Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Colonialism in Africa and the Middle East

Origins of Key Geographical Terms


History by Region or State


History by Time Period


Special Topics









European colonial activity in Africa and the Middle East reached its peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The British became heavily involved in the affairs of Egypt and the Sudan. In 1820 they formed economic pacts with Gulf region sheikhs. They annexed Aden in 1839. The French and British built and operated the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. Britain went to war with Iran in 1856 over rights of way to India and China through Iran. Algiers fell under French rule in 1830. The French in 1860 intervened in Lebanon, as they had done routinely since the 1500s, on behalf of Christians who were being persecuted by the Druze. That same year (1860), Spain invaded Morocco. The ensuing "treaty" left Moroccan finances under Spanish control. The French occupied Tunisia in 1881, which sparked the Urabi Uprising in Egypt. Britain and France sent an occupation force to Egypt in 1882. Britain maintained a protectorate over Egypt until 1922 (see especially Lord Cromer's administration of Egyptian affairs, 1883-1907). At the Berlin Conference in 1885, European nations carved up Africa among themselves. Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890 and Dar as-Salaam a German protectorate in 1891. The French took over Senegal in 1890, Timbuctu in 1893, and destroyed the Rabah empire in Chad in 1900. In 1907, Great Britain and Russia divided Iran into "spheres of interest." Italy in 1911 began its conquest of Libya, a ham-handed off and on series of campaigns that would go on for more than twenty years. In this fashion, Westerners came to be perceived as imperialistic thieves and conquerors. After World War I, Arabs were to add "breakers of promises" to the list (for example, see 1915-1918).

Some of the earliest items from these colonized and semi-colonized regions exploited by the Europeans were their antiquities.  Shortly after 1810, Giovanni Belzoni, a circus strong man by trade, went on a looting spree through Egypt and sent objects back to the British Museum in London.  After 1803, the Ottoman Turks began allowing the British to pillage Greece of its treasures.  Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to Greece between 1803 and 1812, shipped many of the Parthenon's treasures back to England, including the famous "Elgin marbles" (now in the British Museum). In the early 1840s, Paul Emile Botta, the French consul in Mosul (Iraq) excavated the nearby mound of Kuyunjik, an Assyrian site, and dispatched its treasures back to the Louvre in Paris.

As the Middle East and North Africa fell more and more under the control of the European powers, Europeans began traveling to these regions in great numbers.  The Western cult of objectivity moved Europeans to detach themselves, to create distance between themselves and the regions and peoples they were visiting because this was the only way many of them could make sense of what they were seeing.  Some did it by taking photographs or by painting what they saw (David Roberts). Others painted pictures with words (Gustav Flaubert, Edward Lane, Washington Irving, Bayard Taylor).  In at least one case, tourism was generated by the very process of colonization itself:  in 1830, businessmen from Marseilles converted a steamer into a floating hotel so tourists could watch the French bombardment of Algiers from offshore.

American author Herman Melville complained about Cairo's apparent disorderliness singling out the city's lack of street signs, as if Cairo ought to have been built to conform to his Western sensibilities.  In the absence of what they perceived to be intrinsic order in these places, Western colonizers moved to impose order on the Middle East and North Africa.  The central areas of many cities were rebuilt in what came to be known as the "colonial" style.  As Timothy Mitchell (Colonizing Egypt, New York, 1988, 34) puts it, "Colonial power required the country to become readable..."

For their part, many Europeans and Americans, basing their views on notions of moral, cultural, and racial superiority (which they tried to temper with a sense of noblesse oblige or mission civilisatrice), were unabashed and unapologetic about what they perceived as  their natural right to dominate other peoples in far off places. Typical of these defenses was that of the French champion of colonialism, Jules Harmand, who in 1910 said:

"'It is necessary, then, to accept as a principle and point of departure the fact that there is a hierarchy of races and civilizations, and that we belong to the superior race and civilization, still recognizing that, while superiority confers rights, it imposes strict obligations in return. The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, not merely our mechanical, economic, and military superiority, but our moral superiority. Our dignity rests on that quality, and it underlies our right to direct the rest of humanity. Material power is nothing but a means to an end.'"   (quoted in Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 17.)

America, for its part, had by 1900 grown in influence around the world to such an  extent that some historians in the late twentieth century began to speak of  a Pax Americana, or even an "American Empire."  Such sentiments bore a striking resemblance to notions of America as the "new Israel," God's new "chosen people," and "manifest destiny." (more) American Christian scholars of the Ancient Near East in the early twentieth century such as William Foxwell Albright became accustomed to contrasting Islam with what they regarded as the eternal verities of their own Christianity.  Other American scholars before him, such as John Punnett Peters, were less kind.  Peters wrote as he journeyed to Mesopotamia in the late 1880s that he felt as if he were passing from  "civilization to semi-barbarism."  He viewed Arabs as degenerate and hostile.  Peters branded them "half savage" and characterized them as "evolution in reverse."  (see Bruce Kuklick, Puritans in Babylon:  The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930 (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 8, 35)

The famous Scottish painter of the Middle East, David Roberts (1796-1864), began his career as a set designer at London's Drury Lane Theatre. Roberts detested Arabs and Muslims.  He wrote:

"'Splendid cities, once teeming with a busy population and embellished with temples and edifices, the wonder of the world, now deserted and lonely,  or reduced by mismanagement and the barbarism of the Muslim creed to a state as savage as wild animals by which they are surrounded. Often have I gazed on them till my heart actually sickened within me.'"  (quoted by Rana Kabbani, Europe's Myths of the Orient (Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1986), 11) (See also "Wars of Words and Images")

The English adventurer, Richard Burton, who trespassed upon the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as an Arab, shared the common European belief that non-Europeans constituted "savage man."  For Burton, they were creatures of instinct driven by sexual passions and were more animal than human.  His countryman Edward Lane, much more prudish in his descriptions where Burton tended to be prurient, described Egypt as a den of the superstitious, the grotesque, and the deformed.  In his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), Lane provided the following description of hired dancing-girls:

"' Some of them, when they exhibit before a private party of men, wear nothing but the shintiyan (or trousers) and a tob (or very full, long, wide-sleeved shirt or gown) of semi-transparent, coloured gauze, open nearly half-way down the front...The scenes which ensue cannot be described.'" (quoted in Kabbani, 40)

Lane's tour includes a sheikh who ate glass and a "saint" who cut himself open and displayed his intestines for the entertainment of guests at a wedding.   Lane's prudery, an expression of his moral sense of superiority, is on full display in the following passage:

"'Some women step over the body of a decapitated man seven times, without speaking, to become pregnant; and some, with the same desire, dip in the blood a piece of cotton wool, of which they afterwards make use in a manner I must decline mentioning.'"  (Kabbani, 41)

How many (if any) of the above events Lane directly observed and how much was folklore he picked up in the streets is not clear.  The point is that he exemplifies the European exercise of power over its subject peoples in the nineteenth century and shows how travel can become part of the process of subjugating other people, morally as well as materially.  As Rana Kabbani reminds us, in the case of individuals like Burton, Lane, Roberts, and many others who went out to take a look at Europe's exotic new  prizes, "The claim is that one travels to learn, but really, one travels to exercise power over land, women, and peoples."  (Kabbani, 10).

The 1956 Arab-Israeli War marked the effective end of the era of European colonialism in the Middle East and the end of the British Empire worldwide.

(see also Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict and especially the views of Jansen and Hourani.)


Top of Page

email: tthornton@nmhschool.org

Last Revised: November 30, 2006