Journals 2.2 – Journal of Travels by G.E. Winants (Part 2)

The following is a continuation of my essay on Winants’s journal.  See the earlier entry from 30th May 2015 for the first part.

cologneAfter a very brief look at the ‘beautiful boulevards and promenades’ of Brussels, the next country Winants explored was Prussia. There he visited Cologne Cathedral, still under construction in 1867:

‘The chief object of interest in Cologne is its magnificent cathedral. This edifice was commenced in the year 1248, and is still unfinished. Its length is 500 feet; its width 230 feet; the height of its two towers about 230 feet; when finished it will cost about $7,000,000, and will be the largest edifice in northern Europe. There is a great contrast in the stone laid 700 years ago in this edifice to those being laid now; while those below are crumbling the upper ones look fresh.’

It would take another thirteen years after Winants’s visit to the Cathedral for the building to reach completion, well over six hundred years after construction began, although not quite the seven hundred years of Winants’s exaggeration or mathematical error. At the time of its completion it was the tallest building in the world.

Returning to France through Switzerland, Winants enjoyed a train journey through the picturesque countryside of the Rhine valley and Lake Geneva, observing that the ‘rich and magnificent scenery of the lake, and the Alps, with their white, variegated tops looming up in the clouds, cannot be adequately described.’ He also took the opportunity to reflect on the vanity of his fellow travellers who sought the accolade of conquering Mont Blanc:

‘To ascend its highest peak it requires two days of great fatigue. The ascent is never made without the assistance of some three or four guides, each of whom charges one hundred francs for his services, which would seem like a large price; and yet it is little enough for these poor fellows, who peril their lives to gratify a most unworthy curiousity.’

After a further three weeks of sightseeing and shopping in France, Winants secured a passage to Egypt on an English steamship, travelling via Malta. Weather conditions were not ideal for the voyage, with ‘a heavy sea, sweeping the decks and washing away the dinner-table, at which we were ready to sit down; also wetting many of the passengers.’ Two days of gales brought the ship to Malta to collect a fresh supply of coal. A day on the island allowed Winants to make his observations of the Maltese people:

‘They possess very lively passions and are tenacious in their opinions. They are Roman Catholics in their religion, and are generally ignorant and superstitious. The poorer class of the natives are nearly black, and go almost naked; they get their living mostly by fishing and waiting upon ships, carrying passengers to and from the ship to the shore. As we were being carried on shore, one of the passengers threw a small bit of silver into the sea alongside of the ship, when one of the natives sprang out from the boat and dived to the bottom and brought it up; this was repeated several times, and they never made a miss in bringing the money up.’

Arriving in Alexandria three days later, Winants experienced the same culture shock that greeted many a 19th Century traveller. He was ‘besieged by the Egyptians’ demanding backsheesh and was perplexed by the ‘naturally lazy’ character of the locals, and white veils of the women, ‘with two small holes in front to look through.’ Cairo impressed him even less, with its ‘narrow and crooked’ streets, that are ‘not paved, and are very filthy.’

‘The poorer class go almost naked, and are naturally idle, and of a dirty appearance. The narrow streets are literally filled with men, women, and children, old and young, lounging about, apparently doing nothing. They have no higher aspiration than to get enough to eat.’

Remaining in Egypt long enough only to travel to Cairo and see the pyramids at Giza, Winants embarked on another steamship from Alexandria to Jaffa. The main focus of his journey, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was underway. However, he was not only interested in the region for its religious significance; like any other destination, there was history to be explored. He had arrived at an exciting time for antiquarianism, a few years after excavations had began in Jerusalem, with new discoveries being made all the time. Just before Christmas, Winants found the time to visit some of these excavations; beneath the city of Jerusalem were ‘the ruins of the former cities’ that had laid hidden since they were ‘destroyed by Crusaders’ in 1099AD:

‘We have conclusive evidence of this from recent excavations by an English company, who are now in active progress, and who invited us to descend. I went down from the surface by the aid of a rope ladder, to the distance of 40 feet. I found stone of large size, elaborately cut, which laid once in the old city. It was in as good a state of preservation as when laid, centuries ago.’

Winants also made a point of observing and describing the local customs, including a funeral in Bethany, a small town with two main attractions for Winants: the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and the tomb of Lazarus. Winants saw two men digging the grave, ‘and many others are standing around giving directions’. Nearby the corpse was lying on the ground, ‘enclosed in a rough wooden box.’ What followed was ‘truly an interesting and wild scene of Arab life’:

‘The mourners are bare-footed, bare-headed, and ragged. They are clothed in long garments. The females are veiled in white, with openings for their eyes; they formed themselves in a ring, clasping hands, turning themselves around the body, singing and dancing. At short intervals they uttered a piercing shriek, mingled with a howl. After this performance, which lasted for nearly half an hour, they formed themselves in processions, walking two and two abreast. The dead body follows the procession carried on the shoulders of four of the natives, and is deposited in the grave, in which they lay it upon its side, with the face turned toward Mecca. Stones were then fitted around and above the body, and then it was covered over with mortar and dirt.’

A more disturbing custom witnessed by Winants was the execution of a murderer on Mount Calvary, whose fate rested in the hands of the family of his victim. The mourners were given the choice of accepting a sum of money in exchange for the man’s life, but they instead ‘required blood for blood’. This upset the assembled crowd, and ‘the wildest excitement ensued’. Nonetheless, the execution went ahead:

‘After the poor fellow had engaged in prayer for a few brief moments, he was ordered to stand upon his feet, but he fell to the ground before the signal was given to the executioner to do his bloody work. Then two soldiers were called into the ring, who raised him upon his feet; immediately thereafter the signal was given, and the executioner struck the fatal blow with a knife some four feet in length, having a sword blade, which felled him to the ground, never to rise again.

‘The condemned possessed a mild countenance, but the executioner was an ugly, raw-boned looking fellow, whom I should have taken, rather than the other, to have been guilty of the crime.’

The ‘wild and bloody exhibition’ did not end there, with the criminal’s severed head ‘taken by the officers and suspended to the city wall… as a warning to others.’ In contrast, Winants also related a happier occasion of a Druze marriage, a religious sect that dates back to the early Eleventh Century; at the time of Winants’s tour they had only recently defeated the Maronite Christians in the Civil War of 1860.

‘Three days before the day of marriage, the bridegroom, well armed, and attended by a party of friends of his own age, go to demand the bride from her father. The price has already been agreed upon. The girl appears, closely veiled, accompanied by her mother and female friends. If the girl accepts the offer of the proposer, she then presents the husband with a handkerchief, worked by her own hands, which consummates the match, after which will come the wedding. They will sing and dance, as Miriam and her attendants are said to have done in the times of old. The songsters are invited; some will have instruments upon which they play, having only one string; others have a kind of tambourine, and others again have a pipe made of reed; while some are clapping hands, singing and dancing at the same time.’

Miriam was the sister of Moses, who composed the Song on the Sea to celebrate the drowning of the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. The Biblical passage Winants was referring to is as follows: ‘Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing’ (Exodus 15:19).

Part 3 of this essay will follow in a few days.


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3 Responses to Journals 2.2 – Journal of Travels by G.E. Winants (Part 2)

  1. I enjoyed reading this post – thanks!


  2. Pingback: Blog News (13th July 2015) | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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