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Volume 27, Number 1January/February 1976

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Stephens and the Gentle Arabs

Written by John Brinton

Like today's itinerant youth, John Lloyd Stephens was a traveler who liked beards and hated baggage. In setting off to explore the Nile, for example, all he could think of was the pleasure of leaving custom behind—"Think of not shaving for two months!"—and the delight of traveling light—"We throw away everything except our pantaloons."

John Lloyd Stephens was one of America's first travel writers. At a time when the U.S. consul in Egypt registered just six visitors to Egypt, John Stephens took a boat up the Nile, recorded his impressions, went on to other parts of the Middle East and produced a travel book that put Egypt on the map for America. Later he led an expedition to Central America which uncovered the fantastic Mayan ruins.

Unlike many travel writers, however, John Lloyd Stephens produced books that were critically as well as commercially successful. Edgar Allan Poe found his Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land "highly agreeable, interesting and instructive," Van Wyck Brooks called him "the greatest of American travel writers" and Herman Melville thought of him as "that wonderful Arabian traveler."

John Lloyd Stephens was born in 1805, grew up in New York, endured a "birched-in" education in Latin and Greek, became a lawyer and, as a young man, joined a prestigious law firm where he would spend the next six years. During this time he also plunged into local politics. Fortunately, however, he became such an enthusiastic campaigner that his voice and health suffered and his doctor packed him off to Europe for a cure. For Stephens it was the start of an entirely new life. From Europe, quarter of the town amid what he described as an incredible collection of men and beasts, smells and swarms of flies. He was, he said "thinking more of his own movements than the Pyramids."

He also found that he was lonely. The only friendly face he could find in Alexandria was that of Mr. Gliddon, an English merchant recently appointed U.S. consul. But his enthusiasm returned after Mr. Gliddon made arrangements for him to go by boat to Cairo via the great new canal which linked Alexandria to the Nile. Stephens shared his canal boat on the five-day journey with Thomas Waghorn, who was then on his way to India and who would later develop a trans-Egyptian short cut to the Red Sea (See Aramco World, November-December, 1968).

In Cairo Stephens was met by George Gliddon, son of the U.S. consul and a man who made it his duty to look after Americans. Gliddon, an advocate of keeping Egypt's antiquities in Egypt, promptly arranged an introduction to Muhammad Ali, founder of modern Egypt and then its ruler. Muhammad Ali dispatched a splendid horse for Stephens to ride to the palace and received him in the grand audience chamber, a room 80 feet long, with arabesque paintings on the walls.

At that time Muhammad Ali was 65 years old and had, Stephens wrote, "strong features and uncommonly fine dark eyes." As he also had a shrewd interest in the non-colonial but powerful United States, Muhammad Ali listened patiently as Stephens told him that half the world was curious to see Egypt and suggested that a steamboat service should be set up between Alexandria and Cairo. The meeting went off very well and Muhammad Ali gratiously offered Egypt's hospitality to Stephens.

Some of the sights Stephens saw in Cairo dismayed him. At the Palais de Justice he saw a poor wretch having the soles of his feet beaten: the infamous bastinado. He also visited the slave market, where there were "five or six hundred slaves sitting on mats in groups, of ten, twenty or thirty, each belonging to a different proprietor." They were naked, he said, came from the Sudan and Abyssinia and were being sold at prices ranging from $20 to $100.

Nevertheless, his interest in Egypt was fully engaged and after much searching and dickering Stephens found a boat on which he could sail up the Nile. He purposely chose a small, 40-foot boat "for greater convenience in moving and towing," but its arrangements were primitive. He slept on a mattress on the floor of the main cabin and stored his belongings on "a swinging shelf" at the foot of the mattress. His sole companion was his Maltese servant, Paolo Nuzzo, who, Stephens commented, "was faithful as the sun, and one of the greatest cowards that luminary ever shone upon."

He set sail at precisely noon, January 1, 1836, "with a fair wind and the Star Spangled Banner (made by an Arab tailor) floating above us." The flag, Stephens noted, was important, as every stranger in Egypt had to fly the flag of his country lest soldiers commandeer his boat.

On the river Stephens quickly discovered something that few Egyptians will admit even today: Egypt can be very cold in the winter time. On the first morning out of Cairo, Paolo brought him a piece of ice "as thick as a pane of glass." And when they reached Mina ten days later it was still bitterly cold. Mina, however, boasted the luxury of a Turkish bath whose effects, he wrote, were marvelous. "I left the bath a different man; all my moral as well as physical strength was roused."

As traveling by sail was slow, due to adverse winds, Stephens followed a piece of good advice given him in Cairo: "With a fair wind, keep going." But he found time to observe an old man and his wife living in a tomb cut in the high cliffs bordering the Nile. They had been there 50 years, he said, and had kept a light burning perpetually in their tomb-like home. They also let down a basket when any traveler passed and the travelers always filled it with supplies.

When Stephens tied up to the bank at Assiut "a beautiful bright-eyed girl" appeared with her donkey. Stephens' description is typical of the warm interest in people that showed up constantly in his books: "Such a mild, open and engaging expression, and such propriety of behavior." He felt, he said, ashamed to be riding her donkey while she walked.

In Assiut, Stephens visited the famous rock tombs and attended an Egyptian funeral. He declared that his visit was "the most pleasant day he had spent since leaving Cairo on the legitimate business of a tourist."

Back on the river, Stephens was again appalled at seeing boatloads of slaves seized in the Sudan, but, scrupulously fair, noted that in Egypt "the slave is received into the family of the Turk in a relation more confidential and respectable than that of the ordinary domestic; and, when liberated, which often happens, stands upon the same footing as a free man." The Eastern attitude towards slavery, he suggests, certainly was more enlightened at that period than it was back in the U.S.

As he cruised along, Stephens wrote, he noticed that the flat landscape was dotted with whitewashed pigeon cotes, shaped like huge sugar loaves, with numerous pigeons constantly circling in the air. No one shot the pigeons, he said, because "they constitute a great portion of the wealth of the villagers," their manure being a wonderful fertilizer. Besides, there was other game: "hares in abundance and gazelle ... if a man can bring himself to it." On the river banks there were also wild duck and geese, but Stephens discovered that they were not worth shooting. They were so tough that no amount of cooking could make them tender.

Even tougher, however, were the crocodiles. Stephens says he shot at a crocodile, but might as well have thrown a stone at it. The bore of his gun was too small. On the other hand, he also laments that the crocodile "now symbolizes the march of improvements which has degraded him from the deity of a mighty people into a target for strolling tourists."

When they put in at Dendur, Stephens eagerly proposed marching across the desert to visit a nearby oasis and when his crew refused to go, for fear of the Bedouins, he started out alone. He soon returned, explaining that he had encountered three desperate-looking men—a typical 19th-century reaction to the then-unknown desert Arab.

To Stephens, the great temple at Dendur (See Aramco World, May-June, 1969) was one of the finest specimens of the arts of Egypt and one of the best preserved. The bas-reliefs in places were as fresh "as when they were first painted, as if but the work of yesterday." He also mentions his distress at discovering that Muhammad Ali was making use of the stone to build bridges and ports, and calls it "wanton destruction by the barbarous hand of man." A typical tourist, however, he himself proceeded to break off a beautifully chiselled head, thus demolishing in ten minutes the work of years. Obviously aware of his hypocrisy, he offers a flimsy excuse. He was, he wrote, "destroying to preserve."

His next stop was "immortal Thebes," where the French soldiers with Napoleon were reputed to have involuntarily thrown down their arms and stood in silent admiration. Stephens was equally impressed, but not by Thebes. He had spotted a boat flying the British flag and the thought of hearing his own language, after three weeks on the river, overwhelmed him.

There were two Englishmen on the boat when Stephens called, and at the Temple of Luxor Stephens met the rest of the party: three gentlemen and a lady. His first, typically American, impression was that they were putting on "airs," but on returning to his tent found an invitation to dinner. He accepted and later described the event as a "glorious evening ... a bright spot that I love to look back upon, more than compensating me for the weeks of loneliness." When they parted late at night they vowed eternal friendship and planned to meet soon.

Two days later he reached Aswan, the last town in Egypt. It was on the border of what was Ethiopia in those days, at the foot of the Nile cataracts. Ibrahim Pasha had built himself a small palace there where he could shut himself in and escape the plague. Opposite Aswan was Elephantine Island, as beautiful then as it is today, with its green banks sloping down to the river and the rugged mountains projecting in "rude and giant masses into the blue water." Those masses, Stephens said, are the rocks of dark granite "from which the mighty obelisks and monuments which adorn the ancient temples of Egypt were made."

Pushing on, Stephens had to hire some 50 men to haul the boat up through the first cataract, a furious rush of water, strewn with huge boulders and treacherous whirlpools. But to Stephens it was worth it just to observe the man in charge of the operation. Eighty years old, this man had spent most of his youth wandering across the Libyan desert until, for no apparent reason, he settled on a small island in the middle of the Nile cataracts. As he knew every eddy and had mentally marked the location of every stone in the river, he was considered the "most skillful pilot" on the river and, when he came on board, was received as if he had been "the great Pasha himself."

The second cataract was even more difficult, requiring 200 men to pull the boat through. But again it was worth the struggle, for when they were through they hauled up alongside the bank of the island of Philae. Stephens described the temple as "one of the most beautiful pictures I ever saw." He carved his name on the temple, but it was removed later by a French archeologist who was incensed that Stephens should have placed his name under that of the illustrious General Desaix of France.

On returning to his boat, Stephens found that another English boat had arrived. It belonged to the English consul in Alexandria, who was accompanied by his daughter. Stephens, possibly remembering the last "glorious" evening of British company, gave a dinner for them that evening at which he served Irish stew, macaroni pate and pancakes.

By then, Stephens had gone as far south as he intended. So about turn, and Stephens started back down the river.

On the return trip Stephens made no measurements and drew no classical analogies. Instead he observed the people and, in incident after incident, described them: Arab boys swimming through the rapids, crewmen praying on the boat at sunset and women clad, he says, in little more than strips of leather. Stephens didn't hesitate to buy one of these costumes right off a young girl's person, but confesses that he felt "somewhat delicate in attempting to buy the few inches that constituted the young girl's wardrobe."

He was also fascinated by grafitti on the various ruins, particularly when he chanced on the name of Cornelius Bradford, an old friend from New York who had subsequently died in Jerusalem.

When Stephens became tired of drifting with the current he would go ashore and ride his donkey along the bank. It was, apparently, quite a change. "I was glad to get back to my rascally donkey. If a man were oppressed and borne down with mental anxiety; if he were mourning and melancholy, either from the loss of a friend or an undigested dinner, I would engage to cure him. I would put him on a donkey, without saddle or halter, and if he did not find himself by degrees drawn from the sense of misery, and worked up into a towering passion, getting off and belaboring his brute with his stick and forgetting everything in this world but the obstinacy of the ass, and his own folly in attempting to ride one, man is a more quiet animal than I take him to be."

As he drifted down the Nile, Stephens decided to travel inland from Thebes for a while and hired six camels to make the journey. But all his plans collapsed when he fell victim of an intestinal ailment. Fortunately he met still more Englishmen who took him aboard their boat, kept him for a week and nursed him back to health.

One day out of Cairo, Stephens visited Egypt's Memphis—"greatest of its ruined cities"—and at the pyramids of Sakkara crawled down a shaft 40 feet deep from which he had to be dragged out by his heels. The miles and miles of catacombs, containing the remains of the sacred ibises, were amazing to Stephens. Some of the birds were preserved in jars, piled one on top of the other (See Aramco World, July-August, 1971). In those days close examination was possible. Some of the Arabs brought several jars above ground and when Stephens broke them open he was moved to comment: "With the pyramids towering above us, it was almost impossible to believe that the men who had raised such mighty structures had fallen down and worshipped the puny birds whose skeletons we were now dashing at our feet."

Stephens also decided then to ride to Giza, site of the three Great Pyramids. There he met his boat again, went on to Bulak, hired a donkey and galloped all the way to the Italian Hotel, where he was welcomed as an old friend and officially ended his trip up the Nile.

It was not, however, the end of his travels. After Egypt he set off for St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai desert. Later he visited Aqaba in today's Jordan, and Petra, where with the unblushing, yet appealing, patriotism of the period, he wrote: "I confess that I felt what I trust was not an inexcusable pride in writing upon the innermost wall of that temple the name of an American citizen."

Stephens also visited the Dead Sea—using a map later given to Lieutenant Lynch, the American naval officer who first charted the Jordan River (Aramco World, March-April, 1967). Finally, he visited Jerusalem and then returned to London, where he started work on the book that would make him famous and earn him the then staggering sum of $25,000 in royalties the first year it was in print.

As well as being a commercial and critical success Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land presented the Arab world in a totally new light at a time when most travelers thought it amusing and clever to see differences as failings. To Stephens, the Arabs were a much abused people whom he found—and described—as kind, honest and faithful, thankful for small favors and never discontented. He felt, on parting, that he was leaving behind trusted friends whom he saw, and wrote about, as the "gentle Arabs of the Nile." Not every traveler has been as perceptive.

John Brinton, now of London, is a bibliophile whose special interest is early American ties with the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the January/February 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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