Clarence Bicknell: Italy and by steamer up the Nile River, 1889-1890
Excerpts from Clarence's diary, no.6
Thursday Dec 12th 1889
I was up on Thursday Dec 12th at 6 o’clock, just light, and soon the land became visible, and presently we ere near the outlying flour mills and other buildings and the palaces and minarets of the East became visible.
By about 7 we had entered the grand harbour full of ships and were soon alongside the quay and rejoiced in the first sight of the groups of men in lovely colours of skin and clothing. Oh! How different to anything seen before and how much more beautiful than anything imagined.
On the quay was the Governor of Alexandria with the Russian Consul to receive the Grand Duke and Duchess – but we were chiefly interested in Cook’s galley for which came on board a magnificent tall Egyptian with a host of his porters in scarlet dress. We put ourselves under their protection. Bade some hurried farewells and with the Miss Cookites were soon in carriages, about 4 of them, and all omnibuses also crammed en route for the station. Cook gets all thru’ the Douane without any examination or trouble, by bribery I suppose, but from the boat to the station all is done for one for 5/- a head. At the station confusion indescribable, but finally we get all luggage registered and at 9.20 are off 2nd class in the English crowded train: but we were the only 2nd class passengers: we were very glad of this as lots of the natives came in from one station to another and we saw and learnt much. The 2nd carriages were like Swiss ones.
Pen and ink sketch, embedded in the diary text, by Bicknell alongside
At ¼ to 1 we were at Cairo. The journey was one continuous wonder and surprise. The mud villages of Fellaheen , the groups and sometimes great groves of palm trees, very tall and looking quite different to our Bordighera ones, i.e. looking at home and much more beautiful and healthy. The multitude of people everywhere, working in the fields, going along with strings of camels, or on donkeys, squatting about on the ground, watering the crops for use. And everywhere in the flat country, buffaloes, cows, sheep, donkeys and piggeries, while the air is full of wild birds, rooks and hawks and quantities of little ones, and some of them so beautiful. The Delta is perfectly flat with here and there the mud villages and occasionally a fine town such as Santah . An Egyptian who came in there and sat by me at once offered us all white sugar crystals, which we ate, and presently we exchanged cigarettes. The I took my first lesson in Arabic and asked the name for a cow, horse, buffalo, camel, the numerals, the dates, the pigeons, the oranges &c. &c. He was so pleasant and we all laughed heartily. The me, and especially the young ones are so graceful, erect and dignified and so polite. Cotton fields everywhere but nearly all gathered, wheat, broad beans and lots of crops coming up. Many of the fields still muddy from the Nile inundation. 2 men stand holding a long flexible cane at each end with bucket below which they let down into the canals and then swing it up into the little conduits flowing down the fields so nothing more miserable and poor can be imagined than the Fellaheen villages, but nothing more picturesque. The camels are delightful. Many of the women in the country, and there at work are not covered but in the stations and towns they are all so, dressed in black and dark blue, with a queer brass thing down the forehead to hold up the little black piece of crepe which covers up the rest of the face. They are extremely handsome and so are the men; the boys beautiful. We see Nubians, black Sudanese, Arabs, Egyptians, Greeks, Turks and who knows what beside.
At Cairo, before reaching which we saw the pyramids in the distance and the long lines of the reddish yellow hills of the desert, we left the Hotel Royale oncontres and were soon at a delicious lunch with dates, bananas and large mandarin oranges a cup of café turc to finish up with. Then we all went into the town, down wonderful streets and into strange dark bazaars with carpets stretched across high up between the houses almost touching the sky. What a crowd of foot passengers, donkeys, carts and carriages, an occasional camel, water carriers, cuels of sorry description, bundles of sugar cane, crates of pomegranates, queer nuts and vegetables and eatables. Mud on dust in the narrow uneven streets. Every imaginable colour of costume among the men. Rough looking street arabs, tall polished elegant old Egyptians. The scene like a kaleidoscope and all an ever changing picture of form an colour. Then the houses, the latticed windows, the minarets and doors of the mosques, the queer stalls with cross legged vendors, the piles of carpets, the black courtyards but lit up by lacups and coloured stuffs. In some parts there are little scarlet and white flags across the streets and thousands as there is a festival going on. In the broad streets every now and then comes a S… i.e. a beautiful and bouncey fellow with short white linen trousers and bare legs, a nicely gold embroidered jacket and a red fez holding up a long stick and crying out, and he rushes down the street calling to people to get out of the way before his master’s carriage. Some grandees appear to have 2 of these elegant and picturesque servants.
We walked till we could walk no more and then we went home, dined out and in the evening sticked out to buy photos. We all 4 feel the effects of the sea so much. The earth seems to be rolling as in an earthquake. We saw Shepherd’s celebrated hotel, but are so thankful we are not there as it seems all English and is so grand and so expensive. There is no wine under 6/- a bottle and pension without that and extras is 16/- or 17/- a day! Ours is only 10/- and wine at 2/6 or 4/- dear enough. On the table are the earthenware bottles of filtered Nile water, very cool: but you should up and see the Nile before you drink it, as it is all of a muddy yellow colour, with refuse and vegetable matter floating down it, and such mud in its banks.
Notes from the editor...
If “Cook” could get them through customs with such ease, it is likely that the traveller was John Mason Cook, the only son of Thomas Cook and the managing director of Thomas Cook & Son, travel company, at that time.
Fellah (plural Fellaheen or Fellahin) is a peasant, farmer or agricultural laborer in the Middle East and North Africa. The word derives from the Arabic word for ploughman or tiller. A fellahin could be seen wearing a simple cotton robe called galabieh. The word Galabieh originated around 1715–25 and derived from the Egyptian Arabic word gallabīyah. (Wikipedia)
Shepheard's Hotel was the leading hotel in Cairo and one of the most celebrated hotels in the world from the middle of the 19th century until it was burned down in 1952. A modern hotel called the Shepheard Hotel was built nearby in 1957. (Wikipedia). £1 or 20/- is worth £90-£110 in 2014 using the retail price index inflation but £430-£637 using average earning or per capita GDP. Using £500 as today’s value of £1 then gives that bottle of wine at index gives the bottle of wine at £150 and the room rate £425 a night.