On 29 November 1873, Amelia Edwards and her companion, Lucy Renshaw, arrived in Cairo, driven south from Europe by prolonged wet weather. “Here, then, without definite plans, outfit, or any kind of Oriental experience, behold us arrived in Cairo…literally, and most prosaically, in search of fine weather.”
Staying at Shepheard’s Hotel, they searched for a dahabiyeh in which to travel up the Nile to Abu Simbel, eventually chartering “our dear, memorable ‘Philae.’” And so began an adventure that would result in a best-selling book, and would convince Amelia of the need to preserve the monuments of Egypt for future generations.
After leaving Cairo, Amelia and her party visited Saqqara and Memphis. Though enthusiastic about the Step Pyramid, Old Kingdom tombs and Serapeum at Saqqara, Amelia was rather less impressed by Memphis. “And that is all that remains of Memphis, eldest of cities – a few huge rubbish heaps, a dozen or so broken statues, and a name.”
Most ancient sites between Memphis and Asyut were left unvisited, to be studied on the return voyage, but, finding themselves becalmed near Denderah one day, they set off to visit the temple there. They found that only the interior had been excavated, and just two-thirds of the height was visible above the surrounding mounds of debris; a steep temporary staircase descended to the original floor level. Amelia was distressed by the damage that had been done to the temple. “Time has neither marred the surface of the stone nor blunted the work of the chisel. Such injury as they have sustained is from the hand of man.”
Arriving in Luxor, of which they had “read and dreamed so much”, their first stop was the Temple of Luxor, where the interior of the temple was a “labyrinth of lanes and passages” and it was impossible to trace the plan of the building.
And so they moved on to explore Karnak, whose wonders completely eclipsed those of the neighbouring temple. “How often has it been written, and how often must it be repeated, that the Great Hall at Karnak is the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hands?”
On the return voyage, Amelia and her companions once more visited Luxor, witnessing the opening of a tomb near the Ramesseum, and visiting the nearby tombs at Qurna, the Ramesseum itself and the other west bank temples. Amelia was delighted to find the colossal statue at the Ramesseum, described by Diodorus as the largest in Egypt. “Ruined almost beyond recognition as it is, one never doubts for a moment that this statue was one of the wonders of Egyptian workmanship. It most probably repeated in every detail the colossi of Abou Simbel; but it surpassed them as much in finish of carving as in perfection of material.” And, of course, no visit would have been complete without a trip to the Valley of the Kings. “To go down into one of these great sepulchres is to descend ones’-self into the Lower World, and to tread the path of the shades…The atmosphere is suffocating. The place is ghostly and peopled with nightmares.”
Shepheard's Hotel, Denderah, Luxor Temple, Hypostyle Hall Karnak, Philae, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo
The next major port of call was Esna, where finding the temple posed some problems. Eventually, “This is what we see…a Temple neither ruined nor defaced, but buried to the chin in the accumulated rubbish of a score of centuries.” Amelia was disappointed that the majority of the temple remained unexcavated under the surrounding town. “What treasures of sculptured history, what pictured chambers, what buried bronzes and statues may here wait the pick of the excavator!”
They sailed on to Aswan, where one of the highlights was going to the quarries to see the 'Unfinished Obelisk'. “Being cut horizontally, it lies half buried in drifted sand, with nothing to show that it is not wholly disengaged and ready for transport. Our books tell us, however, that the under-cutting has never been done, and that it is yet one with the granite bottom on which it seems to lie. Both ends are hidden; but one can pace some sixty feet of its yet visible surface…We can never know why it was left here…” Today, the reason is all too obvious, as, now that the obelisk has been cleared of sand, a huge crack can be seen.
Their next stop was Philae. Amelia was struck by the beauty of the whole temple, where “perfect grace, exquisite proportion, most varied and capricious grouping, here take the place of massiveness”, but she was saddened by the destruction carried out in later ages.
Then they pressed on towards Abu Simbel as quickly as possible. The party spent eighteen days there, exploring and sketching the temples. The crew cleaned one of the colossal statues that was “still disfigured by the plaster left on it when the great cast was taken by Mr Hay more than half a century before.” They removed any small remaining lumps of plaster and tinted the white patches with coffee – probably not a procedure that would be approved today! And with the help of men from a nearby village, they cleared a small chapel found by ‘the Painter’.
Venturing to Wadi Halfa, Amelia spotted the site of future EES excavations at Buhen, though she found it unimpressive at the time. “There are a few broken pillars, a solitary fragment of brick pylon, some remains of a flight of stone steps leading down to the river, and a wall of enclosure overgrown with wild pumpkins. These ruins…mark the site of a lost city belonging to the early days of Usertesen (Senwosret) III.”
At the Second Cataract, the journey southward ended, and the travellers turned for home.
At Kom Ombo, Amelia recorded that, “…there remain only a few giant columns buried to within eight or ten feet of their gorgeous capitals; a superb fragment of architrave; one wave of sculptured cornice and some fallen blocks graven with the names of Ptolemies and Cleopatras.” And at Edfu, she was impressed by the recent clearance work by Mariette. “Who enters that gate crosses the threshold of the past, and leaves two thousand years behind him. In these vast courts and storied halls all is unchanged. Every pavement, every column, every stair, is in its place.”
At Abydos, she felt the temple of Seti I at Abydos to be “one of the most beautiful of Egyptian ruins”, but sadly, did not illustrate it. And the travellers missed their much-awaited visit to Beni Hasan. “The day we reached that part of the river, a furious sandstorm was raging; such a storm that even the Writer was daunted. Three days later, we took the rail at Bibbeh and went on to Cairo, leaving the Philae to follow as fast as wind and weather might permit.”
One of Amelia’s first excursions, and her last on returning to Cairo, was to the Giza Plateau, to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Her first impression was of awe and wonder, and on the return visit, she climbed the Great Pyramid, atop which she marvelled at the theories that abounded about them even then. “Recognising how clearly the place is a great cemetery, once marvels at the ingenious theories which turn the pyramids into astronomical observatories, and abstruse standards of measurement. They are the grandest graves in all the world – and they are nothing more.”
And so ended her grand tour. Returning to England, she worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the threats to the ancient monuments of Egypt, and to advocate scientific research and preservation. With Reginald Stuart Poole, she co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund, and largely abandoned her literary career to advance the Fund’s work. On her death, she bequeathed her collection of Egyptian antiquities and her library to University College London, together with a sum of money, to found a Chair in Egyptology – the first Egyptology teaching position in England – whose first incumbent was Flinders Petrie.
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