A great ball and a near drowning

In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-nine.

Thursday, 4 March
Landed at 2 p.m., drove to Shepherds Hotel – not a bed to be had in the place. All the hotels full; a great ball taking place that night intended for the Prince and Princess of Wales; parties came from Suez, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, paid for by the Viceroy. So all Mr. Cook could do was to obtain leave for us to sleep on the steamers another night … Capt. Reis came on board next morning but all the officials had been discharged. Louis the steward who was so attentive was present; he received £3 from us, Hassan £1. At Thebes we gave the sailors a Napoleon – they bought a sheep. Mr. Cook quite well now; he was nearly drowned on the Nile one Sunday when bathing with several of our party.

After three weeks onboard, sleeping in cupboard-sized cabins, Thomas Cook’s must have been desperate for a decent bed on dry land. How disappointed they must have been to find not a single hotel room vacant and to have to return to sleeping on the boat. This would be a recurring problem in the history of tourism to Egypt – at various times well into the 20th century Nile steamers were pressed into service providing for visitors who couldn’t get a hotel room.

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Nothing to report

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-eight.

Wednesday, 3 March
On the 3rd March we had a narrow channel to make and alternately our steamers grounded for ten hours. Once our captain had taken the rope from the Beniswaif and in a passion he let it into the water – a quarrel on both sides and the Beniswaif steamed off and left us in the lurch. Very passionate captains – danced about in rage – Arabic most vociferous. In the evening they would make it up and play chess, smoke pipes and sip coffee. We had 3 or 4 pilots and if we had not threatened to go ashore and take the train, or telegraph, we should not have been off even next morning … So much for Nile travelling where nothing can be believed or depended upon.

After Thursday 25 February Miss Riggs did not make another diary entry for a full five days. During this time she and her fellow members of Cook’s party were onboard their two hired steamers making their way down the Nile from Luxor back to Cairo. We can only assume they made no stops and Miss Riggs found nothing about life onboard of sufficient interest to bother recording it.

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Back down the Nile

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-two.

Thursday, 25 February
Rose at 2 in the morning to see the Southern Cross and called others – moonlight night and stars brilliant. To bed again and at 6 heard the paddle were started – being now on our return journey – stopped at Esné a little – at Luxor Mr. Cook went on shore for letters. Our return journey was quicker on account of the tide but slow in another way; we grounded so often every day and then our steamers had to assist each other. Hours would be wasted in that manner with ropes and sinking anchors – the Nile considered very low.

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Riding the rapids and wonky donkeys

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-one.

Wednesday, 24 February
Walked to bazaar in the village at 8 o’clock and took camel to Philae (7 miles the land route to Philae). Some had donkeys but they fell down very much. Rode several miles on camel, most pleasant movement when it goes for a quick walk. When all collected at the river we took a dahabeah to the Sacred Island of Philae – so hot – sat inside from the sun; some sat outside on top of saloon. Several oars men very slightly dressed – they sang to their strokes – great many hands but not much work. Walked down to the edge of the cataract, foaming and rapid but not nearly so deep a fall as I expected. 9 or 10 naked arab men there ready to plunge in and float upon logs down the rapids for backsheesh. Philae ruins very pretty; a great many pillars inside the ruins.

Our other party arrived while we were there; several had decided upon doing the falls – 15 fr. each for going down rapids. I returned back on a donkey – visited some marble quarries en route – donkey fell right down in a moment very disagreeable. Rode through lovely palm groves, splendid green. Crossing sand, donkey down again so walked the rest.

Many other travelers beside Miss Riggs mention the local boys who would dive into the torrents at the First Cataract and ride the rapids on logs for baksheesh. This evidently wasn’t as easy as the locals made it seem: in 1861 a young Englishman attempted to copy them and it was ten days before his lifeless body resurfaced. Because of the cataract, Aswan was as far as the steamers went – the river here was impassable for large boats. Travellers with their own dahabiyyas could opt to have them carried overland and put back into the Nile south of the rapids so that they could sail on up to Abu Simbel.

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Beaten by a head in the race

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty.

Tuesday, 23 February
Left Edfou at 5 in the morning for Assouan, there by 4. Saw the Prince of Wales steamers and the one the Viceroy had conveyed the Prince in. He and his party had left that morning in dahabeahs for the 2nd Cataract, so we have missed them again – count Bismark was there – we started off at once across the deep sand for the bazaars; hardly repaid one. On the return most gorgeous sunset – sands deep gold and mountain deep violet-red – a colouring I had not seen before – suppose tropical in tint. Dinner at 7.

Egyptian boat above the First Cataract by Brierly, 24th February 1869

Egyptian boat above the First Cataract by Oswald Walters Brierly, 24th February 1869

Miss Riggs may have missed the Prince but some of his party remained in Aswan, including the scathing journalist William Howard Russell. “Cook’s tourists have also arrived!” he wrote. “Their steamers are just below us in the stream. The tourists are all over the place. Some are bathing off the banks; others, with eccentric head-dresses, are toiling through the deep sand. They are just beaten by a head in the race! Another day, and the Prince and Princess would have been at their mercy.”

The real issue here was not concern for the privacy of the Prince and Princess, but snobbery. Russell could not bear the thought that the Nile had to be shared with fellow countrymen (and women) of a lower status. “It is a nuisance to the ordinary traveller to have his peace broken,” he wrote, although by “ordinary” he clearly meant upper class. Cook aimed to democratize Nile tourism and in years to come, among a certain class of people, he would be despised for it.

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Esna and Edfu

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-nine.

Monday, 22 February
Left Luxor at 6 a.m. for Esné. (Esné pretty minarets – Esné temple of Knuph). Saw the bazaars and ruins and then on again by dinner time to Edfou. Decided to see the ruins by moonlight so after took torches and lanterns and walked a mile and ½ to Edfou. Used 14 magnesium lights for interior which lighted up splendidly, showing the walls and characters well. A sort of square building with outer court round and then a high wall finishing off with a pylon. Ascended pylon and lighted some more magnesium lights which threw the Arab village below in a blaze of light – all the poor people rushing out of their mud homes. On our return to the boat numbers of the villages accompanied us with large huge clubs and lanterns – very picturesque – and an adventure and a charming evening.

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View of Edfu by Edward Lear, 1854

The next time you’re at Edfu and wondering at the blackened state of the temple ceilings, you know who to blame. Those magnesium flares waved around by Miss Riggs and colleagues gave off soot.

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At leisure

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-eight.

Sunday, 21 February
Spent the morning on the Benha. Beeley and others had come on saying they did not wish to start for Assouan till Monday at noon; we said we should go at 6 in the morning. In the afternoon took donkeys again to Karnac – more surprised this time at the colossal magnitude of proportions than at the first time – most delightful wanderings at leisure though these old ruins. Labyrinths of ruins – blocks, columns, pillars, granite, limestone, sandstone – the Sanctuary red granite.

In the morning a scotch gentleman and 3 friends had shown us over their dahabeah, commodious with 4 nice cabins – anti parlor at the end and lavatory beyond – the crew outside with oars. Met these gentlemen again in ruins – one of them could read the hieroglyphics. Returned to 7 o’clock dinner. In evening on shore again saw a congregated mass of women at a funeral, all singing and dancing in a most curious manner.

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Measuring up the West Bank

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-seven.

Saturday, 20 February
Breakfast at 6.30 so as to make an early start for the tombs of the Kings. We had to cross in little boats to the other side of the Nile; our other party had the start of us by half an hour so they took the first donkeys and we had to wait some time for ours. Stopped at Medinat Habou on the way – a long ride over the Lybian Plains and hills to the Tombs of the Kings and Valley of the Kings. An ascending road high up in the hills – numbers of immense tombs and rooms deeply excavated – selected a few out of the list and used our magnesium torches as it was quite dark. Our dragoman and steward of the boat brought our lunch and spread it at the mouth of one of these subterraneous caverns that once held so many dead, the walls of many covered with fine hieroglyphics and designs – Satan represented with legs and all the games and inventions of the period.

Very hot day – Mr. Dennett quite knocked up. The descent very steep – walked part of the way – and then down in the Valley the Memnomium presented itself large with grand pillars. At its side lies the broken colossal figure of Remeses II – the most prodigious proportions in the world – toes 3 ft. long – feet 5 ft. across instep – width of breast 24 ft – 887 tons in weight – broken into innumerable pieces.

We then proceeded across the plain to the 2 Colossi, the eastern one called the Vocal Memnon of the Romans, said by authors to have uttered a sound at the Rising of the Sun – 47 ft. high and 53 with pedestal – all stayed about this figure some time till daylight warned us to move. Found little boats ready and glad we were to sit and enjoy the deck after this fatiguing day.

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Miss Riggs obviously never travels without a tape measure, but how she arrived at the 887 tons in weight, I don’t know. I am also at a loss to explain the presence of Satan in the Valley of Kings. The splendid photo above, by the way, comes form this excellent site, which documents another European party, in this case Swedish, travelling in Egypt, this time in winter 1900–1901.

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Luxor at last

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-six.

Friday, 19 February
Started at day-break and arrived at Thebes by 12 at noon. Ran aground often on our way – the river getting shallow at Keneh 2 miles from the shore. We saw pottery made with the wheel, very quickly and prettily. Dancing girls there which the gentlemen patronized. Luxor our aim and arrived at last – landed and proceeded en masse to the consul who spoke English very well. A low and roomy house facing the landing place. We were sorry to find that owing to our accident of paddle e had missed the grand illuminations at Karnak, which took place in honour of the Prince and Princess of Wales the evening before. Consul’s name Mustapha Aga – wrote all our names in his book and then read the entries of the Royal party.

The Prince and party had left this morning for Assouan, He enquired after our party and sorry we had met with an accident. Got saddles out of boat and proceeded to Karnak on donkeys – 2 miles ride, sandy and dusty.

Spent about 3 hours at Karnak and then returned on our donkeys getting to sunset – lovely sky. Backsheesh men very troublesome – with much struggling managed to get our saddles on board. Table d’hote pleasant – sit on deck.

I skipped the entry for Thursday, 18 February, which was minimal, because Miss Riggs and party spent all day not doing anything at all at Keneh. One of the paddlewheels on the Benha was broken and they had to wait around for it to be repaired. Why they didn’t use the time to pay a visit to the nearby temple at Dendara is a mystery.

Friday they push on to Luxor. The entry for that day includes pages of description at Karnak, which I am not transcribing because, as we established at Alexandria, Miss Riggs knows nothing of Egyptian history. Anything she writes must be cribbed from her guidebook.

What’s of more interest here is the further mention of the English royal party. Miss Riggs and company have a great interest in them. Understandably so. It must have been a huge source of excitement to discover that the other English party on the Nile at the time was the Prince and Princess of Wales. (Miss Riggs carefully copies into her diary the names of the Royal party as listed in Mustapha Aga’s book.) However, the joy was not mutual. Travelling as part of the Prince’s retinue was William Howard Russell, a war correspondent of some renown attached to the London Times. He afterwards reported that Cook’s party had been in “full cry up the river after the Prince and Princess”. He was scathing of Cook’s clients, who he considered had been inappropriately “thrown off their balances by the prospect of running the Prince and Princess of Wales to earth in a Pyramid, of driving them to bay in the Desert, of hunting them into the recesses of a ruin”.

Incidentally, also among those making up the Royal party was the watercolourist Oswald Walters Brierly, who was along to document the journey. He produced a series of paintings, several of which are below. The originals are part of the Royal Collection.

Pyramid of Meidun, 7 February 1869

Pyramid of Meidun, 7 February 1869

Beni Suef, 7 February 1869

Beni Suef, 7 February 1869

Near Girga, 13 February 1869

Near Girga, 13 February 1869

Girga, 14 February 1869

Girga, 14 February 1869

Royal arty visiting the Valley of the Kings, 17 February 1869

Royal party visiting the Valley of the Kings, 17 February 1869

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F sharps and B flats

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-four

Wednesday, 17 February
The BENISWAIF troubled by fleas – mattresses and blankets out on deck in the day. We were exempt from that nuisance. The bursting of a pipe on BENISWAIF made Mr. Webb’s cabin useless so he had to turn out and sleep on deck.

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We skipped Miss Riggs’s entry for 16 February, which was brief and just noted the birdlife around Keneh (Qena). I haven’t transcribed a lot of today’s entry either because it is a bit garbled. From what I understand, discord is breaking out between the parties on the two boats. Miss Riggs writes that her boat, the Benha, has been steaming ahead leaving the Beniswaif in its wake. Thomas Cook is also on the Benha and the half of the party on the Beniswaif are feeling like second-class travellers. Miss Riggs notes that the food on the Beniswaif is not as good as on the Benha. It seems that boat is less well maintained, too, with its burst pipe. Then there’s the insect life. In his own account Cook refers to fleas as ‘F. sharps’, and bugs as ‘B. flats’. I imagine that half of his tour party do not share his sense of humour.

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