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A thousand miles up the Nile

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Amelia Edwards

Bird Dog at Maggie's Farm writes -

"During the 1700s and 1800s the Brits scoured the planet to find cool places to visit (or to make money). Amelia Edwards was one of them, and she wrote about it. It was the era when, if you saw a couple of ladies riding side-saddle in the desert or the mountains, the natives would think, 'They must be English'".

I had never heard of Amelia Edwards before. She was an amazing person.

The first break

Born in 1831, Amelia was a lonely child who spent hours writing and illustrating stories and studying music. She was so proficient she became organist at St Michael's Wood Green, Middlesex, but she made a mistake. She became engaged and unhappily realized she did not care for her fiancé. She broke her engagement, fled to Paris and wrote novels. When she returned to England, she found she had become famous.

Between 1855 and 1880 she published nine novels, a collection of stories, histories and children's books. In the semi-autobiographical Barbara's History, "the artistically gifted heroine loves a man with a dark secret, yet learns to develop and realize her own potential".

Amelia travelled to Italy with a friend and then to the Dolomites, a journey she wryly described and illustrated in Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873). Then, trying to escape heavy rains in central France and find a little sun, she made the second great break in her life. She sailed to Egypt on a journey that would change her forever.

Egypt

In Cairo she -

"awoke at sunrise to see those grey-green palms outside the window solemnly bowing their plumed heads towards each other, against a rose-coloured dawn. . .It was dark last night, and I had no idea that my room overlooked an enchanted garden, far-reaching and solitary, peopled with stately giants beneath whose tufted crowns hung rich clusters of maroon and amber dates. It was a still, warm morning. Grave grey and black crows flew heavily from tree to tree, or perched, cawing meditatively, upon the topmost branches. Yonder, between the pillared stems, rose the minaret of a very distant mosque; and here where the garden was bounded by a high wall and a windowless house, I saw a veiled lady walking on the terraced roof in the midst of a cloud of pigeons".

She had no idea what she would find. At Abu Simbel her party discovered, excavated, and described in detail a previously unknown small temple with a painted chamber. On her return to England, Amelia plunged into the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

She wrote A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, a description of her strange and picturesque voyage, and ‘one of the great classics of the history of the Nile'. On her travels she had been troubled by "the neglect of the ancient monuments and the vandalism of visitors who bought up everything the local people could steal for them" (Oxford DNB). She was afraid that Egyptian culture and history would be lost before anyone knew what it really had been.

Poor Egypt! Ruled by the Ottomans, then by an imported dynasty that turned agriculture into a cotton monoculture and racked up debt and taxes, followed and preceded by British and French military intrusions, until only scholars in London could properly study and protect Egyptian treasures. It does seem unfair.

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Horus at Edfu
Image: Egypt A Perspective

"Ten years ago, at Edfu, nothing was visible of the Great Temple, save the tops of the pylons. The rest of the building was as much lost to sight as if the earth had opened and swallowed it. Its courtyards were choked with foul debris. Its sculptured chambers were buried under forty feet of soil. Its terraced roof was a maze of closely packed huts, swarming with human beings, poultry, dogs, asses, and vermin. The encroaching mound has been cut clean away all round the building, now standing free in an open space. In the midst of this pit, like a risen God issuing from the grave, the huge building stands before us in the sunshine, erect and perfect. The effect at first sight is overwhelming". - A Thousand Miles

Rescue

To protect Egyptian culture and promote scientific excavation, Amelia founded the Egypt Exploration Society. For the next fifteen years she worked tirelessly to organize expeditions and solicit funds in Britain. In America, on tour, she addressed 100,000 people with novelistic verve and humour. She died in 1892, not long after opening a crate of Egyptian artifacts.

By then she had bequeathed her Egyptological library and her collection of antiquities (now the Edwards Library and Museum) to University College, London, where she had also founded the first chair devoted to Egyptology.

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