The two men could not have been more different. Gamal Himdan was a recluse, immersed in his studies; Robert Hichens was an extrovert, frequently travelling seeking new experiences. Their politics were also clashing. Himdan was a fierce Egyptian nationalist; Hichens was an imperialist, believing in the grand project behind the British empire. As for the ages they lived in and their impacts on them, Hichens was a product of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, connected to the refinement of the Renaissance and the optimism of eighteenth century romanticism. Himdan, on the other side, belonged to the generation formed by the Second World War and its aftermaths. Whereas Hichens was inclined to look languidly at the world and to reflect on what he believed were examples of utmost human achievement, Himdan was driven to analysing what he deemed fundamental questions about his immediate environment.
Yet both men unintentionally contributed to each other’s work. Himdan’s masterpiece, “Egypt: A Study in the Genius of the Location”, is a hard nosed assessment of the meaning of Egypt’s geography; Hichens’s “The Spell of Egypt” is almost a poem on the meaning of Egypt’s history.
Himdan argues that Egypt’s geography has shaped the traditions of agriculture and farming in the country, connected its different regions with each other and to a centre where authority was destined to appear, and has forged a coherent, homogeneous society. One of his key conclusions is that these traditions and connections have resulted in similarities, integration, and later on dependencies in-between the regions, that together were the foundations of the Egyptian state. Himdan shows how unique these foundations were, not only in the orient and the Mediterranean basin over six thousand years ago, but throughout the entire ancient history. To him, this uniqueness was a key reason why a specific type of civilisation had emerged on this land and why it lasted three thousand years, and later evolved to become the host of one of the most luminary branches of the Hellenic civilisation (in Alexandria).
Hichens’s “The Spell of Egypt” traces the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the major temples in a specific order as one encounters them while travelling on the Nile from the north of the country towards its south, and at each stops to describe, reflect, and uses history – and imagination – to find connections between the different hallmarks in the journey. The stories that Hichens weaves connect the monuments with their epochs, as well as with the evolution of beliefs in the first three thousand years of recorded Egyptian history. The result is a concise but dense book that conjures up a wholistic meaning that the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the grand temples, and their hosts, the land and the Nile, collectively form.
Hichens would have objected to the verb “conjure”, for it signifies an agency on his behalf, while he would have argued that he merely recorded what the Nile, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the temples in their order from the north to the south, actually add up to. In Hichens’s view, Egypt’s history has left not only monuments, but also a meaning, on its land. Not surprisingly, Hichens repeatedly invokes that grand master of reflecting on nature’s work and on the finest milestones of major civilisations, Goethe. Like Goethe, Hichens employs his knowledge, observation, imagination, and language to decipher what the land, the water, and the architecture keep only for the worthy.
Hichens’s poetic style complements Himdan’s analytic approach. Himdan gives us a tightly argued case built on numbers, facts, substantiated deductions, and precise comparisons. Hichens presents us with images, flashes of memory, eureka moments, and descriptions of scents.
Hamdan teaches us about the land of Egypt, and how the physicality of the location enabled the state and made the civilisation both a natural product of the place and a reflection of its uniqueness. Hichens, on the other hand, preaches to us about the soul of that civilisation, illuminating our minds with the ideas upon which that civilisation was built and towards their expression its grandest monuments were erected.
“The Genius of the Location” and “The Spell” are must read books for any student – or lover – of Egypt. Combined together, they are a key to a rich understanding of the idea of Egypt.