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Edward William Lane (17 September 1801 – 10 August 1876) was a British orientalist, translator and lexicographer. He is known for his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Arabic-English Lexicon and translation of One Thousand and One Nights and Selections from the Kur-án.[1]

Edward William Lane
Edward William Lane.jpg
Lane in Turkish clothes he wore in Egypt
Born(1801-09-17)17 September 1801
Hereford, England
Died10 August 1876(1876-08-10) (aged 74)
Known forArabic-English Lexicon
Scientific career
FieldsOriental studies

Lane also wrote a detailed account of Egypt and the countries ancient sites but the book titled Description of Egypt wasn't published during his life. It was first published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2000 and has been republished several times since then.[2]


Early yearsEdit

Lane was born at Hereford, England, the third son of the Rev. Dr Theopilus Lane, and grandnephew of Gainsborough on his mother's side.[3] After his father's death in 1814, Lane was sent to grammar school at Bath and then Hereford, where he showed a talent for mathematics. He visited Cambridge, but did not enroll in any of its colleges.[4]

Instead, Lane joined his brother Richard in London, studying engraving with him. At the same time Lane began his study of Arabic on his own. However, his health soon deteriorated. For the sake of his health and of a new career, he set sail to Egypt.[5]


Travels in EgyptEdit

Plaster statue of Lane done by his brother Richard James Lane

Lane had a few reasons to travel to Egypt. He has been studying Arabic for a long time and there has been an egyptomania in England due to Belzon's exhibition at the Egyptian Hall and Vivant Denon's books Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt. These might have inspired him to go to Egypt but he also had a practical reason. Lane's health was degenerating while he was living in London and he needed to go to a warmer place during the harsh winter months. There is also a fact that people who spoke Arabic and were familiar with the Near East could have got a job serving the British government. In any case, he got the chance to go to Egypt and sat sail on the 18th of July 1825.[6]

Lane arrived in Alexandria in September 1825, and soon left for Cairo. He remained in Egypt for two and a half years, mingling with the locals, dressed as a Turk (the ethnicity of the then-dominant Ottoman Empire) and taking notes of everything he saw and heard. In Old Cairo, he lived near Bab al-Hadid, and studied Arabic, among others, with Sheikh Muhammad 'Ayyad al-Tantawi (1810–1861), who was later invited to teach at Saint Petersburg, Russia.[7]

In Egypt lane visited coffee shops, visited the houses of locals, went to the mosque and talked about Islam with the locals. He also became friend with other British travelers in Egypt at that time including John Gardner Wilkinson who was in Cairo at that time. Lane also went on a trip down the Nile to Nubia visiting numerous sites and writing about everything he saw.[8] On this trip he visited Abydos, Dendera, Luxor, Kom Ombo, Philae, Abu Simbel and many other ancient sites.[9] Lane left Egypt on the 7th of April 1828.[10]

Description of EgyptEdit

Lane's interest in ancient Egypt may have been first aroused by seeing a presentation by Giovanni Battista Belzoni.[11] His original ambition was to publish an account of what had remained of Ancient Egypt. The London publisher John Murray showed early interest in publishing the mighty project (known as Description of Egypt as an homage to the famous Description de l'Égypte[notes 1]), but then retracted. This rejection was probably due to the fact that the book had detailed accounts of Egypt, numerous illustrations, and texts in Arabic, Ancient Egyptian (hieroglyphic writing) and Ancient Greek which would significantly raise the cost of printing. There is also the fact that such large publications were going out of fashion and that Lane wasn't an established author which is why no publisher was interested. Lane wasn't from a rich family and couldn't publish it himself so the book wouldn't be published until the twenty first century.[12]

Lane's illustration of the Ramesseum

His Description of Egypt had a lot of merit. In the work he provided a description of the places he visited but also their history. He was an excellent urban geographer best illustrated by the fact that he devoted five chapters of the book writing about everything in Cairo: the way the city looks when you approach it, a detailed account of Old Cairo, monuments in the city, the nature around it etc.[13] He also wrote about rural arias as well.[14]

The work doesn't just follow his travels. He also talks about the landscape of Egypt: the deserts, the Nile and how it is formed, the fertility of land, Egyptian agriculture and its climate.[15] He also devotes an entire chapter of the book to a political history of Egypt paying a lot of attention to Muhammad Ali of Egypt.[16]

But by far Lane focuses most on Ancient Egypt. Description of Egypt shows Lane's talent as an egyptologist event though he wasn't credited as one during his life. The book has an supplement called On the Ancient Egyptians in which the author writes about their origin and physical characteristics, the origin of their civilization, hieroglyphics, Ancient Egyptian religion and law, the priesthood, the kings, the military caste, the inferior castes, general manners and customs, sacred architecture and sculpture, agriculture and commerce.[17] He was so fascinated with Ancient Egypt that in a letter he wrote to his friend Harriet Martineau he stated that he has put a lot of effort into staying away from it; he added that in the last eight years he couldn't read a book on this subject as it fascinated him so much that it drew his attention away from his work.[18]

He spent 32 days at the Giza pyramid complex drawing, making sketches and taking notes for his work.[19] At the complex Lane even saw laborers pulling down some of the stone from the Great Sphinx of Giza to use it for modern buildings.[20] He stayed at the Valley of the Kings for 15 days sleeping in the tomb of Ramses X and left detailed accounts of all the tombs and concluded that there might be other royal tombs in the valley that are hidden.[21]

Lane had 160 illustration accompanying his accounts. They were illustrations about the everyday life in Egypt, historical sites, copies of iconographic representations and hieroglyphs, plans of buildings and maps.[22]

Manners and Customs of the Modern EgyptiansEdit

Lane's illustration of the way men from the middle and higher classes dress in Egypt

Since Lane couldn't publish his Description of Egypt, at the suggestion of Murray he expanded a chapter of the original project into a whole book. The result was his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The work was partly modeled on Alexander Russell's The Natural History of Aleppo (1756).[23] Lane visited Egypt again in 1833 so that he could collect materials to expand and revise the work, after the society accepted the publication.[24] The book became a bestseller (still in print), and won Lane a reputation.

The book is very important as Lane leaves detailed accounts of everyday life in Egypt in the 19th century which will be useful to later researchers. Arthur John Arberry visited Egypt a century after Lane and said that it was like visiting another planet - none of the things Lane wrote about were present.[25]

Lane was conscious that his research was handicapped by the fact that gender segregation prevented him from getting a close-up view of Egyptian women - an aspect of Egyptian life that was of particular interest to his readers. He was forced to rely on information passed on by Egyptian men, as he explains:

Many husbands of the middle classes, and some of the higher orders, freely talk of the affairs of the ḥareem with one who professes to agree with them in their general moral sentiments, if they have not to converse through the medium of an interpreter.[26]

However, in order to gain further information, years later he would send for his sister, Sophia Lane Poole, so that she could gain access to women-only areas such as hareems and bathhouses and report on what she found.[2] The result was The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo, written during a residence there in 1842, 3 & 4, with E.W. Lane Esq., Author of "The Modern Egyptians" By His Sister. (Poole’s own name does not appear.) The Englishwoman in Egypt contains large sections of Lane's own unpublished work, altered so that it appears from Poole's perspective (for example "my brother" being substituted for "I").[27] Billie Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women in the Middle East, 1718-1918.[28] However, it also relates Poole's own experiences in visiting the hareems that were closed to male visitors such as her brother

The One Thousand and One NightsEdit

Lane's next major project was a translation of the One Thousand and One Nights. His version first saw light in monthly parts in the years 1838 to 1840, and was published in three volumes in 1840. A revised edition came out in 1859. The encyclopedic annotations were published, after his death, separately in 1883 by his great-nephew Stanley Lane-Poole, as Arabian Society in the Middle Ages.[29] Lane's version is bowdlerized, and illustrated by William Harvey.

Opinions vary on the quality of Lane's translation. One comments, "... Lane's version is markedly superior to any other that has appeared in English, if superiority is allowed to be measured by accuracy and an honest and unambitious desire to reproduce the authentic spirit as well as the letter of the original."[30] Yet another, "... [Lane's] style tends towards the grandiose and mock-biblical... Word order is frequently and pointlessly inverted. Where the style is not pompously high-flown, it is often painfully and uninspiringly literal... It is also peppered with Latinisms."[31]

Lane himself saw the Nights as an edifying work, as he had expressed earlier in a note in his preface to the Manners and Customs,

There is one work, however, which represents most admirable pictures of the manners and customs of the Arabs, and particularly of those of the Egyptians; it is 'The Thousand and One Nights; or, Arabian Nights' Entertainments:' if the English reader had possessed a close translation of it with sufficient illustrative notes, I might almost have spared myself the labour of the present undertaking.[32]

Dictionary and other worksEdit

Title page of the first volume of the Arabic-English Lexicon

From 1842 onwards, Lane devoted himself to the monumental Arabic-English Lexicon, although he found time to contribute several articles to the journal of Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft.[33] He went to Egypt in 1842 with his wife, two kids and his sister Sophia Lane Poole who was working on her book The Englishwoman in Egypt.[34] This time Lane stayed in Egypt for 7 years working six days a week on his lexicon.[35] A local scholar, Ibrahim al-Disqui, helped him with this work. He helped him find manuscripts and went through them correcting errors made by the authors. They became very close due to this long and hard work and stayed friends for a long time after they finished the Lexicon.[36]

Lane's Selections from the Kur-án appeared in 1843. It was neither a critical nor a commercial success. Moreover, it was misprint-ridden as Lane was for the third time in Egypt with his family collecting materials for the Arabic-English Lexicon when it was being printed.[37]

Lane was unable to complete the dictionary. He had arrived at the letter Qāf, the 21st letter of the Arabic alphabet, but in 1876 he died at Worthing, Sussex. Lane's great-nephew Stanley Lane-Poole finished the work based on his incomplete notes and published it in the twenty years following his death.[38]

In 1854, an anonymous work entitled The Genesis of the Earth and of Man was published, edited by Lane's nephew Reginald Stuart Poole. The work is attributed by some to Lane.[33]

The part concerning Cairo's early history and topography in Description of Egypt, based on Al-Maqrizi's work and Lane's own observations, was revised by Reginald Stuart Poole in 1847 and published in 1896 as Cairo Fifty Years Ago.[39]

Personal lifeEdit

Lane was from a notable orientalist family. His sister, Sophia Lane Poole, was a oriental scholar but so were his nephews Reginald Stuart Poole and Stanley Lane-Poole who were distinguished oriental scholars and archaeologists. His brother, Richard James Lane, was a notable Victorian era engraver and lithographer known for his portraits. In 1840, Lane married Nafeesah, a Greek-Egyptian woman who had originally been either presented to him or purchased by him as a slave when she was around eight years old, and whom he had undertaken to educate.[2]

Lane died on 10 August 1876 and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery. His manuscripts and drawings are in the archive of the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lane didn't like the Description de l'Égypte and though it was very inaccurate in some aspects. He wanted his Description to be more accurate than the work of his predecessors (Thompson 1996, 567)


  1. ^ Thompson 1996, 565
  2. ^ a b c Thompson, Jason. "An Account of the Journeys and Writings of the Indefatigable Mr. Lane". Saudi Aramco World. Archived from the original on 2008-08-29. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
  3. ^ Arberry, 87
  4. ^ Arberry, 87-8
  5. ^ Arberry, 88
  6. ^ Lane-Poole 1877, 14–15
  7. ^ Arberry, 89-92; Irwin (2006), 164
  8. ^ Thompson 1996, 566–567
  9. ^ Lane 2001, 225–492
  10. ^ Thompson 1996, 567
  11. ^ Roper, 244; Irwin (2006), 163
  12. ^ Thompson 1996, 571–572
  13. ^ Lane 2001, 67–97
  14. ^ Lane 2001, 215–291
  15. ^ Lane 2001, 25–47
  16. ^ Thompsen 1996, 577–578
  17. ^ Lane 2001, 508–574
  18. ^ Thompson 1996, 578
  19. ^ Lane 2001, 159
  20. ^ Thompson 1996, 190
  21. ^ Lane 2001, 372–387
  22. ^ Lane 2001, 575–579
  23. ^ Roper, 244; Irwin (2006), 122 & 164
  24. ^ Arberry, 92
  25. ^ Arberry 1997, 98
  26. ^ Lane, 175
  27. ^ Thompson 2010, 574
  28. ^ (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992) 73-74
  29. ^ Arberry, 104
  30. ^ Arberry, 105
  31. ^ Irwin (1994), 24
  32. ^ Lane, xxiv
  33. ^ a b Roper, 249
  34. ^ Arrbery 1997, 108
  35. ^ Arrbery 1997, 109–111
  36. ^ Kudsieh 2016, 54–56
  37. ^ Arberry, 106-7
  38. ^ Arberry, 115
  39. ^ Roper, 245


  • Arberry, A.J. (1960). Oriental Essays. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Irwin, Robert (1994). The Arabian Nights: A Companion. London: Allen Lane.
  • Irwin, Robert (2006). For Lust of Knowing. London: Allen Lane.
  • Kudsieh, S. 2016. Beyond Colonial Binaries: Amicable Ties among Egyptian and European Scholars, 1820-1850. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 36: 44.
  • Lane, Edward William (1973 [1860]). An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. With a new introduction by John Manchip White. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Lane, E. W. 2001. Description of Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo.
  • Lane-Poole, S. 1877. Life of Edward William Lane. London: Williams and Norgate.
  • Roper, Geoffrey (1998). "Texts from Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Role of E. W. Lane", in Paul and Janet Starky (eds) Travellers in Egypt, London; New York: I.B. Tauris, pp. 244–254.
  • Thompson, Jason (1996). "Edward William Lane's 'Description of Egypt'". International Journal of Middle East Studies, 28 (4): 565-583.


  • Ahmed, Leila (1978). Edward W Lane. London: Longman.
  • Lane-Poole, Stanley (1877). Life of Edward William Lane. London: Williams and Norgate.
  • Thompson, Jason (2010). Edward William Lane: The Life of the Pioneering Egyptologist and Orientalist, 1801-1876. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

External linksEdit