Excerpts from Clarence Bicknell's diary "Italy and by steamer up the Nile River, 1889-1890" - No.9
The morning was so fine that we decided to start for the pyramids. So with plenty of luncheon including a bottle of good Egyptian wine, 10 oranges for 1 piastre , of great weight and delicious flavour, we started in a carriage at 8.20, a long and cold drive, the air clear but the wind from the north blowing fiercely. Part of the road runs along of the Nile where boats were discharging load of sugar and cane, and many camels were being loaded. There was a large concourse of people near the village of Gizeh (Giza, Ed.), Sunday being the market day or fair there. There the road runs straight under an avenue of Lebbek trees at the foot of the pyramid plateau, and winds up to a small house close to the great pyramid. There we were at once beset by the Arabs (Bedouins ) who have the right to conduct visitors up to the top of the great pyramid, and whose services you are bound to accept. A fee of 2/- each has to be paid to the sheik and ‘backshish’ to the men, and then nobody is content. We at once began the scramble, so often before discuted, for the whole casing of polished stone except a few at the very base having been long ago pulled down for building the 4 surfaces, now consist of great blocks of nummulitic limestone from 1-4 feet high, arranged in steps.
Of course it would be easy enough to go up quietly, and I cannot conceive anyone being giddy on such broad steps, but the arabs seize both one’s hands, and a third pretends to push behind, and so they drag one up and hardly allow one time to rest. We however insisted on stopping several times. The climb did not seem to me very long and soon we were on the flat platform, 30 feet lower than the tomb was when completed. We stayed there a long time, but we were greatly worried by the men wanting us to buy things, talking incessantly about their ‘backshish’ &c. A boy came up too with a water bottle and leager for to wash your mouth out &c. &c. Going down jumping from one stone crusoe to another is scary enough. I worried my man by stopping to collect nummulites: arrived at the entrance to the interior, we decided to see that too, but at the bottom of the downward passage A. & D. declined to go on so B. and C. with 2 men each holding candles went on alone. At the beginning of the grand gallery there is a rads piece and the whole ascent is very slippery, as the little steps cut in the polished stone floors are so slight. In he Kings’ Chamber with its solitary red granite sarcophagus we lighted magnesium wire and remained a little while and then returned easily but very hot and dusty. We then paid the sheik 4/- each and 4/- backshish for the men – and finally the man who said he was the sheik but turned out to be the 2nd fiddle wanted something also. We had a tiptop lunch in the shade on the steps of the house, and then set off for an excursion in the neighbourhood, for all round the 3 larger pyramids are multitudinous small pyramids and their tombs.
The Sphinx was at first disappointing but gradually one recognised its colossal size and its strange beauty, which by degrees fascinates one – and there it has been, this great stone creature half beast half human looking out at the sunrise for who shall say how many thousand years. Close by is a temple of massive red granite & alabaster floor. We sat a long time and sketched a little, and then walked about the 2nd Pyramid of Capluen, then I stecked with a pleasant and intelligent Arab up one of the great ruined causeways and crawled into several pariled tombs, with the cartouche of Khufu on them, and saw the well wherein in which the summary was deposited and many inscripteries.
A Helix was abundant out on the sand and one alive little plant here and there, now in seed. We saw before leaving the two untouched casing stones of the pyramid in situ, wonderful in the masonry. They knew how to build in those days. We were home by dark.
Notes from the editor...
The image here is the relevant page from Bicknell's diary, with his field sketch of the pyramids. On a desktop computer screen the diary page (180x230mm) will be about life size.
Although the Piastre was replaced by the pound in 1834, it continued to be used as the word for a cent or a penny i.e. 100 piastres to the £.
Albizia lebbeck is a species of Albizia, native to Indomalaya, New Guinea and Northern Australia and widely cultivated and naturalised in other tropical and subtropical regions. English names for it include lebbeck, lebbek tree, flea tree, frywood, koko and woman's tongues tree. The latter name is a play on the sound the seeds make as they rattle inside the pods. Being one of the most widespread and common species of Albizia worldwide, it is often simply called "siris" though this name may refer to any locally common member of the genus. It is a tree growing to a height of 18–30 m tall with a trunk 50 cm to 1 m in diameter. The leaves are bipinnate, 7.5–15 cm long, with one to four pairs of pinnae, each pinna with 6–18 leaflets. The flowers are white, with numerous 2.5–3.8 cm long stamens, and very fragrant. The fruit is a pod 15–30 cm long and 2.5-5.0 cm broad, containing six to twelve seeds.
A nummulite is a large lenticular fossil, characterized by its numerous coils, subdivided by septa into chambers. They are the shells of the fossil and present-day marine protozoan Nummulites, a type of foraminiferan. Nummulites commonly vary in diameter from 1.3 cm (0.5 inches) to 5 cm (2 inches) and are common in Eocene to Miocene marine rocks, particularly around southwest Asia and the Mediterranean (e.g. Eocene limestones from Egypt). Fossils up to 6 inches wide are found in the Middle Eocene rocks of Turkey.2 They are valuable as index fossils.The ancient Egyptians used nummulite shells as coins and the pyramids were constructed using limestone that contained nummulites. It is not surprising then that the name "Nummulites" is a diminutive form of the Latin nummulus meaning "little coin", a reference to their shape.