Travellers’ tales

This morning I woke up to the sounds of a funeral. When I looked out of my window, I just saw the men, all in jellabiyas, passing with a coffin on their shoulders, covered with a green cloth. They were followed at some distance by women in flapping black burkas, some were loudly howling  to show their grief.

In the morning when the sunlight slants through the window.. One tiny flaw is the binary shower. It runs with water from a boiler and at the start everything is well. But as the water gradually gets colder, I have to adjust the handle. I give it a small tap: nothing, another small tap: nothing, then all of a sudden, tapping along, I leap out from under the shower as it turns scaldingly hot. Then small taps back and well past the original position and, yes, that’s nice, or… NO, NO!!  leaping out again from under the shower as it suddenly turns cold.
That’s a binary shower.

Then breakfast which is copious and served in the garden. The cats are in the habit of studying my meals with the utmost attention and observe everything. Their eyes follow every move I make meticulously. I have no doubt they will  make careful notes afterwards.

After breakfast I went to Luxor on the East Bank, to collect my visa. On the way I passed the famous Winter Palace:


Pierre Loti wrote in 1910: [..] a hasty modern production which had grown on the border of the Nile over the last year: a colossal hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of iron. Twice or three times as high as the Pharaonic temple, its impudent façade rises there, painted a dirty yellow.[..] sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of the surroundings.
It is not visible on the photo above, but I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling on the northern wing of the building. Nevertheless, these days it is Luxor’s most venerable hotel and even though the regular rooms are  not exceptionally expensive, the Imperial suite (made of plaster and mud….) comes with a price tag of 1167 euro…

The day before I had applied for a visa extension which came with the usual exasperations. It helps a lot when you understand that, contrary to Western thought, the clerks that work at Immigration, are not at all interested in helping you or trying to solve your problems. Quite the contrary, they try to find anything, no matter how little or inconsequential, to actually create a problem. It’s obvious because by first creating a problem and then solving it, they have miraculous brought into existence a new service and that merits a request for baksheesh. This time they couldn’t read the entrance stamp of my visa where it had been no problem during my first extension. However, by pointing out that my date of entry should be easily retrieved in the files of my first extension they muttered resentfully, but in the end reluctantly agreed with this logic. Last time they claimed that the letter from the hotel had to be on a special form, but the day before I had asked explicitly if  I needed this form and they seemed very surprised. That was not necessary….
Filling out an immigration form for the umpteenth time I really started to think about the absurdity of the whole circus. What could be the significance of your place of birth for getting a visa extension? What does it matter where you are born? Or the date of issue of your passport? Surely, the fact that you are able to show them a valid passport means that it is successfully issued some date in the past? And why did I need another passport photo; what was wrong with the one that was filed with the first extension?

Now I came to collect my passport and I was ready for battle but everything was in order. The clerk recognised me and gave me my passport. I  scrutinised the stamps and it looked good.


Jean Louis Burckhardt was a fascinating 19th century traveller. Born in Switzerland, he set out for Cambridge in England to study Arabic and later to offer his services to Joseph Banks, the chairman of the African Association. This Association was set up to open up Africa for trade (or exploitation, more likely) with England. Its preliminary goals were to find the fabled city of Timbuktu and the course of the river Niger. In the early 19th century large tracts of Africa’s interior were unknown to European powers. The river Niger was thought to originate in Eastern Africa, possibly near the sources of the river Nile. The African Association had known an ominous start: the first explorer hired by the Association was John Ledyard who had travelled first to Cairo, but had, after falling ill, inadvertently poisoned himself… Most of Burckhardt’s predecessors and contemporaries died of disease and other horrors during their explorations. Henry Nicholls, in search of the origin and course of the Niger, had unbeknownst to himself, begun at the mouth of the very river he was looking for. Not that it mattered much, Nicholls died of malaria and left his bones in this unforgiving continent with those of so many other young and ambitious explorers. None of the travellers sent out by the African Association reached their goal.

During his time in Cambridge, Burckhardt made long treks through the English countryside in summer, sleeping rough, eating herbs and drinking water from streams, to prepare himself for his mission. He must have been under the impression that Arabs consumed mainly herbs. Besides Arabic, he also studied chemistry, astronomy and mineralogy, which was of no help at all. He first travelled to Syria where he lived for two years to prepare himself for the rigors of travelling in Arabic speaking areas. His Arabic became fluent and he translated Robinson Crusoe from English into Arabic, the Story of Yusef Robinson – the Life of Sharief Robinson Crusoe. He is known to have read it to his Arab friends who must have been perplexed by its fantastic nature…


After these two years he set out for Egypt to try and find a caravan to Timbuktu. On the way there he was the first European to have set eyes on the lost city of Petra (in Jordan) since antiquity. From Egypt he used  his time while waiting for his caravan to travel widely in the surrounding countries (Nubia, Sudan and Mecca). His travels were remarkable, but it is his style that endears him to me. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was not independently rich, but he travelled with little money and lived very modestly.

I came across Burckhardt again when I read about the Ramesseum and found out that it was he that had advised Belzoni to try and find the head of Young Memnon, as it was then known. Belzoni is possibly an even more colourful person than Burckhardt was. He had worked as a strong man in the circus, had move to England and married an Englishwoman, after which they set out for Egypt where he hoped to offer his services as a hydraulic engineer to Muhammad Ali. Instead he was commissioned to find antiquities of which there was a growing demand. After consultation with Burckhardt he decided to find the colossal bust of Ramses II and so he did. He then moved it to the Nile where he shipped it to Alexandria. Eventually, it reached London an it was a famous event which formed the inspiration for Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias: I met a traveller from an antique land… .


Belzoni graffiti dated 1816

Meanwhile, Burckhardt’s health had deteriorated and he had contracted dysentery. Eight years after he had set out for his explorations, he was still waiting for that caravan to Timbuktu. In 1817, only a year after Belzoni had moved the colossus of Ramses II to London, he died, 32 years old.  He had never made it to Timbuktu.


One thought on “Travellers’ tales

  1. Hugo

    I do not know why, but always shy about commenting on somebody’s blog, This time I will make an exception, because you deserve it. I love your blog. I like your style (e.g. “This morning I woke up to the sounds of a funeral.” brilliant), your sense of humor, the originality of subjects, how much you document it, how much I learn from it. You put a lot of effort into it and it shows. Keep doing it. Cheers!


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