Into the harems of Egypt

One of the first agents sent out by the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (SPFEE ) was Alice Holliday. She contacted the Society a year after it was founded in London because she believed she was called to go and work among girls in Egypt.  She set up what was probably the first school for girls there – and was invited into the harem of Muhammed Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

She began by opening a girls’ school in Cairo in 1837 which was attended by a motley group of Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Syrians, Coptic Christians and Arabs. The SPFEE sent her money so that she could take in orphans, and funds from the Ironmongers’ Company in London enabled her to ransom some children out of slavery. Those in her little orphanage were dressed like Westerners especially on Sundays for she commented: “In every respect we wish to see them English.” English was the medium of instruction in the orphanage while those in her day school studied Arabic.

She informed the SPFEE: “Female schools for reading seem never to have been thought of in this country. Their prejudices against such instructions are very strong. Among the higher classes, however, since the power of Mahomet (sic) Ali has been established on a firmer basis, these prejudices are fast breaking, and in several instances the more intelligent have been brought to see, in some degree, the advantages of female education. None of the higher classes have ever yet been collected into schools, but many are taught privately in their own houses. The mission school is therefore the very first, and indeed the only one, throughout Egypt.”

By 1838 she had 114 girls in her school and, on March 7, was officially asked if she would take on the education of 100 royal women, including the daughters, nieces and nearest relatives of Muhammad Ali Pasha.  An officer of the state, Hekekyan Effendi,  told her: “This is only the beginning of female education in Egypt, for the Pasha has much larger views but he wishes first to try the experiment on his own family. Much depends upon the approbation of his eldest daughter, whether instruction shall spread through the country; only gain her favour and regards, and you will carry every point to your utmost wishes.”  He assured her that they paid great respect to their ladies who were allowed absolute rule within their homes.

He also explained: “In introducing an enlightened female education in Egypt, we shall be striking at the root of the evils which afflict us. In seconding my illustrious Prince and benefactor in his work of civilising Egypt, I have been led to reflection by the nature of my duties, and have as yet been able to trace our debasement to no other cause than that of the want of an efficient moral and useful education in our females. I believe that in elevating the soul by initiating it in the mysteries and beauties of nature, through the means of geography, astronomy, botany, geology, natural history & c, in proportion as we better comprehend the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Great First Cause, so are we enabled of ourselves to detect our own errors.”

On March 27 Miss Holliday wrote: “This day is among the most remarkable of my life. About 10am Mrs Kruse, Mrs Hekekyan and myself, mounted on donkeys, and set out for the harem. With many fears we arrived at the gate of a long avenue, which is the first strong door of the harem; we next came to another gate, where the janisaries and donkeymen were ordered to remain, while we were waited on by several eunuchs, who took us through another strong gate, and soon after ushered us into a long and stately saloon, where there were numerous ladies busily at work. We were then shown into an anteroom, and served with coffee, out of some of the most splendid cups, set with diamonds, I have ever beheld. Our attendants were young and beautiful slaves, evidently Greek, Georgian and Circassian. One brought us coffee, another sherbet, and a third handed sugar, each waiter having numerous slaves to attend upon her below the dais. Two little girls were then brought in to us; they came up to me and lounged upon me with greatest confidence, as if accustomed to such endearments; they were evidently some part of the royal family, from their likeness to the Pasha.

“In about a quarter of an hour an old lady, evidently high in office, came to conduct us to Her Highness. We followed her into another side apartment where we were introduced to the princess. We found Nazly Hanum sitting on a high divan in the corner of the room. Mrs Kruse and myself made our European salutation, but Mrs Hekekyan had to prostrate herself at her feet, and kiss the hem of her garments. She condescendingly moved her hand in salutation, and then smilingly told us to be seated on the divan nearest her. Nazly Hanum is a little woman, rather fat, apparently about forty years of age. Her countenance is striking in the extreme, particularly her eyes – indeed I never saw a more piercing eye in my life; she is said to be exceedingly like her father.

“Her dress was very simple, consisting of a black silk handkerchief around the head, secured at the side by a diamond pin, a shirt of white English net, which quite concealed the bosom, a robe of blue cloth, evidently English; and around her body was wrapped a splendid Cashmere shawl, from which hung suspended a magnificent watch and chain. She almost immediately inquired which was the teacher, and on my being pointed out to her, asked me several questions in Turkish, which Mrs Hekekyan translated. By this time all my nervous fears had vanished. Her questions were pertinent, and showed that she had the improvement of her household at heart; she wished me much to come and live in the house, saying that every liberty should be allowed me; I of course declined this offer, but thanked her for the honour intended. The princess evidently pleased with me, for she seldom took her eyes of me for a second. She was smoking the whole time, while a crowd of ladies stood below the dais, watching her every movement.”

It was agreed that Miss Holliday would take classes there in the mornings. As no Arabic was spoken in the harems and her Turkish was not so good she felt she could only do “ornamental teaching”.  When she returned six days later to start teaching she found the princess and her ladies superintending the thorough cleaning of the grand salon. “She was standing on a small Turkish carpet, giving directions to all the servants, who were busily employed in obeying her,” wrote Miss Holliday. Nazly Hanum then took her into her private apartment where the boxes of picture books and sewing materials were carefully inspected by about a dozen ladies. From then until lunchtime they worked with muslin and made some lace. Miss Holliday reported:

“At a little after 11 o’clock Her Highness’s dinner was brought in by about thirty slaves; a silver basin and jug, with  richly embroidered napkin, was given to me, while a young Circassian slave poured the water on my hands, a still more beautiful girl doing the same office for the princess. A small table, inlaid with pearl and silver, was placed before  her, over which was thrown a cloth of velvet and gold; then came forward three slaves bearing a large silver tray, about four feet in diameter, which was placed on the table. I was then called to take my seat near her, when a slave covered my lap with an embroidered napkin, and another gave me a French cambric handkerchief for my mouth.

“The table was completely filled with silver plates, salts, peppers, and within the pickle dishes of gold were glasses of deep cut glass; my spoon, knife and folk were of the same massive silver as the table and dishes, differing only from those of Her Highness in not having, like hers, the handles set with precious stones. My plate was changed with every dish; more than fifty dishes succeeded each other on the table, indeed in such quick succession that there was barely time to taste many of them. I was, however, so pressed by looks and signs, and nods and winks, first to have this, then to have that, that I really felt at last afraid of seeing them.

“Although a knife and fork was by the princess, yet she preferred pulling the meat and fowls to pieces with her fingers (the usual way of eating in this country); but there was nothing uncleanly in the way she did it, and it was performed with the greatest dexterity. As a mark of particular honour, she broke two or three hard-boiled eggs, and laid them on my plate, frequently placing on it also the choicest part of the dish before us. When she partook a second time of any dish, a little bell was rung. Towards the ante-room there were no fewer than three great silver trays, each filled with nine or ten dishes, and as one tray was emptied another took its place. Each tray was supported by three black slaves, richly dressed, who stood like three statues; at the foot of the divan, on each side of the room (the divans range all round the room, except the side where the entrance is), stood young and beautiful girls, also splendidly dressed, with their eyes constantly fixed on their mistress, one holding a fly-chaser, another a censer, a third a cup with water, a fourth a basin and ewer, a fifth a towel worked with gold, and the sixth the little bell before mentioned. Dinner being finished, to my great relief, our hands were washed, her Highness retired to sleep, and I returned to my children.”

Trying to keep her orphanage and schools going, eating such large dinners and travelling through the desert in summer to and from the harem each day for five months wore her out and she fell ill. The Royal family did all they could to make sure she was well cared for. On her return to the harem she again found it difficult to teach the ladies to read for they preferred needlework, fancy work and drawing – just the type of teaching she most disliked. Then a box of fancy work made by the ladies of Tiverton arrived.

The Royal family and their guests inspected all the items with keen interest for these included dolls, books and scientific plates as well as a model of the Thames tunnel for the little princesses. A picture of the British queen fascinated Nazly Hanum who was surprised that Queen Victoria was as yet unmarried and that her power was equal to that of a king. Miss Holliday then had to show the Pasha the contents of that box.

“I was introduced into the apartment, which is splendidly furnished after the French fashion; and here I saw what perhaps no other European female ever beheld, the Pasha Mohammed Ali, standing like one of the patriarchs of old in the midst of his own family. On my entrance he smiled, and asked me how I was, with great condescension. The box was then opened ….. and Nazly Hanum stood in front, presenting the things she thought the most beautiful, the wives at the same time showing him the baby linen. He appeared to look with fond affection on them all. It is well known in Egypt that he is one of the most indulgent of fathers, but I did not expect to see so fond a parent. He is a rather short man, very aged, with a dark sun-burnt, and of course wrinkled visage, a milk-white beard, and eyes black, deep and piercing. He was dressed in the plainest manner, not having the slightest ornament of any description upon his person.”

Late in 1838 Miss Holliday married the Rev Rudolph Theophilus Leider, who had been sent to Egypt by the Church Missionary Society. Although no longer counted as an agent of the SPFEE she continued to send reports and received assistance from it for some of her work. In December she informed the SPFEE that the Pasha had been “extremely affected at the piety and philanthropy of the English ladies composing the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East, and recommended H H Nazly Hanum and the princesses of his family to follow their example in his dominion.” She and the SPFEE were the conduit whereby gifts were exchanged between his family and Queen Victoria.

Soon afterwards she was invited into the harem of a very high-ranking Turkish official as his two teenage daughters were so keen to learn how to read and write. She fascinated local teachers with the scientific instruments sent out by the SPFEE and was invited to help set up a school for 150 children. The Pasha was encouraging  boys’ and girls’ schools to be founded – the boys usually had European teachers while the girls were taught needlework and some reading by Turkish women. By 1846 Mrs Lieder could comment: “What a change has been wrought within the last ten years. When I first came to Egypt there was not a woman that could read, and now I have the pleasing gratification of knowing that some hundreds possess this power, and that they have the best of books to read.”

She looked forward, however, to the disappearance of the harem system, as she felt that it was one of the greatest impediments to female education.  She was forced by ill health to stop teaching in the Royal harem in 1841. By then English was not so popular in the Royal court because the Pasha was building an alliance with the French. She was always warmly received by Nazly Hanum but decided to continue quietly with her own work. Her husband died in 1865 and she died in 1868.

copyright Pip Land January 2012


Source:   History of The Society for promoting Female Education in the East, published by Edward Suter, London, 1847, pp62-69 and  pp  97-124

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