Obituary: Gamal Hemdan

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The Independent Online
Gamal Hemdan, geographer: born Qualubeyiah, Egypt 4 February 1928; died Cairo 17 April 1993.

GAMAL HEMDAN was an encyclopaedic geographer whose work, spanning over four decades, encompassed every political, economic and, above all, human aspect of Egypt and the events that developed the character of its inhabitants.

This revolutionary approach to the geography of Egypt, a place burdened with history, often led critics and journalists to mistake Hemdan for an historian. His works, spanning over four decades, were all obscured by one gigantic work which took him 10 years to accomplish: The Character of Egypt: a study in the genius of the place. Dealing with every imaginable geographical aspect which shaped the national peculiarities of the Egyptian character, the work detailed a fascinating picture of Egypt and how it was developed through 7,000 years of civilisation. The four massive volumes, published in 1985, are regarded by many geography scholars as the most comprehensive and accurate account of natural, environmental, economical and anthropological factors which created what Hemdan defined as the geography of the most ancient nation-state in history.

Born in the Egyptian Delta, in Qualyiubeiah, 50 miles north of Cairo, in 1928, he developed as a child a fascination with the character of the place, which surfaced in all his works from his graduation in 1948 from King Fuad University. The subject of his doctoral thesis at Reading University in 1953 was 'Ancient and Modern Inhabitants of the Egyptian Delta'.

Between 1954, when he joined Cairo University, and 1963 when he resigned his post as the head of the geography department, Hemdan established a new trend of the regional school in geography based on 'using every other science and art in sourcing the work, but the literary product must be only geography'. In 1958 he was awarded the Egyptian State Prize for Science for his book Studying the Arab World, emphasising Egypt's role in the geographical region. His chapter 'Land Investment in Arid Zones' in a book edited by Sir Dudley Stamp in 1963, became a standard text on the economics of land- reclamation projects, and his long essay 'The Strategies of Colonialism and of Liberation Movements' (1968) a guide to Arab nationalists of anti-colonial persuasion. His death interrupted another encyclopaedic work on the geography of Islam which he had started researching in 1988.

But Hemdan was also a lonely figure who preferred isolation and solitude. He lived and died a bachelor. A mixture of his own paranoia and a deep contempt for the 'underqualified newcomers' to academe lay behind his decision to resign his professorship in 1963 and live in isolation in a small flat. Radio formed his only contact with the outside world as he loathed television and publicity, although he gave lectures and talks from time to time and contributed to several intellectual journals and the quality press.