Excerpts from Clarence Bicknell's diary "Italy and by steamer up the Nile River, 1889-1890" - No.8
Off in a carriage at 8.20 with a horrible wind and dust to Heliopolis : nothing remains but one granite obelisk, of the once famed City of the Sun God, whence came the priests of On: but very beautiful it is standing up alone in the middle of the fields, near the village of Matareeyeh: we made out much of the inscription by the help of the guidebook and at any rate if I learn nothing more let me remember that the builder of it was Rah Neperska of the 12th Dynasty date about 2433 BC or 3000 BC and his royal name is Osirtasen 1st and the 2 cartouches of these are… and …
We did not care to go and see the Virgins here, but instead visited the Ostrich Farm by a quarter of an hour’s donkey ride over the desert. The first thing my donkey did was to tumble down so of course I was pitched over his head – so I said bad donkey to the boy and jumped up on another. It was very interesting. There were 500 birds some 6 years old, some 5, some 4 and some just born. In some of the pairs the male birds were sitting on the eggs in the sand, and we frightened them up. At least the keep did tho’ he was afraid to go very near as the beast looked very savage and opened its mouth wide at him. And it was a beautiful sight to see the bird spread out his great black wings and settle down again over his large pile of eggs and one little one just out of the shell. Their hens lay eggs in the laying season every other day, and when there are about thirty they sit on them and as far as I understand, but many must be hatched artificially. The farm belongs to a French company, and pays well.
We drove home to lunch at 12h30, but at 1.30 our dear donkeys were ready, the strong one of yesterday for me, and off we rode through the town and out the other side and then through myriads of tombs till we reached the open desert and saw before us the strange and lovely sight the ‘tombs of the Khalifs’ with mosques and their minarets and cupolas all dotted about over the yellow sand. The beauty of this sight fairly took away our breath: we wanted to stop and sketch every moment. We first entered the tomb of Sultan Berkook (died 1398) falling into series: then that of Railbec and several others which I cannot attempt to denote. Then we rode about the desert among the miracles of architectural beauty and dismounted and sketched and finally climbed up to the top of the rubbish hills where are the old windmills, from whence one gazes over the whole city at one’s feet with countless minarets, the broad Nile, the pyramids and the desert beyond and on the other side the desert again with all the tombs and the red and yellow cliffs of the Mojattam hills. These palisades and lines of the desert and the desert hills are indescribably lovely: all pale yellow and pink. I have never seen anything approaching this scene. Below us in the town was a fair with roundabouts, acrobats &c., flags and carpets, and music and a tremendous crowd of people. We rode back in the dusk among the excited people and the lighted streets, a strange sight indeed: every hour it seemed more extraordinary.
Notes from the editor...
Heliopolis was one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt, the capital of the 13th Lower Egyptian nome. It is now found at the north-east edge of Cairo. The ancient Egyptian cult center Junu, named "On" in the Hebrew bible, was renamed Heliopolis by the Greeks in recognition of the fact that the sun god Ra (Helios in Greek) presided there. Junu is mentioned in the Pyramid Text as the "House of Ra" (Wikipedia).
The image on the right is “One of the Tombs of the Caliphs, Cairo” c.1849 by Clarence Bicknell’s brother-in-law David Roberts R.A. Later excerpts from Clarence's diary will be illustrated with his drawings from the same pages.