Read CHAPTER XIV. of A Visit to the Holy Land, free online book, by Ida Pfeiffer, on

At first we could only perceive the tops of masts, behind which low objects seemed to be hiding as they rose from the sea. In a little time a whole forest of masts appeared, while the objects before mentioned took the shape of houses peering forth amongst them. At length the land itself could be distinguished from the surrounding ocean, and we discerned hills, shrubberies, and gardens in the vicinity of the town, the appearance of which is not calculated to delight the traveller, for a large desert region of sand girdles both city and gardens, giving an air of dreariness to the whole scene.

We cast anchor between the lighthouse and the new hospital. No friendly boat was permitted to approach and carry us to the wished-for shore; we came from the land of the plague to enter another region afflicted with the same scourge, and yet we were compelled to keep quarantine, for the Egyptians asserted that the Syrian plague was more malignant than the variety of the disease raging among them. Thus a compulsory quarantine is always enforced in these regions, a circumstance alike prejudicial to visitors, commerce, and shipping.

We waited with fear and trembling to hear how long a period of banishment in the hospital should be awarded us. At length came a little skiff, bringing two guardians (servants of the hospital), and with them the news that we must remain in the hospital ten days from the period of our entrance, but that we could not disembark to-day, as it was Sunday. Excepting at the arrival of the English packet-boats, the officials have no time to examine vessels on Sundays or holidays, a truly Egyptian arrangement. Why could not an officer be appointed for these days to take care of the poor travellers? Why should fifty persons suffer for the convenience of one, and be deprived of their liberty for an extra day? We came from Beyrout furnished with a Teshkeret (certificate of health) by the government, besides the voucher of our personal appearance, and yet we were condemned to a lengthened imprisonment. But Mehemet Ali is far more mighty and despotic in Egypt than the Sultan in Constantinople; he commands, and what can we do but obey, and submit to his superior power?

From the deck of our ship I obtained a view of the city and the desert region around. The town seems tolerably spacious, and is built quite in European style.

Of the Turkish town, which lies in the background, we can distinguish nothing; the proper harbour, situate at the opposite side of the city, is also invisible, and its situation can only be discerned from the forest of masts that towers upwards. The eye is principally caught by two high sand-hills, on one of which stands Fort Napoleon, while the other is only surmounted by several cannon; the foreground is occupied by rocky ridges of moderate elevation, flanked on one side by the lighthouse, and on the other by the new quarantine buildings. The old quarantine-house lies opposite to the new one. In several places we notice little plantations of date-palms, which make a very agreeable impression on the European, as their appearance is quite new to him.

August 8th.

At seven o’clock this morning we disembarked, and were delivered with bag and baggage at the quarantine-house. I now trod a new quarter of the globe, Africa. When I sit calmly down to think of the past, I frequently wonder how it was that my courage and perseverance never once left me while I followed out my project step by step. This only serves to convince me that, if the resolution be firm, things can be achieved which would appear almost impossible.

I had expected to find neither comfort nor pleasure in the quarantine-house, and unfortunately I had judged but too well. The courtyard into which we were shewn was closely locked, and furnished on all sides with wooden bars; the rooms displayed only four bare walls, with windows guarded in the same manner. It is customary to quarter several persons in the same room, and then each pays a share of the expense. I requested a separate apartment, which one can also have, but of course at a higher charge. Such a thing as a chair, a table, or a piece of furniture, was quite out of the question; whoever wishes to enjoy such a luxury must apply by letter to an innkeeper of the town, who lends any thing of the kind, but at an enormously high rate. Diet must be obtained in the same way. In the quarantine establishment there is no host, every thing must be procured from without. An innkeeper generally demands between thirty and forty piastres per diem for dinner and supper. This I considered a little too exorbitant, and therefore ordered a few articles of food through one of the keepers. He promised to provide every thing punctually; but I fear he cannot have understood me, for I waited in vain, and during the whole of the first day had nothing to eat. On the second day my appetite was quite ravenous, and I did not know what to do. I betook myself to the room of the Arab family who had come in the same ship with me, and were therefore also in quarantine; I asked for a piece of bread, for which I offered to pay but the kind woman not only gave me bread, but pressed upon me a share of all the provisions she was preparing for her family, and would not be prevailed upon to accept any remuneration; on the contrary, she explained to me by signs that I was to come to her whenever I wanted any thing.

It was not until the evening of the second day that, perceiving it was hopeless to expect any thing from my stupid messenger, I applied to the chief superintendent of the hospital, who came every evening at sunset to examine us and to lock us in our rooms. I ordered my provisions of him, and from this time forward always received them in proper time.

The keepers were all Arabs, and not one of them could understand or speak any language but their own; this is also a truly Egyptian arrangement. I think that in an establishment of this kind, where travellers from all parts of the world are assembled, it would at least be advisable to have a person who understands Italian, even if he cannot speak it. An individual of this kind could easily be obtained; for Italian, as I afterwards found, is such a well-known language throughout the East, but particularly at Alexandria and Cairo, that many people are to be met with, even among the lowest classes, who understand and can speak it.

The supply of water is also very badly managed. Every morning, immediately after sunrise, a few skins of water are brought for the purpose of cleaning the cooking utensils; at nine o’clock in the morning and five in the afternoon a few camels come laden with skins of fresh water, which are emptied into two stone tanks in the courtyard. Then all fill their cooking and drinking vessels, but in such an untidy way that I felt not the slightest inclination to drink. One man was ladling out the water with a dirty pot, while another dabbled in the tank with his filthy hands; and some even put their dirty feet on the run and washed them, so that some of the water ran back into the tank. This receptacle is moreover never cleaned, so that dirt accumulates upon dirt, and the only way to obtain clear water is by filtering it.

On the second day of my residence here I was exceedingly surprised to observe that the courtyard, the staircases, the rooms, etc. were being cleaned and swept with particular care. The mystery was soon solved; the commissioner appeared with a great stick, and paused at the threshold of the door to see that the linen, clothes, etc. were hung up to air, the books opened, and the letters or papers suspended by strings. No idea can be formed of the stupid nervous fear of this commissioner. For instance, on passing through the first room on his way to my apartment, he saw the stalk of a bunch of grapes lying on the ground. With fearful haste he thrust this trifling object aside with his stick, for fear his foot should strike against it in passing; and as he went he continually held his stick in rest, to keep us plague-struck people at a respectful distance.

On the seventh day of our incarceration we were all sent to our rooms at nine o’clock in the morning. Doors and windows were then locked, and great chafing-dishes were brought, and a dreadful odour of brimstone, herbs, burnt feathers, and other ingredients filled the air. After we had been compelled to endure this stifling atmosphere for four or five minutes, the windows and doors were once more opened. A person of a consumptive habit could scarcely have survived this inhuman ordeal.

On the ninth day the men were drawn up in a row, to undergo an examination by the doctor. The old gentleman entered the room, with a spy-glass in one hand and a stick in the other, to review the troop. Every man had to strike himself a blow on the chest and another in the side; if he could do this without feeling pain, it was considered a sign of health, because the plague-spots appear first on these parts of the body. On the same day, the women were led into a large room, where a great female dragoon was waiting for us to put us through a similar ceremony. Neither men nor women are, however, required to undress.

A few hours later we were summoned to the iron grating which separated us from the disinfected people. On the farther side were seated several officers, to whom we paid the fee for our rooms and the keepers the charge was very trifling. My room, with attendance, only cost me three piastres per diem. But how gladly would every traveller pay a higher price if he could only have a table and a few chairs in his apartment, and an attendant who understood what was said to him!

So far as cleanliness is concerned, there is nothing to complain of; the rooms, the staircases and the courtyard were kept very neatly, and the latter was even profusely watered twice a day. We were not at all annoyed by insects, and we were but little incommoded by the heat. In the sun the temperature never exceeded 33 degress; and in the shade the greatest heat was 22 degrees Reaumur.

August 17th.

At seven o’clock this morning our cage was at length opened. Now all the world rushed in; friends and relations of the voyagers, ambassadors from innkeepers, porters, and donkey-drivers, all were merry and joyous, for every one found a friend or an acquaintance, and I only stood friendless and alone, for nobody hastened towards me or took an interest in me; but the envoys of the innkeepers, the porters, and donkey-drivers, cruel generation that they were, quarrelled and hustled each other for the possession of the solitary one.

I collected my baggage, mounted a donkey, and rode to “Colombier,” one of the best inns in Alexandria. Swerving a little from the direct road, I passed “Cleopatra’s Needles,” two obelisks of granite, one of which is still erect, while the other lies prostrate in the sand at a short distance. We rode through a miserable poverty-stricken village; the huts were built of stones, but were so small and low that we can hardly understand how a man can stand upright in them. The doors were so low that we had to stoop considerably in entering. I could not discover any signs of windows. And this wretched village lay within the bounds of the city, and even within the walls, which inclose such an immense space, that they not only comprise Alexandria itself, but several small villages, besides numerous country-houses and a few shrubberies and cemeteries.

In this village I saw many women with yellowish-brown countenances. They looked wretched and dirty, and were all clothed in long blue garments, sitting before their doors at work, or nursing children. These women were employed in basket-making and in picking corn. I did not notice any men; they were probably employed in the fields.

I now rode forward across the sandy plain on which the whole of Alexandria is built, and suddenly, without having passed through any street, found myself in the great square.

I can scarcely describe the astonishment I felt at the scene before me. Every where I saw large beautiful houses, with lofty gates, regular windows, and balconies, like European dwellings; équipages, as graceful and beautiful as any that can be found in the great cities of Europe, rolled to and fro amid a busy crowd of men of various nations. Franks, in the costume of their country, were distinguished among the turbans and fez-caps of the Orientals; and tall women, in their blue gowns, wandered amidst the half-naked forms of the Arabs and Bedouins. Here a negro was running with argile behind his master, who trotted along on his noble horse; there Frankish or Egyptian ladies were to be seen mounted on asses. Coming from the dreary monotony of the quarantine-house, this sight made a peculiar impression upon me.

Scarcely had I arrived at the hotel before I hastened to the Austrian consulate, where Herr von L., the government councillor, received me very kindly. I begged this gentleman to let me know what would be the first opportunity for me to continue my journey to Cairo; I did not wish to take passage on board an English steamboat, as the charge on this vessel for the short distance of about 400 sea miles is five pounds. The councillor was polite enough to procure me a berth on board an Arabian barque, which was to start from Atfe the same evening.

I also learnt at the consulate, that Herr Sattler, the painter, had arrived by the packet-boat a few days previously, and was now at the old quarantine-house. I rode out in company with a gentleman to visit him, and was glad to find him looking very well. He was just returning from his journey to Palestine.

I found the arrangements in the old quarantine-building rather more comfortable than those in the new; the establishment is moreover nearer the town, so that it is easier to obtain the necessaries of life. On my return, my companion was so kind as to conduct me through the greater portion of the Turkish town, which appeared to be better built and more neatly kept than any city of the Turks I had yet seen. The bazaar is not handsome; it consists of wooden booths, displaying only the most ordinary articles of merchandise.

On the same day that I quitted the quarantine-house, I rode in the evening to the Nile Canal, which is twenty-four feet broad and about twenty-six miles long. A number of vessels lay there, on one of which a place had been taken for me (the smaller division of the cabin) as far as Atfe, for the sum of fifteen piastres. I at once took possession of my berth, made my arrangements for the night and for the following day, and waited hour after hour till we should depart. Late in the night I was at length told that we could not set out to-night at all. To pack up my things again, and to set off to walk to the inn, a distance of two miles, and to return next morning, would have been a rather laborious proceeding; I therefore resolved to remain on board, and sat down among the Arabs and Bedouins to eat my frugal supper, which consisted of cold provisions.

Next day I was told every half-hour that we should depart immediately, and each time I was again disappointed.

Herr von L. had wished to supply me with wine and provisions for the passage; but as I had calculated upon being in Atfe to-day at noon, I had declined his offer with many thanks. But now I had no provisions; I could not venture into the town on account of the distance, and found it quite impossible to make the sailors understand that they were to bring me some bread and baked fish from the neighbouring bazaar. At length hunger compelled me to venture out alone: I pushed through the crowd, who looked at me curiously, but suffered me to pass unmolested, and bought some provisions.

In Alexandria I procured beef and beef-soup, for the first time since my departure from Smyrna. In Alexandria and throughout the whole of Egypt the white bread is very delicious.

At four in the afternoon we at length set sail. The time had passed rapidly enough with me, for there was a great deal of bustle around this canal. Barques came and departed, took in or discharged cargo; long processions of camels moved to and fro with their drivers to fetch and carry goods; the soldiers passed by, to the sound of military music, to exercise in the neighbouring square; there was continually something new to see, so that when four o’clock arrived, I could not imagine what had become of the time.

With the exception of the crew, I was the only person on board. These vessels are long and narrow, and are fitted up with a cabin and an awning. The cabin is divided into two little rooms; the first and larger of these contains two little windows on each side. The second and smaller one is often only six feet long by five broad. The space under the awning is appropriated to the poorer class of passengers and to the servants. It is necessary to take on board, besides provisions, a little stove, wood for fuel, kitchen-utensils and articles of this kind, a supply of water. The water of the Nile is, indeed, very good and thoroughly tasteless, so that it is universally drunk in Alexandria, Cairo, and elsewhere; but it is very turbid and of a yellowish colour, so that it must be filtered to render it clear and pure. Thus it happens that even on the river we are obliged to take water with us.

Handsome country-houses with gardens skirt the sides of the canal; the finest of these belongs to a pacha, the son-in-law of Mehemet Ali. As we passed this palace I saw the Egyptian Napoleon for the first time; he is a very little old man, with a long snow-white beard; his eyes and his gestures are very animated. Several Europeans stood around him, and a number of servants, some of them clothed in Greek, others in Turkish costume. In the avenue his carriage was waiting, a splendid double-seated vehicle, with four beautiful horses, harnessed in the English style. The Franks are favourably disposed towards this despot, whose subjects cherish a very opposite feeling. His government is very lenient to Christians, while the Mussulmen are obliged to bend their necks beneath a yoke of iron slavery.

This view of villas and gardens only lasts for two hours at the most. Afterwards we continue our journey to Atfe through a very uniform and unsatisfactory region of sandy hills and plains. On the right we pass the Mariotic Sea; and on both sides lie villages of a very wretched appearance.

August 19th.

At eleven in the forenoon we reached Atfe, and had therefore travelled about 180 sea-miles in sixteen hours. Atfe is a very small town, or rather a mere heap of stones.

The landing-places were always the scenes of my chief troubles. It was seldom that I could find a Frank, and was generally obliged to address several of the bystanders before I succeeded in finding one who could speak Italian and give me the information I required. I requested to be taken at once to the Austrian consulate, where this difficulty was usually removed. This was also the case here. The consul immediately sent to inquire how I could best get to Cairo, and offered me a room in his house in the mean time. A ship was soon found, for Atfe is a harbour of some importance. The canal joins the Nile at this place; and as larger vessels are used on the stream itself, all goods are transhipped here, so that barques are continually starting for Alexandria and Cairo. In a few hours I was obliged to re-embark, and had only time to provide myself with provisions and a supply of water, and to partake of a sumptuous dinner at the consul’s, whose hospitality was doubly grateful to me as I had fasted the previous day. The chief compartment of the cabin had been engaged for me, at an expense of 100 piastres. On embarking, however, I found that this place had been so filled with goods, that hardly a vacant space remained for the poor occupant. I at once hastened back to the consulate and complained of the captain, whereupon the consul sent for that worthy and desired him to clear my cabin, and to refrain from annoying me during the voyage, if he wished to be paid on our arrival at Cairo. This command was strictly obeyed, and until we reached our destination I was left in undisturbed possession of my berth. At two in the afternoon I once more set sail alone in the company of Arabs and Bedouins.

I would counsel any one who can only make this journey to Cairo once in his lifetime to do it at the end of August or the beginning of September. A more lovely picture, and one more peculiar in its character, can scarcely be imagined. In many places the plain is covered as far as the eye can trace by the Nile-sea (it can scarcely be called river in its immense expanse), and every where little islands are seen rising from the waters, covered with villages surrounded by date-palms, and other trees, while in the background the high-masted boats, with their pyramidal sails, are gliding to and fro. Numbers of sheep, goats, and poultry cover the hills, and near the shore the heads of the dark-grey buffaloes, which are here found in large herds, peer forth from the water. These creatures are fond of immersing their bodies in the cool flood, where they stand gazing at the passing ships. Here and there little plantations of twenty to thirty trees are seen, which appear, as the ground is completely overflowed, to be growing out of the Nile. The water here is much more muddy and of a darker colour than in the canal between Atfe and Alexandria. The sailors pour this water into great iron vessels, and leave it to settle and become clearer; this is, however, of little use, for it remains almost as muddy as the river. Notwithstanding this circumstance, however, this Nile-water is not at all prejudicial to health; on the contrary, the inhabitants of the valley assert that they possess the best and wholesomest water in the world. The Franks are accustomed, as I have already stated, to take filtered water with them. When the supply becomes exhausted, they have only to put a few kernels of apricots or almonds chopped small into a vessel of Nile-water to render it tolerably clear within the space of five or six hours. I learnt this art from an Arab woman during my voyage on the Nile.

The population of the region around the Nile must be very considerable, for the villages almost adjoin each other. The ground consists every where of sand, and only becomes fruitful through the mud which the Nile leaves behind after its inundation. Thus the luxuriant vegetation here only commences after the waters of the Nile have retired.

The villages cannot be called handsome, as the houses are mostly built of earth and clay, or of bricks made of the Nile mud. Man, the “crown of creation,” does not appear to advantage here; the poverty, the want of cleanliness, and rude savage state of the people, cannot be witnessed without a feeling of painful emotion.

The dress of the women consists of the usual long blue garment, and the men wear nothing but a shirt reaching to the knee. Some of the women veil their faces, but others do not.

I was astonished at the difference between the fine strongly-built men and the ugly disgusting women and neglected children. In general the latter present a most lamentable appearance, with faces covered with scabs and sores, on which a quantity of flies are continually settling. Frequently also they have inflamed eyes. In spite of the oppressive heat, I remained nearly the whole day seated on the roof of my cabin, enjoying the landscape, and gazing at the moving panorama to my heart’s content.

The company on board could be called good or bad; bad, because there was not a soul present to whom I could impart my feelings and sentiments on the marvels of nature around me; good, because all, but particularly the Arab women who occupied the little cabin in the forepart of the vessel, were very good-natured and attentive to me.

They wished me to accept a share of every thing they possessed, and gave me a portion of each of their dishes, which generally consisted either of pilau, beans, or cucumbers, and which I did not find palatable; when they drank coffee in the morning, the first cup was always handed to me. In return I gave them some of my provisions, all of which they liked, excepting the coffee, which had milk in it. When we landed at a village, the inhabitants would inquire by signs if I wished for any thing. I wanted some milk, eggs, and bread, but did not know how to ask for them in Arabic. I therefore had recourse to drawing; for instance, I made a portrait of a cow, gave an Arab woman a bottle and some money, and made signs to her to milk her cow and to fill my bottle. In the same way I drew a hen, and some eggs beside her; pointed to the hen with a shake of my head, and then to the eggs with a nod, counting on the woman’s fingers how many she was to bring me. In this way I could always manage to get on, by limiting my wants to such objects as I could represent by drawings.

When they brought me the milk, and I explained to the Arab woman by signs that, after she had finished cooking, I wished to have the use of the fire to prepare my milk and eggs, she immediately took off her pot from the fire and compelled me, in spite of all remonstrances, to cook my dinner first. If I walked forward towards the prow to obtain a better view of the landscape, the best place was immediately vacated on my behalf; and, in short, they all behaved in such a courteous and obliging way, that these uncultivated people might have put to shame many a civilised European. They certainly, however, requested a few favours of me, which, I am ashamed to say, it cost me a great effort to grant. For instance, the oldest among them begged permission to sleep in my apartment, as they only possessed a small cabin, while I had the larger one all to myself. Then they performed their devotions, even to the preliminary washing of face and feet, in my cabin: this I permitted, as I was more on deck than below. At first these women called me Mary, imagining, probably, that every Christian lady must bear the name of the Virgin. I told them my baptismal name, which they accurately remembered; they told me theirs in return, which I very soon forgot. I mention this trifling circumstance, because I afterwards was frequently surprised at the retentive memory of these people during my journey through the desert towards the Red Sea.

August 21st.

Although I felt solitary among all the voyagers on the barque, these two days passed swiftly and agreeably away. The flatter the land grew, the broader did the lordly river become. The villages increased in size; and the huts, mostly resembling a sugar-loaf, with a number of doves roosting on its apex, wore an appearance of greater comfort. Mosques and large country-houses presently appeared; and, in short, the nearer we approached towards Cairo, the more distinct became these indications of affluence. The sand-hills appeared less frequently, though on the route between Atfe and Cairo I still saw five or six large barren places which had quite the look of deserts. Once the wind blew directly towards us from one of these burning wastes with such an oppressive influence, that I could easily imagine how dreadful the hot winds (chamsir) must be, and I no longer wondered at the continual instances of blindness among the poor inhabitants of these regions. The heat is unendurable, and the fine dust and heated particles of sand which are carried into the air by these winds cannot fail to cause inflammation of the eyes.

Little towers of masonry, on the tops of which telegraphs have been fixed, are seen at intervals along the road between Alexandria and Cairo.

Our vessel was unfortunate enough to strike several times on sand-banks, besides getting entangled among the shallows a circumstance of frequent occurrence during the time that the Nile is rising. On these occasions I could not sufficiently admire the strength, agility, and hard-working perseverance of our sailors, who were obliged to jump overboard and push off the ship with poles, and afterwards were repeatedly compelled to drag it for half an hour together through shallow places. These people are also very expert at climbing. They could ascend without ratlines to the very tops of the slanting masts, and take in or unloose the sails. I could not repress a shudder on seeing these poor creatures hanging betwixt earth and heaven, so far above me that they appeared like dwarfs. They work with one hand, while they cling to the mast with the other. I do not think that a better, or a more active, agile, and temperate race of sailors exists than these. Their fare consists of bread or ship-biscuit in the morning, with sometimes a raw cucumber, a piece of cheese, or a handful of dates in addition. For dinner they have the same diet, and for supper they have a dish of warm beans, or a kind of broth or pilau. Roast mutton is a rare delicacy with them, and their drink is nothing but the Nile water.

During the period of the inundation, the river is twice as full of vessels as at other times. When the river is swollen, the only method of communication is by boats.

On the last day of this expedition a most beauteous spectacle awaited me the Delta! Here the mighty Nile, which irrigates the whole country with the hundreds of canals cut from its banks through every region, divides itself into two principal branches, one of which falls into the sea at Rosetta, and the other at Damietta. If the separate aims of the river could be compared to seas, how much more does its united vastness merit the appellation!

When I was thus carried away by the beauty and grandeur of nature, when I thus saw myself placed in the midst of new and interesting scenes, it would appear to me incredible how people can exist, possessing in abundance the gifts of riches, health, and leisure time, and yet without a taste for travelling. The petty comforts of life and enjoyments of luxury are indeed worth more in the eyes of some than the opportunity of contemplating the exalted beauties of nature or the monuments of history, and of gaining information concerning the manners and customs of foreign nations. Although I was at times very badly situated, and had to encounter more hardships and disagreeables than fall to the lot of many a man, I would be thankful that I had had resolution given me to continue my wanderings whenever one of these grand spectacles opened itself before me. What, indeed, are the entertainments of a large town compared to the Delta of the Nile, and many similar scenes? The pure and perfect enjoyment afforded by the contemplation of the beauty of nature is not for a moment to be found in the ball-room or the theatre; and all the ease and luxury in the world should not buy from me my recollections of this journey.

Not far from the Delta we can behold the Libyan Desert, of which we afterwards never entirely lose sight, though we sometimes approach and sometimes recede from it. I became conscious of certain dark objects in the far distance; they developed themselves more and more, and at length I recognised in them the wonder-buildings of ancient times, the Pyramids; far behind them rises the chain of mountains, or rather hills, of Mokattam.

Evening was closing in when we at length arrived at Bulak, the harbour of Cairo. If we could have landed at once, I might, perhaps, have reached the town itself this evening; as the harbour is, however, always over-crowded with vessels, the captain is often compelled to wait for an hour before he can find a place to moor his craft. By the time I could disembark it had already grown quite dark, and the town-gates were shut. I was thus obliged to pass the night on board.

The journey from Atfe to Cairo had occupied two days and a half. This passage had been one of the most interesting, although the heat became more and more oppressive, and the burning winds of the desert were sometimes wafted over to us. The highest temperature at midday was 36 degrees, and in the shade from 24 to 25 degrees Reaumur. The sky was far less beautiful and clear than in Syria; it was here frequently overcast with white clouds.