Journals 7.3 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 3)

This is the continuation of my article on Taylor’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 22nd and 26th August 2015.

Convent of the Pulley

The Convent of the Pulley, painted by General George de Sausmarez in 1855 (source:

During his visit to Egypt, Taylor met some of the foremost scholars and archaeologists at the time, not least of which François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette, who had just made the greatest discoveries of his career, an avenue of sphinxes and a tomb complex with thousands of intact artifacts. However, Taylor had arrived a little too late to view the best of the discoveries:

He apologized for the little he had to show us, since on account of the Vandalism of the Arabs, he was obliged to cover up all his discoveries, after making his drawings and measurements. The Egyptian authorities are worse than apathetic, for they would not hesitate to burn the sphinxes for lime, and build barracks for filthy soldiers with the marble blocks. Besides this, the French influence at Cairo was then entirely overshadowed by that of England, and although M. Mariette was supported in his labors by the French Academy, and a subscription headed by Louis Napoleon’s name, he was forced to be content with the simple permission to dig out these remarkable ruins and describe them. He could neither protect them nor remove the portable sculptures and inscriptions, and therefore preferred giving them again into the safe keeping of the sand.

Of course, any finds that were moveable such as statues did not have to be reburied along with the sphinxes and catacombs. About half of them were sent to the Louvre, while the rest remained in Egypt. Mariette went on to found the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, and made many more important discoveries.

There were many interesting sights along the Nile. About 125 miles south of Cairo, Taylor saw the ‘Convent of the Pulley, so called from its inaccessible situation, and the fact that visitors are frequently drawn to the summit by a rope and windlass.’

While passing this convent, a cry came up from the muddy waters of the river : “We are Christians, O Howadji !” and presently two naked Coptic monks wriggled over the gunwale, and sat down, panting and dripping, on the deck. We gave them backsheesh, which they instantly clapped into their mouths, but their souls likewise devoutly yearned for brandy, which they did not get. They were large, lusty fellows, and whatever perfection of spirit they might have attained, their flesh certainly had never been unnecessarily mortified. After a breathing spell, they jumped into the river again, and we soon saw them straddling from point to point, as they crawled up the almost perpendicular cliff.

160 steps now lead up to the monastery, which is now the destination for an annual pilgrimage. At Antinopolis, a visitor earlier in the century would have been able to see a theatre, temples and a triumphal arch, amongst other interesting discoveries. Sadly, Taylor could not enjoy those sights.

Antinoe, built by the Emperor Adrian in honor of his favorite, the glorious Antinous, who was here drowned in the river, has entirely disappeared, with the exception of its foundations. Twenty-five years ago, many interesting monuments were still standing, but as they were, unfortunately, of the white calcareous stone of the Arabian Hills, they have been long since burnt for lime.

The city had been destroyed and the materials recycled as cement. Only a few temples remain. Taylor also complained about the damage to rock-cut tombs in the mountains on the Eastern bank of the Nile, for similar reasons. The tombs provided useful access points for quarrying, and many appeared to be in the process of being destroyed.

Whoever is interested in Egyptian antiquities, should not postpone his visit longer. Not only Turks, but Europeans are engaged in the work of demolition, and the very antiquarians who profess the greatest enthusiasm for these monuments, are ruthless Vandals towards them when they have the power.

Despite a few such disappointments, Taylor was enjoying life on the Nile very much, describing it as ‘the Paradise of Travel’. He had made a good choice of destination to escape his fatigue and grief, experiencing ‘such perfect contentment of spirit, such entire abandonment to the best influences of nature’. He had nothing but scorn for the writings of previous travellers in Egypt who had complained of the hardships.

Four out of every five complain of the monotony and tedium of the voyage, and pour forth touching lamentations over the annoyance of rats and cockroaches, the impossibility of procuring beef-steak, or the difficulty of shooting crocodiles. Some of them are wholly impermeable to the influences of the climate, scenery and ruins of Egypt, and carry to the Nubian frontier the airs of Broadway or Bond-street. I have heard such a one say : “This seeing the Nile is a nice thing to have gotten over, but it is a great bore while you are about it.” Such is the spirit of those travelling snobs (of all nations), by some of whom sacred Egypt is profaned every winter. They are unworthy to behold the glories of the Nile, and if I had the management of Society, they never should.

There were plenty of opportunities for coming ashore and exploring en route, and Taylor and his friend visited several places that were rarely visited by tourists. At Akhmim, the site of Panopolis (although little remains of the ancient city) they sat on the bank of the Nile, listening to the ‘howling of a company of dervishes’ in the town. Although night had fallen, Taylor was determined to attempt entry to the walled town and go in search of the source of the ‘howling’.

The principal gate of the town was closed, and my men battered it vainly with their clubs, to rouse the guard. We wandered for some time among the mounds of Panopolis, stumbling over blocks of marble and granite, under palms eighty feet high, standing clear and silvery in the moonlight. At last, the clamor of the wolfish dogs we waked up on the road, brought us one of the watchers outside of the walls, whom we requested to admit us into the city. He replied that this could not be done. “But,” said Achmet, “here is an Effendi who has just arrived, and must visit the mollahs to-night; admit him and fear nothing.” The men thereupon conducted us to another gate and threw a few pebbles against the window above it. A woman’s voice replied, and presently the bolts were undrawn and we entered. By this time the dervishes had ceased their howlings, and every thing was as still as death. We walked for half an hour through the deserted streets, visited the mosques and public buildings, and heard no sound but our own steps. It was a strangely interesting promenade. The Arabs, armed with clubs, carried a paper lantern, which flickered redly on the arches and courts we passed through. My trusty Theban walked by my side, and took all possible trouble to find the retreat of the dervishes — but in vain. We passed out through the gate, which was instantly locked behind us, and had barely reached our vessel, when the unearthly song of the Moslem priests, louder and wilder than ever, came to our ears.

The next major archaeological site on the journey south was the temple complex near Dendera, which impressed Taylor greatly, with its ‘portico, more than a hundred feet in length, and supported by six columns, united by screens of masonry, no stone of which, or of the columns themselves, is unsculptured.’ The complex stirred some unusual emotions in both Taylor and his German friend. Taylor noticed that his friend was looking rather solemn as he explored around, as if the ruins were producing a melancholy effect on him. Whether the site had the same effect on Taylor, or whether his emotions were now in tune with the friend whose companionship was bringing him so much happiness, it was not long before he started to feel overawed himself.

I cannot explain to myself the unusual emotion I felt while contemplating this wonderful combination of a simple and sublime architectural style with the utmost elaboration of ornament. My blood pulsed fast and warm on my first view of the Roman Forum, but in Dendera I was so saddened and oppressed, that I scarcely dared speak for fear of betraying an unmanly weakness.

After a voyage of over 300 miles from Cairo, Taylor and his friend arrived in Luxor. As is so often the case with a trip to Egypt, what was to follow would prove to be the highlight of the voyage, with the magnificent temples of Luxor and Karnak to visit. The first sight of Luxor temple was at night, and it was a magical moment.

We dropped the shebooks, dashed out, up the bank, and saw, facing us in the brilliant moonlight, the grand colonnade of the temple, the solid wedges of the pylon, and the brother-obelisk of that which stands in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris. The wide plain of Thebes stretched away on either hand, and the beautiful outlines of the three mountain ranges which inclose it, rose in the distance against the stars. We looked on the landscape a few moments, in silence. “Come,” said my friend, at length, “this is enough for to-night. Let us not be too hasty to exhaust what is in store for us.” So we returned to our cabin, closed the blinds, and arranged our plans for best seeing, and best enjoying the wonders of the great Diospolis.

‘Great Diospolis’ was one of the Greek names for Luxor, literally ‘City of God’ The use of Greek names for Egyptian sites was common amongst antiquarians. Taylor wisely decided to save Karnak for after he had viewed all the other local places of interest, saving the best for last, reasoning that the ‘most unimportant objects in Thebes are full of interest when seen first, whereas Karnak, once seen, fills one’s thoughts to the exclusion of every thing else.’ He therefore set off for the Valley of the Kings, where the greatest discovery, the tomb of Tutankhamun, would lay hidden for another seventy years. There was already plenty to see, however, with twenty-one excavated tombs available to visit. Many more have since been discovered, despite Belzoni’s assertion in 1819 that there was nothing more to be found.

The burial-vault, where Belzoni found the alabaster sarcophagus of the monarch, is a noble hall, thirty feet long by nearly twenty in breadth and height, with four massive pillars forming a corridor on one side. In addition to the light of our torches, the Arabs kindled a large bonfire in the centre, which brought out in strong relief the sepulchral figures on the ceiling, painted in white on a ground of dark indigo hue. The pillars and walls of the vault glowed with the vivid variety of their colors, and the general effect was unspeakably rich and gorgeous. This tomb has already fallen a prey to worse plunderers than the Medes and Persians. Belzoni carried off the sarcophagus, Champollion cut away the splendid jambs and architrave of the entrance to the lower chambers, and Lepsius has finished by splitting the pillars and appropriating their beautiful paintings for the Museum at Berlin. At one spot, where the latter has totally ruined a fine doorway, some indignant Frenchman has written in red chalk : “Meurtre commis par Lepsius.” In all the tombs of Thebes, wherever you see the most flagrant and shameless spoliations, the guide says, “Lepsius.” Who can blame the Arabs for wantonly defacing these precious monuments, when such an example is set them by the vanity of European antiquarians?

“Meurtre commis par Lepsius” is French for “Murder committed by Lepsius”, referring to Karl Richard Lepsius, the German archaeologist who was sent by Frederich Wilhelm IV to explore Egypt in 1842.

We rode to the Western Valley, a still deeper and wider glen, containing tombs of the kings of the foreign dynasty of Atin-Re. We entered the two principal ones, but found the paintings rude and insignificant. There are many lateral passages and chambers and in some places deep pits, along the edge of which we were obliged to crawl. In the last tomb a very long and steep staircase descends into the rock. As we were groping after the guide, I called to my friend to take care, as there was but a single step, after making a slip. The words were scarcely out of my mouth before I felt a tremendous thump, followed by a number of smaller ones, and found myself sitting in a heap of sand, at the bottom, some twenty or thirty feet below. Fortunately, I came off with but a few slight bruises.

Exploring tombs was a dangerous business, and not always pleasant. At Gurneh, Taylor visits the Tombs of the Nobles.

The first tomb we entered almost cured us of the desire to visit another. It was that called the Assasseef, built by a wealthy priest, and it is the largest in Thebes. Its outer court measures one hundred and three by seventy-six feet, and its passages extend between eight and nine hundred feet into the mountain. We groped our way between walls as black as ink, through long, labyrinthine suites of chambers, breathing a deathlike and oppressive odor. The stairways seemed to lead into the bowels of the earth, and on either hand yawned pits of uncertain depth. As we advanced, the ghostly vaults rumbled with a sound like thunder, and hundreds of noisome bats, scared by the light, dashed against the walls and dropped at our feet. We endured this for a little while, but on reaching the entrance to some darker and deeper mystery, were so surrounded by the animals, who struck their filthy wings against our faces, that not for ten kings’ tombs would we have gone a step further. My friend was on the point of vowing never to set his foot in another tomb, but I persuaded him to wait until we had seen that of Amunoph. I followed the guide, who enticed me by flattering promises into a great many snakelike holes, and when he was tired with crawling in the dust, sent one of our water-carriers in advance, who dragged me in and out by the heels.

The next part of this essay, in which Taylor visits Karnak and then sets off across the desert, will follow in a few days.


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