Skip to content


December 28, 2011

The French painter, Alexandre Bida (1813–1895)

Alexandre Bida (1813–1895) was a French Orientalist painter who was known by the accuracy by which he accomplished his work. When he was a young man, he visited Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Palestine and executed many works of arts there, and later exhibited at the Salons in Paris. Bida was also known for drawing many of the Holy Bible scenes. He died in Germany at the age of 82.

Part of his important work on Egypt is included in a lithographed work which was printed in Paris by Lemercier in 1851, and is titled Souvenirs d’ Égypte par Alex. Bida et E. Barbot. It contains 24 tinted plated (56 X 40 cm) that are titled in French, Arabic and English. Not all the plates include work by, or after, Alexandre Bida – 12 topographical views are after E. Barbot of Egyptian and cities from Philae to Cairo[i] drawn on stone by Eugene Ciceri (1813 – 1890) with occasional help from Charles Bour (1814-1881). E. Barbot (Prosper Barbot; 1798-1878) was another French artist who made two journeys to Egypt in 1844 and 1846 travelling from Cairo south across the desert. The rest, 12 plates, are studies in the character and costumes of different Egyptians by, or after, Alexandre Bida.


Souvenirs d’ Égypte par Alex. Bida et E. Barbot (Lemercier; Paris; 1851)

Bida’s characters include six women and six men. The women include: A Lady of Cairo (Dame du Caire); A Fellâh Woman of Cairo (Femme Fellâh du Caire); A Girl Performing on the Tarabouqa (Joueuse de Tarabouqa); A Dancing Girl (Danseuse [Almée]); A Fellah Woman (Femme Fellâh); A Women with the Veil (Femme Voilée). The men’s plates are titled: A Coptic Writer (Copte [Écrivain]); An Arnout, Albanese (Arnaout [Albanais]); An Arab of the Hedjaz (Arabe du Hedjâz); Sais, A Groom of Stable (Sais, Palefrenier); An Ass-Driver (Anier); A Nubian (Nubien [Baquâb])[ii]. The dress code of the women is consistent with what Edward William Lane had earlier described in his monumental book, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. You can read more about that in my article How They Saw the Copts: “An Egyptian Peasant Woman and Her Child” by the French Painter Léon Bonnat: a Study in her Coptic Identity.[iii] Bida does not call any of his women a Copt; so even though their portraits are valuable and interesting, I will skip them as I would like to focus on Coptic themes. This is in contrast to the men he drew – one of them is a Copt, a writer or clerk. Coptic clerks were common in Egypt throughout its Islamic history – the Copts were the skilful and educated section of the state even though they were persecuted and oppressed. They were responsible for account-keeping and the undertaking of clerical work for the state and the strong. European travellers to Egypt in the 18th and early 19th centuries have often remarked that the importance of the Copt to the clerical work of the state was like that of the fellah to the task of ploughing and tilling the land.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) contains one of the original copies; and thankfully it has made it available to all in its Digital Gallery.[iv] [v] It is through it that I could have access to this important work. It is surprising that the French Gallica Digital Library[vi] doesn’t seem to have a copy on display.[vii]

I will produce all the six drawings underneath, starting with the two non-Egyptian Muslim characters (the Albanian Arnout and the Arab of the Hedjaz); then the three Egyptian Muslim characters (the groom of the stable, the donkey driver and the Nubian gate keeper); and finally the Coptic clerk or writer. Studying the physiognomy of the Copt in comparison with the rest is interesting enough; however, my intention in this article is to show once again how Copts were distinguishable by their dress code from the rest: Copts wore black or dark-brown turbans, black belts and their dress generally lacked the richness and colourfulness which characterised Muslims, whether of Egyptian or foreign descent. Even when compared with the poorer sections of the Egyptian society, such as the stable groom (سائس), the donkey-driver (حمّار) or the Nubian gate-keeper (بوّاب), the Copt wore a distinctive black turban and belt.


Albanian Arnout by Alexabdre Bida, 1851

Arnaut آرناﺌود  is a Turkish word for the people of Albania. These were used as mercenary soldiers throughout the Ottoman Empire, which included Egypt, and were known by their lawlessness, haughtiness and cruelty. All proper native Egyptians, Muslim or Copt, were treated by them as subhuman.


The Arab of the Hedjaz by Alexandre Bida, 1851

These Arabs often claimed descent from the family of Muhammad, and were called Ashraf (The Honourable). Their pride and contempt for all other races, Egyptians included, and religions were well known.

Sais, A Groom of Stable, by Alexandre Bida, 1851

Usually Muslim of native Egyptian descent.

A Donkey-Driver, by Alexandre Bida, 1851

Usually Muslim of native Egyptian descent.

A Nubian Gate-Keeper (Bawab), by Alexandre Bida, 1851

Usually Muslim of Nubian Egyptian descent.

A Coptic Writer by Alexabdre Bida, 1851

The Coptic clerk, tall and thin, and with smart face, wears a dark turban and belt. His writing tools are nicely tucked into his belt.


The desire to force the Copts to wear differently, or to carry marks that distinguished them from the Muslims, finds its origin in Islam and its sacred literature. One of the main intentions of the Muslim legislator was to humiliate the Copts by prohibiting them from wearing like the Muslims, who were alone allowed to wear spectacularly if they could do so financially. But it doesn’t stop there, and here is perhaps the far-reaching purpose of this discrimination – the Muslim legislator always wanted the Copt to be easily recognisable by eye-balling. Identifying a Copt by what he wore would permit the Muslim to implement the dictates of Sharia towards the Copt, either by omission or commission: omission by withholding from the Copt any sort of treatment that may elevate his position in society or shows him signs of respect; commission by ensuring that the Copt received a special treatment that reduced his self-worth and dignity. All apparently helped the Muslim with a weak faith not to wish to become a Christian, as when he saw the Muslim elevated in honour and power and the Kaffir (infidel) reduced and humiliated, he would not like to change his religion![viii]

Alexandre Bida, with his renowned remarkable accuracy and attention to detail, has left us a pictorial depiction of the dress code of several members of the Egyptian society in 1851. Much can be read in the portraits; and the researcher can easily identify the sign by which Copts were marked for humiliation and discrimination purposes. Egypt in 1851 was ruled by the regressive Abbas Helmi I (1848-1854). But, while his grandfather, Muhammad Ali (1805-1848) was comparatively enlightened, and used Coptic clerks to run his administration, he by no means took any measures to abolish the Islamic dress code that was imposed on the Copts, and was known by ghi’yar (غيار).  This discriminatory and humiliating dress-code was not abolished until after the European Powers exerted pressure on the Ottoman Empire, and forced it to issue the Hatt-ı Hümayun (or the Hamayouni Decree) on 18 February, 1856. By that decree, the Ottoman Sultan, Abd Al-Majid I (1839 – 1863) granted freedom and equality to all non-Muslim subjects of his empire, and abolished any discriminatory practices against them. Even after that, it took a few decades for Egypt to become a place where the Copt could safely discard his degrading and insults-inviting garment.[ix] Only after the arrival of the British in Egypt in 1882 was it largely safe for the Copts at last to wear like other humans without fear of inviting retaliation and retribution on themselves and other members of their community.[x]


[i] The drawings include seven sights from Cairo: Citadel Street; Mosque of Ibrahim Aga in Citadel Street; Mosque of Aboulala at Boulaq; Mosque of the Sultan; Tombs of the Sultans; Mosque of Touloun; Bab En-Nasr. Five sights are from Upper Egypt, which he visited: Minya; Jirja; Asyut; Island of Philae; First Cataract in Aswan.

[ii] The A&V Museum in London possesses a combined drawing by Alexandre Bida of the Albanian and the Nubian under the title, “An Albanian and a Nubian; Arnaute Albanais and Nubien baouab.” It was drawn c. 1851. You can see it here:



[v] You can access the work at the NYPLDG here: ;


[vii] Interestingly, a copy of the original work is available on the internet for sale by AbeBooks for £ 11508.62!

[viii] read, e.g., Shaykh al-Damanhuri (d. 1778), who was Egyptian Muslim scholar, and grand-sheikh of al-Azhar, in The Dhimmi by Bat Ye’or (revised and enlarged English edition; 1985); pp. 202-4.

[ix] See, e.g., evidence of the survival of the black turban in the 1870s in A Copt (wearing the black ghi’yar attire) by the Austrian artist, Leopold Carl Müller; possibly in 1875/6. See:

[x] Throughout the history of Islamic Egypt, the audacity, or perhaps foolishness, of a Copt to discard ghi’yar, and wear like rich Muslims has led to severe attacks, not just on the ‘offending’ Copt but on the whole community; such as what happened in Mamluke Egypt in 1301, 1321 and 1354.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2011 12:17 am

    They are beautiful pieces of art , would love to have one on my wall.:)
    Have a piecefull crossing to the New Year.Wish you health and happiness, two things money can’t buy.

  2. December 31, 2011 12:18 am

    Sorry my mistake should read ‘peacefull’

  3. Dioscorus Boles permalink
    December 31, 2011 12:27 am

    Thank you my friend. I also wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous year.

  4. mindthehat permalink
    January 4, 2012 10:49 am

    Nofri rompi envari to all.

  5. mindthehat permalink
    January 4, 2012 10:50 am

    Sorry forgot to thank you Dioscorus for your brilliant article.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      January 4, 2012 11:16 am

      Thank you, my friend, Mindthehat. Hope 2011 will be a very happy year for you on both personal and national levels.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: