A Brief History of Early Travelers to Egypt
By Marie Parsons
Part One: Early Eyewitnesses
Today visitors can tour Egypt by car, by camel, by felucca, along the Nile and to the Pyramids. But modern humanity is not the first to marvel at the wonders of the monuments and significant sites of Egypt. The first non-Egyptian essays about Egyptian history and culture were not written this century or in the preceding two centuries. Modern, Western man is a latecomer into Egypt.
Greek and Roman writers traveled through Egypt and left not only their marks on monuments such as the colossal statues at Luxor, but detailed accounts of customs, practices, religious beliefs and cult organizations. These writers included Herodotus, who visited in about 450-440 BCE. He wrote, "The Nile is the Gift of Osiris, but Egypt is the gift of the Nile." He recorded descriptions of Egyptian festivals and customs, admitting, however, that much of what he recorded was told to him by priests or local "tour guides." He left what is perhaps the only full account of mummification. Much of what he reported has colored how later people in the west viewed Egyptian culture. It might be well to keep in mind that when Herodotus visited Egypt, Persia had conquered it and governed it. Egyptians were not in power in Egypt at that time.
Diodorus, in 60-56 BCE, when Rome was a great power in the region and after Egyptian gods had moved west into Greece and the Italian peninsula, was more credulous than Herodotus. He more readily accepted tales told him by Egyptians, including for example that rats were born of the Nile mud. He also noted that the Egyptians were so reverent of sacred animals that the Egyptians would eat each other in time of famine rather than eat an animal.
Strabo, 25-19 BCE, devoted an entire book of his Geographia, the 17th, to Egypt He traveled on the Nile to Philae and described the nilometer. He commented with regard to festivals that there were "revelers who play the flute and dance without restraint and with extreme licentiousness" Though he found that many of the monuments were already becoming buried under the drifting sands, his information was so clear that Mariette used it later to discover the temple and tombs of the Apis Bulls at Saqqara near Memphis.
Plutarch visited Egypt at the end of the 1st century ACE. He wrote biographies of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, described the significance of scarabs to the Egyptians, and left an account of the story of Isis and Horus that forms the basis of how that myth is viewed today. Plutarch took his primary material for Osiris and Isis from the volumes Manetho, a priest who lived in Hellenistic times in the Delta region, had written.
The Roman Emperor Germanicus went in 19 BCE to Egypt to see its monuments for himself. Thanks to an old priest who translated the hieroglyphics into Latin and Greek, and thanks to Tacitus who recorded that priests remarks, we can read the tribute-list of the subject lands: the weights of gold and silver, number of weapons and horses, temple-offerings of ivory and spices and other materials contributed by every country.
After Cleopatras death in 30 BCE, Egypt became a province of the Rome and then the Byzantine Empires. Egypt became Christian and then Islamic, when the Arabs conquered it in 642 ACE. The arrival of the Arabs marked a change in attitude toward ancient Egypt. No longer were mere eyewitness accounts recorded. Knowledge was now sought; knowledge, and the acquiring of actual objects, now motivated travelers.
Egypt the World of the Pharaohs edited by Schulz and Seidel
Secrets of the Pharaohs by Ian MacMahan
The Search for Ancient Egypt by Jean Vercoutter
The World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson