was needed, especially introducing modern research techniques to university students.

“The passion for history is certainly there, and it has been growing for many reasons. The need to fill the gaps in the archives of Egypt’s modern history and to rethink the methods of teaching Egypt’s history are two pressing jobs that we must not shirk,” Abou-Ghazi concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Search Keywords:
Short link: