Marka Twain

Many of the items used to illustrate Grand Hotels of Egypt (and the forthcoming On the Nile) I’ve bought at auction. I’m on the mailing list of several auction sites, which notify me when they have something that may be of interest. Which is how this came to my attention:

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It’s a postcard of Cairo and it’s autographed by Mark Twain.

As part of a tour of Europe and the Holy Lands, he travelled to Egypt in 1867 aboard the steamship Quaker City. He had convinced a San Francisco newspaper to pay for his ‘Great Pleasure Excursion’ in exchange for a series of articles, later edited and published as Innocents Abroad (1869).

On arrival at Egypt, he and his fellow travellers alighted at Alexandria where they proceeded in picturesque procession to the American Consul’s residence, the public gardens at Nuzha, Ras al-Tin Palace, and to Cleopatra’s Needles and Pompey’s Pillar where, in keeping with the attitude to antiquities at the time, one of the party took a hammer to the Roman-era column and attempted to smash off fragments for a souvenir. Twain thought Alexandria was too much like a European city to be of any interest, and soon got tired of it.

He liked Cairo more because it came closer to fulfilling his expectations of the ‘Orient’. But not his hotel. As an outpost of Europe in Cairo, Shepheard’s was never going to find much favour. Twain was acerbic about the place, writing that it was ‘the worst [hotel] on earth except the one I stopped at once in a small town in the United States. It is pleasant to read this sketch in my note-book, now, and know that I can stand Shepheard’s Hotel, sure, because I have been in one just like it in America and survived.’ Specific objects of his ire included the hotel’s threadbare carpeting, sagging floorboards and poor lighting.

Why Twain should be signing postcards of Cairo in 1908, more than 40 years after visiting is a bit of a mystery. But if after all this time Twain still remembered Egypt, the country hadn’t forgotten him either. Philip Marden was sightseeing at the Pyramids just a year or two after Twain signed that postcard when he was given a donkey to ride named ‘Marka Twain’: it was, he reported, ‘the name of more than half the donkeys of Egypt’.

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