Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing

By James Duncan; Derek Gregory | Go to book overview
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Scripting Egypt

Orientalism and the cultures of travel

Derek Gregory

The Gods seem to have arranged the Nile Valley sights so that the traveller can read Baedeker’s illuminating description of the next place on the programme in plenty of time to appear intelligent and profit by the visit, and also to appreciate the joyous donkey ride to and from some grave or shrine, without even hurrying over a meal.

Wilfrid Thomason Grenfell


In 1845 W.H. Bartlett was hesitant to contribute to the growing library of books on Egypt. ‘To add another book on Egypt to the number that have already appeared’, he wrote, ‘may almost appear like a piece of presumption.’ But he distinguished between the ‘army’ of erudite savants schooled in archaeology, history and natural history—a reference to the scholars who had accompanied Napoleon’s army of occupation in Egypt between 1798 and 1801—and those who, like himself, were enlisted in what he called the ‘flying corps of light-armed skirmishers, who, going lightly over the ground, busy themselves chiefly with its picturesque aspect’ and ‘aim at giving lively impressions of actual sights’ (Bartlett 1849, iii). Whatever the merits of the distinction, there was no doubt about Bartlett’s success: his account, The Nile Boat, or glimpses of the land of Egypt, turned out to be one of the canonical texts of travel in Egypt.

Succeeding authors made the same show of reluctance and then, just like Bartlett, pressed on regardless. Thirty-odd years later, when Charles Warner set out to record his impressions, he observed ‘that if the lines written about Egypt were laid over the country, every part of it would be covered by as many as three hundred and sixty-five lines to the inch’ (Warner 1876, vi). The imagery was irresistible. Charles Leland advised travellers that ‘for the practical part of your journey you consult guide-books and all kinds of literary Nilometers to see how high it will rise in prices or how low it will ebb in your purse’ (Leland 1875, 264). And T.G. Appleton conceded that, just as ‘every year a little deposit of useful mud is left by the Nile upon its banks, [so] every year sees deposited upon


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