Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo by William Makepeace Thackeray

Part 4 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

feeling of disgust. I shouted out to the cursed lackey to hold his
hand, and forbade him ever in my presence to strike old or young
more; but everybody is doing it. The whip is in everybody's hands:
the Pasha's running footman, as he goes bustling through the
bazaar; the doctor's attendant, as he soberly threads the crowd on
his mare; the negro slave, who is riding by himself, the most
insolent of all, strikes and slashes about without mercy, and you
never hear a single complaint.

How to describe the beauty of the streets to you!--the fantastic
splendour; the variety of the houses, and archways, and hanging
roofs, and balconies, and porches; the delightful accidents of
light and shade which chequer them: the noise, the bustle, the
brilliancy of the crowd; the interminable vast bazaars with their
barbaric splendour. There is a fortune to be made for painters in
Cairo, and materials for a whole Academy of them. I never saw such
a variety of architecture, of life, of picturesqueness, of
brilliant colour, and light and shade. There is a picture in every
street, and at every bazaar stall. Some of these our celebrated
water-colour painter, Mr. Lewis, has produced with admirable truth
and exceeding minuteness and beauty; but there is room for a
hundred to follow him; and should any artist (by some rare
occurrence) read this, who has leisure, and wants to break new
ground, let him take heart, and try a winter in Cairo, where there
is the finest climate and the best subjects for his pencil.

A series of studies of negroes alone would form a picturebook,
delightfully grotesque. Mounting my donkey to-day, I took a ride
to the desolate noble old buildings outside the city, known as the
Tombs of the Caliphs. Every one of these edifices, with their
domes, and courts, and minarets, is strange and beautiful. In one
of them there was an encampment of negro slaves newly arrived:
some scores of them were huddled against the sunny wall; two or
three of their masters lounged about the court, or lay smoking upon
carpets. There was one of these fellows, a straight-nosed ebony-
faced Abyssinian, with an expression of such sinister good-humour
in his handsome face as would form a perfect type of villany. He
sat leering at me, over his carpet, as I endeavoured to get a
sketch of that incarnate rascality. "Give me some money," said the
fellow. "I know what you are about. You will sell my picture for
money when you get back to Europe; let me have some of it now!"
But the very rude and humble designer was quite unable to depict
such a consummation and perfection of roguery; so flung him a
cigar, which he began to smoke, grinning at the giver. I requested
the interpreter to inform him, by way of assurance of my
disinterestedness, that his face was a great deal too ugly to be
popular in Europe, and that was the particular reason why I had
selected it.

Then one of his companions got up and showed us his black cattle.
The male slaves were chiefly lads, and the women young, well
formed, and abominably hideous. The dealer pulled her blanket off
one of them, and bade her stand up, which she did with a great deal
of shuddering modesty. She was coal black, her lips were the size
of sausages, her eyes large and good-humoured; the hair or wool on
this young person's head was curled and greased into a thousand
filthy little ringlets. She was evidently the beauty of the flock.

They are not unhappy: they look to being bought, as many a
spinster looks to an establishment in England; once in a family
they are kindly treated and well clothed, and fatten, and are the
merriest people of the whole community. These were of a much more
savage sort than the slaves I had seen in the horrible market at
Constantinople, where I recollect the following young creature--{2}
(indeed it is a very fair likeness of her) whilst I was looking at
her and forming pathetic conjectures regarding her fate--smiling
very good-humouredly, and bidding the interpreter ask me to buy her
for twenty pounds.

From these Tombs of the Caliphs the Desert is before you. It comes
up to the walls of the city, and stops at some gardens which spring
up all of a sudden at its edge. You can see the first Station-
house on the Suez Road; and so from distance-point to point, could
ride thither alone without a guide.

Asinus trotted gallantly into this desert for the space of a
quarter of an hour. There we were (taking care to keep our back to
the city walls), in the real actual desert: mounds upon mounds of
sand, stretching away as far as the eye can see, until the dreary
prospect fades away in the yellow horizon! I had formed a finer
idea of it out of "Eothen." Perhaps in a simoom it may look more
awful. The only adventure that befell in this romantic place was
that Asinus's legs went deep into a hole: whereupon his rider went
over his head, and bit the sand, and measured his length there; and
upon this hint rose up, and rode home again. No doubt one should
have gone out for a couple of days' march--as it was, the desert
did not seem to me sublime, only UNCOMFORTABLE.

Very soon after this perilous adventure the sun likewise dipped
into the sand (but not to rise therefrom so quickly as I had done);
and I saw this daily phenomenon of sunset with pleasure, for I was
engaged at that hour to dine with our old friend J-, who has
established himself here in the most complete Oriental fashion.

You remember J-, and what a dandy he was, the faultlessness of his
boots and cravats, the brilliancy of his waistcoats and kid-gloves;
we have seen his splendour in Regent Street, in the Tuileries, or
on the Toledo. My first object on arriving here was to find out
his house, which he has taken far away from the haunts of European
civilisation, in the Arab quarter. It is situated in a cool,
shady, narrow alley; so narrow, that it was with great difficulty--
His Highness Ibrahim Pasha happening to pass at the same moment--
that my little procession of two donkeys, mounted by self and
valet-de-place, with the two donkey-boys our attendants, could
range ourselves along the wall, and leave room for the august
cavalcade. His Highness having rushed on (with an affable and
good-humoured salute to our imposing party), we made J.'s quarters;
and, in the first place, entered a broad covered court or porch,
where a swarthy tawny attendant, dressed in blue, with white
turban, keeps a perpetual watch. Servants in the East lie about
all the doors, it appears; and you clap your hands, as they do in
the dear old "Arabian Nights," to summon them.

This servant disappeared through a narrow wicket, which he closed
after him; and went into the inner chambers, to ask if his lord
would receive us. He came back presently, and rising up from my
donkey, I confided him to his attendant (lads more sharp, arch, and
wicked than these donkey-boys don't walk the pave of Paris or
London), and passed the mysterious outer door.

First we came into a broad open court, with a covered gallery
running along one side of it. A camel was reclining on the grass
there; near him was a gazelle, to glad J- with his dark blue eye;
and a numerous brood of hens and chickens, who furnish his liberal
table. On the opposite side of the covered gallery rose up the
walls of his long, queer, many-windowed, many-galleried house.
There were wooden lattices to those arched windows, through the
diamonds of one of which I saw two of the most beautiful, enormous,
ogling black eyes in the world, looking down upon the interesting
stranger. Pigeons were flapping, and hopping, and fluttering, and
cooing about. Happy pigeons, you are, no doubt, fed with crumbs
from the henne-tipped fingers of Zuleika! All this court, cheerful
in the sunshine, cheerful with the astonishing brilliancy of the
eyes peering out from the lattice-bars, was as mouldy, ancient, and
ruinous--as any gentleman's house in Ireland, let us say. The
paint was peeling off the rickety old carved galleries; the
arabesques over the windows were chipped and worn;--the ancientness
of the place rendered it doubly picturesque. I have detained you a
long time in the outer court. Why the deuce was Zuleika there,
with the beautiful black eyes?

Hence we passed into a large apartment, where there was a fountain;
and another domestic made his appearance, taking me in charge, and
relieving the tawny porter of the gate. This fellow was clad in
blue too, with a red sash and a grey beard. He conducted me into a
great hall, where there was a great, large Saracenic oriel window.
He seated me on a divan; and stalking off, for a moment, returned
with a long pipe and a brass chafing-dish: he blew the coal for
the pipe, which he motioned me to smoke, and left me there with a
respectful bow. This delay, this mystery of servants, that outer
court with the camels, gazelles, and other beautiful-eyed things,
affected me prodigiously all the time he was staying away; and
while I was examining the strange apartment and its contents, my
respect and awe for the owner increased vastly.

As you will be glad to know how an Oriental nobleman (such as J--
undoubtedly is) is lodged and garnished, let me describe the
contents of this hall of audience. It is about forty feet long,
and eighteen or twenty high. All the ceiling is carved, gilt,
painted and embroidered with arabesques, and choice sentences of
Eastern writing. Some Mameluke Aga, or Bey, whom Mehemet Ali
invited to breakfast and massacred, was the proprietor of this
mansion once: it has grown dingier, but, perhaps, handsomer, since
his time. Opposite the divan is a great bay-window, with a divan
likewise round the niche. It looks out upon a garden about the
size of Fountain Court, Temple; surrounded by the tall houses of
the quarter. The garden is full of green. A great palm-tree
springs up in the midst, with plentiful shrubberies, and a talking
fountain. The room beside the divan is furnished with one deal
table, value five shillings; four wooden chairs, value six
shillings; and a couple of mats and carpets. The table and chairs
are luxuries imported from Europe. The regular Oriental dinner is
put upon copper trays, which are laid upon low stools. Hence J-
Effendi's house may be said to be much more sumptuously furnished
than those of the Beys and Agas his neighbours.

When these things had been examined at leisure, J- appeared. Could
it be the exquisite of the "Europa" and the "Trois Freres"? A man-
-in a long yellow gown, with a long beard somewhat tinged with
grey, with his head shaved, and wearing on it, first, a white
wadded cotton nightcap; second, a red tarboosh--made his appearance
and welcomed me cordially. It was some time, as the Americans say,
before I could "realise" the semillant J- of old times.

He shuffled off his outer slippers before he curled up on the divan
beside me. He clapped his hands, and languidly called "Mustapha."
Mustapha came with more lights, pipes, and coffee; and then we fell
to talking about London, and I gave him the last news of the
comrades in that dear city. As we talked, his Oriental coolness
and languor gave way to British cordiality; he was the most amusing
companion of the club once more.

He has adapted himself outwardly, however, to the Oriental life.
When he goes abroad he rides a grey horse with red housings, and
has two servants to walk beside him. He wears a very handsome
grave costume of dark blue, consisting of an embroidered jacket and
gaiters, and a pair of trousers, which would make a set of dresses
for an English family. His beard curls nobly over his chest, his
Damascus scimitar on his thigh. His red cap gives him a venerable
and Bey-like appearance. There is no gewgaw or parade about him,
as in some of your dandified young Agas. I should say that he is a
Major-General of Engineers, or a grave officer of State. We and
the Turkified European, who found us at dinner, sat smoking in
solemn divan.

His dinners were excellent; they were cooked by a regular Egyptian
female cook. We had delicate cucumbers stuffed with forced-meats;
yellow smoking pilaffs, the pride of the Oriental cuisine; kid and
fowls a l'Aboukir and a la Pyramide: a number of little savoury
plates of legumes of the vegetable-marrow sort: kibobs with an
excellent sauce of plums and piquant herbs. We ended the repast
with ruby pomegranates, pulled to pieces, deliciously cool and
pleasant. For the meats, we certainly ate them with the Infidel
knife and fork; but for the fruit, we put our hands into the dish
and flicked them into our mouths in what cannot but be the true
Oriental manner. I asked for lamb and pistachio-nuts, and cream-
tarts au poivre; but J.'s cook did not furnish us with either of
those historic dishes. And for drink, we had water freshened in
the porous little pots of grey clay, at whose spout every traveller
in the East has sucked delighted. Also, it must be confessed, we
drank certain sherbets, prepared by the two great rivals, Hadji
Hodson and Bass Bey--the bitterest and most delicious of draughts!
O divine Hodson! a camel's load of thy beer came from Beyrout to
Jerusalem while we were there. How shall I ever forget the joy
inspired by one of those foaming cool flasks?

We don't know the luxury of thirst in English climes. Sedentary
men in cities at least have seldom ascertained it; but when they
travel, our countrymen guard against it well. The road between
Cairo and Suez is jonche with soda-water corks. Tom Thumb and his
brothers might track their way across the desert by those

Cairo is magnificently picturesque: it is fine to have palm-trees
in your gardens, and ride about on a camel; but, after all, I was
anxious to know what were the particular excitements of Eastern
life, which detained J-, who is a town-bred man, from his natural
pleasures and occupations in London; where his family don't hear
from him, where his room is still kept ready at home, and his name
is on the list of his club; and where his neglected sisters tremble
to think that their Frederick is going about with a great beard and
a crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk. In a "lark" such
a costume may be very well; but home, London, a razor, your sister
to make tea, a pair of moderate Christian breeches in lieu of those
enormous Turkish shulwars, are vastly more convenient in the long
run. What was it that kept him away from these decent and
accustomed delights?

It couldn't be the black eyes in the balcony--upon his honour she
was only the black cook, who has done the pilaff, and stuffed the
cucumbers. No, it was an indulgence of laziness such as Europeans,
Englishmen, at least, don't know how to enjoy. Here he lives like
a languid Lotus-eater--a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life. He
was away from evening parties, he said: he needn't wear white kid
gloves, or starched neckcloths, or read a newspaper. And even this
life at Cairo was too civilised for him: Englishmen passed
through; old acquaintances would call: the great pleasure of
pleasures was life in the desert,--under the tents, with still more
nothing to do than in Cairo; now smoking, now cantering on Arabs,
and no crowd to jostle you; solemn contemplations of the stars at
night, as the camels were picketed, and the fires and the pipes
were lighted.

The night-scene in the city is very striking for its vastness and
loneliness. Everybody has gone to rest long before ten o'clock.
There are no lights in the enormous buildings; only the stars
blazing above, with their astonishing brilliancy, in the blue
peaceful sky. Your guides carry a couple of little lanterns which
redouble the darkness in the solitary echoing street. Mysterious
people are curled up and sleeping in the porches. A patrol of
soldiers passes, and hails you. There is a light yet in one
mosque, where some devotees are at prayers all night; and you hear
the queerest nasal music proceeding from those pious believers. As
you pass the madhouse, there is one poor fellow still talking to
the moon--no sleep for him. He howls and sings there all the
night--quite cheerfully, however. He has not lost his vanity with
his reason: he is a Prince in spite of the bars and the straw.

What to say about those famous edifices, which has not been better
said elsewhere?--but you will not believe that we visited them,
unless I bring some token from them. Here is one:- {2}

That white-capped lad skipped up the stones with a jug of water in
his hand, to refresh weary climbers; and squatting himself down on
the summit, was designed as you see. The vast flat landscape
stretches behind him; the great winding river; the purple city,
with forts, and domes, and spires; the green fields, and palm-
groves, and speckled villages; the plains still covered with
shining inundations--the landscape stretches far far away, until it
is lost and mingled in the golden horizon. It is poor work this
landscape-painting in print. Shelley's two sonnets are the best
views that I know of the Pyramids--better than the reality; for a
man may lay down the book, and in quiet fancy conjure up a picture
out of these magnificent words, which shan't be disturbed by any
pettinesses or mean realities,--such as the swarms of howling
beggars, who jostle you about the actual place, and scream in your
ears incessantly, and hang on your skirts, and bawl for money.

The ride to the Pyramids is one of the pleasantest possible. In
the fall of the year, though the sky is almost cloudless above you,
the sun is not too hot to bear; and the landscape, refreshed by the
subsiding inundations, delightfully green and cheerful. We made up
a party of some half-dozen from the hotel, a lady (the kind soda-
water provider, for whose hospitality the most grateful compliments
are hereby offered) being of the company, bent like the rest upon
going to the summit of Cheops. Those who were cautious and wise,
took a brace of donkeys. At least five times during the route did
my animals fall with me, causing me to repeat the desert experiment
over again, but with more success. The space between a moderate
pair of legs and the ground, is not many inches. By eschewing
stirrups, the donkey could fall, and the rider alight on the
ground, with the greatest ease and grace. Almost everybody was
down and up again in the course of the day.

We passed through the Ezbekieh and by the suburbs of the town,
where the garden-houses of the Egyptian noblesse are situated, to
Old Cairo, where a ferry-boat took the whole party across the Nile,
with that noise and bawling volubility in which the Arab people
seem to be so unlike the grave and silent Turks; and so took our
course for some eight or ten miles over the devious tract which the
still outlying waters obliged us to pursue. The Pyramids were in
sight the whole way. One or two thin silvery clouds were hovering
over them, and casting delicate rosy shadows upon the grand simple
old piles. Along the track we saw a score of pleasant pictures of
Eastern life:- The Pasha's horses and slaves stood caparisoned at
his door; at the gate of one country-house, I am sorry to say, the
Bey's GIG was in waiting,--a most unromantic chariot; the
husbandmen were coming into the city, with their strings of donkeys
and their loads; as they arrived, they stopped and sucked at the
fountain: a column of red-capped troops passed to drill, with
slouched gait, white uniforms, and glittering bayonets. Then we
had the pictures at the quay: the ferryboat, and the red-sailed
river-boat, getting under way, and bound up the stream. There was
the grain market, and the huts on the opposite side; and that
beautiful woman, with silver armlets, and a face the colour of
gold, which (the nose-bag having been luckily removed) beamed
solemnly on us Europeans, like a great yellow harvest moon. The
bunches of purpling dates were pending from the branches; grey
cranes or herons were flying over the cool shining lakes, that the
river's overflow had left behind; water was gurgling through the
courses by the rude locks and barriers formed there, and
overflowing this patch of ground; whilst the neighbouring field was
fast budding into the more brilliant fresh green. Single
dromedaries were stepping along, their riders lolling on their
hunches; low sail-boats were lying in the canals; now, we crossed
an old marble bridge; now, we went, one by one, over a ridge of
slippery earth; now, we floundered through a small lake of mud. At
last, at about half-a-mile off the Pyramid, we came to a piece of
water some two-score yards broad, where a regiment of half-naked
Arabs, seizing upon each individual of the party, bore us off on
their shoulders, to the laughter of all, and the great perplexity
of several, who every moment expected to be pitched into one of the
many holes with which the treacherous lake abounded.

It was nothing but joking and laughter, bullying of guides,
shouting for interpreters, quarrelling about sixpences. We were
acting a farce, with the Pyramids for the scene. There they rose
up enormous under our eyes, and the most absurd trivial things were
going on under their shadow. The sublime had disappeared, vast as
they were. Do you remember how Gulliver lost his awe of the
tremendous Brobdingnag ladies? Every traveller must go through all
sorts of chaffering, and bargaining, and paltry experiences, at
this spot. You look up the tremendous steps, with a score of
savage ruffians bellowing round you; you hear faint cheers and
cries high up, and catch sight of little reptiles crawling upwards;
or, having achieved the summit, they come hopping and bouncing down
again from degree to degree,--the cheers and cries swell louder and
more disagreeable; presently the little jumping thing, no bigger
than an insect a moment ago, bounces down upon you expanded into a
panting Major of Bengal cavalry. He drives off the Arabs with an
oath,--wipes his red shining face with his yellow handkerchief,
drops puffing on the sand in a shady corner, where cold fowl and
hard eggs are awaiting him, and the next minute you see his nose
plunged in a foaming beaker of brandy and soda-water. He can say
now, and for ever, he has been up the Pyramid. There is nothing
sublime in it. You cast your eye once more up that staggering
perspective of a zigzag line, which ends at the summit, and wish
you were up there--and down again. Forwards!--Up with you! It
must be done. Six Arabs are behind you, who won't let you escape
if you would.

The importunity of these ruffians is a ludicrous annoyance to which
a traveller must submit. For two miles before you reach the
Pyramids they seize on you and never cease howling. Five or six of
them pounce upon one victim, and never leave him until they have
carried him up and down. Sometimes they conspire to run a man up
the huge stair, and bring him, half-killed and fainting, to the
top. Always a couple of brutes insist upon impelling you
sternwards; from whom the only means to release yourself is to kick
out vigorously and unmercifully, when the Arabs will possibly
retreat. The ascent is not the least romantic, or difficult, or
sublime: you walk up a great broken staircase, of which some of
the steps are four feet high. It's not hard, only a little high.
You see no better view from the top than you behold from the
bottom; only a little more river, and sand, and ricefield. You
jump down the big steps at your leisure; but your meditations you
must keep for after-times,--the cursed shrieking of the Arabs
prevents all thought or leisure.

- And this is all you have to tell about the Pyramids? Oh! for
shame! Not a compliment to their age and size? Not a big phrase,-
-not a rapture? Do you mean to say that you had no feeling of
respect and awe? Try, man, and build up a monument of words as
lofty as they are--they, whom "imber edax" and "aquilo impotens"
and the flight of ages have not been able to destroy.

- No: be that work for great geniuses, great painters, great
poets! This quill was never made to take such flights; it comes of
the wing of a humble domestic bird, who walks a common; who talks a
great deal (and hisses sometimes); who can't fly far or high, and
drops always very quickly; and whose unromantic end is, to be laid
on a Michaelmas or Christmas table, and there to be discussed for
half-an-hour--let us hope, with some relish.

* * *

Another week saw us in the Quarantine Harbour at Malta, where
seventeen days of prison and quiet were almost agreeable, after the
incessant sight-seeing of the last two months. In the interval,
between the 23rd of August and the 27th of October, we may boast of
having seen more men and cities than most travellers have seen in
such a time:- Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malta, Athens, Smyrna,
Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo. I shall have the carpet-bag,
which has visited these places in company with its owner,
embroidered with their names; as military flags are emblazoned, and
laid up in ordinary, to be looked at in old age. With what a
number of sights and pictures,--of novel sensations, and lasting
and delightful remembrances, does a man furnish his mind after such
a tour! You forget all the annoyances of travel; but the pleasure
remains with you, through that kind provision of nature by which a
man forgets being ill, but thinks with joy of getting well, and can
remember all the minute circumstances of his convalescence. I
forget what sea-sickness is now: though it occupies a woful
portion of my Journal. There was a time on board when the bitter
ale was decidedly muddy; and the cook of the ship deserting at
Constantinople, it must be confessed his successor was for some
time before he got his hand in. These sorrows have passed away
with the soothing influence of time: the pleasures of the voyage
remain, let us hope, as long as life will endure. It was but for a
couple of days that those shining columns of the Parthenon glowed
under the blue sky there; but the experience of a life could
scarcely impress them more vividly. We saw Cadiz only for an hour;
but the white buildings, and the glorious blue sea, how clear they
are to the memory!--with the tang of that gipsy's guitar dancing in
the market-place, in the midst of the fruit, and the beggars, and
the sunshine. Who can forget the Bosphorus, the brightest and
fairest scene in all the world; or the towering lines of Gibraltar;
or the great piles of Mafra, as we rode into the Tagus? As I write
this, and think, back comes Rhodes, with its old towers and
artillery, and that wonderful atmosphere, and that astonishing blue
sea which environs the island. The Arab riders go pacing over the
plains of Sharon, in the rosy twilight, just before sunrise; and I
can see the ghastly Moab mountains, with the Dead Sea gleaming
before them, from the mosque on the way towards Bethany. The black
gnarled trees of Gethsemane lie at the foot of Olivet, and the
yellow ramparts of the city rise up on the stony hills beyond.

But the happiest and best of all the recollections, perhaps, are
those of the hours passed at night on the deck, when the stars were
shining overhead, and the hours were tolled at their time, and your
thoughts were fixed upon home far away. As the sun rose I once
heard the priest, from the minaret of Constantinople, crying out,
"Come to prayer," with his shrill voice ringing through the clear
air; and saw, at the same hour, the Arab prostrate himself and
pray, and the Jew Rabbi, bending over his book, and worshipping the
Maker of Turk and Jew. Sitting at home in London, and writing this
last line of farewell, those figures come back the clearest of all
to the memory, with the picture, too, of our ship sailing over the
peaceful Sabbath sea, and our own prayers and services celebrated
there. So each, in his fashion, and after his kind, is bowing
down, and adoring the Father, who is equally above all. Cavil not,
you brother or sister, if your neighbour's voice is not like yours;
only hope that his words are honest (as far as they may be), and
his heart humble and thankful.


{1} Saint Paul speaking from the Areopagus, and rebuking these
superstitions away, yet speaks tenderly to the people before him,
whose devotions he had marked; quotes their poets, to bring them to
think of the God unknown, whom they had ignorantly worshipped; and
says, that the times of this ignorance God winked at, but that now
it was time to repent. No rebuke can surely be more gentle than
this delivered by the upright Apostle.

{2} Thackeray's drawing is shown at this point in the book.

{3} At Derrynane Beg, for instance.

Book of the day: