THE British Isles have bequeathed to the world, among many important benefits, an agree able legacy of eccentrics, many of whom for one reason or another have discovered the full measure of their potential only when living abroad. The following, in an extract from a journal kept when travelling in Upper Egypt in early 1976, is about one of them, Umm Seti, The Mother of Seti.
Extract from my journal dated 20 January 1976:
Drove to Abydos to look at Seti's temple. Usual journey across scrubby country that becomes gentler and more varied north of Nag Hammadi. Full of stern men in indigo robes, swathed in scarves against the cold and riding small donkeys. Unpredictable and wild country; people mock and jeer, have loud voices and are prone to violent and unexpected gestures. Another drama of Egyptian rural life was beginning as we returned from Abydos, armed police advancing in extended line on a village of jumbled brown houses among palm trees; in the distance indigo men and confused running figures. Road a lethal combination of switchbacks, erratic local buses and taxis all driving far too fast, and unsteady overladen animals.
But it was Umm Seti's day. Born Dorothy Eadey in 1903, the only child of respectable middle class parents, Umm Seti was determined to come to Egypt from the age of six. Earlier, at the age of three she had suffered a severe fall down some stairs. The local doctor believed it had killed her but after lying in a coma for some time she recovered and was thereafter often found weeping complaining that she wanted to 'go home'. At six she had been given a book about Egypt in which there was a picture of the Temple of Abydos. She showed it to her father saying that it was the home to which she wished to return and crying because it was 'all broken down'. Sent to a convent school in Brussels she confided to an aunt that like Hero she would swim the Hellespont to the Asiatic mainland to make her way to Egypt if she could find no other way of getting there. She was quickly removed and the family subsequently cancelled plans to emigrate to Australia in face of her determination to jump ship at Port Said.
Her formal education was negligible. Before the family moved to Plymouth she spent her time in London playing truant in the Egyptian Rooms at the British Museum ('a fat little girl wandering about the place'), where the great Egyptologist, Wallis Budge, took a lilting to her and taught her to read hieroglyphics. As a young woman she worked for a Wafdist (Nationalist Party) publication in London ('I went about telling everyone that the Egyptians were quite capable of governing themselves - God forgive me!') where she met her future husband, a Wafdist lawyer. After her marriage, which was opposed by her family, (and quite probably by his) she achieved her ambition to live in Egypt.
Umm Seti was undoubtedly a headstrong and difficult child. But she seems to have come to some sort of understanding with her father who looked, she claimed, like the statue of Ka-Afer at the Cairo Museum. Indeed there seems to have been a bond of sympathy between the two. She related how as a young woman at Plymouth hearing of the escape of a prisoner from Dartmoor, she stole out at night to leave a jacket and a pair of shoes for him to find. Returning into the darkened house she bumped into her father bent on the same errand. They swore each other to secrecy. I do not recall that she ever referred to her mother.
Her marriage did not last long. She could not or would not cook and her mother-in-law was reputed to be the best cook in Egypt. Nor did she enjoy social life. By mutual consent the couple divorced after a son was born and she took the name Bulbul Abdel Magid. She was co-opted onto the staff of the Egyptian Antiquities Department working under Professor Hassim. After a good deal of badgering on her part the Department made her responsible for the Temple of Abydos in 1956 where, as Umm Seti, she has remained ever since.
Umm Seti conducted us around 'her' temple, removing her shoes before entering. In terms of scale and decoration it must be one of the most perfect in Egypt and the reliefs compare favourably with anything produced in the Early and Middle Periods. The movement and character conveyed in simple lines of sculpting are quite astonishing but they are too well known to need description here.
Umm Seti speaks of the Pharaonic rulers and gods as might a nanny who has seen generations of the same family come and go and now lives in honourable retirement in the ancestral home. Seti she reveres. Ramses II she disapproves of (though she seems secretly rather proud of him), mainly because he took the credit for much of his father's work which was largely undecorated where completed when he died. Akhenaton she despairs of as a homosexual obsessed with theology, pretty boys, poetry and intermittently, Nerfertiti, but above all because he allowed the Empire to crumble. To her the Pharaonic is a living religion. She refused tinned sardines for lunch because by eating them she would make herself unclean and thus unfit to visit the temple for the next twenty-four hours. Apparently the poor people's invariable diet of fish, lentils, garlic and onions automatically disqualified them from participation in temple ceremonies. Nevertheless they worshipped Osiris as the source of all life.
The heavy breasted men on certain bas-reliefs at e.g. Luxor depict the Nile as 'father and mother' of Egypt, 'giving and nourishing life', that is to say they are not mere hermaphrodites. The reason why so many ithyphallic representations of Amun-min, Mm or even in one instance Osiris himself are defaced is not because they outraged Christian prudery in the fourth century but because infertile women hacked the important bit out as a charm. The continuity between local practice in Pharaonic and present times is still strong in rural Egypt. The lettuce carved on the wall of Seti's cenotaph was the vegetable of virility and remains so to this day. Village women buy them eagerly when freshly picked for flagging husbands. (NB: Herodotus writes that Cambyses killed his Egyptian wife because she accused him of reducing Egypt in power and extent as much as she reduced a lettuce to its stalk by stripping it of its leaves. But if Umm Seti is correct it seems quite possible that she was taunting him with a - perhaps on ly temporary - loss of virility.) Efet, the Goddess of childbirth, is represented as a heavily pregnant woman with a hippopotamus' head holding a knife. In Upper Egypt today a woman giving birth squats with her feet apart on two bricks holding a kitchen knife to ward off evil spirits. The same knife lies beside her and her baby for seven days thereafter. The practice, current in many rural districts still, of rolling a baby in a sieve full of spices and jumping over it seven times chanting 'Obey me but not your father!' dates from Pharaonic times when women's authority was greater than men's.
In general women seem to have had more fun in those times than in any since. But in one important respect modern Egyptian taste is different from that of his Pharaonic forebears. Pharaonic women are always shown to be slender. Young women in rural Egypt still possess slim figures but the Egyptian male now likes his women plump and well rounded, so a young women hoping to catch a man will wear three or four petticoats to fill herself out, even in summer. I suspect this may be due to Turkish and/or Mameluke influence. In Hadji Baba of Isphalan James Morier notes that Turkish men prefer their women well covered whereas in Persia they prefer them slim. This of course in the eighteenth century. (NB: The significance of this - insofar as it has any - may be primarily social. It is relatively rare for the women of nomadic or pastoral peoples to be other than slim. They work too hard for it to be otherwise. Plumpness is an urban attribute and in expressing such preferences a man may be doing so more than voicing asp irations towards a different lifestyle, one more comfortable and less demanding than herding animals or tilling the soil, i.e. of becoming a member of the administrative or clerical class as represented by the Turks. In a film about Mauretanian nomads a husband is heard complaining that his wife's bottom is too thin. She has a figure like Naomi Campbell so what he is really saying is that he would like a life of idleness as the dependant of a rich woman in the capital Naoukchott where fatness is the sign of having arrived, especially among women who have divorced and run their own businesses. It is synonymous with wealth and independence and they recline on their sides in their tiny shops like elephant seals. But I expect all this will change under the assault of Western television, especially in Mauretania where there must be more satellite dishes to the square yard than anywhere on earth.) Umm Seti claims that Pharaonic superstitions and charms against impotence are still resorted to in her village. Women w ho wish to conceive will come into the temple to rub the feet of Isis while pressing a hand to their abdomen. They regard Isis simply as a 'good woman' without knowing who she is. And so on. Fertility is such an important thing for a woman, especially the birth of sons, that those who cannot conceive will have recourse to almost anything.
What of Umm Seti herself? Small, wiry, careless of appearance. Dressed in a grey knitted cap, black windcheater and trousers which looked as if they had been cut out of an old Turkish carpet. Her lower (artificial) teeth have been ground to nothing and her gums are a bright orange. She is an eccentric in the fashion of a good many English women who have taken to the East, i.e. a mixture of battiness and extreme practicality. Writing this I realise immediately that it must sound patronising. She has found her world and is very much of a power in the village, whose acceptance of her eccentricity is the stronger for the fact that she does not know how to bake bread. Gods did not, of course; others did it for them and this gives her an authority greater than that which might be obtained by someone in search of the simple life. And no doubt they find her devotion to the temple as something apart, touched by the mysterious, which might make her a bad woman to cross. Her name, Umm Seti, was given to her almost as s oon as she came to live in the village twenty-three years ago since Muslims regard it as disrespectful to call a married woman by any other name than the mother of her son. Being middle aged it was assumed she had been married. But since she had effectively abandoned her son, unknown to the villagers, and made no claim to one she was called Umm Khairy after her senior cat until her devotion to Seti earned her her present title.
Umm Seti's eyes never focus on the person to whom she is talking. They remain fixed - a bright unclouded blue - on the middle distance. She believes in re-incarnation and explains her devotion to Seti by the fact (as indeed it is to her) that she was once a priest or priestess in his service. The knowledge of this was hidden in her subconscious until she had her fall at the age of three. From then her life until her arrival at Abydos was a search for her real home identified at the age of six. On a more mundane level she enjoys presents of English tea, soap etc. to supplement what she buys from the village, ditto for future reference Lea & Perrins sauce and curry powder. (NB: Looking through my journal I see that we had brought her ginger biscuits but the privations of our joumey were such that I am ashamed to admit that I ate them.)
Umm Seti does not hide herself away in her temple. She abounds with curiosity about village life and traditions. Life is rich and varied in its everyday detail despite its changeless quality. My impression that Upper Egypt is actually a rather violent place, which has been growing the further south we go is confirmed by her account of the feuds which ravage small communities like hers. The father or brother of an adulterous woman is bound to redeem the family honour by cutting her throat and leaving her body exposed in the desert. A young girl was sought in marriage by two men, one a local farmer, the other a rich Egyptian from Kuwait. She was promised to the latter. On the wedding night the disappointed suitor appeared at the feast with a show of friendship. As the bridegroom left the room to join his bride upstairs he followed him and shot him dead, waiting for the traditional fusillade of shots which greets the consummation of marriage before he did so so that his shot would not be heard. The Egyptians rec ognise crimes of passion and Umm Seti believes he would have received no more than two years. It seemed indelicate to ask whether he later married the girl, though I would imagine that he did not.
In Umm Seti's estimate traditional Egyptian village life was beginning to break down under the combined assault of overpopulation and western consumerism, tourism, etc. Most young men left to find work, usually as plasterers and masons, elsewhere in the Middle East, especially Kuwait. Religious divisions are emerging which have lain hidden for centuries. The position of the Coptic communities is becoming more insecure and they are the first to feel the pinch of hardship. A Muslim farmer will employ a Copt to till his fields for him. The Copts are clearly in a subordinate position, as befits any non-Muslim community living under Muslim rule, but there is no apparent open enmity. Where there is intercommunal violence it is almost always over land and irrigation, a perennial problem in places like this. There are those who claim that they can tell the difference between Copt and Muslim merely by looks though they seem indistinguishable, a matter of expression in face and eyes. Many Copts wear a small cross tatto oed on the inside of their wrists.
Umm Seti has never returned to England since finding her 'home'. Nor has she been to Cairo for fifteen years. When we asked how she had fared in the Second World War she replied that when the Axis was threatening Cairo she had been prepared to leave rather than face internment. But Professor Hassim had advised her to remain. The Germans, he explained, would probably reward her with the Iron Cross. 'But I would have thrown it back in their faces', she said. A priestess of Seti needs no such recognition and she remains after all still English to the core.
I record this verbatim from a journal written at the time, with just the occasional commentary. Umm Seti died in the mid-1980s and is buried beside her temple with her cache of beer which she was hoarding for life in the next world. When we visited her Egypt was just beginning to open up after the period of Nasser's rule and the loss of Sinai and Canal ports in the 1967 war. All this had been recovered in 1973 but mass tourism, of which in the early days of the century Egypt had been the laboratory, still had to recover its confidence. On a leisurely fourteen days' Journey by car of Upper Egypt we saw only groups of East Europeans and Russians and once, emerging expressionless from a tomb, a delegation of Mongolian officials, very much the kind of people one would have expected to see in Nasserist times. They did not seem very happy or popular; their time was up and they had no hard currency the prospect of which, after years of deprivation, awoke the cupidity of the guides and hoteliers. The one exception wa s a pair of stoical and witty American ladies for the privilege of escorting whom the guides fought each other gleefully.
In the 1980s the flood gates opened and Umm Seti seems to have become something of a cult figure. I do not think she would have enjoyed that dubious status but if it brought a little trade to her village she would have played her part without complaint. I can only hope she was kept well supplied with all the little comforts she missed.
Since she died Islamic Fundamentalism has done much to discourage tourism. It has also exacerbated the difficulties faced by the Coptic communities and provided young Muslim men with a new outlet for their energies, hitherto directed towards earning a living in the Gulf States.
Umm Seti invites comparison with other notable eccentric English ladies, especially perhaps Lady Hester Stanhope. But the differences are important. The latter was of patrician birth and a political hostess. Only when her uncle the Prime Minister William Pitt died, did she take to her wanderings. Throughout her travels she was initially feted and rode in pomp into Palmyra of which she was tempted to proclaim herself queen. In her final refuge at Deir Djoun on Mount Lebanon she at first received a steady stream of important visitors. But she became too demanding and, if never a bore, tedious and peremptory in her behaviour. She interfered constantly in local affairs and tried the patience of everyone, most especially that of the British Consul at Beirut. She never married but had a succession of lovers almost all of whom, with one notable exception (a French officer), appear to have treated her badly though almost certainly provoked beyond endurance by her own caprices. In the end she surrendered to a lonely d ementia, deserted by her friends, plagued by debts, robbed by her servants, clothed in rags and obsessed with the occult. Whatever her aspiration it clearly remained unfulfilled in this life. She was, one must assume, one of the great romantics. Umm Seti, altogether a more prosaic and modest person, seems to have achieved hers, both in this life and, one imagines, in the next. There was never any question in her mind as to the purpose of her life and I doubt if she ever asked herself what she was here for. Unlike others it was not the vague and ill-defined lure of the east which brought her to Egypt but something quite specific, the worship of a Pharaonic king later deified whom she sought to serve in this world until she could join him in the next, still as his servant.…