A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, by Amelia B. Edwards: Preface


by Amelia Edwards

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FIRST published in 1877, this book has been out of print for several years. I have therefore very gladly revised it for a new and cheaper edition. In so revising it, I have corrected some of the historical notes by the light of later discoveries ; but I have left the narrative untouched. Of the political changes which have come over the land of Egypt since that narrative was written, I have taken no note ; and because I in no sense offer myself as a guide to others, I say nothing of the altered conditions under which most Nile travellers now perform the trip. All these things will be more satisfactorily, and more practically, learned from the pages of Baedeker and Murray.


WESTBURY-ON-THYM, October 1888.


"Un voyage en gypte, c'est une partie d'nes et une promenade en bateau entremles de ruines."--AMPRE.

AMPRE has put Egypt in an epigram. "A donkey-ride and a boating-trip interspersed with ruins" does, in fact, sum up in a single line the whole experience of the Nile traveller. propos of these three things--the donkeys, the boat, and the ruins--it may be said that a good English saddle and a comfortable dahabeeyah add very considerably to the pleasure of the journey ; and that the more one knows about the past history of the country, the more one enjoys the ruins.

Of the comparative merits of wooden boats, iron boats, and steamers, I am not qualified to speak. We, however, saw one iron dahabeeyah aground upon a sandbank, where, as we afterwards learned, it remained for three weeks. We also saw the wrecks of three steamers between Cairo and the First Cataract. It certainly seemed to us that the old-fashioned wooden dahabeeyah--flat-bottomed, drawing little water, light in hand, and easily poled off when stuck--was the one vessel best constructed for the navigation of the Nile. Other considerations, as time and cost, are, of course, involved in this question. The choice between dahabeeyah and steamer is like the choice between travelling with post-horses and travelling by rail. The one is expensive, leisurely, delightful ; the other is cheap, swift, and comparatively comfortless. Those who are content to snatch but a glimpse of the Nile will doubtless prefer the steamer. I may add that the whole cost of the Phil--food, dragoman's wages, boat-hire, cataract, everything included except wine--was about 10 per day.

With regard to temperature, we found it cool--even cold, sometimes--in December and January ; mild in February ; very warm in March and April. The climate of Nubia is simply perfect. It never rains ; and once past the limit of the tropic, there is no morning or evening chill upon the air. Yet even in Nubia, and especially along the forty miles which divide Abou Simbel from Wady Halfeh, it is cold when the wind blows strongly from the north.1

Touching the title of this book, it may be objected that the distance from the port of Alexandria to the Second Cataract falls short of a thousand miles. It is, in fact, calculated at 964 miles. But from the Rock of Abusir, five miles above Wady Halfeh, the traveller looks over an extent of country far exceeding the thirty or thirty-five miles necessary to make up the full tale of a thousand. We distinctly saw from this point the summits of mountains which lie about 145 miles to the southward of Wady Halfeh, and which look down upon the Third Cataract.

Perhaps I ought to say something in answer to the repeated inquiries of those who looked for the publication of this volume a year ago. I can, however, only reply that the Writer, instead of giving one year, has given two years to the work. To write rapidly about Egypt is impossible. The subject grows with the book, and with the knowledge one acquires by the way. It is, moreover, a subject beset with such obstacles as must impede even the swiftest pen ; and to that swiftest pen I lay no claim. Moreover the writer, who seeks to be accurate, has frequently to go for his facts, if not actually to original sources (which would be the texts themselves), at all events to translations and commentaries locked up in costly folios, or dispersed far and wide among the pages of scientific journals and the transactions of learned societies. A date, a name, a passing reference, may cost hours of seeking. To revise so large a number of illustrations, and to design tailpieces from jottings taken here and there in that pocket sketch-book which is the sketcher's constant companion, has also consumed no small amount of time. This by way of apology.

More pleasant is it to remember labor lightened than to consider time spent ; and I have yet to thank the friends who have spared no pains to help this book on its way. To S. Birch, Esq., LL.D., etc. etc., so justly styled "the Parent in this country of a sound school of Egyptian philology," who besides translating the hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions contained in chapter xviii., has also, with infinite kindness, seen the whole of that chapter through the press ; to Reginald Stuart Poole, Esq. ; to Professor R. Owen, C.B., etc. etc. ; to Sir G. W. Cox, I desire to offer my hearty and grateful acknowledgments. It is surely not least among the glories of learning, that those who adorn it most and work hardest should ever be readiest to share the stores of their knowledge.

I am anxious also to express my cordial thanks to Mr. G. Pearson, under whose superintendence the whole of the illustrations have been engraved. To say that his patience and courtesy have been inexhaustible, and that he has spared neither time nor cost in the preparation of the blocks, is but a dry statement of facts, and conveys no idea of the kind of labour involved. Where engravings of this kind are executed, not from drawings made at first-hand upon the wood, but from water-colour drawings which have not only to be reduced in size, but to be, as it were, translated into black and white, the difficulty of the work is largely increased. In order to meet this difficulty and to ensure accuracy, Mr. Pearson has not only called in the services of accomplished draughtsmen, but in many instances has even photographed the subjects direct upon the wood. Of the engraver's work--which speaks for itself--I will only say that I do not know in what way it could be bettered. It seems to me that some of these blocks may stand for examples of the farthest point to which the art of engraving upon wood has yet been carried.

The principal illustrations have all been drawn upon the wood by Mr. Percival Skelton ; and no one so fully as myself can appreciate how much the subjects owe to the delicacy of his pencil, and to the artistic feelings with which he has interpreted the original drawings.

Of the fascination of Egyptian travel, of the charm of the Nile, of the unexpected and surpassing beauty of the desert, of the ruins which are the wonder of the world, I have said enough elsewhere. I must, however, add that I brought home with me an impression that things and people are much less changed in Egypt than we of the present day are wont to suppose. I believe that the physique and life of the modern Fellh is almost identical with the physique and life of that ancient Egyptian laborer whom we know so well in the wall paintings of the tombs. Square in the shoulders, slight but strong in the limbs, full-lipped, brown-skinned, we see him wearing the same loin-cloth, plying the same shdf, ploughing with the same plough, preparing the same food in the same way, and eating it with his fingers from the same bowl, as did his forefathers of six thousand years ago.

The household life and social ways of even the provincial gentry are little changed. Water is poured on one's hands before going to dinner from just such a ewer and into just such a basin as we see pictured in the festival-scenes at Thebes. Though the lotus-blossom is missing, a bouquet is still given to each guest when he takes his place at table. The head of the sheep killed for the banquet is still given to the poor. Those who are helped to meat or drink touch the head and breast in acknowledgment, as of old. The musicians still sit at the lower end of the hall ; the singers yet clap their hands in time to their own voices ; the dancing-girls still dance, and the buffoon in his high cap still performs uncouth antics, for the entertainment of the guests. Water is brought to table in jars of the same shape manufactured at the same town, as in the days of Cheops and Chephren ; and the mouths of the bottles are filled in precisely the same way with fresh leaves and flowers. The cucumber stuffed with minced-meat was a favorite dish in those times of old ; and I can testify to its excellence in 1874. Little boys in Nubia yet wear the side-lock that graced the head of Rameses in his youth ; and little girls may be seen in a garment closely resembling the girdle worn by young princesses of the time of Thethmes the First. A Sheykh still walks with a long staff ; a Nubian belle still plaits her tresses in scores of little tails ; and the pleasure-boat of the modern Governor or Mudir, as well as the dahabeeyah hired by the European traveller, reproduces in all essential features the painted galleys represented in the tombs of the kings.

In these and in a hundred other instances, all of which came under my personal observation and have their place in the following pages, it seemed to me that any obscurity which yet hangs over the problem of life and thought in ancient Egypt originates most probably with ourselves. Our own habits of life and thought are so complex that they shut us off from the simplicity of that early world. So it was with the problem of hieroglyphic writing. The thing was so obvious that no one could find it out. As long as the world persisted in believing that every hieroglyph was an abstruse symbol, and every hieroglyphic inscription a profound philosophical rebus, the mystery of Egyptian literature remained insoluble. Then at last came Champollion's famous letter to Dacier, showing that the hieroglyphic signs were mainly alphabetic and syllabic, and that the language they spelt was only Coptic after all.

If there were not thousands who still conceive that the sun and moon were created, and are kept going, for no other purpose than to lighten the darkness of our little planet ; if only the other day a grave gentleman had not written a perfectly serious essay to show that the world is a flat plain, one would scarcely believe that there could still be people who doubt that ancient Egyptian is now read and translated as fluently as ancient Greek. Yet an Englishman whom I met in Egypt--an Englishman who had long been resident in Cairo, and who was well acquainted with the great Egyptologists who are attached to the service of the Khedive--assured me of his profound disbelief in the discovery of Champollion. "In my opinion," said he, "not one of these gentlemen can read a line of hieroglyphics."

As I then knew nothing of Egyptian, I could say nothing to controvert this speech. Since that time, however, and while writing this book, I have been led on step by step to the study of hieroglyphic writing, and I now know that Egyptian can be read, for the simple reason that I find myself able to read an Egyptian sentence.

My testimony may not be of much value ; but I give it for the little that it is worth.

The study of Egyptian literature has advanced of late years with rapid strides. Papyri are found less frequently than they were some thirty or forty years ago ; but the translation of those contained in the museums of Europe goes on now more diligently than at any former time. Religious books, variants of the Ritual, moral essays, maxims, private letters, hymns, epic poems, historical chronicles, accounts, deeds of sale, medical, magical and astronomical treatises, geographical records, travels, and even romances and tales, are brought to light, photographed, facsimiled in chromo-lithography, printed in hieroglyphic type, and translated in forms suited both to the learned and to the general reader.

Not all this literature is written, however, on papyrus. The greater proportion of it is carved in stone. Some is painted on wood, written on linen, leather, potsherds, and other substances. So the old mystery of Egypt, which was her literature, has vanished. The key to the hieroglyphs is the master-key that opens every door. Each year that now passes over our heads sees some old problem solved. Each day brings some long-buried truth to light.


Everyone must interpret for himself
The Secret of The Sphinx.

Some thirteen years ago,2 a distinguished American artist painted a very beautiful pictured called The Secret of the Sphinx. In its widest sense, the Secret of the Sphinx would mean, I suppose, the whole uninterpreted and undiscovered past of Egypt. In its narrower sense, the Secret of the Sphinx was, till quite lately, the hidden significance of the human-headed lion which is one of the typical subjects of Egyptian Art.

Thirteen years is a short time to look back upon ; yet great things have been done in Egypt, and in Egyptology, since then. Edf, with its extraordinary wealth of inscriptions, has been laid bare. The whole contents of the Boulak Museum have been recovered from the darkness of the tombs. The very mystery of the Sphinx has been disclosed ; and even within the last eighteen months, M. Chabas announces that he has discoverred the date of the pyramid of Mycerinus ; so for the first time establishing the chronology of ancient Egypt upon an ascertained foundation. Thus the work goes on ; students in their libraries, excavators under Egyptian skies, toiling along different paths towards a common goal. The picture means more to-day than it meant thirteen years ago--means more, even, than the artist intended. The Sphinx has no secret now, save for the ignorant.

In this picture, we see a brown, half-naked, toil-worn Fellh laying his ear to the stone lips of a colossal Sphinx, buried to the neck in sand. Some instinct of the old Egyptian blood tells him that the creature is God-like. He is conscious of a great mystery lying far back in the past. He has, perhaps, a dim, confused notion that the Big Head knows it all, whatever it may be. He has never heard of the morning-song of Memnon ; but he fancies, somehow, that those closed lips might speak if questioned. Fellh and Sphinx are alone together in the desert. It is night, and the stars are shining. Has he chosen the right hour? What does he seek to know? What does he hope to hear?

Mr. Vedder has permitted me to enrich this book with an engraving from his picture. It tells its own tale ; or rather it tells as much of its own tale as the artist chooses.



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1 For the benefit of any who desire more exact information, I may add that a table of average temperatures, carefully registered day by day and week by week, is to be found at the end of Mr. H. Villiers Stuart's "Nile Gleanings." [Note to Second Edition.]

2 These dates, it is to be remembered, refer to the year 1877, when the first edition of this book was published. [Note to Second Edition.]