In late 1837, an eager fifteen-year-old named Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl ibn Yūsuf al-Najjār al-Dayrānī travelled from his home in a mountainside town outside Beirut in order to study medicine in Cairo.'Principal square in Grand Cairo, with Murad Bey's palace' by Luigi Mayer, from Thomas Milton, Views in Egypt, Palestine, and other parts of the Ottoman Empire (London,1840) British Library shelfmark 762.h.2.(1), Images Online
His journey took place against the backdrop of rapid modernisation in the Middle East, with local rulers increasingly bringing in technical, military, administrative and scientific practices and expertise from Europe. In medicine, Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849), the Ottoman governor of Egypt, imported from 1825 European doctors, particularly French, to administer to the health of Muhammad Ali’s growing army, develop medical institutions along Western lines, and train locals in Western medicine.
Dr Antoine Bertélémy Clot (1793-1868) or ‘Clot Bey’, as he was nicknamed, accompanied Muhammad Ali’s occupation of Greater Syria (1832-40). Clot Bey was instrumental in the selection of Ibrāhīm as one of the five first Lebanese students to embark on a Western medical education at the school in Cairo that he had founded in 1827.
Ibrāhīm was a product of European expansionism in the Middle East: his grandfather was reportedly a Corsican carpenter who had arrived in the Levant with Napoleon’s invading forces in 1799. Unusually, we know about his personal experiences thanks to his memoir Miṣbāḥ al-Sārī wa-Nuzhat al-Qārīʾ (Lamp for the Traveller and Diversion for the Reader), which he self-published 20 years later.
Without detailing his education, Ibrāhīm mentions his yearning for medical knowledge from a young age, which could not be satisfied locally. Clearly, the extraordinary wealth of medical, pharmaceutical, and surgical learning previously compiled by Arabic-speaking physicians was not what he had in mind.
The memoir discusses Ibrāhīm’s arrival in Cairo, the medical school at Qasr al-ʿAynī, and the content of the four-year medical course. Beginning with chemistry, general anatomy, and pharmacology, the 500 students – mostly from rural Egypt and destined for careers with the army – progressed to minor surgery, botany, pathology, pharmacology, major surgery and specialist anatomy. Students accompanied their teachers on hospital ward rounds and observed autopsies, which Ibrāhīm confesses that he loathed. This emphasis on human dissection was one major difference between a traditional Arabic medical training and the education Ibrahim was receiving; to alleviate Muslim concerns, the school claimed that the cadavers used were those of Jews and Christians.
'Panorama of Constantinople' from A Series of Eight Views, forming a Panorama of the City of Constantinople and its Environs, taken from the Town of Galata (1813) British Library shelfmark Maps K.Top.113.75.f Images Online
After graduating in 1842, Ibrāhīm travelled to Constantinople (Istanbul). Having cured – he claims – a patient whom his host’s personal physician could not, he was introduced to the chief doctor of Istanbul and enrolled at the Royal Medical School. For four years, he attended lectures, saw patients, and learnt Turkish and French in order to access modern textbooks. This culminated in a gruelling public examination presided over by the young Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecit I (r. 1839-61).
Portrait of Sultan Abdülmecit I by David Wilkie (1785-1841), 1840. Image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust
After qualifying fully aged 22, Ibrāhīm spent three years travelling in Europe, before returning to Lebanon as chief medical officer at the Ottoman army barracks in Beirut. Straddling the manuscript and print eras in the Levant, Ibrāhīm authored books, including one manuscript recently made available on the Qatar Digital Library (British Library Or. 12152). This pharmaceutical inventory, apparently in his hand, expresses an intellectual position encompassing both traditional Arabic pharmacological and botanical knowledge, and use of Latin- and Greek-derived terminology and chemical compounds discovered by Western physicians.
Page from Kitāb anīs al-jalīs fī kull ḥadīth nafīs, by Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl al-Najjār, ca 1845-64 (f. 8v)
Title page from Kitāb anīs al-jalīs fī kull ḥadīth nafīs, by Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl al-Najjār, ca 1845-64 (f. 1r). The author is described as ‘One of the doctors of the Royal [Medical] School in Asitane [Istanbul], and the foremost doctor to the Sultanic [Ottoman] armies in Beirut’.
Embodying the modernising efforts of 19th-century Ottoman rule, Ibrāhīm al-Dayrani was one of the first doctors to be trained in the Western medical methods and concepts that have become universal. He died in 1864, aged just 42.
Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership