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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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2.1 Gustave Flaubert – novelist

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert famously travelled with the writer Maxime du Camp through Egypt and the Holy Land in 1849. Modern critical scholars, notably Edward Said, have come to regard Flaubert’s account of his travels as a locus classicus of Orientalism.

Activity 1 Gustave Flaubert – novelist

Read the quotations below and then answer this question:

  • What would you pick out as key features of the attitude indicated by these quotations?

When we were two hours out from the coast of Egypt I went into the bow with the chief quartermaster and saw the seraglio of Abbas Pasha like a black dome on the blue of the Mediterranean. The sun was beating down on it. I had my first sight of the Orient through, or rather in, a glowing light that was like melted silver on the sea.

(p. 28)

So here we are in Egypt, ‘land of the Pharaohs, land of the Ptolemies, land of Cleopatra’ (as sublime stylists put it). Here we are and here we are living ... What can I say about it all? ... each detail reaches out to grip you; it pinches you, and the more you concentrate on it the less you grasp the whole. Then gradually all this becomes harmonious and the pieces fall into place of themselves. But the first days, by God, it is such a bewildering chaos of colours that your poor imagination is dazzled ... There is much jostling and arguing and fighting and rolling on the ground ... Semitic syllables crack the air like whiplashes. You brush against all the costumes of the Orient.

(pp. 79–80)

As soon as I landed at Alexandria I saw before me, alive, the anatomy of the Egyptian sculptures: the high shoulders, long torsos, thin legs, etc. The dances that we have performed for us are of too hieratic a character not to have come from the dances of the old Orient, which is always young because nothing changes. Here the Bible is a picture of life today.

(p. 81)

We rise at dawn; drawn up on the beach are four slave-traders’ boats. The slaves come ashore and walk in groups of fifteen to twenty, each led by two men. When I am on my camel, Hadji-Ismael runs up to give me a handshake. The man on the ground raising his arm to shake the hand of a man mounted on his camel, or to give him something, is one of the most beautiful gestures of the Orient; especially at the moment of departure there is something solemn and sad about it.

(pp. 180–1)

Source: Gustave Flaubert (1996 [1972]) Flaubert in Egypt. A Sensibility on Tour (trans. and ed. Francis Steegmuller), Penguin Classics, London.


The first is a sense of strangeness and exoticism; the ‘other’ of what the writer has hitherto experienced in Europe. Flaubert is renowned for finding the heart of the matter in an apparently insignificant detail. Here it is the raised arm at a moment of departure, which somehow crystallises both the teeming medley of sensations on the one hand, and the stasis and melancholy on the other, which make up Flaubert’s imaginative sense of the Orient. For him, ancient Egypt seems to be on a continuum with his contemporary present: in his Orient, nothing changes, except perhaps, to decline.