I wasn’t sure whether to include this book in my ‘Vintage Reads’ series or my ‘Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century’ series. I opted for the former because it is, after all, a book, but it would fit well in the latter due to the effect its publication had on the wave of ‘Egyptomania’ that hit Britain and the US in the late nineteenth century. Egyptology was in its infancy in the 1870s. Interest and tourism in Egypt had boomed since the publication of Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte and the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. But the ancient monuments and tombs that had weathered so many centuries soon came under threat by waves of tourists trampling all over them, digging for treasure and casting aside anything that did not have material value despite the contributions they might make to our understanding of Ancient Egyptian culture.
English writer Amelia Edwards arrived in Egypt in the winter of 1873 almost by accident. It was poor weather that deterred Edwards and her companion from their sketching holiday in Europe. They went to Egypt instead and rented a ‘dahabeeyah’ (a riverboat) and crew to take them up the Nile. Edwards had always been fascinated by Egypt but she was appalled by the casual pilfering and vandalism going on and felt compelled to do what she could to preserve Egypt’s heritage. No only does Edwards thoroughly describe each and every site in painstaking detail, she also gives us a fascinating look into the lives of the nineteenth century Egyptians. What is most striking is the abject poverty of the people who dwell among these ruins that attract so many wealthy Europeans. The state of the villages is practically medieval including children with horrendous eye infections, wild superstition and lives of toil and privation that ensure few reach the age of forty.
The book is also an invaluable insight into the mindset of Victorian travel, exploration and attitudes towards other nationalities. While Amelia Edwards was certainly a woman ahead of her time, the same can’t be said of her peers who display attitudes and behaviours which are at times uncomfortable for the modern reader. The British lord it over the natives who will do anything for ‘baksheesh’ (charity). The men on the trip are of course ‘sportsmen’ which means they shoot at anything in sight and even the author remarks on the tragedy of crocodiles being shot nearly into extinction. One stomach-churning episode details the near killing of an Egyptian child by the carelessness of one of these gunmen. When the relatives of the child assail the blundering ass, they are arrested and threatened with brutality by the police who claim that the whole village will be bastinadoed (caning of the soles of the feet) should the ‘Ingleezeh’ wish it.
Amelia Edwards fell so in love with Egypt and its history that she joined forces with Reginald Stuart Poole in 1882 and set up the Egypt Exploration Fund (now known as the Egypt Exploration Society) dedicated to raising awareness and enthusiasm for Egypt’s past and to help preserve what is left of it. Edward’s depiction of nineteenth-century Egypt with its fellahs, dahabeeyahs and rural villages has been an indispensable resource for so many people, not least Elizabeth Peters who wrote the Amelia Peabody series of historical mystery novels whose protagonist has a lot more in common with Edwards than her first name. In the writing of Silver Tomb, I found myself dipping into A Thousand Miles up the Nile many times over since having read it cover to cover before I began writing the novel.