Journals 7.2 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 2)

This is the second part of my article on Taylor’s journal.  For the first part, please see the entry posted on 22nd August 2015.

Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid, painted by William Holman Hunt in 1854 during the inundation of the Nile (source:

The most important destination for most travellers to Egypt was the first stopping point on the route: the Pyramids and Cairo. Although far from being the monuments that most interested Taylor on his journey, there was no doubt that the first sight of the Pyramids was a very special moment.

While my friends were enjoying their usual afternoon repose, a secret presentiment made me climb to the roof of our cabin. I had not sat there long, before I descried two faint blue triangles on the horizon, far to the south. I rudely broke in upon their indolence with a shout of “the Pyramids!” which Seyd echoed with “El-haram Faraoon!” I was as much impressed with the view as I expected to be, but I completely nullified the European’s emotion by translating to him Thackeray’s description of his first sight of those renowned monuments.

The reference to William Makepeace Thackeray concerns the author’s ‘two big ones and a little one’ summary of the Pyramids. Thackeray and his companions were unimpressed, being more concerned with ‘coffee and cold pies’ (I try to avoid giving my own opinions when writing about these journals, but having been completely awed by the Pyramids myself a few years ago, I simply cannot comprehend that viewpoint!)

Before travelling to the Pyramids at Giza, there was first an opportunity to spend some time in Cairo. In order to travel around the city, it was necessary to get used to riding on a donkey, or a ‘long-eared cab’ as Taylor described it. There was really no option to walk around instead, because that would simply lead to being constantly harassed by donkey owners offering their services.

A friend of mine, who was attended by such a cavalcade for two hours, was obliged to yield at last, and made no second attempt. When we first appeared in the gateway of our hotel, equipped for an excursion, the rush of men and animals was so great, that we were forced to retreat until our servant and the porter whipped us a path through the yelling and braying mob. After one or two trials, I found an intelligent Arab boy, named Kish, who, for five piastres a day, furnished strong and ambitious donkeys, which he kept ready at the door from morning till night. The other drivers respected Kish’s privilege, and thenceforth I had no trouble.

Taylor had difficulty controlling the donkey at first, seemingly unable to get it to slow down. The owner of the donkey was little help, driving the donkey through crowds ‘at full speed into a confusion of other donkeys, camels, horses, carts, water-carriers and footmen.’

In vain you cry out : “Bess!” (enough!) “Piano!” and other desperate adjurations ; the driver’s only reply is : “Let the bridle hang loose!” You dodge your head under a camel-load of planks; your leg brushes the wheel of a dust-cart; you strike a fat Turk plump in the back; you miraculously escape upsetting a fruit-stand; you scatter a company of spectral, white-masked women, and at last reach some more quiet street, with the sensation of a man who has stormed a battery. At first this sort of riding made me very nervous, but finally I let the donkey go his own way, and took a curious interest in seeing how near a chance I ran of striking or being struck.

When he was not careering around the city, Taylor enjoyed his time in Cairo and was impressed with the progress made by the late Muhammad Ali, who had recently sought to modernise the country in a more European style. He considered it at the time to be the ‘cleanest of all oriental cities’, with everyone ‘obliged to sweep before his own door’ and the streets watered regularly, ‘cool and free from dust.’

Within the Citadel of Cairo, still a popular tourist destination today, Taylor visited the Bir Yusuf (Salah ad-Din’s Well), which is now closed to tourists.

A winding gallery, lighted from the shaft, extends to the bottom of the first division, where, in a chamber cut in the rock, a mule turns the large wheel which brings up a continual string of buckets from the fountain below. The water is poured into a spacious basin, and carried thence to the top by another string of buckets set in motion at the surface. Attended by two Arabs with torches, we made the descent of the first shaft and took a drink of the fresh, cool fluid.

On Rhoda Island, now the site of the Al-Manyal Palace museum and gardens, Taylor was distressed to see the state of ‘an artificial grotto lined with shells, many of which have been broken off and carried away by ridiculous tourists’. This was the first example of a running theme of the journal: damage done to Egypt by visitors.

There is no limit to human silliness, as I have wisely concluded, after seeing Pompey’s Pillar disfigured by “Isaac Jones” (or some equally classic name), in capitals of black paint, a yard long, and finding “Jenny Lind” equally prominent on the topmost stone of the great Pyramid. (Of course, the enthusiastic artist chiselled his own name beside hers.) A mallet and chisel are often to be found in the outfits of English and American travellers, and to judge from the frequency of certain names, and the pains bestowed upon their inscription, the owners must have spent the most of their time in Upper Egypt, in leaving records of their vulgar vanity.

Before visiting the Pyramids, Taylor began to make preparations for the next leg of the journey up the Nile. It was important to leave soon, in order to avoid travelling during the hottest part of the summer and being caught in the rainy season in Khartoum, ‘which is very unhealthy for strangers’. Taylor’s German friend agreed to join him on the trip as far as Aswan, although he had originally intended to go no further than Cairo. They managed to secure the use of a dahabiyeh, a barge-like passenger boat, for a reasonable price, despite the boat-keepers starting to cash in on the increasing numbers of visitors to Egypt. Taylor also needed a dragoman to guide him, and was spoilt for choice, with a ‘swarm’ of dragomen in Cairo. It was an important decision, because the dragoman would be accompanying him for the rest of the journey, and needed to be capable of protecting him from danger, and have the necessary knowledge and experience to guide him on his route.

I endeavored to find one who had already made the journey, but of all who presented themselves, only two had been farther than the second Cataract. One of these was a Nubian, who had made a trip with the Sennaar merchants, as far as Shendy, in Ethiopia ; but he had a sinister, treacherous face, and I refused him at once. The other was an old man, named Suleyman Ali, who had been for three years a servant of Champollion, whose certificate of his faithfulness and honesty he produced.

He had been three years in Sennaar, and in addition to Italian, (the only Frank tongue he knew), spoke several Ethiopian dialects. He was a fine, venerable figure, with an honest face, and I had almost decided to take him, when I learned that he was in feeble health and would scarcely be able to endure the hardships of the journey. I finally made choice of a dark Egyptian, born in the valley of Thebes. He was called Achmet el Saidi, or Achmet of Upper Egypt, and when a boy had been for several years a servant in the house of the English Consul at Alexandria. He spoke English fluently, as well as a little Italian and Turkish. I was first attracted to him by his bold, manly face, and finding that his recommendations were excellent, and that he had sufficient spirit, courage and address to serve us both in case of peril, I engaged him, notwithstanding he had never travelled beyond Wadi Haifa (the Second Cataract). I judged, however, that I was quite as familiar with the geography of Central Africa as any dragoman I could procure, and that, in any case, I should find it best to form my own plans and choose my own paths.

Attempting to find about the costs involved in journeying so far into the heart of Africa, Taylor was simply informed by everyone he asked that the ‘expenses were vast’, and that ‘the sum I took would prove insufficient and that I should certainly become involved in great difficulties and embarrassments.’ He was also warned of the dangers of travelling to the ‘utmost verge of the world.’

Even Achmet, although he showed no signs of fear, and did not hesitate to accompany me, informed his family and friends that we were going no further than Wadi Haifa, for he said they would certainly detain him by force, should they learn the truth.

Undaunted, Taylor purchased the food and supplies he calculated necessary for the journey for a few thousand piastres, several thousand dollars in today’s money. He would also need to buy a certain amount of food en route along the Nile, although it was important to have plenty of provisions. Although it would not be difficult to find sources of food to purchase from towns and villages along the Nile, the produce on offer would not always be to Western tastes. In one village, for example, Taylor went in search of some fresh butter:

The mode of churning is not calculated to excite one’s appetite. The milk is tied up in a goat’s skin, and suspended by a rope to the branch of a tree. One of the Arab housewives (who are all astonishingly ugly and filthy) then stations herself on one side, and propels it backward and forward till the process is completed. The cheese of the country resembles a mixture of sand and slacked lime, and has an abominable flavor.

With preparations complete, it was time to take a donkey ride through the desert to finally visit the Pyramids. What transpired was one of the most dangerous situations Taylor had to face on his journey.

Our sunrise view of the Pyramids on leaving Gizeh, was sufficient, had I gone no further, and I approached them, without the violent emotion which sentimental travellers experience, but with a quiet feeling of the most perfect satisfaction. The form of the pyramid is so simple and complete, that nothing is left to the imagination. Those vast, yellowish-gray masses, whose feet are wrapped in the silent sand, and whose tops lean against the serene blue heaven, enter the mind and remain in the memory with no shock of surprise, no stir of unexpected admiration. The impression they give and leave, is calm, grand and enduring as themselves.

The sun glared hot on the sand as we toiled up the ascent to the base of Cheops, whose sharp corners were now broken into zigzags by the layers of stone. As we dismounted in his shadow, at the foot of the path which leads up to the entrance, on the northern side, a dozen Arabs beset us. They belonged to the regular herd who have the Pyramids in charge, and are so renowned for their impudence that it is customary to employ the janissary of some Consulate in Cairo, as a protection. Before leaving Gizeh I gave Achmet my sabre, which I thought would be a sufficient show to secure us from their importunities. However, when we had mounted to the entrance and were preparing to climb to the summit, they demanded a dollar from each for their company on the way. This was just four times the usual fee, and we flatly refused the demand. My friend had in the mean time become so giddy from the few steps he had mounted, that he decided to return, and I ordered Achmet, who knew the way, to go on with me and leave the Arabs to their howlings. Their leader instantly sprang before him, and attempted to force him back. This was too much for Achmet, who thrust the man aside, whereupon he was instantly beset by three or four, and received several hard blows. The struggle took place just on the verge of the stones, and he was prudent enough to drag his assailants into the open space before the entrance of the Pyramid. My friend sprang towards the group with his cane, and I called to the donkey-driver to bring up my sabre, but by this time Achmet had released himself, with the loss of his turban.

The Arabs, who had threatened to treat us in the same manner, then reduced their demand to the regular fee of five piastres for each. I took three of them and commenced the ascent, leaving Achmet and my friend below. Two boys followed us, with bottles of water. At first, the way seemed hazardous, for the stones were covered with sand and fragments which had fallen from above, but after we had mounted twenty courses, the hard, smooth blocks of granite formed broader and more secure steps. Two Arabs went before, one holding each of my hands, while the third shoved me up from the rear. The assistance thus rendered was not slight, for few of the stones are less than four feet in height. The water-boys scampered up beside us with the agility of cats. We stopped a moment to take breath, at a sort of resting-place half-way up — an opening in the Pyramid, communicating with the uppermost of the interior chambers. I had no sooner sat down on the nearest stone, than the Arabs stretched themselves at my feet and entertained me with most absurd mixture of flattery and menace. One, patting the calves of my legs, cried out ; “Oh, what fine, strong legs ! how fast they came up : nobody ever went up the Pyramid so fast !” while the others added : “Here you must give us backsheesh : every body gives us a dollar here.” My only answer was, to get up and begin climbing, and they did not cease pulling and pushing till they left me breathless on the summit. The whole ascent did not occupy more than ten minutes.

The view from Cheops has been often described. I cannot say that it increased my impression of the majesty and grandeur of the Pyramid, for that was already complete. My eyes wandered off from the courses of granite, broadening away below my feet, to contemplate the glorious green of the Nile plain, barred with palm-trees and divided by the gleaming flood of the ancient river; the minarets of Cairo; the purple walls of the far Arabian mountains; the Pyramid groups of Sakkara and Dashoor, overlooking disinterred Memphis in the South; and the arid yellow waves of the Libyan Desert, which rolled unbroken to the western sky. The clear, open heaven above, which seemed to radiate light from its entire concave, clasped in its embrace and harmonized the different features of this wonderful landscape. There was too much warmth and brilliance for desolation. Every thing was alive and real; the Pyramids were not ruins, and the dead Pharaohs, the worshippers of Athor and Apis, did not once enter my mind.

My wild attendants did not long allow me to enjoy the view quietly. To escape from their importunities for backsheesh, I gave them two piastres in copper coin, which instantly turned their flatteries into the most bitter complaints. It was insulting to give so little, and they preferred having none if I would not give a dollar, I might take the journey back. I took it without more ado, and put it into my pocket. This rather surprised them, and first one, and then another came to me and begged to have it again, on his own private account. I threw the coins high into the air, and as they clattered down on the stones, there ensued such a scramble as would have sent any but Arabs over the edge of the Pyramid. We then commenced the descent, two seizing my hands as before, and dragging me headlong after them. We went straight down the side, sliding and leaping from stone to stone without stopping to take breath, and reached the base in five or six minutes. I was so excited from the previous aggression of the Arabs, that I neither felt fatigue nor giddiness on the way up and down, and was not aware how violent had been my exertions. But when I touched the level sand, all my strength vanished in an instant. A black mist came over my eyes, and I sank down helpless and nearly insensible. I was scarcely able to speak, and it was an hour before I could sit upright on my donkey. I felt the Pyramid in all my bones, and for two or three days afterwards moved my joints with as much difficulty as a rheumatic patient.

Perhaps fearing punishment, the men who had behaved violently towards Achmet ‘came forward and kissed his hands, humbly entreating pardon.’ But Achmet was angry and ‘repulsed them, spitting upon the ground, as the strongest mark of contempt.’ Taylor thought the best course of action would be to report the matter to the Sheikh of the Pyramids, who lived about a mile away. Arriving at his house, they found that he was away in Cairo, but his son agreed to deal with the matter, and sent messengers to fetch the culprits immediately. Taylor was invited to serve as a sort of a judge in an impromptu trial. The ringleaders were identified, evidence was given, a guilty verdict was swiftly reached, and punishment was immediately carried out.

One of the men was then thrown on the ground and held by the head and feet, while the shekh took a stout rod and began administering the blows. The victim had prepared himself by giving his bornous a double turn over his back, and as the end of the rod struck the ground each time, there was much sound with the veriest farce of punishment. After half a dozen strokes, he cried out, “ya salaam !” whereupon the crowd laughed heartily, and my friend ordered the shekh to stop. The latter cast the rod at our feet, and asked us to continue the infliction ourselves, until we were satisfied. We told him and the company in general, through Achmet, that we were convinced of his readiness to punish imposition; that we wished to show the Arabs that they must in future treat travellers with respect; that we should send word of the affair to Cairo, and they might rest assured that a second assault would be more severely dealt with. Since this had been demonstrated, we were willing that the punishment should now cease, and in conclusion returned our thanks to the shekh, for his readiness to do us justice.

The next part of the essay, in which Taylor travels along the Nile to Luxor and arrives by moonlight, will follow in a few days.  If you would like to be updated when new posts are online, please click on the Follow button on the right of the screen.  Thank you for reading!


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