Daily Archives: February 4, 2008

Item of the Day: Travels through Syria and Egypt (1805)

Full Title: Travels through Syria and Egypt, in the Years 1783, 1784, and 1785. Containing the Present Natural and Political State of those Countries, Their Productions, Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; with Observations on the Manners, Customs, and Government of the Turks and Arabs. By M. C-F. Volney. Translated from the French, and illustrated with Copper-plates. The Third Edition. Vol. I. London: Printed for g. Robinson, Paternoster-Row, 1805.



Of Egypt in general, and the City of Alexandria.

IT is in vain that we attempt to prepare ourselves, by the perusal of books, for a more intimate acquaintance with the customs and manners of nations; the effect of narratives upon the mind, will always be very different from that of objects upon the senses. The images the former present, have neither correctness in the design, nor liveliness in the colouring; they are always indistinct, and leave but a fugitive impression, very easily effaced. This we more particularly experience, when we are strangers to the objects to be laid before us; for the imagination, in that case, finding no terms of comparison ready formed, is compelled to collect and compose new ideas; and, in this operation, ill directed and hastily executed, it is difficult not to confound the traits, and disfigure the forms. Ought we then to be astonished, if, on beholding the things themselves, we are unable to discover any resemblance between the originals and the copies, and if every impression bears the character of novelty?

Such is the situation of a stranger who arrives, by sea, in Turkey. In vain has he read histories and travels; in vain has he, from their descriptions, endeavoured to represent to himself the aspect of the countries, the appearance of the cities, the dresses and manners of the inhabitants: he is new to all these objects, and dazzled with their variety: every idea he has formed to himself vanishes, and he remains absorbed in surprise and astonishment.

No place is more proper to produce this effect, and prove the truth of this remark, than Alexandria, Egypt. The name of this city, which recalls to memory the genius of one of the most wonderful of men; the name of the country, which reminds us of so many great events; the picturesque appearance of the place itself; the spreading palm-trees; the terraced houses, which seem to have no roof; the lofty slender minarets; all announce to the traveller that he is in another world. A variety of novel objects present themselves to every sense; he hears a language whose barbarous sounds, and sharp guttural accents, offend his ear; he sees dresses of the most unusual and whimsical kind, and figures of the strangest appearance. Instead of our smooth shaved faces, our side curls, our triangular hats, and our short and close dresses; he views with astonishment tanned visages, with beards and mustachios; large rolls of stuff wreathed round their bald heads; long garments, which, reaching from the neck to the feet, serve rather to veil than clothe the body; pipes of six feet long, which every one is provided; hideous camels, which carry water in leathern sacks; and asses, saddled and bridled, which lightly trip along with their riders in sloppers: he observes their markets ill supplied with dates, and round flat little loaves; a filthy drove of half starved dogs roaming through the streets; and a kind of wandering phantoms, which, under a long drapery of a single piece, discover nothing human but two eyes, which show that they are women. Amid this crowd of unusual objects, his mind is incapable of reflexion; nor is it until he has reached his place of residence, so desirable on landing after a long voyage, that, becoming more calm, he reflects on the narrow ill paved streets; the low houses, which, though not calculated to admit much light, are still more obscured by lattice work; the meagre and swarthy inhabitants, who walk bare-footed, without other clothing than a blue shirt fastened with a leathern girdle, or a red handkerchief; while the universal marks of misery, so manifest in all he meets, and the mystery which reigns around their houses, point out to him the rapacity of oppression, and the distrust attendant upon slavery.

But his whole attention is soon attracted by those vast ruins which appear on the land side of the city. In our countries, ruins are an object of curiosity. Scarcely can we discover, in unfrequented places, some ancient castle, whose decay announces rather the desertion of its master, than the wretchedness of the neighbourhood: in Alexandria, on the contrary, we no sooner leave the New Town, than we are astonished at the sight of an immense extent of ground overspread with ruins. During a walk of two hours, you follow a double line of walls and towers, which form the circumference of the ancient Alexandria. The earth is covered with the remains of lofty buildings destroyed; whole fronts crumbled down, roofs fallen i, battlements decayed, and the stones corroded and disfigured by saltpetre [sic]. The traveller passes over a vast plain, firrowed with trenches, pierced with wells, divided by walls in ruins, covered over with ancient columns and modern tombs, amid palm-trees and nopals, and where no living creature is to be met with but owls, bats, and jackalls [sic]. The inhabitants, accustomed to this scene, behold it without emotion; but the stranger, in whom the recollection of ancient ages is revived by the novelty of the objects around him, feels a sensation which not unfrequently [sic] dissolves him in tears, inspiring relexions which fill his heart with sadness, while his soul is elevated by their sublimity. . . .



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Filed under 1780's, Culture, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel, Travel Literature