Amelia Edwards went to Egypt in the winter of 1873-74. She was already known for her novels and for a much-anthologized story called “The Phantom Coach,” and she intended to write about this trip. But what she saw changed her life. She wrote this vivid memoir of a long trip in a hired dahabiyeh (houseboat) — a thousand miles up the northern part of the Nile, from Cairo to Abu Simbel and back, with her own hand-drawn illustrations — and it became a runaway best-seller. For the rest of her life (another twenty years) she abandoned her other literary work in order to concentrate on Egyptology. She founded the Egypt Exploration Fund and lectured tirelessly on its behalf, traveling all over Europe and the United States to raise funds. She told the story no one else had told, of the threat to monuments that had lasted six thousand years, because of modern tourism and the frantic industry in “antiques.” She advocated for research and preservation. And it all began with this book.
A Thousand Miles Up the Nile was written in 1887, and no photographic plates accompany it. All along, from the first days choosing and outfitting the boat, to the days gliding along the banks and observing everyday life along the agricultural Nile, to the days at the great pyramids, to the days at Karnak and Luxor and their magnificent temples, to the final destination and the weeks spent at Abu Simbel, we hang on Edwards’s every word. Her descriptions are sometimes serene snapshots of a quiet moment, and sometimes noisy, jostling little videos of a scene:
[At Philae] As the boat glides nearer between glistening bowlders, those sculptured towers rise higher and ever higher against the sky. They show no sign of ruin or of age. All is stately, solid, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air — if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the god were to come sweeping round between the palms and the pylons — we should not think it strange.
The [bazaar] with its little cupboard-like shops, in which the merchants sit cross-legged like shabby old idols in shabby old shrines — the ill-furnished shelves — the familiar Manchester goods — the gaudy native stuffs — the old red saddles and faded rugs hanging up for sale — the smart Greek shops where Bass ale, claret, curaçao, Cyprus, Vermouth, cheese, pickles, sardines, Worcester sauce, blacking, biscuits, preserved meats, candles, cigars, matches, sugar, salt, stationery, fire-works, jams, and patent medicines can all be bought at one fell swoop — the native cook’s shop exhaling savory perfumes of Kebabs and lentil soup, and presided over by an Abyssinian Soyer blacker than the blackest historical personage ever was painted — the surging, elbowing, clamorous crowd — the donkeys, the camels, the street-cries, the chatter, the dust, the flies, the fleas, and the dogs, all put us in mind of the poorer quarters of Cairo.
The passages that are devoted to Egyptian ruins could almost be called worshipful. Edwards gives us a clear-eyed vision of lofty pillars and serene colossi rising twenty-five, forty, fifty, seventy-five feet in the air. Stripes of color often as brilliant as the day they were painted: golden stars studding a pure cobalt sky, crimson, ultramarine, olive green. Murals of a king’s everyday life as it was lived two, or three, or six thousand years ago; time unrolling like a scroll. Hieroglyphics that explain that businesslike world, its taxes, its foremen, its serfs, and most of all, its powerful vision of the gods and the afterlife — a vision that could call forth creations that we still wonder at today. She calls that world forth with knowledge, skill, beauty, and reverence.
But when it comes to present-day Egypt (or rather, Egypt of 1877, under British rule) Edwards is not so kind. Her casual, cheerful, and absolutely universal racism is more than troubling, and it pervades every chapter:
The fact is, however, that the fellâh is half a savage. Notwithstanding his mendacity (and it must be owned that he is the most brilliant liar under heaven), he remains a singularly transparent piece of humanity, easily amused, easily deceived, easily angered, easily pacified. He steals a little, cheats a little lies a great deal; but on the other hand he is patient, hospitable, affectionate, trustful. He suspects no malice and bears none. He commits no great crimes. He is incapable of revenge.
Though I will say that she is at least an equal opportunity racist (at one point she refers to the people of Minieh as “the most unappeasable beggars out of Ireland”) it is unpleasant, to say the least, to read her unflappable judgments of Arabs (simple, cheats, liars) Nubians (hideous savages) modern Egyptians (happy savages) Abyssinians (handsome, but savages) and so forth. There is one truly horrible incident in which one of Edwards’s travel companions accidentally (non-fatally) shoots an Egyptian child instead of a pheasant, and then the entire nearby village — most of them innocent — is punished (only mildly, at the companion’s request) for shouting and throwing stones at him afterward. The companion, who is not so much as reprimanded for shooting near a village, wants the villagers to know that they must “respect travelers,” and the villagers weep with relief that the punishment is not worse. The scene is presented as local color, but it made me feel rather sick. While of course Edwards was a product of her own imperialist and colonialist age, it’s important to remember that a number of people writing at this precise time were anti-imperialist, and had a strong sense of others — whatever their race — as individual human beings with real inner lives.
I had genuinely mixed feelings about this book. I truly enjoyed the trip up the Nile (indeed, I kept my computer near me for maps and photos) and admired Amelia Edwards for her courage, dash, and aplomb in the face of what was quite a dangerous voyage. I also appreciated her vision for the nascent study of Egyptology, since without her and people like her, it’s likely we would have little or nothing left to see. Yet the infuriating insistence that anyone not British deserved their national fate, was hard for me to swallow. She couldn’t see the irony in passionately defending Egyptian ruins from plunder, and at the same time praising the British Museum, or indeed having a collection of her own to take home. She couldn’t condemn a system that prized an English shooter over an Egyptian victim. She couldn’t see the absurdity in criticizing ancient Egyptian taste! Still, overall, this book was worth reading, and it is certainly a piece of its time borne forth in aspic.
Incidentally, I think Amelia Edwards was the inspiration for Amelia Peabody, a series I haven’t read. I hear I should!