Clarence Bicknell: Italy and by steamer up the Nile River, 1889-1890
Excerpts from Clarence's diary, no.7
Friday Dec 13th 1889 in Old Cairo
We really began a thorough sight seeing. At 9 with a dragoman we all started on donkeys, such strong good little donkeys! But mine set off galloping I couldn’t stop him, my stirrup broke and I thought every moment I would be pitched over his head or tumble off, but I clung on like grim death and survived!
We all 5 rode about the citadel, but there was a wind and sort of sand and desert storm and we could hardly see anything. We visited the splendid new mosque of Mohamed Ali with its multitudinous hanging lamps and gorgeous carpets: but most beautiful in the great courtyard and fountains of oriental alabaster. The man at the entrance put large slippers over our boots and then keeping our hats on, in we went. After that, remounting the donkeys we went to the glorious old mosque of Sultan Hassan with its wrought brass doors and lovely fountains. Then to various bazaars where we bought slippers, rosaries, scents etc. It is immense fun donkey riding in Cairo: the beasts are so well-behaved and obedient, and in the compression and throng of the narrowest streets among people, carts, horses and camels one has absolutely no difficulties: they are beautifully kept and have lovely embroidered and most comfortable saddles. We paid 2/- a piece for the whole morning. Our dragoman was a splendid fellow, very pleasant and has the reputation at the hotel for honesty and experience, and he remembers well my brother (see notes below *** - Ed.) who made the pilgrimage to Mecca about 20 years ago.
After lunch we took a carriage and drove first to see the performance of the “howling dervishes” (see the image alongside from the Illustrated London News dated 1893 “English People Cairo Visiting Howling Dervishes - Mosque Mohammed Ali Tezel - Ed.) and then we went to Old Cairo, a very picturesque and interesting town. Then we saw the ancient mosque of Amer with an immense court and a solitary palm of great height near the fountain (see drawing by Clarence in yesterday's posting - Ed.).
Then we saw the Coptic village and church, very dirty and dark. I watched English and French and some of the young Copts who were there, and saw the children at school learning Arabic and French. We saw the people making all sorts of clay water bottles of pretty shapes: Beggars abounds everywhere and the Copts are almost worse than the others. We crossed the Nile in a ferry and visited the Nilometer on the island of Rhoda and ate delicious oranges in the garden: but the wind was furious and the air filled with a blinding dust, so that we saw little else but the great broad Nile, ½ mile across I should think, with numberless picturesque boats on the shore, and the forests of palm trees towards the desert, just visible in the thick mist.
The dust in the road is awful, and though there are Lebluek and Sycamore trees, and ‘Gagia’s and others on is very little sheltered. We passed enormous rubbish heaps mountain high everywhere and then returned into the most wonderful; streets of old houses and mosques without end. Then Giacomo and I, as it rained and now dark, which it does very suddenly, went for a 1½ hours! Stroll in the streets, where the lamps were being lighted in front of the crowded shops and we peered into the barbers and arab caffèes and all sorts of strange places. After dinner we bought photos. Sundance mats, stuffed lizards, Nile electric fish, fly flaps etc. The streets are always full of life and colour; figures lie or sit on the pavements or huddled up under doorways: wild looking arabs in “white” black sundancers, many of them once slaves are everywhere, young men in a gorgeous array of embroidery pass by every moment, and one is never weary. The photos are a model of cheapness, 4½ francs per dozen.
Notes from the editor...
A dragoman was an interpreter, translator, and official guide between Turkish, Arabic, and Persian-speaking countries and polities of the Middle East and European embassies, consulates, vice-consulates and trading posts. A dragoman had to have a knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and European languages. (Wikipedia)
The great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha or Alabaster Mosque is a mosque situated in the Citadel of Cairo in Egypt and commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848. (Wikipedia)
The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is a massive Mamluk era mosque and madrassa located near the Citadel in Cairo. Its construction began 757 AH/1356 CE with work ending three years later "without even a single day of idleness". (Wikipedia)
*** Herman Bicknell, Elhanan’s 3rd child, (1830-1875), an FRAS, British surgeon, orientalist, and linguist, became a distinguished oriental scholar and traveller. He was the first Englishman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca totally undisguised. He was a passionate mountaineer who made more than one ascent of Vesuvius during an eruption, and survived a serious accident on the Matterhorn, later to make one of the early ascents of that mountain. “All the European travelers who made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, from De Varthema to Hurgronje, had dressed in native costume and concealed their original nationality. The first European to enter the Holy City without disguising himself in any way was an English Muslim named Herman Bicknell. Unfortunately, although Bicknell must have had some intriguing encounters, dressed as he was in trousers and boiled shirt, until he put off his English identity with the assumption of the Ihram, he has left no account of his Hajj. But he is important in any survey of Western visitors to Mecca, for he marks a turning point in the relations of the West with the world of Islam. He is representative of the increasing number of Europeans who embraced Islam in the latter half of the 19th century—and embraced it sincerely.” (from The Lure Of Mecca by Paul Lunde www.saudiaramcoworld.com )The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, also called the Mosque of Amr, was originally built in 641–642 AD, as the center of the newly founded capital of Egypt, Fustat (now Cairo) (Wikipedia).
Coptic Cairo is a part of Old Cairo which encompasses the Babylon Fortress, the Coptic Museum, the Hanging Church, the Greek Church of St. George and many other Coptic churches and historical sites. (Wikipedia).
Rhoda Island or Rawdah Island, is an island located on the Nile in central Cairo. The El-Manial District, and the Al-Manyal Palace Museum and gardens, are located on the island. The island has one of the oldest Islamic buildings in Egypt, the Nilometer on its southern tip. (Wikipedia)
In Greek mythology, Gaia was the primordial Earth-Goddess from whom all life sprang. A Gagia or Gaia tree is not specifically referenced in sources.