In 1856, Sultan Abdulmajid I issued the Hatt-i Humayun edict, one of the major reforms of the Ottoman Tanzimat era (1839–1876). This edict advanced notions of equality and ended the Ottoman Empire’s practice of classifying non-Muslims as dhimmis and requiring them to pay the jizya tax. In this chapter, I consider the edict’s impact on Christians in Egypt, as reflected in three accounts written more than a century later. The first account came from an American missionary named Earl E. Elder in 1958; the second was a chronicle of the Coptic Orthodox Church, published by Iris Habib al-Misri in 1978; and the third was the work of the Egyptian Muslim sociologist and human rights advocate, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, in 1996. These three writers interpreted the 1856 reform edict as variously progressive, repressive, or irrelevant to Egypt’s Christians, and as either originally “Turkish” or wholly Egyptian. I argue that their accounts produce a “Rashomon Effect”, meaning two things: first, they describe what happened from dramatically different perspectives; and second, they “speak” with such sincerity and conviction that finding a definitive, singular truth may be impossible. At the same time, their accounts illuminate persistent questions regarding modern Coptic history in Egypt.
This article considers the impact that the American Presbyterian mission in Egypt (1854–1967) exerted on American and Egyptian women, by expanding career opportunities and roles in church life and promoting new ideas about gender relations, sexuality, and family. It uses American women doctors and Egyptian Bible Women as case studies for female professionalism. Questioning the premise that influence moved one way, from American missionaries towards Egyptians, this study rejects triumphalist narratives about American progress in the gender domain; develops the story of missionary encounters as a bumpy two-way street; and shows how American and Egyptian women struggled to seize opportunities amid persistent gender discrimination. The article discusses the dearth of sources about these women, a shortfall that widens the gender gap in historical representation, requiring us to read between the lines.