An intrepid journey from England to Egypt in 1842

15 July 2012

I’m having a lot of fun researching and tentatively putting together a chapter plan for my new novels which I can now tell you are a series of whodunnits set in the 1840s with a well known female sleuth. Well, I say ‘well known’ when actually her son is the celebrity of the family but I’m not saying anything else in case it all goes wrong. Oh what the hell, I’ve already said too much – her name is Miss Catherine Sherlock.

The first book in the series is set in Cairo in 1842, which is around the time that European travellers began to head to Egypt in search of a healthy climate (the all year around warmth of Egypt was considered highly beneficial to invalids) and antiquities. It would take a few more decades before tourism really kicked off in Egypt with the construction of opulent hotels, railways and steamers down the Nile from Cairo to Luxor but there was still a buzz in the air in the 1840s as evidenced by the opening in 1841 of the iconic Shepheards Hotel, which was then known as the Hotel des Anglais or simply Hill’s after its owner, a Mr Hill and was the centre of European life in Cairo at that time and beyond.

I was really pleased to come across an 1847 guidebook to Egypt for European travellers which had been placed online and this has given a HUGE boost to my research as the writer goes into quite extraordinary detail for the benefit of his readers. I was having trouble finding out how, precisely, an 1840s Victorian lady and her Egyptology mad brother would have travelled from England to Cairo but now I need wonder no more as there was more than one route that they could have taken – either by steamer from Southampton to Malta or Gibraltar and then on to Alexandria or by a more direct route.

For the sake of my novel, I have opted for the direct route which was run by the fabulously named The Peninsular and Oriental Company and would have cost the princely sum of around £27. Their 1,500 tonne and 450 horse power steamers left Southampton on the twentieth of every month at 2pm and called in at Gibraltar and Malta (where it picked up the mail which was brought from Marseilles by official Royal steamers) before continuing on to Alexandria. The entire journey took sixteen days.

There were various hotels in Alexandria at this time: Reys, L’Hotel d’Europe, Coulombs and L’Hotel d’Orient. Reys was the favoured hotel of English travellers, where a room would cost 40 piastres a day. The food were are told was good and the landlord and servants ‘civil’. You could also hire servants in Alexandria to take on with you into Egypt.

From Alexandria, passengers then took large boats down the Mahmoodeh Canal to Atfeh and then changed on to a steamer to Boulak, the port attached to Cairo. The journey from Alexandria to Cairo cost 225-275 piastres and took around 30 hours. You could then either opt to remain in Cairo or continue on to Suez and thence on to India or China as this was the main route east. The journey from Alexandria to Suez took just sixty hours, which included a night in Cairo.

The return route went along similarly orderly lines, however travellers returning from the east were required to undergo a period of quarantine if they changed ships at Malta, which lasted for nineteen days and was designed to prevent bringing infectious diseases back to Europe. The traveller’s guide I am reading assures its readers though that they will be able to reside in every comfort and there is even a trattoria set up in the quarantine area for their meals. More fortunate travellers who went direct from Alexandria to Southampton did not have to endure quarantine.

Although most of my action takes place in a hotel in Cairo, I also want my heroine to take a trip down the Nile to see the wonders of Luxor, which was then known as Thebes. In 1847, the writer of the traveller’s guide pondered wistfully on the idea of steamers travelling down the Nile from Cairo to Thebes but at that time such a thing did not exist so instead intrepid Victorian explorers had to hire boats such as a dehabeeh or a cangia if they wanted to see the sights. The trip from Cairo to Thebes took twenty days by boat, depending on favourability of the elements and we are told that a round trip on from Thebes to the Second Cataract would take a fortnight. Solitary travellers are recommended to borrow a rowing boat for the return trip from Thebes to Cairo, which would apparently take eight days if they relied on their own travails.

The writer of the traveller’s guide recommended three months to be able to see the wonders of the Nile in 1847 and suggested that £80 was enough money to keep a lone traveller in sufficient comfort during that time. Lists are provided of useful items that should be bought in Malta or Alexandria, such as iron rat traps and zemzemeeh (leather water bottles). One important item though was a medicine chest:

In his medicine chest, the most necessary things for a traveller are, scales, and liquid-measure, lancet, diachylon and blistering plaster, lint, salts, rhubarb, cream of tartar, ipecacuanha, sulphate of bark or quinine, James’s and Dover’s powders, calomel, laudanum or morphine, sugar of lead, sulphate of zinc, nitrate of silver, and sulphate of copper (these 4 being of great use in ophthalmia), nitre, oil of peppermint, and other common medicines. They had better be brought from Europe, though they may be had in Alexandria or Cairo. Powders and other medicines should be put into bottles, well closed with glass stoppers.

There are also suggestions of suitable books to bring along for the trip: ‘The choice of a library (which cannot be collected in Egypt) will, of course, depend on the occupations or taste of each person: I shall therefore only recommend the most useful works, as vols. ii. and iii. of Larcher’s Herodotus; Champollion’s Phonetic System of Hieroglyphics, Letters, and Grammar; Pococke; Denon; Hamilton’s Ægyptiaca; Savary’s Letters;
Clot Bey’s Aperçu Générale de l’Egypte; Gliddon on the Hieroglyphics; Mengin’s “Egypte sous Mohammed Aly;” Robinson’s Palestine and Mount Sinai; Lane’s Modern, and Wilkinson’s Ancient, Egyptians; Hoskins’s Ethiopia, and Visit to the Great Oasis; Colonel Leake’s, Lapie’s, or Wilkinson’s Map of Egypt; Captain Smyth’s Alexandria; Wilkinson’s Survey of Thebes; Costa’s Delta; and Parke and Scoles’s Nubia; to which may be added Burckhardt, Laborde’s Petra, Ptolemy, Strabo, and Pliny; but of these three last, as well as Diodorus, extracts will suffice, if considered too voluminous.

There then follows some words of wisdom about how to comport oneself in Egyptian climes:

In winter, it is unnecessary to make any change in the mode of living from that usually adopted in Europe; and most persons, unless they commit excesses, may eat whatever they are accustomed to in other countries. In
the summer months it is, however, better to avoid much wine or spirits, as they tend to heat the blood; and cause the hot weather to be more sensibly felt; and some (though I may say, very few) will find that fish (chiefly those without scales), eggs, and unboiled milk, do not always agree with them. Bathing in the Nile is by no means prejudicial in the morning and evening; and, except in the neighbourhood of sandbanks, there is no fear of crocodiles. Fruit and vegetables are wholesome and cooling, and mutton is better than beef. The fish of the Nile are not very good; the booltee and ḵisher are perhaps the best.

If the traveller inquires whether the Oriental dress be necessary, I answer, it is by no means so; and a person wearing it, who is ignorant of the language, becomes ridiculous. One remark, however, I must be allowed to make on dress in that country — that a person is never respected who is badly dressed, of whatever kind the costume may be, and nowhere is exterior appearance so much thought of as in the East.

The best money to take to Egypt is English sovereigns, or Spanish and Austrian dollars. It is also necessary to have bills on London. They may be drawn either at Alexandria or Cairo; but it must be remembered that no
money is to be obtained in Upper Egypt, and the traveller must take all he wants for his journey, before he leaves Cairo. He should also provide himself with a sufficient quantity of piastres, 20, 10, and 5 para pieces, as in buying fowls or other things in the villages, his servants will not always find change for larger coins; it is not convenient to be delayed, until a poor peasant can search for it; and many object to taking gold, even of the country, from the natural fear of losing it, or of suffering from some change in its value.

There is only one Foreign post-office in Egypt, which is at Alexandria. Letters to England (which need not be prepaid) can be sent to Alexandria, and forwarded without difficulty; but those for Malta and other parts of the Mediterranean, which require the postage to be paid, must be sent to someone in Alexandria, who will pay them there, as this cannot be done at Cairo.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel RARING TO GO.

Once the traveller arrived in Cairo, board at Hill’s cost around 40 piastres a day and champagne could be bought for the same amount a bottle. Hurray. They don’t appear to have GIN on their alcohol list, alas but rum was 15 piastres a bottle. If staying in a hotel didn’t take your fancy, you could also hire a house from about 30-120 piastres as well as servants for about 100 piastres a month each.

For entertainment there was what appears to have been a pretty ropey European theatre and also a couple of subscription libraries. There was also plenty of shopping to be had and we are informed that in Cairo in the 1840s buying a slave would cost 50-1000 piastres for a boy; 800-1000 piastres for a girl and 1000-1500 for a Eunuch. White slave boys and girls cost rather more with girls in particular being sold for up to 10,000 piastres. One wonders what English visitors to Cairo’s slave market made of this trade. Less controversial shopping could include rose water for 3 piastres a quart bottle; shelled almonds for 4 piastres; gold brocade dresses for 400 piastres; figs for 2 piastres; henna for 4-6 piastres and pearls for 100 piastres.

Really though, visitors to Cairo at this time were expected to either enjoy the climate or do some exploring of the ancient sites. You can guess which one Miss Sherlock opts for.

Understandably, the main attraction then as now was the prospect of a journey down the Nile from Cairo to Thebes, with a dahabeeh being the preferred mode of transport although maash and cangia were also recommended as all three had cabins. Travellers could hire large dahabeeh in 1842 for around 2000-3000 piastres for a month, which was ample time to make the journey to Thebes and back again, seeing all the sights as you went. You also had to pay for crew though, obviously which cost 100 piastres for a captain and 400 piastres to hire eight crew members at 50 piastres each. You’d also need a cook and kitchen boy.

I’ll stop there but I find it completely fascinating and also inspiring to read about the journeys that our intrepid forebears, and in particular the females, took. Up to now I’ve been too scared of flying to make the trip to Egypt myself, despite studying Egyptian art in much depth at university but I feel rather now shamed now by all this talk of steam ships and quarantine so we’re planning to take the boys to Luxor sometime next year.

I’m so excited about this new book though. I’ll let you know more when I’ve finished it!

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