Reading Response: Modernization in Egypt, 19th Century

A reading response I wrote for a graduate class, based on four articles or selections about modernization in Egypt.


In “An Irrigated Empire: The View from Ottoman Fayyum,” Alan Mikhail uses agriculture in Fayyum and the maintenance of dikes and dams to make a larger argument about the balance of power in the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Mikhail is arguing against Karen Barkey’s hub and spoke model which posits that all power is in the center and all resources flow through the center. Instead, Mikhail shows that Fayyum acted as its own power center with its own peripheries. One way he demonstrates this is by explaining Fayyum’s traditional role as the grain-supplier of the Hijaz region. Istanbul never attempted to reorganize this regional dynamic and instead supported it because maintaining Fayyum’s productive power was in the best interests of the empire as a whole. More importantly, Mikhail’s article challenges the top-down power dynamic associated with empires by showing that the Fayyumis, the peasants, were able to wield power of their own by using their agricultural production and local expertise as leverage. In Fayyum, the peasants, though at the bottom of the social and power structure, were able to manipulate that structure to their advantage.

Khaled Fahmy’s article “The Nation and Its Deserters: Conscription in Mehmed Ali’s Egypt,” while not making the same argument as Mikhail, plays to the same theme. Fahmy is arguing against the modern historiographical narrative that presents Mehmed Ali’s modernization of the Army as an expression of Egyptian nationalism. He shows quite convincingly that Egyptians saw military service as an onerous burden and went to great lengths to avoid being drafted. The draftees were subject to a modern medical examination to see if they were fit for duty. Understanding this, draftees manipulated the system through self-mutilation, forcing the government to make changes to its policies. While their resistance was not effective or successful, this shows that draftees, like the Fayyumis, understood and engaged with state institutions in ways that made them political actors, rather than passive recipients of top-down power.

In the second article by Fahmy, “The Anatomy of Justice: Forensic Medicine and Criminal Law in Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” Egyptian peasants are shown to have engaged with and used the new siyasa legal system instituted by Mehmed Ali to their advantage as well. The article presents a historical narrative that is similar to the one presented by Milan Petrov in “Everyday Forms of Compliance: Subaltern Commentaries on Ottoman Reform, 1864-1868,” which discusses the way that people in the vilayet of Danube engaged with the new nizami courts. In this article, Fahmy is arguing against the prevailing teleological narrative of a steady progression from “backwards” shariah law to “modern” secular law. He argues instead that the government introduced these legal reforms not for the purpose of enlightenment or justice, but to improve state control over the population. In other words, this wasn’t European light illuminating the darkness of Arab backwardness. It was a carefully thought out plan meant to enhance the efficiency of the state. Fahmy focuses on autopsies and how they were used by the state and understood by the average person. Generally it seems that people understood the benefits of autopsies as a means of ensuring justice in areas that the shariah did not address or did not address adequately.

Brown’s article, “Who Abolished Corvee Labour in Egypt and Why?” is the only article that takes away agency from the common people, who are depicted as a formless mob who act only when ordered to act. In his article Brown is making the argument that corvee labor was not abolished for enlightened reasons, but because it became more profitable for the peasants to remain on their lands to harvest crops after year-round growing became established. The peasants were always being used to serve the greater interests of the state (or the landholders, who in turn produced revenues for the state), and even after the supposed renouncement of corvee labor, there were projects that necessitated the use of forced labor, especially in terms of the maintenance of the irrigation system.

It is interesting how great a role the irrigation system played in influencing policies in Egypt. Egypt’s agricultural output was its greatest asset when it was part of the Ottoman Empire and served as a vital part of the Empire’s infrastructure. After Egypt was separated from the Empire, agriculture was still of vital interest to the state. There were apparently conflicting interests, however. How was the irrigation system maintained when Mehmed Ali depleted the countryside of men to fill the ranks of his army?

Jesus’ World

A short essay I wrote for an undergraduate class called “Jesus the Jew” about a year ago.


Understanding who Jesus was is dependent on understanding the social context he was born into. What were the problems the Jewish people faced? What was the religious composition of the country? Was Jesus unique? Or were there others like him? After decades of Roman occupation, would Jesus’ message have been viewed favorably by his contemporaries?

When Jesus was born, Judea was occupied by the Romans. The invasion of the Romans was the last of many such occupations of Jewish lands by foreign powers that gradually diminished Jewish territorial control and sovereignty. Rome’s involvement with Judea began as an opportunistic intervention into a struggle over succession between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Pompey the Great, a Roman proconsul, backed Hyrcanus and restored him to the throne because he believed that Hyrcanus would be more likely to comply with Roman desires. The illusion of self-rule came to an end in 6 CE, when Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire as the province of Iudea and placed under direct Roman rule. By the time Jesus was born, there was widespread belief that the appearance of a messiah who would destroy the Romans and restore Jewish sovereignty was imminent. There were, in fact, many people wandering the desert claiming to be just such a person, and most of them were crucified by the Roman government.

Contemporary Jewish religion was very diverse, from established denominations to temporary movements built around charismatic individuals. The vast majority of the Jewish people were what today might be called mainstream practitioners. They were not heavily invested in the finer points of theology, but rather followed tradition and relied on instruction from those in their community with religious authority. This figure was usually a Pharisee. In contrast to the Sadducees, a group of priests who performed the required sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were accessible to the people. Sadducees were educated, but status as a Sadducee was inherited and could only be inherited. Pharisees were also educated, but could be anyone: your neighbor, your son, or your uncle, and they lived nearby and could answer your questions. Another popular denomination was the Essene community, which lived a celibate and missionary lifestyle. There were also Zealots, or Fourth Philosophy groups, and groups like the one at Qumran, which may have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were also charismatic individuals, typically wandering the country or living in the desert. They usually inspired followers or students, like Bannus, a hermit that Josephus sought wisdom from, and John the Baptist. There was no sense of normative Judaism. Jewish religion covered a broad spectrum of beliefs centered on the acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.

Jesus, as a man that preached a messianic message about the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, would not likely have been a surprise to his contemporaries, since he was but one of many such men traveling the country preaching a similar message. He also would not have been seen as a heretic, necessarily. Years later, Josephus defended the Christians because they were viewed as another group of Jews. There is no contemporary record of Jesus’ life, so it is impossible to know for sure how he was received, but he would have been seen as acting within the limits of Jewishness and, chafing under Roman rule, a message that advocated the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty probably would have been welcomed by the average person, or at least not a surprise.

Jesus in Modern Scholarship

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course about a year ago called “Jesus the Jew”.


In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders presents a very detailed examination of the evidence available for Jesus’ life. Of the three sources used for this paper, it is the most complete and the most scholarly in nature. F. E. Peters’ unpublished chapters on Jesus are very similar to Sanders’ work, though written in a more conversational way and with more emphasis on Jesus as the Gospels portray him, and on how Jesus viewed himself. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is written for a mainstream audience and relegates complex arguments about sources to the endnotes, but it also presents a scholarly view of Jesus with an emphasis on social unrest.

Sanders is very clear about the evidence relating to Jesus. He writes that “the more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and political climate.”[1] He is probably referring to Philo, who did not mention Jesus, and Josephus, who was born after Jesus was crucified. Sanders explains that using the New Testament as a source is problematic because it was not written as a history; it was intended to be a theological document and though historians can glean information from it, as Sanders, Peters and Aslan all do, it is impossible to know whether the information is accurate or not.

A good example of this is the contradictory reasons given to explain why Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee rather than in Bethlehem.[2] The device used to reconcile this apparent scriptural contradiction is a census that required people to travel to the hometown of their ancestor of forty-two generations. Sanders describes this method as being the result of a difference between how history is thought of today and salvation history, which required Jesus to be placed in a narrative that met traditional models or types based on scriptural precedents. Aslan also points out the obvious inaccuracy of the census but explains it as the inability of writers at the time to think of history scientifically because they were attempting to reveal truths, rather than facts.[3] Regardless, the point is that the New Testament is not a document that is meant to convey factual history; it is a theological document.

Sanders relies heavily on Josephus and also references Philo as a source of information to describe the historic and social setting that Jesus acted in. Sanders writes in detail about the problems of using the New Testament and explains how it was formed, starting out orally and evolving into pericopes that could be rearranged into stories depending on the author’s needs. Because of these issues, he believes that understanding Jesus can best be done by understanding the social and historical setting of first century Palestine. Aslan is also heavily invested in exploring the social setting of Palestine to try to understand how it may have influenced Jesus as a man. He also uses Philo as source for information about Judaism and Palestine, but does not mention him within the text of the book itself. Rather, he uses extensive endnotes to mention his sources. He seems to rely more heavily on Josephus and does not engage in the sort of literary critique of the New Testament that Sanders does, perhaps because his book was written for a less scholarly audience. Peters uses the same sources, but also references post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch.

The limited number of resources available results in all three authors having very similar arguments and conclusions about Jesus. Sanders presents Jesus as a man who had very little impact in his own society based on Jesus’ lack of a major following and Rome’s inaction in terms of suppressing him and his movement. Aslan mentions that the authorities were highly sensitive to any hint of sedition, but Sanders points out that, despite Josephus’ narrative of steadily increasing social unrest, this was just a plot device he used to build up to the revolt in 66 CE. Aslan’s interpretation implies that Jesus’ activities were more notable than Sanders believes they were, though Aslan also acknowledges the routine nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. All three authors agree that Jesus was crucified for political ideas that undermined Rome’s position, though Peters seems to place more blame on the Jews than either Aslan or Sanders.

Both Aslan and Sanders express similar ideas about the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Aslan writes that Jesus was not interested in gentiles, at least not during his ministry. He was solely concerned with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).[4] Sanders is more specific and explains that Jesus was also concerned with Jews of a specific social class: poor, rural Jews like himself. He also examines the symbolism of Jesus’ use of terminology like “the Twelve” and “the kingdom” to try to discover what Jesus thought he was going to accomplish. We’re left with an image of a devout Jew that felt he was attempting to bring about a new Jewish kingdom of God on Earth that would appear soon after his death. According to Sanders and Aslan, Jesus was not trying to establish a heavenly kingdom and he did not anticipate the dissolution of the physical universe. He was attempting to recreate the golden age of Jewish sovereignty, which may be why he symbolically referred to his primary disciples as “the Twelve,” referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. Peters’ work seems to imply a more apocalyptic meaning (in the Christian sense) in Jesus’ message, but that may simply be due to the unfinished nature of his unpublished work.

Sanders spends the majority of his book whittling away at source material to try to find a believable middle-ground that describes who Jesus might have been and what he might have thought about his role in society. Aslan, on the other hand, spends more time focusing on the social conflict between the Jews and Rome and between different Jewish groups. Peters puts more emphasis on the content of the Synoptic Gospels and Jesus’ role as a messiah with a scriptural basis, but all provide similar images of a historical figure based on the limited sources available. Who Jesus was as a person is likely lost forever, buried in layers of theology, revision, addition, and interpretation by later writers. Most of what can be known about Jesus, barring a new discovery, is already available and all that is left to academia is creative interpretation.




Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Kindle Edition. New York: Random House, 2013.

Peters, F. E. “Chapters 1-5 concerning Jesus.” Unpublished Work. New York, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Kindle Edition. New York: Penguin, 1995.


[1] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1995), 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random house, 2013), Kindle Location 682-688.

[4] Quoted in Zealot…. The translation is the author’s own.

A Cat Named Cheesecake

We found this guy in an alley in the middle of last winter. He’s still kind of sick but the improvement in his health has been amazing.



Now, if we could just get him to stop eating like he’s still starving in the street, that would be awesome!

181st Street in Manhattan – Washington Heights

A few photos I took of a typical evening on 181st Street in Washington Heights a few days ago.




We live on the edge of the Dominican area of Washington Heights. That might sound an odd thing to say, because Washington Heights has been mostly Dominican for decades, but that is slowly starting to change as rents go up. When we walk further north towards 181st Street, the look and feel of the streets changes. My wife says it reminds her of the Philippines, which isn’t surprising, given the heavy Spanish influence on her home country. Many Filipino customs are derived and adapted from Spanish customs.


This last image is on Amsterdam Avenue, facing downtown.