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

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2.2 Amelia Edwards – traveller

Amelia Edwards was a late nineteenth-century English traveller to Egypt. She wrote a lively account of her journey up the Nile in 1874 (first published in 1877). As a result of her growing interest in the place, she went on to found the Egypt Exploration Society and to fund a Chair in Egyptology at London University.

Activity 2 Amelia Edwards – traveller

Read the quotations below and then answer this question:

  • What would you pick out as key features of Amelia Edwards’ Orientalism?

We intended of course to go up the Nile; and had anyone ventured to inquire in so many words what brought us to Egypt, we should have replied: ‘stress of weather’. For in simple truth we had drifted hither by accident, with no excuse of health or business or any serious object whatever; and had just taken refuge in Egypt as one might turn aside into the Burlington Arcade or the Passage des Panoramas – to get out of the rain ... Here then, without definite plans, outfit, or any kind of Oriental experience, behold us arrived in Cairo on the 29th of November 1873.

(pp. 2–3)

These half buried pylons, this solitary obelisk, those giant heads rising in ghastly resurrection before the gates of the Temple, were magnificent still. But it was the magnificence of a splendid prologue to a poem of which only garbled fragments remain. Beyond that entrance lay a smoky, filthy, intricate labyrinth of lanes and passages. Mud hovels, mud pigeon-towers, mud yards and a mud mosque ... [A]ll the sordid routine of Arab life was going on, amid winding alleys that masked the colonnades and defaced the inscriptions of the Pharaohs.

(p. 141)

I shall not soon forget an Abyssinian caravan which we met one day coming out from Mahatta. It consisted of seventy camels laden with elephant tusks ... Beside each shambling beast strode a bare-footed Nubian. Following these, on the back of a gigantic camel, came a hunting leopard in a wooden cage, and a wild cat in a basket. Last of all marched a coal-black Abyssinian nearly seven feet in height, magnificently shawled and turbaned, with a huge scimitar dangling by his side ... Anything more picturesque than this procession, with the dust driving before it in clouds, and children following it out of the village, it would be difficult to conceive. One longed for Gérome to paint it on the spot.

(p. 205)

Source: Amelia B. Edwards (1891 [1877]) A Thousand Miles Up The Nile, 2nd edn, George Routledge and Sons, London..

Discussion

There is the same sense of exoticism we find in Flaubert (albeit divested of the overtly sexual dimension which runs through the French writer’s account). In these extracts though, Edwards is more inclined to separate the grandeur of ancient Egypt from contemporary life than to assimilate the two. It is also interesting that she views Egypt very much in the terms provided by nineteenth-century Orientalist visual art. Her description of the temple of ancient Thebes at Luxor is couched in the mode of the paintings of David Roberts, while the camel caravan encountered on her journey to Abu Simbel instantly conjures up the work of the French Orientalist painter Jean-Leon Gérome.