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American Travelers in Egypt: 1870-1903

What began as a small trickle of American travelers to Egypt in the early part of the nineteenth century became a steady stream, rivaling the flow of the Nile, by the first years of the twentieth century.

By the late 1860s, Thomas Cook and Son began offering Nile excursions on steamers and luxurious dhahabîyehs, reducing much of the hardship of earlier travel. These conveniences brought more American visitors to Egypt, ranging from noted public figures to midwestern businessmen and their families. Soon, the exotic locales of Nubia and the oases of the Western Sahara Desert were offered as de rigueur stops on the Grand Tour for American travellers.

In 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the guise of Mark Twain made a tour of Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land and described them in his book Innocents Abroad (1869). Americans who later traveled through these same regions liked to retell Twain's witty anecdotes and observations which they compared to their own experiences.

A number of the other Americans who published books based on their own journeys to Egypt included Lincoln's Secretary of State William H. Seward and his daughter Olivia (1871); essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1872-1873); industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1879); journalist Richard Harding Davis (1892); illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1897-1898); and writer Henry Adams (1898).

U.S. GrantAmong the other American visitors to Egypt at this time, but with a much different purpose, were hundreds of Civil War veterans who joined the army of the Khedive Ismail, serving in his Ethiopian wars. Among those who wrote accounts of their adventures were William Wing Loring, Charles Chaillé-Long, and William Dye.

As the century progressed, travel became easier and the reviewer's prediction became a reality. Thus, in 1895 we find Agnes Repplier's (1855-1950) account of "Christmas Shopping in Assuân" in Atlantic Monthly where she notes, "shopping on the Nile is a very different matter from shopping on Chestnut Street or Broadway" (p.681).

By 1908, travel accounts were no longer tales of adventure and hardship, but the tongue-in-cheek travails described by Lillian C. Gilpin in "To the Pyramids with a Baby Carriage" appearing in Harper's Weekly:

The wheels of the baby's "Desert Schooner" cling sorrily, so we halt, rig up a sort of awning over the little one's head by means of a cotton sheet brought for the purpose, and a couple of maize sticks pulled at the foot of the great monuments to Time (p.30).

For some, more bored than awed, this new traveler's Egypt had lost the sense of wonder earlier travellers found. Travelers such as the woman quoted in Constance Fenimore Woolson's (1840-1894) "Cairo in 1890":

I have spent nine long days on this boat, staring from morning till night. One cannot stare at a river forever, even if it is the Nile! Give me a thimble (p.665).

Though perhaps lacking in the scope and grandeur of European accounts, the American experience in Egypt has left an important and fascinating record in a wealth of travel accounts.

My Winter on the NileAs Woolson later noted, the American experience is still in its infancy compared to the European nations:

In connection with the pyramids, the English may be said to have devoted themselves principally to measurements. The genius of the French, which is ever that of expression, has invented the one great sentence about them. So far, the Americans have done nothing by which to distinguish themselves; but their time will come, perhaps. One fancies that Edison will have something to do with it (pp.670-71)

In retrospect, we can now see it was not Edison, but rather the collected volumes of travel accounts with which Americans made their mark.


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