Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Jurisdictional Borderlands: Extraterritoriality and “Legal Chameleons” in Precolonial Alexandria, 1840–1870

Ziad Fahmy 

Cornell University


This essay highlights the role of thousands of nineteenth-century Alexandrian residents with multiple extraterritorial legal identities. The manner with which extraterritoriality was practiced in Egypt effectively gave Western consulates legal jurisdiction not only over their citizens but also over all those able, through whatever means, to acquire protégé status. Many Alexandrians acquired legal protection from multiple consulates, shifting their legal identities in order to maximize their immediate social and economic interests. These legal realities present historians with the dilemma of how to account for and “classify” this highly flexible and syncretic society. I strive to answer this question through the use of a borderland lens. Realizing that the heart of Egypt's borderland society was legal has led me to consider the concept of “jurisdictional borderland” as a productive method for examining the complexity of Egypt's nineteenth-century heterogeneous population. I define a jurisdictional borderland as a significant contact zone where there are multiple, often competing legal authorities and where some level of jurisdictional ambiguity exists. Jurisdictional borderlanders have their own unique and independent agenda that often conflicts with many of the competing “national” or imperial positions. Without an allegiance to any single government—be it Egyptian, Ottoman, or Western—and living in a peripheral environment with multiple, separate, and often competing “national” institutions, these borderlanders thrived in the jurisdictional spaces created in between multiple authorities. I conclude by suggesting how a jurisdictional borderland lens is useful for globally investigating other colonial and precolonial cities, many of which had similar extraterritorial legal systems.



  Many colleagues and friends offered advice and support in the development of the project from which this article emerged. In particular I would like to thank, Linda T. Darling, Deborah Starr, Julia Clancy-Smith, Oscar J. Martinez, Michael J. Reimer, and Kaila Bussert for reading and critiquing earlier versions of this text. I would also like to thank fellow members of the 2008–2009 Debary Interdisciplinary Mellon Writing Group at Cornell University. I am grateful to Andrew Shryock, David Akin, the CSSH editorial team, and the anonymous CSSH reviewers for their assistance and critical comments in the drafting of this article.