Sir Francis Ronalds' Travel Journal: Egypt - Cairo and East Nile
Cairo Feby 6th 1820
When I awoke on the morning of the 31st I found myself within a mile of Bulaq, the port of Cairo on the left. The island of Rhoda stood in front and the Pyramids at some distance on the low land on the right. In the foreground on the left was a Pallace of the Pasha called Shubra. The first thing that struck me as extraordinary was a reddish mound or hill near the water's edge & upon enquiring what kind of earth it was composed of was astonished to find that it was a mountain of lentils-seed belonging to the Pasha. A smaller pallace on the Island was another prominent object, this they told me was a seraglio of the Pasha, and a new handsome pallace not finished a little further on in Bulaq also belonged to the Pasha, and still another in the distance, and in short every striking object which became the subject of my enquiries was the Pasha's. The only difference between me and John Bull in his trip to France was that he was answered non-tou-par, I the great Pasha, and I was almost at as great a loss as Johnny to account for one man possessing every thing and doing every thing.
"If the term grand could be properly applied to a dunghill then certainly Cairo merits its title for it is far more famous for its dirt & the many cocks who have fought for it than any thing else. The present Cock of this grand Dunghill is endeavouring to embellish & improve it a little"
Having landed on the Quay which was crowded with the Pasha's cotton (an immense quantity) we hired a camel for my baggage, an ass for myself and another for Ferdinando & proceeded by the Pasha's road to Cairo entering first the square or place called Ezbekiya, the scene of plenty of bloodshed at the last revolution and of Kleber's murder. This is called the handsomest part of Cairo but the term handsomest appeared to me very improper for there is no part of Cairo I think deserving to be called handsome. This place of Ezbekiya is a large space of ground of no definite figure surrounded by miserable houses, sheds, & ruins and contains but one respectable building, a Seraglio of the Pasha. We passed to the left though a few abominable dirty lanes much like those of Alexandria and soon found ourselves in the Fleet Street or Strand of Grand Cairo. If the term grand could be properly applied to a dunghill then certainly Cairo merits its title for it is far more famous for its dirt & the many cocks who have fought for it than any thing else. The present Cock of this grand Dunghill is endeavouring to embellish & improve it a little but all embellishments it can receive will never do any more for it than trinkets can serve an old worn out belldame.
The exactness with which every thing animate & inanimate preserves its proper station in the enormous crowd of Camels, Asses, Men, Children, Dogs, pipes, flowing robes, &c &c has excited the wonder of every body who has visited Cairo and mine no less than that of my brother Squirrel's. The rapidity of the motions amongst so many movables can be compared best to an ants' nest I think. At one moment I find myself almost under the Belly of a Camel, at the next an argilla of Glass at the door of a coffee house is within an ace of my ass's heels yet the sedate countenance of the Smoaker remains perfectly in status quo. Then I meet a great Lord mounted on a fine high mottled Arabian which by being constantly tormented with the spur dances about amidst frangibles of every kind like the Baron Munchausen's amid the tea equipage, & his crowd of servants some holding him on his horse & others running before him ostensibly for the purpose of clearing the way for his highness but actually backing it up the more, & the Crummy belles mounted upon a high cushion on the asses take up their full share of the narrow way. But every body knows what Cairo is. Quite exhausted with laughing, squeezing, shoving & kicking I arrived at last at the French hotel in the street of the Franks, the worst[?] of all the villainous holes I ever took up my abode in.
I soon learnt that my friend Sir Frederick had left Cairo but a few days before my arrival which was a very great disappointment, but I lost no time in gratifying my desire of visiting the Pyramids and early the next morning (1st) sallied forth accordingly & passing through Old Cairo & across the river to Gizeh, the village on the Bank, arrived in the evening at another little arab village near them where I dined in the [?] yard of a House belonging to the chief surrounded by a large circle of the inhabitants who came to offer their services or rather to force their services upon me, for being without protection it would not have been prudent to go to the pyramids without attatching 10 of them to my suite. Altho' nearly dusk I could not restrain my curiosity to enter the great one that evening but deferred mounting it until day light.
"I returned to lie at the village... to sleep was impossible for the flies actually dyed my shirt red at the part about the collar. At day break... I sallied forth again and got on the Top of the Great Pyramid"
I shall enter into no detail about the pyramids. I hope Mr Banks will give them a due share of attention in the work which I understand he is about to publish, surely they are the most interesting as well as the most extraordinary of the Egyptian Remains and have not even yet been properly examined. I went into every nook and corner of the large one this evening that had been excavated & am convinced that there is much more to be done in the way of excavation before their peculiar construction and the precise objects of it can be fully ascertained. There can I think be no doubt about them being Sepulchres but this is still doubted by some I find. I have no doubt that hereafter many more chambers will be found but I cannot say that I saw any indications of new passages. The large chamber of the sarcophagus & the last part of the passage sloping up to it are the only parts which are very striking of the interior. The passage is the most striking but I cannot describe the effect it produces & after all it is rather the wonderment excited by our ignorance or the air of mystery which hangs over them than the actual thing which strikes us. The same may be said of the chamber almost but this being only a large square room with a kind of an arched roof and containing an oblong granite sarcophagus exhibits less of the marvellous than other parts, the chamber on the left &c & the Well are (niente). The Heat was dreadfull combined with the smoak of the Candles. I returned to lie at the village in a regular arab cottage, to sleep was impossible for the flies actually dyed my shirt red at the part about the collar.
At day break (2nd) I sallied forth again and got on the Top of the Great Pyramid with considerable labour but not so much as I expected from travellers' accounts. The air was tolerably clear and I could see the Pyramids of Dashur and Memphis such enough to sketch them in their exact relative positions by means of a pair of perspective compasses, I also took their bearings and that of Cairo with a compass. Having engraved my name amongst many others on the Top I began to descend & in my progress measured exactly some of the blocks of limestone with which it is built for there are considerable differences in the statements of travellers on this head arising from each having made his own measurements independent of any regard to others. Perhaps the average size of the blocks would be best ascertained my making an average of all the different measurements. The sizes of several blocks near the top were as follow:
|Length||5 ft 0 In|
|Breadth||2 ft 9¼ In|
|Height||1 ft 9¾ In|
Other blocks near the middle
|Length||6 ft 3 In|
|Breadth||4 ft 2½ In|
|Height||2 ft 8½ In|
I think these 2 sizes may be said to be the only 2 classes, there did not appear to me to be many intermediate sizes.
When I had descended about half way at the usual place of ascent and descent I walked or rather crawled all round and observed that there was considerable difference in the hardness of the limestone and of the colour, some being of a beautiful white and almost as soft as chalk, which is also the case in the neighbouring quarries & I think there can be no doubt that the material of this pyramid at least if not all the others of Gizeh has been taken from thence.
I observed that the cement between the blocks was a mixture which was intended to resemble granite, at least I thought I did and brought away some specimens. Now if this is the case it furnishes an argument in support of the opinion entertained by some viz that it was cased or riveted with granite as the second Pyramid either was, or was intended to have been, & which still retains the casing of limestone on the summit. I don't recollect having seen this circumstance noticed. Before quitting the Pyramid of Cheops I will just remark that according to my measurement the aperture or entrance to the great chamber was exactly half an inch lower than the sarcophagus. Its breadth corresponded exactly or as nearly so as the state of the stone would allow of comparison.
The Second Pyramid which I entered afterwards afforded me nothing to tell you about, you will see all these things well described by Mr Banks I hope. I had not strength enough remaining to attempt my project of mounting it. I sketched the entrance lately discovered by Belzoni [not found].
The Third and the small ones I shall forbear pestering you with my [?] upon. I found pieces of broken granite in the neighbourhood of them all but most about the second and no marble any where.
Pyramids and Great Sphinx
"determined upon a bold stroke I went directly up to the Castle... was introduced to the Bey Pasha and marched off in triumph with his firman and two of his Dragomen, which made the Jacks bow & scrape & skip about very much to my satisfaction"
"I saw a poor fellow tried, condemned & executed in about 10 Minutes"
"the cave of the Virgin... seems to have been an Oven & I don't think the holy family could have crammed themselves into it, if they did they must have been nearly baked or stewed"
"I visited the slave market. There were only about 20 little boys there for sale & about 10 Women... smeared with a black ointment... to make them look sleek & shining... I saw...a fine well made Woman with a very young child in her arms. She... burst into a flood of tears, & I feeling a verry slight "tingling at the tip of my nose" pitched her a dollar & marched back without desiring to see any more of the slave market"
The general sketch of them all was taken with as much exactness as I was capable of and with the perspective compasses so that their proportions and relative distances from each other & from the sphinx are I hope correct as seen from the point I chose, & I hope the Sphinx conveys some idea of its style of countenance. I could plainly distinguish some red colour on its forehead but only a sort of band pointed downwards above the nose, it is dreadfully mutilated evidently by violence and not by the operation of the atmosphere & time.
On the next day (3rd) I made three attempts to see the Mikias or Nilometer upon the south point of the island of Rhoda, the last only of which was successful. In the first two I had to deal with Jacks (animals of very nearly the same kind every where I believe) but in the last, determined upon a bold stroke I went directly up to the Castle, demanded to be shewn to the Pasha's first minister, stated shortly my desire, was introduced to the Bey Pasha and marched off in triumph with his firman and two of his Dragomen, which made the Jacks bow & scrape & skip about very much to my satisfaction.
The Mikias was certainly once a pretty thing, my little sketch may serve better than words to describe it perhaps altho' it is not verry exact. The divisions are cubits. The inscriptions over the arched recesses in the 3 walls of the square pit are Arabic. The forth wall sustains the steps by which you descend, upon one of which I sat. It is of Saracen construction. It no longer marks accurately the height of the Water having a few years ago been deranged, I don't know how.
The Castle or Citadel would not furnish a couple of pages to the most expert Book maker in all Germany. The View from the upper Terrace commands Cairo very well but one does not see the beauty of the Mosques from it because they are not well relieved and the distance is too great. As to the general appearance of the town, it is horrid, the view towards the river of the Minister's Seraglio and the gardens there about the Nile and the Pyramids in the distance are only novel, not half so pleasing as that from the top of the Great Pyramid where the distance and vapours of the water hide a little of the deformity of the town. The brass guns mounted on the parapets and Batteries are some of them prettyly formed. At the first discharge they would discharge their carriages I suppose. The courts of judgement in the Castle are the most interesting but not in appearance being mere square rooms where the pasha & his ministers deal out judgement with more mercy than justice I believe. I saw a poor fellow tried, condemned & executed in about 10 Minutes. The judge seemed to hear what his accusation was and determine upon his fate about as coolly as one determines that of a fowl for the spit but the Bey Pasha is said to be very cute and merciful.
I saw Joseph's Hall & I went down the great Well. On my return home I visited the cave of the Virgin, a hole in a wall in a subterranean Coptic chapel. It seems to have been an Oven & I don't think the holy family could have crammed themselves into it, if they did they must have been nearly baked or stewed.
(4th) I visited the slave market. There were only about 20 little boys there for sale & about 10 Women (this is not the proper season they tell me). The Boys were all seated on matts in a circle, which matts I observed were smeared with a black ointment & upon enquiry found it was a compound of oil and pigment with which they were accustomed to be rubbed very day to make them look sleek & shining. They did not look unhappy but cast rather anxious looks at me as I approached their masters who were smoaking hard-by and seemed aware that I came only for curiosity for they were verry reserved and would not tell me the prices of the boys. They were Abyssinians. I next went up into a gallery around the yard where the women are usually put into small apartments communicating with it. The only one I saw was a fine well made Woman with a very young child in her arms. She hurried away as I approached and tried to enter her door but it was locked so she sat down on the ground and burst into a flood of tears, & I feeling a verry slight "tingling at the tip of my nose" pitched her a dollar & marched back without desiring to see any more of the slave market.
I visited the holy tree & the other few choses à voir in the neighbourhood of Cairo but have nothing to say about them. I also went to Suez, making a most fatiguing, unprofitable & painfull journey to see nothing but a poor miserable Village. I was Surprised to find in many places a good road, that is to say a hard one, and have no doubt that a good carriage way might be made at a small expense compared with such undertakings in Europe and that it would serve the purpose of conveying merchandise to & from Cairo much better than a Canal. I travelled with 3 Camels & 2 Arab conductors only except my servant & came back without having experienced the slightest molestation. If I had gone onward to Mount Sinai or Musa I should not have come off without the loss of something perhaps, but as my arab conductor & camel drivers had to come back with me they could not commit the usual extortions or semi-robberies with impunity.
Damiata 24th Feby 1820
"To ward fleas & other insects I make Ferdinando sew me up every night i.e. he sews up all the openings of my shirt and sews the pantaloons to it"
"My companions de voyage were about 80 turkish soldiers & their arab peasants or farmers with their wives"
"One must... mix with uncomfortable people in travelling... and the sooner one plunges into their society the less one feels the inconvenience of it"
"If we will treat them as savages we must expect that they will be rather savage towards us I think. I can clearly discover great affection and hospitality towards each other and is not this the proper test of character?"
"A gentleman told me a few days ago that he once surprised an arab Woman without her veil... to supply its place she make use of her blue frock, her only garment"
"Sometimes we came to most enchanting spots formed by clumps of Palms and Charoubs amid the most unbounded fertility of Sugar canes, wheat &c &c. I could easily I think pitch my tent at one of them"
Village on the Nile
I left Cairo on the 8th Feby in a Germ of nearly the same kind as that I arrived in. I have constantly adhered to the recommendation of Dr Anderson in my transits from one place to another viz to chuse public rather than private modes of conveyance where I can. To ward fleas & other insects I make Ferdinando sew me up every night i.e. he sews up all the openings of my shirt and sews the pantaloons to it also by this means, and with a veil of Gauze I succeed tolerably well. My companions de voyage were about 80 turkish soldiers & their arab peasants or farmers with their wives. I had by this time learnt to get rid of my comfortable English prejudices a little and I did not find them so very dirty as one would imagine by their appearance, for in pursuance of their wholesome religious tenets they washed pretty often. One must more or less mix with uncomfortable people in travelling in these parts and the sooner one plunges into their society the less one feels the inconvenience of it. The arabs altho' obliged to knock under to the soldiers kept themselves as much as possible aloof from them and in all the intercourse that did take place shewed a degree of pride which I did not expect from people whom we are almost inclined to call savages. Ferdinando (who considered them in the light of Bestie) had a few words with one of the men about sleeping too near the window of my Cabin & he seemed to think he bestowed a great reproach upon us by the appellatus Strani (Foreigners) accompanied with a very expressive Sneer. In the course of the voyage I observed several other instances of the Superlitas Patria. If we will treat them as savages we must expect that they will be rather savage towards us I think. I can clearly discover great affection and hospitality towards each other and is not this the proper test of character?
The Wind was compleatly foul almost the whole of the voyage & sometimes very strong; but it generally moderated at night. I missed Benalhassar by passing it in the night. No other Villages which I passed through in walking afforded any antiquities or characters materially different from those I passed thro' in going up from Alexandria. The ugliest Women always ran away and hid their faces most (very naturally). A gentleman told me a few days ago that he once surprised an arab Woman without her veil who came down to the river for water & that to supply its place she make use of her blue frock, her only garment.
Sometimes we came to most enchanting spots formed by clumps of Palms and Charoubs amid the most unbounded fertility of Sugar canes, wheat &c &c. I could easily I think pitch my tent at one of them were it possible to forget the light little land in the Ocean and all that belongs to it. As to the Plague I think I could contrive to escape it, and when the french were in Egypt they certainly did much towards its extermination & it is the general opinion that had they remained long enough it would have been quite exterminated. As to the government I would as lease live under one which pretends not to govern by free & equitable laws and just representation as under one where I have daily the mortification to see myself gulled by the shadows of such things & where the remains of them are dwindling fast to decay. I don't say this is yet the case in England.
Were it not for the arbitrary "forms of government" perhaps Egypt would form a better asylum for our overgrown population than America. I have a great mind to cry it up in opposition to Peter & his friend Birkbeck but our government must help me. If the Turks & Arabs found a colony of English usefull to them which they could not fail to be they would soon discard most of their prejudices against us, we have already many friends amongst them with the Pasha at their head & we might I believe settle matters with the Turk on very advantageous terms, we might even enjoy our own form of government. Peter may say that an englishman would rather eat his crust of bread and cheese & damn Ministers over a Pot of Martineau's entrée than live in all the abundance of Egypt. But the time is going by Peter, we have seen our best days & Johnny cannot get his bone to growl over. Is there not alas many a poor mechanick with a capacious belly attatched to his own proper person & sundry smaller bellys [sic] dependent thereon who would in these sad times rather prefer a good belly full under a bad government to a good government and an empty stomach. The price of labour is something less than two pence a day per man (what is it in America?) and you may get as many labourers as you want (can you do so in America?). The prices of Provisions are as follow (what are they in America?). I have taken some pains to make the catalogue correct. Many of the articles are an average of what my arab friends gave under my own eyes and of what they bought for me so that they are not under rated and in Upper Egypt I am informed by every body that the prices are still lower, & I may remark that they are all excellent in Kind.
|Beef p lb. english||6d/-|
|A Sheep ----||8s/4|
|A couple of Fowls||8d|
|A pair of Pidgeons||2d/2|
|A Goose (fat)||1/|
|Bread p lb.||1d|
|Butter id--- salted||4d¾||fresh 3d|
|Eggs p dozen||1d [?]|
|Id. p Hundred||7d pence|
|Wood for burning per 110 lbs||1s8d|
|A Goat for Milk||12/6|
|A Horse for work||£10 to £12|
|A good Arabian||£30 to £50|
|A Camel||£4 to £5|
Notwithstanding these prices being so low every article pays a heavy duty to the pasha. Upper Egypt is free from the Plague even more, that is to say it never reaches beyond Girgeh.
"In comparing the advantages of emigration between America & Egypt I think one may safely say that the latter is far superior to the former in affording a much finer field for the exercise of talent of every kind... one is not so much tied to the clods"
In comparing the advantages of emigration between America & Egypt I think one may safely say that the latter is far superior to the former in affording a much finer field for the exercise of talent of every kind. The Antiquarian, the Scholar, The man of research in every branch of natural Science, The Mechanic, The merchant, The Manufacturer, may here reap as abundant harvests as the Cultivator, one is not so much tied to the clods.
I have been asked very often by Turks, Greeks & Franks why we don't take Egypt and when I tell them we have no right to do so & beside have foreign possessions enough already, they smile and tell me we are as much at liberty to take Egypt as India & that it would cost us nothing either in men or money. I believe nothing would be more easy than to take & keep Egypt provided we divided a little of the spoil with other legitimates, and if we had it we might soon make a Road (indeed there is one already) a hard & good Road (not a Canal) from Cairo to Suez. We might destroy the monopoly of the East India Company, we might beat all other traders to India out of the Market & John Bull might be himself again . I know that the navigation of the Red Sea is awkward but not unsurmountable if vessells were constructed for the purpose. Steam Boats might be applied here successfully perhaps. Excuse these wild speculations, I am not the first who has made them.
Mansoura is a large interesting town which I stoped a day at on the eastern bank of the Damiata branch, it is a sort of Market town much frequented by the neighbouring villagers to buy and sell & the Bazaars are well stocked. Even under this wretched government there appears to reign here something like content and fair dealing.
At another small town where I wanted to buy a lamb & other provisions I was obliged to apply to the magistrates or heads for permission. The self complacency of these gentlemen seated within a semicircular enclosure by a low mud wall on the base ground was fully as great as that of our city dons & they affected the same air of condescending importance. Having settled the business of my visit I was requested to sit down and a learned conversation began in which one of them displayed great erudition in explaining the use of my seal, an instrument little known as you may suppose amongst them.
We arrived here at Damiata on Sunday the 13th of Feby & I was received by the Consul Mr Suren[?] with great attention. He procured me a lodging in a Greek convent and insisted upon my dining with him every day, a condition which I complied with but had rather have been excused as being a greek he ate only a vegetable diet. He was highly delighted with my drawing stool which I presented him with and was sorry I had not a stack of Knick Knacks of late invention in England & France both here and at Cairo &c to give people. One ought always in travelling in these parts to bring such things.
Damiata affords absolutely nothing worthy of remark beside what has been frequently noticed by travellers, even the oven for hatching eggs is nothing rare. The neighbouring groves of Palms & gardens are pretty but the country is so much intersected with canals for refrigerating the land that one cannot walk or ride about them without great inconvenience & fatigue.
"the Phenomenon of the Mirage... is certainly one of the most extraordinary and striking things of these parts"
I have been waiting Ten days for a Borghaz, that is a favourable wind and a sufficient quantity of water to pass over the Bar of sand which almost closes the mouth of this branch of the Nile at about 6 miles from Damiata and will probably some day quite close it. I spent two days in the Desert on the West bank near the mouth attempting to discover some reasonable grounds to account for the Phenomenon of the Mirage which I observed in great perfection. This is certainly one of the most extraordinary and striking things of these parts. The appearances to me were these. Whilst standing on the sands near the river & looking westward it seemed that I was at about the distance of a mile from a lake of very still water extending to the Horizon & on walking towards this imaginary lake it seemed constantly to retreat before me until I had proceeded about two miles, then it seemed to be circumscribed in its most distant limits by some mounds of sand and the appearance became quite dissimilar to anything I had before seen & very difficult to describe. The Mounds of sand appeared to be partly elevated into the air, that is to say the upper parts of them were visible & some of the lower parts not, yet no cloud or mistiness or any other object obstructed the view. The Phenomenon vanished in proportion as I approached them but was renewed after I had passed them and on all sides of the horizon it was to be observed like patches or lakes as much in the direction I had come as in that I went. On my return, the little town on the West bank of the river, the masts of ships on the river and the Fort on the Point appeared to be reflected in these patches. I think at present that this extraordinary phenomenon must be occasioned by some difference in the rarity of the air at the lowest stratum in contact with the hot sands and consequently by the difference in its refractive power from the more elevated stratum, but I have not made up my mind on the subject for I cannot by this theory account for the reflexion of the objects. Clarke refers to a Paper of Monge in the transactions of the French Academy of Cairo who may probably have determined the question.
I met a frank in the Desert who had been discovered in an amour with a Turkish Woman at Damiata & was waiting for the Borghaz to make his escape from the vengeance of the turks. They had seized all his property and confiscated his head to the first person who chose to take it.