A Nile Journey Guided by 19th-Century Women

In the late 1800s, women explorers sailed the Nile, sending back vivid accounts of Egypt’s riches. A 21st-century writer travels in their wake.

Comments: 31

  1. A great article that allowed me to relive our journey last year. If you haven't been, you should for reasons well-documented by Ms. Green.

  2. The article labels these women explorers, but one should remember that, although this was unfamiliar territory to European women of the era, they were hardly obscure. Moreover these women benefited from enormous racial privilege, as well as a frisson of adventure, at a time when Egypt's economy was increasingly being retooled to benefit a new dynasty and the Europeans jostling for a cut, all at the expense of the locals, in ways that very much explain much of the country's poverty today. The kind of sentimentality displayed here, detached from a study of power relations, is deeply problematic, although, of course, these are amazing places to visit. Still, one wonders how much the absolutely appalling Egyptian government is behind such public relations efforts. Not a place to visit now if you are a supporter of democracy.

  3. "Racial privilege." Good God. When Jews and Christians were allowed to live peacefully in Egypt, in Alexandria and Cairo, before they were hounded out and massacred, Egyptian cities were cultured and thriving. Everyone benefited from the commerce generated by multilingual entrepreneurs who'd lived in Egypt for more generations than they could count. With the expulsion and cowing of these other Egyptians, the country became backwards.

  4. @kate "Not a place to visit now if you are a supporter of democracy." That is a pretty strict standard by which to restrict one's travels. Pretty much restricts you to the Commonwealth countries, western Europe and Japan...

  5. @kate Even better to visit now to support the locals who rely on tourist dollars for their livelihood.

  6. When we began our cruise-tour of Egypt, it was still ruled by Pharaoh Mubarek. Our guide introduced himself as "Robbie". "But please," he added, "do NOT call me Rabbi". Over the course of our travels, he related every possible detail about the artifacts of antiquity, such as "If the statue shows pharaoh walking, he was alive at the time. But if it depicted him simply standing with his feet beside each other, then he was already dead at the time the statue was created in his honor." We even learned how to detect if the pharaoh had a vasectomy. But what we didn't learn, as the author lamented, was anything about modern Egyptian life. I made note of this in our "confidential" evaluation form supplied by Globus, and lo! the next day, Robbie told us all about how ordinary Egyptians live and think. "America is ok, but you support too much Israel."

  7. Was Robbie afraid for his life? Quite a joke, if not.

  8. @B. I think he was afraid of his wife?

  9. Yes, women explorers of Egypt and the Nile... you are two hundred years behind them!

  10. Very interesting. I did the same journey back in 1995 when Egypt was much safer than today, unfortunately food poisoning did undermine some of my pleasure of the experience.

  11. What did you eat that made you ill? The piece is lovely, but food borne illnesses is a travel stopper.

  12. Meanwhile at the other end of the Nile, in February 2019, 19 women hiked from the source of the Nile in Jinja through Uganda to Murcheson Falls and raised $250,000. for girls higher education. Beautiful World Canada received the money to continue their amazing work in raising a great new generation of women leaders in Africa!

  13. Is there a reason to indulge in colonial nostalgia, even if wrapped in the banner of women's experience? The only thing linking these earlier women's experiences with the one in this account is that they were all on the Nile. Travelers like von Minutoli spent months just to get from one place to the next, dodging outbreaks of cholera, opthalmia, malaria and the plague. There were no hotels, no amenities, just servants and slaves. And They brought guns along when they went sight-seeing, just to let the natives know who was in charge. And the Nile they saw -- with its annual flooding -- had little in common with the modern one. Strip all these differences away, and you get a fine ad for traveling to Egypt, which is a good thing that anyone should do -- but probably not in the colonial nostalgia mode. BTW, most travelers might want to know that it has one of the largest populations of political prisoners in the world, and that if Egypt "seems" safe, it's because of widespread repression.

  14. Were those guns brought along for "showing [Muslims] who's boss" or for actual protection? Funny, you see lots of guards armed with machine guns in hotels in places like Istanbul nowadays too. Then, as now, there were political rabble rousers, kidnappers, and plain old bandits against whom a well-handled rifle would come in handy. Travel in Muslim countries was not for the faint-hearted.

  15. @gideon brenner To answer your first question, yes.

  16. My family and I made our first visit to Egypt as tourists in 2018, traveling to Aswan, Luxor and Cairo / Giza. This article was excellent. However, trying to describe Egypt is like trying to describe the Grand Canyon. You only experience the "WOW" Factor when you actually go there in person. That trip will always rank as one of the best, if not THE best vacation trip ever.

  17. So many people don’t know that women were among the most important and effective narrators and explorers in the early days of Egyptology and Egyptomania. Their books were sought after - and rightfully so. Considering the time and place: the attitudes towards women, and the primitive conditions, this was truly extraordinary. I am so glad that their contributions are being more widely recognized.

  18. Thank you for a wonderfully evocative and informative article. I also appreciate the photos and brief videos.

  19. Looks like a fun trip. We enjoyed Cairo and an overnight train to Luxor a while ago. I'd go back. The only hassle is the higher number of men trying to find ways to take our $$.

  20. I went to Egypt in summer 1965, when tourists were scarce and few people lost sleep over how democratic the leaders were or whether terrorists might shoot up one’s boat or bus. I saw the evil Russians building the Aswan Dam, and quarries where obelisks lay half carved out of the rock, their trips down the Nile to Luxor or Cairo interrupted for millennia by who knows what ancient regime change, and forever by the flooding of the land behind the dam. I stayed at a top hotel in Luxor a few dollars a day, though I did receive a late-night visit from the local police wanting a second look at my passport and my girlfriend’s; nothing threatening, more to show that not even “rich” foreigners were not in charge of their own destinies in this exotic land. I was having a drink at the Cairo Hilton when Cho-en-Lai and Sukarno had a photo op at their summit meeting on something very important, perhaps falling dominoes; Cho beckoned over a few children who were in the lobby, patted their heads and gave each an American silver dollar. I ran into part of Sukarno’s staff in the elevator and amused them with my limited command of Indonesian, enough that I was introduced to Sukarno himself and invited to Djakarta. Unfortunately, I had recently tested positive for bilharzia, the nasty disease mentioned in this article, and had to return to the US for more tests, which happily turned out negative. I’d love to re-visit Egypt, but the political climate is too hot for me these days.

  21. Plummy book proposal.

  22. I visited Cairo in 1958 with classmates from our Swiss school. We had total freedom and would wander at night among the camels and huge fires in the streets with out a thought of danger. Took donkeys to the valley of the kings and an overnight train on wooden bunks, getting food from vendors out the dusty windows as we slowly made our way to Aswan. At night we slipped out from our ancient hotel to wander about Karnak , empty except for a few poor families in lean twos up against the columns . Egypt was so alive for us .

  23. Beautifully photographed and well written. I can almost taste the air. I never wanted to visit ... until now.

  24. My family and I took this very same boat, The Orient, on our trip to Egypt this past October. What a great article that shows how stunning and majestic Egypt is! So hard to absorb everything. Our tour company was amazing and did indeed give us a flavor of local life. What an adventure!

  25. Your article made me go back to fall of 2016 when I visited Egypt and did a Nile cruise. The temples were so impressive and awesome. We also visited a Nubian village and enjoyed some good tea and snacks there. Our guides were well versed in the history of Egypt. Ancient Egypt was so amazing. The temples reminded me of Angorwat in its size and detail. Plus the coronation carvings of the Pharaohs are very similar to the ones for Indian kings. I guess cross cultural exchanges via trade.

  26. One of my favorite trips ever and I have traveled quite a bit. The success of my trip was due to the tour company but most importantly the best tour guide I’ve ever had. Tarak, I will always remember your professionalism and engagement with our group. If a reader thinks they need/want to see Egypt, go! Like the woman who wrote this piece, I fell in love with Egypt when I was under 8 years old. It was a soul trip for me.

  27. 10 of us took an amazing trip to Egypt a year ago. We exercised caution but never felt uncomfortable. We had an amazing licensed guide who spoke the party line for the most part. Way too much information to absorb in two weeks. Reading about past history and current politics enriched the experience. I was the only one of 10 to get sick our last night there. Crazy. We all ate the same foods. This article and photos makes me want to return sooner rather than later.

  28. Thank you for this article. It is inspiring to have the role of women adventurers discussed, and I read it below a sepia photo of my school teacher grandmother atop a camel in front of the great Sphinx, dated 1912.

  29. Twenty five years ago I read Amelia Edwards book "A Thousand Miles Up The Nile" and made copious notes in the blank pages at the back noting things she'd witnessed. I still have that book and plan to take it with me when I go to Egypt some day, reading along with her descriptions once again as I step into her footprints. I loved reading her descriptions and picturing her upper class tourism. Thank you, Michelle Green, for sharing these other women's stories as well.

  30. Not Victorian, but Agatha Christie's second husband was an archaeologist in the Middle East. She accompanied him on his digs, and some of her best mysteries are set in Egypt - Death on the Nile ....

  31. One of the bravest women I ever met was Nawal Saadawi, who came to Montclair some years ago. She had taken on Sadat, and was imprisoned, published controversial books taking on the Egyptian status quo, and had even run for president of Egypt, but she wasn't afraid to ride the bus with us (she must have already been about 80 years old), to talk with and have lunch with a total stranger. I contrasted her with Hillary Clinton, who was surrounded by secret service guards so that we could barely get near her. I would love to read a book about how Egyptians travel the world and explore the rest of us! Include Alaa Al-Aswany, who has also lived in the US.