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Footsteps of the Saint-Simonians in Cairo

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When I visited Cairo in 2013 the Arab Spring had not yet devolved to utter bloody chaos throughout the region, though anyone could see the trend

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Entry to Franciscan Center for Christian Oriental Studies. 2013 ©L. Peat O’Neil

In Cairo I sought the Franciscan Friars’ Oriental Studies Library intent on researching the pioneering men and women who traveled from France to Egypt in 1833-34 with Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin. The French group of adventurers were members of a social reform movement (sometimes described as a sect) known as Saint-Simonianism.  Their philosophy originated in the writings of  the Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, a proto-socialist aristocrat focused on improving education for working people, removing the influence of the Roman Catholic church on private life, and replacing marriage inequality with rights for women and family alliances outside of civil or religious certification. We would call that common law marriage or a civil partnership, but the conservative French government and the church described it as “free love” and jailed the Saint-Simonian leader Enfantin with a handful of others for inciting revolutionary ideas.

Soon, these French idealists were heading to the middle east with vague plans to to discover a female Messiah to balance the Christian emphasis on the male Messiah.  On that pursuit they were unsuccessful.

However, Saint-Simonian ideas did influence other areas of French social structure, finance, and public transportation during ensuing decades. Their work in Egypt was especially notable and enduring.  

Scientists and engineers, doctors, midwives, and educators affiliated with Saint-Simonianism worked under the aegis and with the approval of Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian Viceroy,  to establish or improve and modernize the infrastructure of Egypt. Saint-Simonian efforts included building a medical school and the military training infrastructure, preliminary work on the Suez Canal, midwife training for local women and children’s education. 

While in Cairo and Alexandria, many of the French men and women died during cholera and typhus epidemics during  1834-35 and 1836. I hoped to find their tombs.

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Doorway of the Franciscan Monastery, Cairo, May 2013. Image © L. Peat O’Neil

My prior reading suggested that some tombs of the dead French idealists were located in the cloister of the Franciscan Monastery. In particular, Jehan d’Ivary, author of the 1928 travel book Promenades a Travers du Caire, which I examined in the Municipal Library in Toulouse in 1982, stated that a few Saint-Simonian workers were buried at the Monastery of the Franciscan Fathers, at the Hospital Abou Za`abal, and other locations, but that it was impossible to discover the locations of other French graves from that distant time. 

In the 1830s Abou Za`abal was the Egyptian army hospital, but 170 years later, it was one of Cairo’s prisons and a short–or long term–compound for those ruled to be on the wrong side of the Arab Spring demonstrations. Abou Za`abal made international headlines in August, 2013 when dozens of prisoners perished as fully reported in the Guardian newspaper in February, 2014. 

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Door to the Franciscan Monastery Church behind locked gate and fence.

I arrived at the Franciscan Center of Christian Oriental Studies Library when the head priest was having lunch, or praying, or resting — I wasn’t certain of the explanation. Seeing my disappointment, the French-speaking library manager graciously invited me to use the library and perhaps return tomorrow when I could talk to the priest about the history of the Franciscan Monastery.  Always at home in a library, I fingered through the card catalog searching for names of the French engineers, doctors, teachers, and other Saint-Simonian personnel.  Without my laptop at hand, it was hit or miss to recall the correct spellings of the French immigrants from long ago. Eventually I found a trove of catalog cards citing books by or about the French-trained Doctor of Medicine and of Surgery, Dr. B. A. Clot (known in Egypt as Clot-Bey) who was the founder of Western medical systems in Egypt.  After submitting a few book request cards to the library manager, I soon was paging through a copy of La Peste written by Dr. Clot-Bey. It was published in Paris in 1840 detailing his observations and experiments with quarantain during the frequent cholera outbreaks during the 1830s. I began scribbling notes

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Dr. B. A. Clot-Bey at El-Aini the Medical School he founded in 19th century.  Source: https://sites.google.com/a/kasralainy.edu.eg/portal-trial/home/admin/history/clot-bey

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Dr. Barthelmy Antoine Clot- Bey

As Surgeon-in-Chief of the Armies and founder of the medical school in Cairo, Dr. Clot-Bey was awarded the honorific “Bey” by Muhammed Ali, the Viceroy of Egypt, and excused from pledging fealty to the Viceroy or the Muslim religion.  At the time, Egypt was subject to the rule of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, but Muhammed Ali was in charge and had visionary ideas about improving Egypt.  Dr. Clot-Bey selected and trained medical officers for the Egyptian army hospital founded in 1827 as Qasr al-‘Ayni School of Medicine.  

Religious leaders at the time resisted the perceived threat of modern medical treatments and practices.  Examination and autopsies of cadavers were considered insults to the body and prohibited in the Koran. Women could not be seen or touched by male doctors. The persuasive power of the Viceroy brought gradual change, but male medical doctors trained at Clot-Bey’s institution were forbidden to treat Egyptian women.  The Viceroy asked Dr. Clot-Bey to found the maternity school for midwives which began training hakimas (Egyptian medical women).  

During the decades of my interest in the Saint-Simonian women and their early feminist social movement, I have read and accumulated information about those who traveled to Egypt to teach hygiene and midwifery.   In her memoir of the Saint-Simonian women in Egypt, the French midwife Suzanne Voilquinmentions Dr. Clot-Bey as teacher and mentor. She later traveled and worked in Russia as a midwife.

Dr. Clot Bey was concerned with public health issues for containment and treatment of cholera and typhus as well as the childbirth mortality. His influence led directly to the foundation of a separate medical school for women and training midwives in Cairo.   Dr. Clot-Bey’s thesis for the Doctor of Surgery awarded in 1823 by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montpellier was “Dangers of the Instrumental Manipulation in Obstetrical Delivery.”  Even in the 21st c. infants and mothers remain at risk of damage and death from forceps manipulation. 

What ultimately made this visit to the old Franciscan Monastery library so important to me was holding the book  La Peste.  The library ‘s copy was inscribed by Dr. Clot-Bey himself.  Dr. Clot-Bey’s book brought out of the stacks for me to explore and read was an 1840 gift to the Monastery with the author’s signature in brown ink, copperplate script. The covers had been wrapped in different paper. I expressed surprise and appreciation to the library manager who reminded me to return the next day to meet the director. 

When I returned the following day, I enjoyed an hour or so with the head of the monastery who listened to my research project and counseled that it would be nearly impossible to find tombs, graves, or headstones from nearly two hundred years ago. But he did have handwritten ledgers of deaths which I could peruse.

He disappeared for a while and I returned to claim a table in the small reading room area of the library.  At another table a woman student was participating in a language reading lesson in a low voice while a senior man, possibly her father or other relative, observed looked on. This was familiar; I’ve taught English to immigrants in Maryland libraries, though parental escorts weren’t required. Soon the director brought out a stack of fat bound ledgers recording deaths of people from the international community living in Cairo from 1833 to 1836 who were in some way affiliated with the monastery’s church. Most of the deaths recorded in the large ledgers were due to cholera but I noted there was an occasional drowning or street accident. The nationalities of the deceased included citizens of Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, England, Italy, Spain and France. 

The author in appropriate disguise.

The handwriting in the ledgers was difficult to decipher, and the script changed when one recorder succumbed to cholera which a note in the ledger explained with emotional emphasis. I managed to find records of a few French residents and even a doctor who was part of the Saint-Simonian group and died during the cholera epidemic, as Dr. Clot-Bey details in his book. 

A significant street in Cairo is named Clot-Bey, depicted below on a 19th c. postcard from the Gilded Serpent website.  

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Ultimately, I wandered through a cemetery in the old Coptic section but none of the dates on grave markers extended to the 1830s. I contented myself with the timeless connection of using a book handled and inscribed by Dr. Clot-Bey, reward enough for my effort.

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Author, perhaps in mufti.

Resources:

Burrow, Gerard N. “Clot-Bey: Founder of Western Medical Practice in Egypt.”  The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: 48, 251-257 (1975) .

M. Paul Merruau, ”L’Egypte Contemporaine de Mehemet-ali a Said Pacha”, Paris, Librarie Internationale, 1860, p. 84.

Myntti, “Medical Education: The Struggle for Relevance”. Middle East Report, V:161

Clot-Bey, Antoine-Barthelemy. “De La Peste Obseré en Egypte.” Paris: 1840.

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Book CoverTravel Writing by L Peat O'Neil

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Travel Writing by L Peat O’Neil

E-Books are just right for travel -lightweight, nearly infinite, a library in your hand.

If you plan to buy books, try my web-store, Double00Books!  Use the Search function to find any Amazon title.

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Pyrenees Pilgrimage, my recent book about walking across France alone, is also for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.  

Prefer a paperback edition?  Pyrenees Pilgrimage on walking across France alone is ready to read, available on Amazon.

Recent interview on my Travel Writing experiences on Money for Travel.com  with Canadian inspirational speaker John Beede.

Get started in travel writing with Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story.  Signed copies available from the author on Half.com

Wish You Were Here article in Writer’s Digest Magazine May/June, 2011 on travel writing tips and tricks.Travel Writing pb edition cover

A few copies of Travel Writing : A Guide to Research, Writing and Selling are available online.

You are welcome to visit and subscribe to my websites and  blogs —   AdventureTravelWriter.org  *   FranceFootsteps

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Ceret :: On the Mediterranean Coast

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Colors of Catalonia
by Virginie Raguenaud

My friend Virginie Raguenaud is publishing this wonderful book about the artists who painted in    Catalonia.  I can’t wait to read it!

At the end of my trek across France through the Pyrénées Mountains, I rested in Ceret and sketched the fishing boats and old seaside buildings.  When I left town, I boarded a train in Ceret and transferred to another heading east across Provence.  During the interlude waiting for the long distance train, I marveled at the scenes around the  train station in  Perpignan which Salvador Dali dubbed the center of the world.

Written by patwa

26/06/2012 at 4:15 pm

Fédération Francaise de la Randonnée Pédestre

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Topographic maps and guides for walking in France are available at the online store run by the French Association for Hikers — Fédération Francaise de la Randonnée Pédestre.  The search function enables you to look by region, départment (regions in France) and by other parameters.

Pyrénées-Atlantiques  – Western region towards Atlantic Ocean

Hautes-Pyrénées – High Pyrénées in the central mountains

Pyrénées- Orientales – Eastern region near the Mediterranean Sea

Read more about the Pyrénées Mountains at http://www.PyreneesPilgrimage.com

Written by patwa

01/06/2012 at 6:43 pm

Posted in France, Map, Pyrenees, Walking

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This Mountain :: That Border

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Llivia is a town under Basque Spanish jurisdiction yet  it is completely surrounded by France.

Andorra is another Pyrénées Mountain region divided between France and Spain during 1276, as part of feudal settlement by the Bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix. Their political descendants were the Kings of France and in current times, the President of the Republic of France.

Border specifics might not always be clear to the people, herds and horsemen in the area.  Thousands of French troops migrated into Spain from the early decades of the 1800’s onward, starting but not limited to Napoleon’s invasion.  Warning shouts and, if not heeded, shots, kept the traders and contraband runners inside the border lines of their respective countries.

19th c. Royalist France was trying to shut out disease (cholera) and liberal ideas.  Earlier,  Napoleon was bent on keeping France free of English colonial resources and soldiers. The area remained a hot spot, disputed particularly because surveyors and political forces didn’t know where one mountain range left off and the next began.  What appeared to some observers as the northerly edge of  the Pyrenees was actually the Corbieres range running from Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast, south west towards the Ariege.  Constant battling and raiding caused village administrative and legal records or archives to be looted and burned.  Sometimes there was intentional looting of church ledgers and records during anti-clerical phases, where many demographic records were recorded.

Written by patwa

26/05/2011 at 6:02 pm

Following Footsteps of Suzanne Volquin in Egypt

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As soon as Egypt reorganizes its social scene for travelers, I plan to spend time in the Copt quarter of Cairo, at the Monastery of the Franciscans, the Chateau des Chandrelles (Assai-el-Chom) and the Hospital d’Abou Zabel.

These places are associated with the 19th century French pre-socialist group known as the Saint-Simonians.  They bear this name in honor of the philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon who promoted the original idea of constructing the Suez Canal in the 18th century, along with other socially progressive concepts.

During the period 1832-1836, Suzanne Volquin (portrait at right)  and several other womenportrait of journalist and women's health advocate Saint-Simonians left France with St. Simonian men to work in Cairo and the environs, where they taught and nursed the local citizens. The composer Felician David was part of the community.  The group was decimated by a cholera outbreaks during the 1830s and many of them were buried in the Copt quarter of Cairo.  Suzanne Volquin traveled to Russia to teach mid-wifery there.  She eventually emigrated to the United States of America.

Some of the French group stayed on or returned to work with de Ferdinand de Lesseps when he took over the Suez Canal project based in Ismailia and Port Said, places I hope to visit.As many of the group members came from banking families, they later participated in structuring early funding for the canal.

My purpose is spending time in Cairo and on various historic areas related to the construction of the Suez Canal will be to explore the history and to finish my manuscript about the French women and their work to establish a clinic and school for mid-wives.

Written by patwa

16/05/2011 at 8:16 pm

Pyrénées Pilgrimage Route for Walkers

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Follow in the footsteps of travel journalist L. Peat O’Neil.  Markers for gîtes, country inns, farms and Cathar castles in the Pyrénées region of France.

Read more at: http://PyrénéesPilgrimage.Wordpress.com

Book is available through Amazon and soon to be released in Kindle version as well.

http://www.amazon.com/Pyrenees-Pilgrimage-Walking-Across-France/dp/1439267898/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1295059620&sr=8-1

Written by patwa

07/02/2011 at 2:14 am

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