The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: At the Cataract Hotel, Asswan

Today we rejoin our anonymous female diarist as she journeys down the Nile in the winter of 1914-1915. You can read previous installments of this series here (introduction), here (Cairo to Aysut), here (Aysut to Asswan), here (Asswan to Abu Simbel), and here (Wadi Halfa to Asswan).



Image from Cook’s Handbook for Egypt and Egyptian Sudan (1911), p. 723.


Having returned to Asswan and checked into the Cataract Hotel -- a luxury hotel for foreign travelers -- our anonymous diarist settles into a daily routine in the days before the Christian holidays. No longer constantly moving from location to location, our diarist’s daily routines still revolve around sightseeing, shopping, and socializing with fellow travelers.


Dec. 16. A.M. Went to bazar; bought [kimono?] & Miss. M. a blue stone. Also got post-cards. P.M. took a walk up on the hills of the desert beyond hotel & got fine view of the first cataract. Could see to the dam. Got back for sunset & watched it from terrace. Talking with the Brown’s [sic]. Wrote before dinner.

Dec. 17. A.M.Went to bazar again; bought some beads, cards, etc., & saw many pretty things in [illegible word] shop. P.M. had a shampoo, then went over to Hotel Lobby & had tea, but missed the sunset.

Dec. 18 A.M. Went to shops, I bought India scarf. P.M. took a boat and went over to the rock tombs first, then to Convent of St. Simeon & sailed about a little after-wards, getting back at 6.15.

Dec. 19. Took donkeys & rode out to granite quarries on the desert to see statue of Ramses laying in the sand. A 2 hour trip. P.M. Did some writing then at 4 we went out & walked up on the hill by the fort to see sunset. Wrote before dinner.

Dec. 20. Went to bazar for last time & bought some more charms & a few little things. P.M. tried to walk out along the road to Hotel [illegible] Palace but came to end of it & had to turn around. Sat on a seat in the Public Gardens & watched the sunset. In evening there was a small dance.


A contemporary description of the Monastery of St. Simeon, written for a tourist population, can be found in the 1911 Cook’s travel guide to Egypt:


On the western bank of the Nile, at about the same height as the southern point of the Island of Elephantine, begins the valley which leads to the monastery called after the name of Saint Simon, or Simeon. It is a large, strong building, half monastery, half fortress, and is said to have been abandoned by the monks in the thirteenth century, but the statement lacks confirmation; architecturally it is of very considerable interest. It was wholly surrounded by a wall from about 19 to 23 feet high, the lower part, which was sunk in the rock, being built of stone, and the upper part of mud brick; within this wall lay all the monastery buildings. (730)


You can read the full description in Cook’s Handbook for Egypt and the Egyptian Sudan (1911)   online at The Internet Archive.

In our next installment, we will get a glimpse of how our traveler celebrated Christmas far from home.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

As we hurtle toward October and a full month of programming, we start to increase the offerings a bit this week. 

First up, stop by on Wednesday, 23 September, for a Brown Bag Lunch talk with Ben Vine of the University of Sydney. Join us at noon for "Class and War in Revolutionary Boston, 1776-80," a talk that considers the state of class relations in Boston while the town was dealing with the trials of the Revolutionary War and explores how reconceptualizing class can illuminate greater complexities in the relations among Boston's classes during the period. This talk is free and open to the public. 

Also on Wednesday is a public author talk. Please consider joining us for "Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana, Jr." In 1834, Dana left Harvard on a maritime journey to California as a common seaman and witnessed brutal floggings and other injustices on board. His account of the journey, "Two Years Before the Mast," became an American classic. In "Slavish Shore," author Jeffrey Amestoy, Harvard Kennedy School, tells the story of Dana's unflagging determination to keep his vow to combat injustice in the face of nineteenth-century America's most exclusive establishment: the Boston society in which he was born and bred. This talk is open to the public with a $20 fee (no charge for Fellows and Members). Registration is required, so please RSVP. There is a pre-talk reception beginning at 5:30PM with the talk beginning at 6:00PM.

And on Thursday, 23 September, all graduate students in American History and related subjects are invited to attend the MHS' Graduate Student Reception. Attendees can enjoy refreshments, tour the various departments of the MHS, and learn about the range of resoruces available to support their work, including MHS fellowship programs. Refreshments and networking begin at 6:00PM and run throughout the evening. The program begins at 6:30PM. No charge to attend but RSVP is required by September 23. Email or phone 617-646-0568 with your name and affiliation. Indicate whether you are a graduate student or faculty member.





comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 8:18 AM

Making History: Boston's Bicentennial

On September 17, 1830, Boston celebrated the bicentennial of its settlement. Such a noteworthy occasion would hardly be complete without the presence of one of the state’s leading families, particularly a former president. Thus, John Quincy Adams was invited to participate in the commemoration events held in Boston that day. Before meeting with the other members of the parade at the State House, John stopped by to see if his son Charles Francis Adams was in his Boston office and would join him. Charles, however, was not there but at his home in Medford. He reported in his diary entry for the day, “As this was the day destined for the Celebration of the Anniversary of the settlement of Boston, and about to produce a tremendous consequent fuss I thought it would be expedient for me to have nothing whatever to do with it. I have a great horror of Crowds, and if I make up my mind to attend public days always have cause to repent it.”

A grand procession of city and state officials as well as Boston residents marched through Boston Common and down Tremont and State Street to Old South Church. There the President of Harvard University and former Boston mayor, Josiah Quincy III, gave an oration that John Quincy Adams considered, “worthy of the subject and received with universal approbation” and a number of songs were sung in celebration of the city. The music included a rewrite of Great Britain’s “God Save the King” with new lyrics by Rev. John Pierpont and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The group processed back to the State House. That evening, fireworks were set off over the common and John Quincy attended a party hosted by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Winthrop.

The momentous occasion also included the first hints of a historic event on the horizon—Adams’s election to the House of Representatives. Before returning to Quincy for the evening, a number of gentlemen at the party approached Adams to discuss an article which ran in the September 6, 1830 issue of the Boston Courier, which suggested that Adams be nominated for the Plymouth congressional district of which Quincy was a part. John Quincy was initially dismissive of the idea: “As the Editor of the Paper has been uniformly hostile to me, I supposed this nomination was made with the same Spirit, and did not imagine it was seriously thought of by any one.” Serious it was though, and two months later, President John Quincy Adams was representative-elect Adams—the first and only president to serve in Congress after his presidency.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is a quiet week here at the Society as far as programs go, with only two items on the calendar. 

First up, on Thursday, 17 September, is a talk given by author and historian Joseph Ellis of Williams College. In this Pauline Maier Memorial Lecture, Ellis discusses his book The Quartet. The talk is open to the public with a fee of $20 (no charge for Fellows and Members). There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. NOTE: This program will take place at MIT's Wong Auditorium at the intersection of Amherst and Wadsworth Streets in Cambridge (map). This is a four minute walk from the Kendall Square MBTA station or there is street parking along Memorial Drive and a parking garage at the Marriot Hotel in Kendall Square. 

And on Saturday, 19 September, is the next installment of "Begin at the Beginning: Boston's Founding Documents," a program sponsored by the Partnership of Historic Bostons discussion group. This time around, the group discusses "What's in a Name: From Boston, Lincolnshire to Boston, Massachusetts." The illustrated presentation and discussion of readings is led by independent scholar and author Neil Wright of Lincolnshire, England, a member of hte Partnership of Historic Bostons. The talk begins on 1:00PM here at the MHS. Registration is required at no cost, so please RSVP.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

To Speak With the Hand -- To Hear With the Eye.

The breadth of foreign-language materials in our collections often surprises me; we have English and French language conversation primers written in Italian, proverbs in Hebrew and Latin, and Chinese grammar books written in German. So it should not have surprised me, although it did, to discover several fascinating 19th century broadsides and pamphlets on manual languages hidden within our collections as well.

Two broadsides, Single and Double Hand Alphabet (c. 1856) and Charles Parker’s New Manual Alphabets (1856) depict a variety of manual hand and body alphabets, including narrative descriptions of their intended uses, audiences, and histories.

Both items show slight variations on a single-handed alphabet, a double-handed alphabet, and the numbers 1-10.


Single-Handed Alphabet

Double-Handed Alphabet


Charles Parker’s New Manual Alphabets also includes “The Indian’s Lettered Hand,” and “The Signal Alphabet.”


The Indian’s Lettered Hand

The signal Alphabet


“The Signal Alphabet” in particular, which looks similar to flag semaphore, caught my eye. Created by C. W. Knudsen Esq. and Professor Isaac H. Benedict, a deaf-mute individual and teacher at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, it was derived from a more complex alphabet called the “Brachial Alphabet,” which was published in 1852 by a former Bostonian, Captain Robert Jenks.

“There are many occasions when it could be used with great advantage,” the broadside advertises, “as in the case of ship-wreck . . . on the farm . . . and on the battle field [sic].” I was amused to find these logical implementations followed by the far more outlandish suggestion that “a pleasing and profitable use may also be made of it in schools, as, by requiring the pupils to spell words in concert, the teacher can unite callisthenic [sic] exercises with practice in orthography.”



A pamphlet, entitled Language for the Hand and the Eye and dating to a decade after the broadsides, proposes similar benefits for hearing students.

It was a favorite idea of Dr. Gallaudet (the pioneer in the work of deaf mute education in this country,) that the use of the manual alphabet by hearing and speaking children, would prove highly advantageous, by leading their attention to the written form of words, thus aiding them greatly in forming the habit of spelling correctly.

The use of this alphabet is also a pleasant diversion to children. It is an entertainment to them to find that they can produce language in a new form. (7)



The audience for this particular pamphlet is clearly a hearing one. In the postscript of the text, the author, who is unnamed, addresses the reader directly:

Kind reader: -- Is there among your acquaintances a little one who has not the power of hearing and speaking -- a deaf mute child, unable to acquire this wonderful, beautiful power of language that we all acquire so readily by the ear? If you know of such an one, will you not try to aid the child by teaching it this alphabet, or by inducing the parents, or brothers and sisters, or friends of the little deaf mute to teach it early to use this form of language, and thus save it from unneccessary [sic] ignorance? (10)

The author’s final proclamation makes clear one of the most intriguing aspects of these sources: while they were distributed to propagate a language originally created by the Deaf community, they are directed at hearing individuals with the opinions of deaf individuals filtered through their re-telling by hearing doctors and educators, if they are even included at all.

While some acknowledgement is made of the variations in manual languages between regions, there is no mention of the broader range of formal sign languages to represent and communicate concrete and abstract thoughts beyond the creation of letters. Also omitted is any substantive mention of Deaf culture, or the first-hand account of communicating as a deaf individual.

In addition to these items on manual languages, the MHS also holds a variety of manuscript and print materials pertaining to the personal experience of deaf and mute individuals in New England, as well as educators and doctors who worked with, studied, and taught them. Interested researchers are encouraged to stop by during our open hours to view these, or any of our other collections in person.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 2:42 PM

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