The Nahda and the Translators of Damietta

Episode 310

hosted by Nir Shafir and Shireen Hamza

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The “Nahda” is often seen as the beginning of the modern intellectual revival of the Arabs, when European Enlightenment ideas were adopted by Middle Eastern thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. In this podcast with Peter Hill, we discuss a circle of Syrian Christians in Damietta, Egypt who were actively translating Greek, Italian and French Enlightenment texts into Arabic in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, well before the start of the Nahda. Hill describes not only who these translators and patrons were, but also how this challenges diffusionist and connective conceptions of the intellectual history of the Middle East.

This episode is part of a series entitled "History of Science, Ottoman or Otherwise."

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Contributor Bios

Peter Hill is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford, working on the intellectual history of the Arab world in the nineteenth century. He recently completed a D.Phil. thesis on utopian aspects of the cultural production of the Arab ‘Awakening’ (nahda), and their grounding in the social history of the Arab lands and Ottoman Empire in the long nineteenth century.
Nir Shafir is a historian of the Middle East whose research examines the intersections of knowledge production, religious practice, and material culture in the early modern world. He curates Ottoman History Podcast’s series on history of science in addition to being one of the co-founders of, a website that explores the archives and libraries of the Islamic world. He is an assistant professor of history at UCSD.
Shireen Hamza is a doctoral student in the History of Science department at Harvard University. Her research focuses broadly on the history of science and medicine in the Islamicate Middle Ages, and more specifically on the history of women's health.

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Episode No. 310
Release Date: 1 April 2017
Recording Location: Cambridge, MA
Audio editing by Shireen Hamza
Music: from Excavated Shellac - Munira al-Mahdiyya – Aldahre Kataâ Awsali; Hocine Slaoui – Yal Cahla
Special thanks to Kara Güneş for permission to use the composition "Istanbul"
Images and bibliography courtesy of Peter Hill


Illustration from ʿĪsā Petro’s compilation on various physical sciences (Damietta, 1810). Image: Markaz al-Makhṭūṭāt, Bibliotheca Alexandrina (from Zaydān, Yūsuf. ‘Makhṭūṭāt ʿaṣr Al-Nahḍa Al-ʿArabiyya: Risāla Fī Al-ʿulūm Al-Ḥadītha’. Al-ʿArabī Al-ʿilmī, no. 1 (January 2012): 40–43.)

François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, Muṣādafāt Tīlīmākūs Ibn Ūlīsah [What Happened to Telemachus, Son of Ulysse]. Arabic translation by Bāsīlī Fakhr (Damietta, 1815), from the 1744 Italian version. Image: Bibliothèque Orientale, Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut.
Benjamin Martin, Philosophical Grammar (1735). Greek translation by Anthimos Gazēs, Grammatikē tōn Philosophikōn Epistēmōn (Vienna, 1799). Image: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, Le avventure di Telemaco figliuolo d’Ulisse [The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses: translation of Les aventures de Télémaque]. Venice: Luigi Pavini, 1744. Image: Google Books.

Annotated Bibliography

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Rifa'a al-Tahtawi. An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric, 1826-1831. Translated by Daniel L. Newman. London: Saqi, 2004.

Khuri-Makdisi, Ilham. The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.

Elshakry, Marwa. Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Strauss, Johann. ‘Who Read What in the Ottoman Empire (19th-20th Centuries)?’ Middle Eastern Literatures 6, no. 1 (2003): 39–76.

Kitromilides, Paschalis M. Enlightenment and Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Fahmy, Khaled. Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Hill, Peter. ‘The First Arabic Translations of Enlightenment Literature: The Damietta Circle of the 1800s and 1810s’. Intellectual History Review 24, no. 2 (2015): 209–33.


Unknown said…
This is certainly very interesting and meritorious work undertaken by Peter Hill! Yet the assumption that he discovered this circle is a bit misleading and the bibliography is lacking the important study by Stefan Reichmuth, "Mündlicher und literarischer Wissenstransfer in Ägypten im späten 18. / frühen 19. Jh. - arabische Gelehrte und ihr Zugang zu europäischer Naturwissenschaft", in, Buchkultur im Nahen Osten des 17. und 18 Jh. Bern 2010, pp. 27-52.
Reichmuth is already tackling many of the same questions and references the pertinent sources.
Boris Liebrenz.

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