Journals 7.4 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 4)

This is the continuation of my article on Taylor’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 22nd, 26th and 30th August 2015.

Jacob Jacobs Karnak 1856

Karnak as painted by Jacob Jacobs in 1856.

Luxor Temple proved to be something of a disappointment. Although impressive, the pillars were ‘buried to half their depth, and so surrounded by hovels, that to get an idea of their arrangement you must make the tour of a number of hen-houses and asses’ stalls. The pillars are now employed as drying-posts for the buffalo dung which the Arabs use as fuel.’ Taylor was often disgusted with the state of the ruins he saw in Egypt, and damage done by visitors and locals alike is a recurring theme of the journal.

If I possessed despotic power — and I then wished it for the first time — I should certainly make despotic use of it, in tearing down some dozens of villages and setting some thousands of Copts and Fellahs at work in exhuming what their ancestors have mutilated and buried. The world cannot spare these remains. Tear down Roman ruins if you will; level Cyclopean walls; build bridges with the stones of Gothic abbeys and feudal fortresses; but lay no hand on the glory and grandeur of Egypt.

However, Karnak was far from being a disappointment, engendering a ‘flood’ of feelings of ‘awe, astonishment, and delight’. Before setting sail again up the Nile, Taylor could not resist one final visit to Karnak, by the full moon, accompanied only by his guide.

It was a ghostly light, and the fresh north-wind, coming up the Nile, rustled solemnly in the palm-trees. We trotted silently to Karnak, and leaped our horses over the fragments until we reached the foot of the first obelisk. Here we dismounted and entered the grand hall of pillars. There was no sound in all the temple, and the guide, who seemed to comprehend my wish, moved behind me as softly as a shadow, and spoke not a word. It needs this illumination to comprehend Karnak. The unsightly rubbish has disappeared: the rents in the roof are atoned for by the moonlight they admit; the fragments shivered from the lips of the mighty capitals are only the crumpled edges of the flower; a maze of shadows hides the desolation of the courts, but every pillar and obelisk, pylon and propylon is glorified by the moonlight. The soul of Karnak is soothed and tranquillized. Its halls look upon you no longer with an aspect of pain and humiliation. Every stone seems to say: “I am not fallen, for I have defied the ages. I am a part of that grandeur which has never seen its peer, and I shall endure for ever, for the world has need of me.”

Although there were plenty more Egyptian ruins to visit, the journal from this point onwards focussed more on the small towns and villages along the Nile, with most of the great archaeological sites behind him. The local people were clearly very poor, and Taylor was besieged with constant requests for ‘backsheesh’, a small amount of money given as a gift to the poor, or more commonly as a tip for some kind of service, however minor.

The children of Biggeh fairly drove us away with the cries of “backsheesh!” The hideous word had been rung in our ears since leaving Assouan, and when we were again saluted with it, on landing at the head of the Cataract, patience ceased to be a virtue. My friend took his cane and I the stick of my donkey-driver, and since the naked pests dared not approach near enough to get the backsheesh, they finally ceased to demand it. The word is in every Nubian mouth, and the very boatmen and camel-drivers as they passed us said “backsheesh” instead of “good morning.” As it was impossible to avoid hearing it, I used the word in the same way, and cordially returned the greeting. A few days previous, as we were walking on shore near Esneh, a company of laborers in a dourra-field began the cry. I responded, holding out my hand, whereupon one of the men pulled off his white cotton cap (his only garment), and offered it to me, saying: “If you are poor, take it.”

Aswan was the location of a parting of the ways. Taylor’s German friend was not willing to go any further. He had seen what he wanted to, and had no interest in exploring into Sudan and uncharted territory to the south. Taylor had anticipated this moment ‘almost with dread’ but he was determined that his ‘pathway was through those desolate hills, into the heart of Nubia, into the Desert, and the strange countries beyond, where so few had been before me.’

Finally, every sailor was at his post; the moment came, and we parted, as two men seldom part, who were strangers six weeks before. I goaded my donkey desperately over the sands, hastened the loading of my effects, and was speedily afloat and alone on the Nubian Nile.

The landscape began to change, becoming more rocky and ‘full of striking contrasts’. The Nile itself was ‘narrower, clearer and more rapid’, with ‘strongly accented lights and shadows.’ The voyage down the Nile would be interrupted at Korosko, an important settlement at the time, where travellers would hire camels and guides to set off across the desert, in order to avoid a huge bend in the river. This would be a one-way trip, as Taylor had resolved to explore the villages on the bend of the river on the way back. He noticed that his dragoman Achmet, who had accompanied him since Cairo, was starting to look a little nervous, as he was approaching territory that was as unfamiliar to him as it was to Taylor.  The timing of Taylor’s arrival in Korosko was fortunate.

A caravan had just arrived from Sennaar, and camels were in readiness for the journey to Berber, in Ethiopia. This was very lucky, for merchants are frequently detained at Korosko twenty or thirty days, and I had anticipated a delay of at least a week.

Waiting to depart, Taylor met the son of Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds, a famous explorer of Egypt at the time, who would go on to serve as chief engineer of the Suez Canal. His father had sent him to Sudan for purposes of trade.

Although he only required twelve camels, he had been eight days in Korosko waiting for them, and was still waiting when I left. He was accompanied by a young Frenchman, who was one of the grandest liars I ever met. He told me with a grave face, that he had travelled from Algiers to Egypt through the Great Sahara, and had on one occasion gone eight days without water, and the thermometer one hundred and twenty-five degrees in the shade!

Although reluctant to leave the Nile, his ‘home’, and fearing his health might suffer, Taylor set off bravely across the desert. It was a journey of around 200 miles. Such a remote location did not prevent him from meeting some interesting people:

I was sitting in my tent, about eight o clock, when I heard the tramp of dromedaries outside, and a strange voice saying : ana wahed Ingleez (I am an Englishman). It proved to be Capt. Peel, of the British Navy, (son of the late Sir Robert Peel), who was returning from a journey to Khartoum and Kordofan. He was attended by a single guide, and carried only a water-skin and a basket of bread. He had travelled nearly day and night since leaving Berber, and would finish the journey from that place to Korosko — a distance of four hundred miles — in seven days. He spent an hour with me, and then pushed onward through “The Gates” towards the Nile. It had been his intention to penetrate into Dar Für, a country yet unvisited by any European, but on reachiug Obeid, the Capital of Kordofan, his companion, a Syrian Arab, fell sick, and he was himself attacked with the ague. This decided him to return, and he had left his baggage and servants to follow, and was making for England with all speed. He was provided with all the necessary instruments to make his travel useful in a scientific point of view, and the failure of his plans is much to be regretted. I was afterwards informed by M. Linant that he met Capt. Peel on the following day, and supplied him with water enough to reach the Nile.

Captain Sir William Peel was the third son of Sir Robert Peel. He published his own journal of his experiences the following year, A Ride Through the Nubian Desert. Peel’s illness and shortage of water was a stark reminder of the dangers facing Taylor. Russell Herman Conwell sums up the situation well in his Life of Bayard Taylor.

It was a hazardous undertaking for a stranger, alone, unknown, to traverse the desert. If he was murdered, none of the authorities would care, nor would his death become known. He might contract the terrible fever. He was liable to be eaten by wild beasts, and he ran great risk of dying of thirst or hunger on the hot sands of a trackless desert. The way had been travelled many times before, but was all the more dangerous because of the opportunity it gave robbers to lie in wait for tourists. But he unhesitatingly entered upon the journey, trusting in the friendship of his Nubian and Arabian servants, and in his own ability to withstand the heat of the sands and the attacks of African fever.

Luckily Taylor did not encounter any robbers, but he was left in little doubt at one point that his life would have been imperilled if he had refused to pay a toll en route.

As we passed the last peak, my guide, who had ridden in advance, dismounted beside what seemed to be a collection of graves— little ridges of sand, with rough head and foot stones. He sat by one which he had just made. As I came up he informed me that all travellers who crossed the Nubian Desert, for the first time, are here expected to pay a toll, or fee to the guide and camel-men. “But what if I do not choose to pay ?” I asked. “Then you will immediately perish, and be buried here. The graves are those of persons who refused to pay.”

Taylor found ‘the desert life not only endurable but very agreeable’, and actually quite enjoyed the vast changes in temperature between day and night.

My face, however, which was alternately exposed to the heat radiated from the sand, and the keen morning wind, could not accommodate itself to so much contraction and expansion. The skin cracked and peeled off more than once, and I was obliged to rub it daily with butter. I mounted my dromedary with a “shining morning face,” until, from alternate buttering and burning, it attained the hue and crispness of a well-basted partridge.

Taylor was still making steady progress through the desert on Christmas Day. Despite the decidedly un-festive location, he made the best of things. It was an unusual celebration, to say the least.

Achmet did his best to give me a good Christmas dinner, but the pigeons were all gone, and the few fowls which remained were so spiritless from the heat and jolting of the camel, that their slaughter anticipated their natural death by a very short time. Nevertheless, I produced a cheery illumination by the tent-lanterns, and made Eyoub and the Bishàrees happy with a bottle of arakee and some handfuls of tobacco. The wind whistled drearily around my tent, but I glowed like fire from the oozing out of the heat I had absorbed, and the Arabs without, squatted around their fire of camel’s dung, sang the wild, monotonous songs of the Desert.

Taylor and his group had run out of water by the time they reached the Nile at Abu Hamad. They made straight for the house of the governor, where they were welcomed and given a large bowl to fill from the Nile.

I shall never forget the luxury of that long, deep draught. My body absorbed the water as rapidly as the hot sand of the Desert, and I drank at least a quart without feeling satisfied.

With Sudan under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and British missionaries working in the country, there was a tendency among the local people to show great respect and deference to all foreign visitors. This was at times taken to extremes.

No sooner had we encamped than Eesa ran off to some huts which he spied in the distance, and told the natives that they must immediately bring all their sheep and fowls to the Effendi. The poor people came to inquire whether they must part with their stock, and were very glad when they found that we wanted nothing. I took only two cucumbers which an old man brought and humbly placed at my feet.

There would have been little understanding amongst the Sudanese of the different nationalities of visitors, and it was sometimes assumed that Taylor was some sort of a king. This brought great respect for Taylor, but the ‘pleasures of royalty’ were counteracted by its ‘pains’: everyone thought that his was rich.

All the officers and servants who had been employed for my benefit [in Berber] expected backsheesh, and every beggar in the place came to taste the bounty of the foreign king. When Achmet went to the bazaars to purchase a few necessaries, he overheard the people saying to one another, “That is the interpreter of the strange king,” and many of them rose and remained standing until he had passed.

The next part of this article, in which Taylor ventures into dangerous territory and narrowly escapes death at the hands of the Shilluk tribe, will follow in a few days.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen.  Alternatively, please bookmark this page and don’t forget to check back regularly!


About Windows into History

Author of Co-writer on Administrator of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Egypt, History, Journals, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Journals 7.4 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 4)

  1. egbertstarr says:

    “…the very boatmen and camel-drivers as they passed us said “backsheesh” instead of “good morning.” Wow. Part of what you uncover is not just information which in itself is hard to believe but the tone of the writing which is even harder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s