The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Cairo to Aysut

As Boston digs out from yet another heavy snowfall this week, it warms my imagination to return to our anonymous journey up the Nile by steamship -- a pleasure cruise documented in the diaries of an anonymous American traveler during the winter of 1914-1915. Our diarist’s narrative begins shortly before Thanksgiving, as she and her travel companions board the steamer Egypt, likely in Cairo.

Nov. 25. Steamer Egypt, sailed at 10 a.m. & we went on board earlier with Mrs Phelps &  daughter also from our hotel. Had lunch early at 11.30 & right after started out on donkeys - first to site of ancient Memphis saw two statues of Ramses II lying down & a new sphinx discovered in the summer by Prof. Petrie. Then rode to steps pyramid of Sakkara on by Mariette’s house to tomb of Thi then the Serapheum with 24 sarcophagis. Got back to ship at 5:30 & had tea on deck.

Nov. 26. Saw beautiful sunrise from my window. Made no stops today, but several times stuck in the sand. Nothing of especial interest but very beautiful sunset with color on the water.

Nov. 27. Thanksgiving. Went on shore - soon after breakfast at Benihasan. Rode donkeys to  rock temple of Speos Artemidos, temple of Goddess Pekhet, then on further & climbed hill to tombs of Benihasan hewn in the rock. [...illegible phrase…] back just for lunch. On boat in p.m.

Nov. 28. Boat got stuck in forenoon & it took over two hours to get it started so made us later at Assuit. Had [...illegible phrase…] trek to get there & arrived about 4 p.m. Took donkeys & rode out through the town to a large rock  tomb of a Prince Hapzefai. Then on a hill & a fine view from there over Assuit then rode back through the bazars to ship in time for tea. Very dusty ride. Met “Arabia” at Assuit.

Nov. 29. Beautiful sunrise. Spent morning sewing in my room. Sailing all day.

Nov. 30. Boat got stuck on sand before ten & would not move for fully five hours. Dr. Hodson conducted services [...illegible phrase…] at 10:30. Did not land.

This initial week of entries sets the tone for our diarist’s record: We are appraised of distances covered and modes of transportation, the time and place of meals, details of the weather, and provided with a list of archeological sites visited. One of the most basic observations to make about our traveler’s account is that her encounter with Egypt is a highly curated on. In its record of ancient sites, her amateur travel narrative hews closely to a number of commercial guidebooks. The table of contents to Cook’s guidebook The Nile (1901) provides entries for most of the sites, and its description of the country isalmost entirely mediated by archeology and ancient history.

I find myself wondering, though, how our diarist’s narrative compares to published travel narratives, of which there were many, covering the same ground. In six weeks’ time we will take a comparative look at several such narratives, alongside the next seven daily entries from our own narrator.

Note: My rough-and-ready transcriptions of the diary entries are not authoritative; if you seek to use this source in your own work, I recommend contacting the MHS for reproductions of the original. Some English-language spellings of Arabic place-names have changed since 1914. I have retained the diarist’s spellings throughout.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 4 February, 2015, 12:00 AM


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