Saturday, June 11, 2011

The indomitable Mrs. Devonshire

We're more than a week into June, and I'm now back in the US. While I'm no longer in Cairo, I want to share the story of a woman who, despite experiencing significant personal loss while in Egypt, did not repatriate. While many expats return 'home' when they experience pain or trauma abroad, she gave up her 'domicile of birth' and deeply invested herself in Cairo, as her 'domicile of choice.' I first published this article in the June issue of the Maadi Messenger.

Henriette Devonshire moved to Cairo in January 1907 because of her husband’s work. Robert Llewellyn Devonshire left a promising law practice in England to take up work in Egypt’s Mixed Tribunal and Consular Courts. At the time, Egypt was governed by a complex judicial system, where foreigners were tried according to their native-born laws, and each major power established its own court in Egypt. Robert appears to have quickly made a name for himself in Cairo. He later partnered with Charles Golding and fellow Ma’adi resident Aaron Alexander to form one of the more prominent law firms for Britons in Egypt.

Before landing in Egypt, the Devonshires’ life already had an international touch. Henriette was French, and the couple married in Paris on May 24, 1887. Shortly after marrying they moved to England, where they had their children -- Marie, their son Feray, and Antoinette. When they arrived in Cairo, the two younger ones were still school age, being 16 and 13, respectively.

They initially lived elsewhere in Cairo, and moved to Ma’adi in the 1910s. Perhaps it was in those first years that Henriette formed her deep attachment to Islamic Cairo, because while many Ma’adi residents remained firmly planted in their garden city outside Cairo, Henriette made a name for herself traversing the space between the two, regularly exploring the ins and outs of Cairo’s medieval mosques and monuments.

Moving to Ma’adi provided the opportunity to share her passion. At the time the world faced the Great War, and Cairo was full of British Commonwealth troops. Digla was first developed at this time, and became a military base for New Zealanders. Henriette began writing travel guides for this population of newly-arrived foreigners, who were in Egypt long enough to venture off the well-worn tourist path. The articles were published together as Rambles in Cairo -- and gave a conversational, but informative guide to Islamic Cairo.

Ma’adi residents had a varied war experience, watching troops move into and out of the city, some never to return. German residents became ‘enemies’ overnight, and some where interned in Prisoner of War Camps, their property being seized by the government. The nationalist spirit among Egyptians was also on the rise. Not long after the war ended in 1918, these nationalists took to the streets, demanding independence.

In addition to world war and revolution, the Devonshires experienced their own personal tragedy in 1919. On July 20 their son Feray was killed in the third Anglo-Afghan War. Then, just two years later, Robert died suddenly while on a trip to Alexandria.

We do not have a personal comment from Henriette on how these experiences affected her. There is a telling statement, however, in Robert’s will, that speaks to the Devonshires’ commitment to Egypt. He began the will stating that he renounced his domicile of origin in England, “and adopted Egypt as my domicile of choice.” The sentiment was likely shared by the rest of the family, because rather than looking to flee reminders of Robert and their home, Henriette remained in Egypt for the rest of her life.

Rather than cutting ties with Egypt, Henriette further engrained herself here. She fashioned herself into one of Cairo’s most reputable experts on Islamic Cairo -- writing books, giving tours, and delivering lectures. In 1922, just a year after Robert’s death, she published Some Cairo Mosques and Their Founders. It was a more academic, and archaeological counterpart to what she had already published in Rambles in Cairo.

She followed up Some Cairo Mosques with L’Egypte Musulmane et les Fondateurs de ses Monuments in 1926, and then published Eighty Mosques and other Islamic Monuments in both English and French in 1930 and 1931, respectively. To do all of this she also learned to speak and write Arabic. Also in 1931, she republished an expanded edition of Rambles in Cairo, making her expertise more accessible to non-specialist readers who wanted to learn more about medieval Cairo.

She was writing to people like herself -- those who were in Cairo for long enough to really explore what the city had to offer. She explained, “These ‘rambles’ are destined for people who have time to spare, who can come again to see the beautiful things that have pleased them a first time and to go further afield in order to make comparisons for themselves.”

Cairo’s history became a refuge for Henriette. In circumstances where it would have been understandable for her to turn to the familiar, she lived out her recommendation to her readers, going further and further afield. She found herself more at home in the places where she would have ostensibly appeared most foreign.

Henriette continued giving weekly tours of Islamic Cairo into her 80s, while also continuing to publish on the topic. Her final book, Moslem Builders of Cairo, was published in 1944. In the same year, King Farouk recognized her work by conferring on her the Order of Al-Kamal. The Egyptian Gazette reported at the time that the honor “will be deeply appreciated by those who realise how much Mrs. Devonshire has done to make Egypt loved and understood by Europeans.”

On Sept. 7, 1949 Henriette died at her home in Ma’adi. She was 86 years-old. By that time, she had watched Cairo endure two world wars and a revolution, while also losing both a son and husband. As we face revolution and instability in our own moment in Egypt’s history, Henriette provides a story of perseverance and increasing dedication to Cairo. She, like her husband, renounced her domicile of origin, and chose Egypt as her home.


  1. Hello, I was recently handed a book written in French by Ms Devonshire on The Muslim Architecture of Egypt by a grand niece of hers. I thought the topic would be quite relevant to a TV documentary as I do not recall seeing much from that perspective.

  2. I was delighted when one of my sons showed me the article by Anne Lise Kinkel De Vries on Mrs R.L. Devonshire, with its appreciative introduction to her life and interests in Cairo. I am her oldest living grandchild.
    As is mentioned in the De Vries article , Henriette Devonshire had a mixed background, with relatives in France, England, Holland and Switzerland, and a great grandmother from Norway, so I don’t think she felt attached to only one country. She certainly loved Egypt, for the Islamic culture and architecture, and for the climate. She was more than happy to leave the cold of English and northern French winters, and the somewhat conventional society which she found in Surrey at that time. However, she remained very attached to Europe, and until the start of WW2 she spent two or three months there every summer.
    Henriette’s elder daughter, Marie, never married, and continued to live in Egypt, in Alexandria, where she was involved in social work for Egyptian mothers and babies, but was also able to see a great deal of her mother, until Nasser no longer wanted foreigners around. Henriette’s younger daughter, Antoinette, my mother, also disliked cold winters, and visited Maadi several times, sometimes taking one or other of her four daughters with her. Antoinette’s two older daughters are now both dead, but both spent time in Egypt. During the war the eldest joined the WRNS as a Cipher Officer, and was very lucky in being posted to Alexandria. The second became a nun and was for many years in a convent in Alexandria. I am the third daughter, and my visits were fewer; I remember going twice during childhood, and once with my husband in 1947, which was the last time that I saw our much loved "Bonne Maman". She never saw any of her great grandchildren, - mine, or those of my younger half-sister, though she heard of the birth of the first two, the second of whom was born two weeks before she died.
    I would be very interested to hear which of my cousins showed a correspondent one of Henriette Devonshire’s books. I have several, unfortunately not in very good condition, also a number of articles that she wrote, and photographs of her in Maadi and in England, and I am at present trying to sort out some of her work. I very much like the idea of a documentary about her - her life, her work, and her friends in Egypt. If this should become a reality I would be happy to cooperate in any way, as I expect my younger half-sister and other family members would also be.

    With best wishes,
    Cynthia L. Campbell (now aged 88)

    1. Dear Cynthia,
      I just bought one of her books! I am also working on a project where her very first book came in very handy. Did she leave an archive?

  3. I have long admired Mrs Devonshire's books and two years ago found her grave and that of her son, Feray, who died in 1919, in the Old British Cemetery at Cairo. They were in good condition though the inscriptions had faded somewhat.

    Jonathan Dawson, Tangier, Morocco