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Volume 13, Number 1January 1962

In This Issue

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First Tourist In The Middle East

There were no travel agencies in 440 B. C. to smooth the path for Herodotus of Halicarnassus, whose on-the-spot reporting made him father of travel journalism.

On one bright September day a celebrated traveler and writer from the West stood on the banks of the Nile and listened as a group of Egyptians described to him the wonders of their country. From time to time he glanced at the map in his guide book to make sure that he was following them accurately. Repeatedly he interrupted with pertinent questions about Egyptian antiquities or local customs or the latest crisis in the Middle East. Which Pharaoh built this particular pyramid? How tall was that statue? Was last season's harvest sufficient or would food have to be imported by the government?

Nothing escaped the attention of this visitor. Back in his room he industriously set down his facts and his impressions in an elaborate file of notes, for he was gathering material for a book on the places he saw and the people he met along the way.

Is this, perhaps, John Gunther, about to take his readers "inside" the Middle East? Or Sacheverell Sitwell, preparing another sensitive, urbane account of his journeyings to the far and colorful corners of the globe?

No, the reference is to the predecessor of both Gunther and Sitwell, and indeed of all those who practice the art of travel writing. The year is 440 B.C., and the individual in question is the greatest tourist known to history—Herodotus of Halicamassus.

There may seem to be a touch of levity in calling the classical Greek historian a "tourist," for he hardly matches the popular conception of the species—the wide-eyed innocent abroad clicking a camera at everything the guide points out. But then the noted tourists of 1962 are not identical to this type either. Gunther and Sitwell fit what they see into a framework of extensive knowledge. So, too, did Herodotus.

When he explored the Middle East, he was never haphazard. He carefully planned his route in advance and just as carefully mastered the background material available to him in Athens. He checked the maps, read the written sources, consulted the natives of Egypt and Persia who happened to be in Greece, sounded out Greeks who had been in Libya and Babylonia, talked with sea captains who knew the eastern Mediterranean as well as they knew their home port of Piraeus, and examined exotic imports ranging from Phoenician dyes to Arabian spices.

To say that Herodotus carried a "guide book" on his trip to the Middle East is no exaggeration. He possessed a copy of the best travel manual of his time: The Map of the World by the Greek geographer Hecataeus, a portfolio of charts with explanatory text alongside—a traveler's atlas of the fifth century B.C.

All the arrangements for his journey Herodotus had to make for himself. Tourism was a do-it-yourself affair in those days: no tourist agencies, boat trains, sight-seeing buses or couriers waiting at the station. But all the necessities of tourism could be had en route as long as the traveler took along the one indispensable item—money. Instead of on a book of travelers' checks, Herodotus relied on a jingling bag of gold and silver coins.

To cross the Mediterranean, he bought passage on a Greek merchantman trading with the Middle East. Egypt was his first destination, and doubtless the captain of the vessel put him ashore at some point on the Nile delta. His tour of the Land of the Pharaohs was made on foot in the cities and on horseback or chariot in-between. At night he would bargain for a room with an Egyptian family. He stayed at "boarding houses" of this type across the Middle East from Memphis to Babylon.

No more than any modern tourist would Herodotus miss a voyage up the Nile. He gave a lively description of what it was like to be aboard the boats that plied the historic river—solidly built wooden vessels of several tons, driven by poles and oars and even equipped with sails. Over on the Euphrates he sailed in very different boats—primitive coracles of skin stretched across a half-sphere of wood: no oars or sails, just a turbulent ride downstream and a long walk back on the bank.

Herodotus may have traveled up the Mediterranean coast by sea. When, however, he struck inland toward Mesopotamia and Persia, he had the discomfort of long jolting horseback rides, although he was able to enjoy the comparative ease of a coach-and-pair on the Royal Road that ran 1,500 miles through the Persian Empire from Sardis to Susa.

His tour took him many months. He was constantly on the move, bustling around the places of greatest interest, residing in humble homes for a night or a week at a time, eating beef and barley in Memphis, shellfish in Tyre, baked camel in Persia and wild berries whenever he had to pause in mid-journey.

It was a test of will and stamina. Herodotus survived the test. About 40 years old at the time, he was a strongly built individual, taller than average, with a luxuriant beard and an expression in his eyes betokening intelligence and character. Not the kind of man to be defeated by hardships—especially when he had so many foreign lands and strange peoples to see.

Herodotus was the best kind of tourist in the sense that he was willing to see specific virtues in the foreign and the strange. This feeling comes out most obviously in his treatment of Egypt, where he was struck by the immense antiquity of the land and by the primeval wisdom of the scribes with whom he talked in Memphis and Sais. Comparing the differing methods of keeping track of the sun on the calendar, he confesses: "In my opinion the Egyptians mark the divisions of the year much more sensibly than the Greeks, who intercalate a whole month every year, while the Egyptians, dividing the period into twelve months of thirty days each, add but five extra days every year, so that the cycle of the seasons returns in a uniform sequence."

Philosophical, Herodotus is also anecdotal. For over two millennia countless readers have found this attribute his most beguiling charm. Everyone knows his story of Croesus and the Oracle—how the King of Lydia was informed that if he crossed the Halys River and attacked the Persians, a mighty kingdom would fall; how Croesus took this as an omen of victory, crossed the river, and met Cyrus in a decisive battle; and how Croesus found in defeat that the Oracle had really prophesied the fall of his own kingdom. Gems like this sparkle through the narrative, giving color and brilliance to the sober roll call of nations and dynasties.

Herodotus occasionally has been criticized because some of the stories he repeats appear to be incredible. In truth, he is almost a model of levelheaded incredulity, no more na'ive about the mythological and the absurd than most of the eminent thinkers of Greece and much less given to improbabilities than some modern writers. Every travel writer might well subscribe to the warning of Herodotus: "I must set down what I have been told, but I am not obliged to believe all of it."

With regard to the possible but unverified, Herodotus usually makes it clear that he is giving secondhand evidence to which he has not been an eyewitness. On one notable occasion he emphasizes the skepticism of his informant. Recounting what he heard about the source of the Nile from a scribe in Sais, he states in so many words that the scribe entertained an amused doubt as to the existence of a bottomless fountain in the hills south of Egypt.

When he comes to marvels like the phoenix, which he heard about in Heliopolis, he is inclined to accept the reality of the bird but not its 500-year longevity or its pious funeral rites for its parents in the Temple of the Sun. His belief in the flying serpents of Arabia is fair enough, for there was nothing preposterous in their description. They might have existed as surely as the crocodiles that he himself saw swimming in the Nile.

Wherever Herodotus stops in the Middle East, he tries to capture in words the salient characteristic of the place, the atmosphere that makes it unique, the thing to look for when anyone visits it. He is so successful that his book has not yet become completely outmoded as a guide to the Middle East.

For him, as for modern tourists, Egypt is the timeless "gift of the Nile, the land of Sphinx and Pyramid, of bright sun beating down overhead and dusty earth underfoot."

Up the Mediterranean coast, Phoenician Tyre is the home port of daring sailors and bold voyages into the unknown sea beyond the Pillars of Hercules (but Herodotus disbelieves what modern historians believe to be true, that the Phoenician mariners navigated around Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic).

To the east in the Land of the Two Rivers stands the stately metropolis—Babylon. Old, proud, strong, with massive walls protecting multi-storied temples and palaces, Babylon appealed to the eye of the Greek traveler, who found that "in magnificence there is no city to rival it."

Then there was the enchanted paradise far south of the Arabian desert—Arabia Felix, Arabia the Fortunate. We still picture Arabia Felix as Herodotus drew it for his readers: it lingers in human memory as the lush garden spot of the world where the very air blows with an aromatic fragrance because of the profusion of myrrh, frankincense and cinnamon.

Persia in the Herodotean travel mosaic is the grand imperial state, the enduring handiwork of the great Cyrus. Nothing impressed Herodotus more than his ride along the Royal Road from Sardis on the Mediterranean to Babylon above the Persian Gulf—a thousand miles with the evidence of settled Persian rule all around him. His verdict on the imperial "pony express" puts in a few words the awe with which he reacted to the mightiest power of his time: "Nothing mortal travels as rapidly as these Persian messengers."

When Herodotus had "done" Babylon, his tour of the Middle East was over. He was ready to write his book, which he did on his return to Athens. It made him the Father of History. It also made him the Father of all Travel Literature.

This article appeared on pages 10-12 of the January 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January 1962 images.