Lane had seemingly exhausted modern Egypt. He had described the country, drawn a minute picture of the people's life, and translated their favourite romances. But there remained before him a still greater work, one indeed not bounded to anyone country but concerning the whole Mohammadan world, and yet, like his other works, having its roots in Egypt. It was no longer a popular book that he was engaged upon: it appealed only to the narrow circles of the learned. But it is the work by which his name will ever be remembered, and by which England may claim the palm of Oriental scholarship, eyen above Germany, the home of Eastern study in Europe.

It was impossible for Lane to acquire his intimate knowledge of Arabic without perceiving the lamentable deficiencies of the materials for its study then existing in European languages. Especially weak were the dictionaries: for Grammar could boast the magnificent works of De Sacy and Lumsden; whereas in the dictionaries of Golius and Freytag, if there were signs of learning and industry, there was also a dearth of material and a want of scholarship to interpret it, still more a lack of knowledge of Eastern minds, which resulted in statements calculated as much to mislead as to instruct the student. So long as the young Orientalists of Europe were reared upon the meagre food thus afforded to them, the standard of scholarship would be low and the number of students limited. Lane was well aware that it was not necessary to submit to this state of things from a want of the means of reforming it. On the contrary he knew that in Cairo there existed the richest materials the Arabic lexicographer could desire; and he determined himself to work the quarry and to produce a thesaurus of the language, drawn from original sources, which should once and for all supersede the imperfect productions of Golius and Freytag and bring the labours and learning of the Arab lexicographers within the reach of European students.

The field into which Lane was about to throw all his energy was a peculiar one. The materials for composing such a work as he contemplated were singularly perfect; For the exceptional history of the Mohammadan Arabs had produced a nation of grammarians and lexicologists. The rapid spread of the tide of Muslim conquest had threatened the corruption and even the extinction of the language of the Ḳur-án; other tongues were beginning to intermix with the pure Arab idiom; and it was foreseen that, were the process suffered to continue undisturbed, the sacred book of the Muslims would soon become unintelligible to the great body of the Faithful.

“Such being the case, it became a matter of the highest importance to the Arabs to preserve the knowledge of that speech which had thus become obsolescent, and to draw a distinct line between the classical and post-classical language. For the former language was that of the Ḳur-án and of the traditions of Moḥammad, the sources of their religious, moral, civil, criminal, and political code, and they possessed in that language, preserved by oral tradition,―for the art of writing in Arabia had been almost exclusively confined to the Christians and Jews,―a large collection of poetry consisting of odes and shorter pieces, which they esteemed almost as much for its intrinsic merits as for its value in illustrating their law. Hence the vast collection of lexicons and lexicological works composed by Arabs and by Muslims naturalized among the Arabs; which compositions, but for the rapid corruption of the language, would never have been undertaken. In the aggregate of these works, with all the strictness that is observed in legal proceedings, . . . . the utmost care and research have been employed to embody everything that could be preserved or recovered of the classical language, the result being a collection of such authority, such exactness and such copiousness as we do not find to have been approached in the case of any other language after its corruption or decay.”(1)

The earlier lexicographers and commentators constitute the authorities from whom all later writers have gathered their facts. They speak either of their own authority or they cite a statement―word or a signification―illustrated often by a proverb and more frequently by a couplet, for all of which they produce what may be called a pedigree, so rigidly do they seek to exclude chance of error. “Most of the contents of the best Arabic Lexicons was committed to writing, or to the memory of students, in the latter half of the second century of the Flight, or in the former half of the next century . . . . . . . From these and similar works, either immediately or through the medium of others in which they are cited, and from oral tradition, and, as long as it could be done with confidence, by collecting information from the Arabs of the desert, were composed all the best lexicons and commentaries on the classical poets, &c.”(2) The information these lexicons impart is conveyed after the strict rules of the science of lexicology. Probably no original authorities are so thoroughly original as the works written in accordance with its rules. The writer of such a dictionary frequently says,―“I have heard an Arab of such a tribe say so-and-so,” in support of a word or phrase. If he quotes from contemporaries, or from what constituted his original authorities, he always gives the source whence he gets his information. He is scrupulous not to assign undue weight to a weak authority. An authority was weak either because he lived after the classical age, or because he belonged to a tribe who spoke a corrupt dialect; or he might, if otherwise qualified, be known to be careless or otherwise inaccurate. The chronological limit of classicality was easily fixed. The period of classical Arabic does not extend much beyond the end of the first century of the Flight, except in the case of isolated tribes or rarely gifted men; but such are always quoted with caution. They were post-Moḥammadan. Even poets (and poetry is the mainstay of the Arab) born during the Prophet's lifetime were of equivocal authority. The unquestioned Arab-he who spoke the pure and undefiled tongue―was either a contemporary of Moḥammad's (i. e. born before but living during his time), or he altogether preceded him and belonged to the “Times of Ignorance.” The purest of the recognized tribes were generally considered to be those who dwelt between the lowlands of the coast tracts and the inhabitants of the mountains, or as Aboo-Zeyd somewhat vaguely expresscs it, “the higher of the lower and the lower of the higher.”(3)

Thus the great Arabic dictionaries were gradually compiled. To enumerate them or to attempt to distinguish their several merits is beyond my present object.(4) It is enough to say that rather more than a hundred years ago a learned dweller in Cairo, the Seyyid Murtaḍà, collected in a great lexicon, which he called the Táj-el-ʼAroos, all that he deemed important in the works of his predeccssors. He took for his text a celebrated dictionary, the Ḳámoos of El-Feyroozábádee, and wrote his own vast thesaurus in the form of a commentary upon it, interweaving the results of all the great authorities (especially the Lisán-el ʼArab) and adding from his own wide learning much that is valuable. The Táj-el-ʼAroos is, in fact, a combination of all the leading lexicons, and as such, and being compiled with great care and accuracy, is unquestionably the chief and best of native Arabic dictionaries.

During his former residence in Egypt Lane had become aware of the existence of copies, or portions of copies, of this Thesaurus in Cairo; and the thought had come to him that herein lay the opportunity for constructing an Arabic Lexicon of a fullness and accuracy never yet dreamt of. To compose a work in English from the Táj-el-ʼAroos would be, he saw, to provide the scholars of Europe with an authority once and for ever, from which there could be no appeal. But to attempt such a work would require another residence in Cairo, tedious and expensive transcribing of the Táj, long years of toil, and the wearisome labour of proof-sheets. And when done, who could be found to venture to publish so vast a work, involving peculiar printing at ruinous cost?

The days of patronage were over: authors no longer waited in the vestibules of great men with odes and dedications. But the spirit that prompted the finest patronage still existed. There were those among the noblemen of England who were ready to devote their wealth to the cause of culture and learning, and who were emulous of promoting a great work that could not advance without their help. In his first visit to Egypt Lane had met Lord Prudhoe and from that time something closer than mere acquaintance had sprung up between them. Few could know Lane without seeking to be his friend: and his worth was not that of an uncut diamond; the courtesy and grace of his manners were conspicuous. Lord Prudhoe found a delight in his society which did not vanish when they returned to England. He would constantly come to the house in Kensington, bringing some choice tobacco―the only luxury Lane indulged in―and there he would sit in the study, talking over old Eastern scenes they had witnessed together, and discussing the work then going on, “The Arabian Nights,” and Lane's plans of future study and writing. It was during these frequent meetings in London that the idea of the Lexicon was talked over. Lord Prudhoe entered zealously into the project; offered to provide Lane with the means of collecting the materials in Cairo, and eventually took upon himself the main expense of the production of the work. To understand in any degree the generosity and public spirit evinced in this, it must be remembered that it was no ordinary book, costing a few hundred pounds, that was thus to be produced. It involved the employment for thirteen years of a learned scholar in Cairo, to transcribe the manuscript of the Táj-el-ʼAroos; it required peculiar type to be designed and cast; it demanded skilled compositors of special acquirements; and finally, it was not a work of ordinary size, but one of eight large quarto volumes with three columns in the page, reaching when completed probably to four thousand pages. To give more precise details of the expense of the work would be an impertinence to the princely generosity that took no count of the cost. From first to last the Lexicon was the care of Lord Prudhoe. In 1847 he succeeded his brother as fourth Duke of Northumberland, but the serious addition to his duties caused by this and by his acceptance of a place in the Cabinet brought about no change in his interest in Lane's work. He would come almost yearly to Worthing to see my Uncle and learn from himself how “the great book” went on. Of the many who regretted His Grace's death in 1864, few lamented it more deeply than Lane. It was the severing of a long friendship, and a friendship which the generosity of the Duke, instead of destroying, as is the manner with the meaner sort of men, had cemented. But the bright example of the Duke created its own reflection. That support which for nearly a quarter of a century, “with a kindness and delicacy not to be surpassed,” he had accorded to Lane's great undertaking was at once and at her own express wish(5) continued by his widow, Eleanor, Dowager Duchess of Northumberland; and to Her Grace's munificence it still owes its further publicatlon.

The financial difficulties of the work being now overcome, Lane resolved on an instant departure for Egypt. His two previous visits had been solitary: but now he went surrounded by his family,―his wife, a Greek lady whom he had married in England in 1840, and his sister, Mrs. Poole, with her two sons, to whom he ever bore himself as a father,―just as he did twenty-five years later to two nephews of the next generation. A great sorrow had lately come upon them in the death of Lane's mother. In old age her intellect was as bright, her character as firm and tender, as they had ever been. To her sons and daughter she was as an angel from heaven. Over her youngest son, though he had lived among strange peoples and passed through dangers by sea and by land and was now a man on whom the eyes of the learned waited, this gentle woman still exercised that supreme influence which had inspired him when a boy with the noble principles and pure aspirations of the Higher Life; and to the last he rendered her the same love and obedience he had given as a child. It was this sore trouble that decided Mrs. Poole, who had lived in late years always with her mother, on accompanying her brother to Egypt, and from this time to his death she never left him for more than a few days at a time, unless summoned by the illness of her own sons.

In June 1842 the little party of five returned to London from Hastings, whither they had removed in the autumn of the preceding year; and on July 1st they sailed for Alexandria in the Peninsula and Oriental Company's Steamship “Tagus,” in itself an agreeable contrast to the small sailing vessels in which Lane had hitherto travelled, but still more pleasant in consequence of the special instructions of the Directors of the Company as to the comfort of their distinguished passenger. On July 19th they reached Alexandria, whence after a day or two they sailed up the Maḥmoodeeyeh for Cairo. At first the whole party, but especially the two boys, then only twelve and ten years old, were so ill that it became doubtful whether a return to England were not the only remedy. The seasoning sickness, however, passed away, and on arriving at Booláḳ on July 27th Lane began again to look for a house, taking up quarters meanwhile at the General Consul's residence, which Col. Barnet (like Mr. Salt on a former occasion) had courteously placed at his service. It was not till three weeks later that a suitable house could be found, and from the one they then entered, in the Darb-el-Gemel, their servants, and therefore themselves, were driven, after a determined resistance of two months, by a series of extraordinary sounds and sights, which the Muslim servants attributed to the haunting of the place by a Saint and an ʼEfreet, and which have not yet received a satisfactory explanation.(6)Being at length fairly expelled, like many people before and after them, they took refuge (in January 1843) in a house in the Ḥárat es-Saḳḳá-een, where they remained till the beginning of 1845, when they once more removed, to the Ḳawádees, where they lived till their return to England in 1849.

It was a pleasant little society they entered into, for the seven years of their stay in Cairo: but it was too changing for strong friendships. There were it is true some kindly people always living in Cairo: such as the English Missionary, Mr. Lieder, and his good-natured wife; the English physician Dr. Abbott, to whose friendly services Lane owed much, and not least the Consul Mr. Walne. And for a long time Fulgence Fresnel was in Cairo and constantly with his fellow Orientalist, for whom he felt the affection of a brother. Mr. James Wild, too, the greatest authority on Arab art, was a very welcome addition to the little circle of friends, and it was perhaps partly his long association with Lane that opened his eyes to the beauty of Arab, as distinguished from Moresque, architecture. And the latter part of their stay was brightened by the accession of two special friends,―Sir James Outram, the Bayard of India, who was never tired of coming to the house in the Ḳawádees; and the Hon. Charles Murray (now the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Murray, K.C.B.), who had succeeded Col. Barnet as Consul-General, and who from the moment of his arrival exerted himself in every way to shield Lane from the importunate visits of passing travellers and to find amusement for my father and uncle, to whom he showed unvarying kindness. Among the Alexandrians, too, who constantly visited Cairo, Lane had found good friends, especially in the late Mr. A. C. Harris, Mr. Alexander Tod and his wife, and Mr. and Mrs Batho.

But with these exceptions the society around them was ever on the ebb and flow, as the season for visiting Egypt went and came again. Of the many travellers who came to see the country, or passed through it on the way to India, not a few had introductions to Lane, and the acquaintance once made was not likely to be dropped so long as they remained in Cairo and the Friday receptions at Lane's house continued. This day, the Sabbath of the Muslims, was set aside for receiving the calls of his Muslim and other friends, and his wife and sister used to see the Europeans who came, in the Hareem rooms; so that on this day there was always a double reception. On different Fridays many of the most distinguished Orientalists of Europe and learned Easterns might be found in Lane's study―Lepsius, Wilkinson, Dieterici, D'Abbadie, Fresnel, Pruner, and others; with Sheykh Moḥammad Eiyád, the Sheykh Rifáʼah, Ḥággee Ḥasan El-Burralee, the poet, and other literati of Cairo, who delighted to converse with the Englishman who had more than once decided the moot-points of the Ulamà of the Azhar; whilst the less exclusively Oriental friends, and the few ladies who visited Cairo, such as Harriet Martineau, would betake themselves to the other side of the house, where Mrs. Lane and Mrs. Poole, were “at home.”

Except on Fridays Lane denied himself to everybody, unless unusual circumstances made the interruption a necessity. On Sundays he never allowed himself, however much pressed for time, to continue his week-day work; nor did he like Sunday visitors. On all other days he devoted himself uncompromisingly to the preparation of his Lexicon. From an early breakfast to near midnight he was always at his desk, the long hours of work being broken only by a few minutes for meals―he allowed himself no more―and a scanty half-hour of exercise, spent in walking up and down a room or on the terrace on thc roof. For six months together he did not cross the threshold of his house; and during all the seven years he only once left Cairo, and that was to take his wife and sister for a three days' visit to the Pyramids. At first he used to devote a short time every day to the classical education of his nephews, but even this was taken off his hands after a time by the kindness of the Rev. G. S. Cautley and the ready counsel of Mr. Charles Murray. But Lane continued to direct their studies, and it was by his advice that the elder devoted himself to the subject of modern Egypt and thus became a distinguished Arabic scholar, whilst the younger turned his attention to the ancient monuments, and, twice ascending the Nile and annotating Lane's earliest work, laid the foundations of his reputation as an Egyptologist.

The Lexicon was indeed begun in earnest. The first thing to be done was the transcription of the Táj-el-ʼAroos, and for this purpose Lane before leaving England had already consulted Fresnel, who was then living in Cairo, and who, after careful investigation, recommended the Sheykh Ibráheem Ed-Dásooḳee for the work. The copyist must be able to do more than merely write the Arabic character, it need scarcely be said; he must understand the original as a scholar, and he must hold such a position among the learned of Cairo that he can be trusted with the manuscripts from the Mosques. Such a man was the Sheykh Ed-Dásooḳee; ill-tempered and avaricious, but still the right man for the work. Lane at first hoped to obtain the loan of at least large portions of the manuscript from the Mosque of Moḥammad Bey. The Páshà himself, Moḥammad ʼAlee, was anxious to further the work by any means in his power, and the Prime Minister, Arteen Bey, called upon Lane with the view of discovering in what manner the Government could assist him. But the loan of manuscripts from the Mosques was a request beyond the power even of Moḥammad ʼAlee to grant; and Lane had to submit to the tedious process of borrowing through his Sheykh a few pages at a time, which were copied and then exchanged for a few more. Thus the transcription went on; and much of Lane's time was occupied in collating it with the original and in reading and annotating it in the company of the Sheykh Ed-Dásooḳee. But meanwhile there were other materials to be collected. It is true the main basis of the coming work was to be the Táj-el-ʼAroos: but this was founded upon many other lexicons, and Lane determined so far as might be possible to verify its quotations and to take nothing at second-hand which could be obtained from the original source. Hence it was a matter of great consequence to gather together any manuscripts that could be bought in Cairo. Fresnel gave him three most valuable manuscripts, Mr. Lieder another; and by a careful watch on the book-market, by means of his old ally Sheykh Aḥmad, he was fortunate enough to accumulate more than a dozen of the most renowned lexicons; and thus he was able to test the accuracy of the Táj-el-ʼAroos, and to add greatly to the perfection and authoritativeness of his own work.

After a preliminary study of Arabic lexicology,―a science complicated by technical terms of varying meaning,―and so soon as a portion of the Táj-el-ʼAroos was transcribed, Lane began to compose his own Lexicon from the Táj and from the other dictionaries he had collected. Thus from year to year the work went slowly on; collating, collecting, composing filled each day, each month, each year. At length the materials were gathered, the Táj was transcribed up to a sufficiently advanced point, and Lane felt he need stay no longer in Egypt. So leaving Mr. Lieder to keep the Sheykh to his work of copying,―which, now it is finished, fills 24 large volumes,―Lane and his family bade farewell to the friends who had risen around them, and reaching Alexandria on the 5th October, 1849, sailed on the 16th for England, where they arrived on the 29th.

Such is the brief account of Lane's third visit to Egypt, and the beginning of the Lexicon. It was a time of unremitting exhausting labour: but it was a happy time. Lane had his wife and sister with him, and his home was brightened by two young faces, full of the excitement and delight of their new and marvellous surroundings. A cloud had fallen upon them, indeed, in 1844, when they heard of the death of the eldest brother, Theophilus Lane; and some days of deep anxiety had befallen Lane when both wife and sister lay dangerously ill with cholera and typhus fever. But on the whole the seven years had been years of happiness. His sister had gained for herself a place in literature by her “Englishwoman in Egypt,” his two nephews had each marked out for himself a career as an Orientalist; he himself had accomplished his purpose and gathered together the materials and begun the composition of the great work of his life.


  1. Preface to Lexicon, viii.
  2. Preface, xi., xii.
  3. Cp. an excellent review of Lane's Lexicon, Part I., in “The Times” of March 26, 1864, written by a known hand.
  4. A full account of them is given in the Preface to Lexicon, Part I.
  5. On the death of Duke Algernon, his successor, formerly Lord Beverley, expressed a strong wish to continue the support of the work; and his son, the present Duke, has shown an equal interest in it.
  6. For an account of the really curious phenomena exhibited in this house see Mrs. Poole's Englishwoman in Egypt, i. pp. 70―78, 199―204;