The “Description of Egypt.”

On Monday the 18th July 1825 Lane embarked on board the brig “Findlay,” 212 tons, bound for Alexandria, and on the 24th he lost sight of the coast of England. The voyage, which occupied two months, was not altogether uneventful. On the 2nd September the “Findlay” nearly foundered in a hurricane off Tunis. The master seems to have been an incapable person, and no one else of the crew understood navigation. The night was starless; the sea ran so high that the heavy storm-compass in the binnacle could not traverse and was unshipped at every lurch; and, driven along between a lee shore and a dangerous reef, without compass, and the main topmast carried away, the ship seemed doomed to destruction. It was at this critical moment that the captain entreated Lane to take the helm. Fortunately navigation had formed part of his mathematical studies: but he was little more than a boy and this was his first voyage; he might well have shrunk from the responsibility. But he went at once to the wheel, where he had to be lashed, or he had been washed overboard by the seas that swept momently over the deck. He had noticed the bearings of the lightning, and by the flashes he steered. At last the moon rose, and by her light the wreck was cleared away and steering was less hazardous. As day dawned the wind abated, and Lane was able to bring the ship safely into Malta harbour on the morning of the 4th. Here she remained six days for repair; and meanwhile the crew mutinied, seemingly not without reason; and Lane was aroused one morning with a shot through his pillow. He had come prepared for dangers in Egypt, and these accidents by the way did not discompose him. On Monday the 19th September the shores of the Delta came in sight: first the ruined tower of Aboo-Seer rose above the horizon; then “a tall distant sail,” which proved to be the Great Pillar of Alexandria; then high hills of rubbish, crowned with forts; and at last the ships in the Old Harbour. The “Findlay” was ordered to enter the New Harbour, and there cast anchor in the midst of a shoal of Rosetta boats.

Although it was late in the afternoon and little could be seen before dark, Lane was too impatient to wait for the next day. He landed filled with profound emotion, feeling, he writes, like an Eastern bridegroom about to lift the veil of his as yet unseen bride. For his was not the case of an ordinary traveller. “I was not visiting Egypt merely for my amusement; to examine its pyramids and temples and grottoes, and after satisfying my curiosity to quit it for other scenes and other pleasures: but I was about to throw myself entirely among strangers, among a people of whom I had heard the most contradictory accounts; I was to adopt their language, their customs, and their dress; and in order to make as much progress as possible in the study of their literature, it was my intention to associate almost exclusively with the Muslim inhabitants.”

The first sight that met his eye was singularly impressive. It was the time of afternoon prayers, and the chant of the Muëddin had just ceased as they landed. Muslims were performing the ablutions at the sea, or, this done, were praying on the beach, with that solemn gravity and with those picturesque and striking attitudes which command the respect of all standers-by. Lane always felt a strong veneration for a Muslim at his prayers, and it was a singularly auspicious moment for an enthusiastic Englishman to set foot on the Egyptian soil. As he walked on, till he reached one of the principal streets, his delight and wonder grew at every step. The peculiar appearance of the narrow street and its shops, the crowded passengers of every nation bordering on the Mediterranean, the variety of costume and countenance, the “bearded visage of the Turk, the Moor, and the Egyptian, ― the noble and hardy look of the sunburnt Bedawee enveloped in his ample woollen sheet or hooded cloak, ― the mean and ragged clothing of many of the lower orders, contrasted with the gaudy splendour or graceful habit of some of their superiors, ― the lounging soldier with his pipe and pistols and yataghán, ― the blind beggar, ― the dirty naked child, and the veiled female,” afforded a picture beyond even what his dreams of the land of the Arabian Nights had conjured up. It is true the shady side of the scene was somewhat forcibly disclosed a few paces further on, by a brawl, a murder, and a decapitation, all occurring in the space of a few minutes before the eyes of the young traveller. And as he examined Alexandria at leisure, he began to feel disappointed with it, and to long for Cairo. Notwithstanding the characteristic sights that first greeted him, the city was not Eastern enough, and he would have found his stay there wearisome but for the kindness and hospitality of Mr. Salt, the British Consul-General, who received him like an old friend, although they were strangers to each other, and gave him a room in his country-house near the Báb-es-Sidr. Lane found a “delightful retreat” in Mr. Salt's garden, and plenty of entertainment in the company that visited the Consul. One of these friends, M. Linant, the indefatigable cartographer of Egypt, proposed that Lane should join his party to Cairo, an offer which, as a stranger and as yet unprovided with a servant, he gladly accepted.

On the 28th. September the Reyyis and crew chanted the Fáṭʼḥah, the beautiful prayer which opens the Ḳur-án, and M. Linant and his party, accompanied by Lane, set sail on the Maḥmoodeeyeh canal for the “El-Ḳáhirah the Guarded.” The voyage was in no wise remarkable. Lane made his usual careful notes of every thing he saw, from the saráb to the creaking of the sáḳiyehs and the croaking of the frogs. He described each village or town he passed, and observed the ways of the people working on shore or bathing in the Nile; and watched the simple habits of the boatmen, when the boat was made fast and their day's work was over, grouped round the fire on the bank, smoking and singing, and blowing their terrible double-pipes and making night hideous with their national drums; and then contentedly spreading their mats, and, despising pillow and covering, falling happily asleep. On the 2nd October Lane had his first distant and hazy view of the Pyramids, and about five o'clock the boat was moored at Booláḳ, the port of Cairo, and the Reyyis thanked God for their safe arrival ― “El-ḥamdu li-lláh bi-s-selámeh.”

They rode at once to the city to tell the Vice-Consul of their arrivaI, that rooms might be made ready for them in Mr. Salt's house. The first view of Cairo delighted Lane even more than he had expected, and here at least, where all was thoroughly Eastern and on a grand scale, no after disappointment could be expected. When he saw the numberless minarets towering above the wilderness of flat-roofed houses, and in turn crowned by the citadel, with the yellow ridge of El-Ṁuḳattam in the background, Lane took heart again and rejoiced in the prospect of his future home. The next day he took up his quarters at the Consulate, abandoned his English dress and adopted the Turkish costume, and set out to look for a house. He soon found one near the Báb-el-Ḥadeed, belonging to ʼOsmán, a Scotsman in the employ of the British Consul, who proved a very useful neighbour and a faithful friend. The furniture, after the usual native pattern, always a simple affair in the East, was quickly procured and the house was soon ready for his reception.

These matters took up the first five days in Cairo: but on the 8th October, every thing being in a fair way to completion at the house, a small party of Europeans, with Lane among them, made an excursion to the Pyramids. It was only a flying visit, to take the edge off his ardent curiosity, for he meant to go again and make careful drawings and measurements. He explored the Great Pyramid, and then in the night climbed to its summit and enjoyed a sight such as one hardly sees twice in a lifetime. The cold wind sweeping up the sides, with a sound like the roar of a distant cataract, echoed the weird feeling of the place and the time, with which the vaguely vast outline of the Second Pyramid, faintly discernable, and the wild figures of the Bedawee guides were in full harmony. Then the moon rose and lighted up the eastern side of the nearer pyramid with a magic effect. Two hours more and the sun had revealed the plain of Egypt, and Lane had heen already amply rewarded for the dangers and trouble of his journey from England by one of the most wonderful views in the world.

After two months spent in Cairo, in the study of the people and their language, and in seeing the thousand beautiful things that the most picturesque of cities could then show, Lane again visited the Pyramids, this time for a fortnight, armed with stores and necessaries for living, and with materials for drawing and surveying, above all the camera lucida, with which all his drawings were made.

He took up his abode in a tomb of an unusually luxurious kind. It had three holes for windows, and was altogether about eight feet wide by twice as long, with a partition wall in the middle. Before the door was the usual accumulation of hones and rags, and even whole bodies of mummies: but the contemplation of these details gave Lane no unpleasant sensations; he merely observed that the skulls were extraordinarily thick. Into this cheerful habitation the baggage was carried, and though at first the interior looked “rather gloomy,” when “the floor was swept, and a mat, rug, and mattress spread in the inner apartment, a candle lighted, as well as my pipe, and my arms hung about upon wooden pegs driven into crevices in the wall,”―the paintings had been effaced long before,―“I looked around me with complacency, and felt perfectly satisfied.” He was waited on by his two servants, an Egyptian and a Nubian, whom he had brought from Cairo, and at the door were two Arabs hired from the neighbouring village to guard against passing Bedawees. All day long he was engaged in drawing and describing and making plans; and then in the evening he would come out on the terrace in front of the tomb, and sit in the shade of the rock (at Christmastide), drinking his coffee and smoking his long chibook, and “enjoying the mild air and the delightful view over the plain towards the capital.”

“In this tomb I took up my abode for a fortnight, and never did I spend a more happy time, though provided with fewer articles of luxury than I might easily and reasonably have procured. My appearance corresponded with my mode of living; for on account of my being exposed to considerable changes of atmospheric temperature in passing in and out of the Great Pyramid, I assumed the Ḥirám (or woollen sheet) of the Bedawee, which is a most convenient dress under such circumstances; a part or the whole being thrown about the person according to the different degrees of warmth which he may require. I also began to accustom myself to lay aside my shoes on many occasions, for the sake of greater facility in climbing and descending the steep and smooth passages of the pyramid, and would advise others to do the same. Once or twice my feet were slightly lacerated; but after two or three days they were proof against the sharpest stones. From the neighbouring villages I procured all that I wanted in the way of food; as eggs, milk, butter, fowls, and camels' flesh; but bread was not to be obtained anywhere nearer than the town of El-Geezeh, without employing a person to make it. One family, consisting of a little old man named ʼAlee, his wife (who was not half his equal in years), and a little daughter, occupied a neighbouring grotto, guarding some antiquities deposited there by Caviglia. Besides these I had no nearer neighbours than the inhabitants of a village about a mile distant.” The solitude, however, was broken two days after his arrival by the appearance of a young Bedawee, who frankly confessed he had deserted from the Páshà's army and could not enter the villages, and claimed Lane's hospitality, which was of course immediately granted. The young fellow used to amuse his host in the evening, while he smoked his pipe, by telling the famous stories from the romance of Aboo-Zeyd, all the while exciting the indignation of the Egyptian servant by his contempt for the Felláḥeen. He stayed till Lane left, and when the latter asked him where he would find protection now, he replied with characteristic reliance upon providence, “Who brought you here?”

After a fortnight in his tomb at the Pyramids of El-Geezeh, spent in making drawings and plans of the pyramids and the surrounding tombs, Lane returned to Cairo on New Year's Eve. Here for two months and a half he devoted himself to tho study of the “Mother of the World” and her inhabitants. Already possessed of an accurate knowledge of the modern Arabic language; being conformed to the customs of the people in all such external matters as dress and manners and outward habit of life; and being of that calm and self-possessed nature absolutely necessary to one who would be intimate with Easterns, and moreover of a cast of countenance resembling so closely that of a pure Arab family of Mekkeh that an Egyptian, though repeatedly assured of the mistake, persisted in his belief that the reputed Ingleezee was a member of that family; Lane was able, as scarcely one other European has been, to mix among the people of Cairo as one of themselves, and to acquire not only the refinements of their idiomatic speech and the minute details of their etiquette, but also a perfect insight into their habits of mind and ways of thought. The Spirit of the East is a sealed book to ninety-nine out of every hundred orientalists. To Lane it was transparent. He knew the inner manners of the Egyptian's mind as well as those of his outer life. And this was the result of the many years he lived among the people of Cairo, of which these few months in 1826 were the beginning.

His life at this time, however, was not wholly spent among Easterns. There was still a European side. He was one of the brilliant group of discoverers who were then in Egypt: and young as he was he was received among them with cordial welcome and unfeigned appreciation. Within the charmed circle to which Lane was now admitted were men such as Wilkinson and James Burton (afterwards Haliburton), the hieroglyphic scholars; Linant and Bonomi; the travellers Humphreys, Hay, and Fox-Strangways; the accomplished Major Felix, and his distinguished friend Lord Prudhoe, of whose noble appreciation of Lane's work much will presently be said. With such friends and in such a city as Cairo, the life of the young orientalist must have been enviable.

But the time had now come for the first Nile-voyage. The journey from Alexanuria to Cairo had not damped the enthusiastic longing with which Lane looked forward to the upper country―Thebes and Philae and Denderah. He determined to ascend to the Second Cataract, a limit further than most travellers then ventured and beyond which travelling was almost impossible. In March 1826 he hired a boat, for twenty-five dollars a month, manned by a crew of eight men, who were to find their own provisions, and on the 15th he embarked, set his cabin in order and sailed.

Lane's plan was, in the up-voyage to see in a cursory manner everything that could be seen, and in the down-voyage to make the notes and drawings from which he intended to construct his “Description of Egypt.” In the up-voyage we see him sailing from one place of interest to another, with as little delay as possible; spending the whole day in walking to some ruin at a distance from the bank, and so the next day, and every day, so long as there was anything worth visiting on shore. As a sightseer in Egypt Lane was indefatigable. He would walk on the hot plain, with the thermometer at 112° in the shade, till his feet were blistered, and he had to throw himself on his back to relieve them from the burning of the sand. When there was nothing to take him on shore, he would smoke his pipe on deck, and watch the people in the villages as he passed, or rest his eyes on the long lines of palms and dom and nabḳ trees that fringe the bank. Sometimes a compulsory variety was made by the wind dropping, when the boatmen would turn out and drag the tow-rope. Or the boat was kept for days in an uninteresting place by a wind against which towing was vain labour. A sandstorm would now and then cause an unpleasant diversion, and not only keep Lane in his cabin, but follow him there and fill every crevice. It was quite another matter, though, with the sand-pillar; which was the work of an ʼEfreet, who stirred up the dust in his flight, and, being an ʼEfreet, might be amenable to persuasion. Lane encountered one of these pillars of sand in one of his walks, and following the instructions of his guide he accosted the ʼEfreet with the cry of “Ḥadeed” (“iron”), and the sprite passed at a respectful distance. The modern life of Egypt claimed the traveller's attention no less than the ancient. He visited the tombs of the Sheykh El-Hareedee and the Sheykh ʼAbd-el-Ḳádir El-Geelánee, and went through the usual ceremonies with a precision in which no Muslim could find a fault; he received the calls of the various dignitaries on the way with the utmost courtesy, although he was obliged to decline the presents of Abyssinian girls and nargeelehs which they were fond of offering; and he seldom missed an opportunity of strolling through an Arab town, or watching an encampment of Bedawees, and learning something more of the ways of the people.

At Denderah, near the end of April, Lane met James Burton, and together they suffered from the Khamáseen winds, and found they could make no drawings nor leave their boats. On the 6th of May the great Propylæum of Thebes came in view; on the 15th at Philae, they found Linant, who had left Cairo a couple of days earlier. After going on to Aboo-Simbel, and then to the Second Cataract, Lane turned his boat and prepared to descend the Nile. Lane seems to have spent his time during the whole of this return voyage in drawing and measuring and describing, often sitting under an almost vertical sun, his thermometer occasionally bursting at 150°, and with no other protection from the scorching heat than a single ṭarboosh. At Philae he again found Linant, waiting for the rising of the river to pass the Cataract, and during the eight days they spent together there Strangways made his appearance, went to Wádee Ḥalfeh, and then came back to them; and in company with him Lane continued his way down the river. Seventy-three days (July 30 to October 11, 1826) were spent at Thebes, where he met Hay, in making a minute survey of the tombs and temples. Here he lived in three different houses. The first was Yáni's house, among the tombs on the western side; then he moved to a ruined part of the first propylreum of El-Ḳarnak; and for fifteen days he lived in one of the Tombs of the Kings, for the sake of its comparative coolness. In the former abodes the thermometer ranged from 90° to 108° in the shade; but in the Tombs of the Kings it did not rise above 87°.

Coming back to Cairo, Lane went among the people as before, busy in preparing his account of their manners and customs, and his description of their city. After several months thus spent, he again started for the Nile, again ascended to the Second Cataract, and stayed forty-one days (November 1 to December 12, 1827) at Thebes, completing his survey of the temples. And, having accomplished the great object of his travels, having prepared a complete description of Egypt and Lower Nubia, the country and the monuments and the people, he came back to Cairo in the beginning of 1828, and after a short stay at the capital, and a final visit in the spring to the Pyramids of El-Geezeh and Saḳḳarah, in company with Hay, he returned to England in the autumn of the year.

These three years of the first visit to Egypt had not been years of idleness. Lane was not the typical traveller, who travels for amusement, and perhaps writes a book to record his sensations for the gratification of an admiring public. Lane's object was a far different one. He travelled, so to say, to map the country. And his was a propitious time. Egypt had but recently been opened up to explorers, and no one had yet fully taken stock of her treasures. Hamilton, indeed, and Niebuhr had broken the ground with their books; but no systematic account of the country, its natural characteristics, its people, and its monuments, had yet been attempted. Successfully to perform such a work demanded long and unceasing labour and considerable abilities. Lane never shrank from toil of any kind, and he possessed just those natural gifts which were needed by one who should do this work. Lord Brougham once said, “I wonder if that man knows what his forte is?―Description:” and Brougham was right. Very few men have possessed in an equal degree the power of minutely describing a scene or a monument, so that the pencil might almost restore it without a fault after the lapse of years. This power is eminently shown in the “Description of Egypt.” Every temple or tomb, every village, every natural feature of the country, is described in a manner that permits no improving. The objects stand before you as you read, and this not by the use of imaginative language, but by the plain simple description. Lane had a vehement hatred of “fine writing,” and often expressed his dislike to those authors who are credited with the habit of sacrificing the truth of their statements to the fall of the sentence. He always maintained that the first thing was to find the right word to express your meaning, and then to let the sentence fall as it pleased. It is possible that in his earliest work he carricd this principle a little too far; and in his most finished production, the notes to “The Thousand and One Nights,” considerable care may be detected in the composition. But in every thing he wrote, the prominent characteristic was perfect clearness, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the “Description of Egypt.” But further, to prevent the scant possibility of mistaking the words, the work was illustrated by 101 sepia drawings, made with the camera lucida, (the invention of his friend Dr. Wollaston,) and therefore as exact as photography could make them, and far more pleasing to the eye. Those whose function it is to criticise artistic productions have unanimously expressed their admiration of these drawings. And though Lane would always say that the credit belonged to his instrument and not to himself, it is easy to see that they are the work of a fine pencil-hand, and could not have been done by anyone who chose to look through a camera lucida. Altogether, both in drawings and descriptions, the book is unique of its kind.

It has never been published. And the reason is easily seen in the expense of reproducing the drawings. Lane himself was never a rich man, and could not have issued the book at his own expense, and no publisher was found sufficiently enterprising to risk the first outlay. An eminent firm, indeed, accepted the work with enthusiasm, but subsequently retracted from its engagement in consequence of the paralysis of trade which accompanied the excitement of the Reform agitation. It is needless, however, to refer to affairs that happened nearly fifty years ago, although they were a cause of much annoyance and disappointment to the author of the “Description of Egypt”; who naturally was ill-disposed to see the work of several years wasted, and who could not forget the high praises that had been passed upon the book and the drawings by all who were competent to form an opinion. There can be no doubt in the mind of any one who has studied the manuscript and the drawings, that travellers in Egypt have sustained in this work a loss which has not yet been filled up, and is not likely to be, unless the “Description of Egypt” should yet be published.

We have seen Lane in a phase of his life distinct from all the remainder. The years 1825-28 are the only time in which he could be called a traveller. Even then the traveller bent on the enjoyment of the wonders of a new land is swallowed up in the student intent on understanding the monuments of a marvellous antiquity. But after this first visit all traces of the traveller disappear, and the serious laborious student becomes everything. Once again in after years did Lane ascend the Nile as far as Thebes, and live the old life in his tomb; but it was to avoid the Plague, and his visit there was still devoted to study. Henceforward we shall see, not the enterprising and often daring explorer, climbing flat-faced cliffs, swinging down a mummy-pit, crawling in the low passages of tombs and pyramids, but a scholar at his desk, a learned man honoured in learned circles, the highest authority on matters Arabian to whom England or Europe could appeal.