I am always struck by the number of overseas scholars and researchers who can be seen hard at it on any given day at The British Library, The National Archives, and I dare say any of the other great archival repositories and libraries in the UK. Given that we are talking about some of the finest collections anywhere in the world it is no surprise to see these fellow toilers; but assuming that rather than studying British history most of them are using British documents to study the history of their own countries/regions/personalities, the interpretative care and skill that is surely necessary when attempting to reconstruct history in this way has always intrigued and rather daunted me.
I thought about this once again during a holiday in north-east Greece in early September. As well as visiting Graeco-Roman sites such as Philippoi and Amphipolis we made a couple of trips to the town of Kavala, and there enjoyed an hour at the restored house of Mehemet Ali. Unknown to many no doubt, but a fascinating man: there might even be an argument for setting his achievements in the eastern Mediterranean beside his contemporary Napoleon - Ali certainly made significant territorial conquests and he founded the dynasty which ruled Egypt until 1952. So no doubt a man worthy of serious attention from a number of historical angles - Egyptian, Greek, Turkish, French and British. But how to get as complete a picture as possible, and what to do if all that remains are documents written about rather than by him?
It's not quite as bad as that in this case: at least one letter by Ali is extant; at the house in Kavala is a copy of this slight document which apparently relates to affairs in the town - the original is now stored in the Egyptian National Archives where there are presumably other papers, but whether anything more illuminating than administrative records exists is anyone's guess. The key point I am making here - and it is the thing that draws scholars from all over the world to Britain - is that we do have relevant documentary materials in this country, however imperfect they might be.
On seeing the letter at the house I made a mental note to check the catalogues of the BL and TNA to see if I could find anything that would help a would-be biographer of Ali or historian of the region. Sure enough, a cursory search uncovered quite a few things of interest; pick of the bunch for me was a short narrative of the history of Egypt from the expulsion of the French in 1801 to the mid-1820s, augmented by a manuscript life of the Ali, all contained in the first volume (Add MS 34080) of the papers of the Arabic scholar and Egyptologist Edward William Lane at the BL (Add MSS 34080-88; additional papers concerning Egypt by Lane are at the Griffith Institute and the Bodleian). I am well aware that I am on dangerous ground here, but presumably Lane was a credible witness (he made it into the HMC's guide to Papers of British Antiquaries and Historians), and the mere fact that these papers exist at all is something that the historian of nineteenth-century Egypt can be thankful for, but that doesn't solve the problem of how to overcome their inherent weaknesses as historical sources - as I say, a daunting intellectual prospect that I'll leave others to scale.