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19th Century Women Travellers in Egypt

19th Century Women Travellers in Egypt

An Egyptian Girl 1877

There are many reasons to travel, relaxation, climate, interests and experiencing new cultures.
Many who visit Egypt remember studying the Egyptians in Primary school and harbour a desire to visit since then. Our own imaginations conjure pictures of the Grand Tour Era where wealthy, usually young men were sent for weeks, months and sometimes years to visit the heritage sites of Europe and beyond. Or we dream of making amazing archaeological finds like Howard Carter or just relaxing with cocktails of the terraces of the Grand Hotels of the era.
What we often do not realise is that some of the most detailed descriptions we have of travels and places were written by women of the 17th to 19th Centuries. They would travel either as the wives or daughters of the gentry families and often they would have sat and watched, rather than take an active part in whatever was going on and would then record in writings and drawings what they were observing.
Many of these ladies’ writings caused great interest, especially in other women reading them at the time but are largely now overshadowed by the well-known names of the time, Howard Carter, Lord Caernarvon, Flinders Petrie,

An Egyptian Girl 1877

Here we are going to do a series on women travellers in the 18th and 19th century and hope it inspires you to find out a bit more and possible read some of their works.
Our first is Sophia Poole.
Her writings, in the form of letters, covered her arrival in Alexandria and travels up the Nile from Cairo aboard a Dahabiya, and her life in Cairo. In London she caused quite a sensation as it was, of course, acceptable for a man to travel and learn and write about different cultures but an English gentlewoman dressing up in Egyptian dress, wearing Turkish “trousers” and visiting markets and harems and even worse taking Turkish baths with the natives was the gossip of the tea houses in London of the time.
Sophia Lane Poole (1804–1891) was the sister of the famous Edward William Lane, who was an eminent Arabic scholar who travelled the Nile and later went to live in Cairo. He is best known for his translation of the Arabian Nights (1832-41). Acknowledged as one of the leading Arabic scholars in Europe he obviously had a great influence on Sophia who after separating from her husband Edward Poole, at her brother’s suggestion went with her sons to join him in Egypt so that she could report on the female side of Egypt’s gender-segregated society. The result was her book of letters The Englishwoman in Egypt (1844-46) which was an immediate hit.

Her brother’s encouragement is clear in one letter where she wrote:

“The opportunities I might enjoy of obtaining an insight into the mode of life of the higher classes of the ladies in this country, and of seeing many things highly interesting in themselves, and rendered more so by their being accessible only to a lady, suggested to him the idea that I might both gratify my own curiosity and collect much information of a novel and interesting nature, which he proposed I should embody in a series of familiar letters to a friend”.
However, Sophia was actually collecting and making a serious study of the lives of women particularly in Cairo at that time. She learned Arabic and interacted with all levels of Society including the family of the viceroy Mohamed Ali Pasha and recorded all her experiences to the delight of all those who read them as it was a unique perspective at that time, Egypt from a woman’s attempt to feel and understand the culture.
Her detailed accounts of her visits to the Turkish baths in Cairo and to the Harem of the Royal family are unique for the time as no one else would have been able to enter either had they not been accepted by the women of Cairo at the time.
She also wrote in detail about a plague outbreak in 1843 and her words we can identify with in these times today:
“There has been an alarm of plague in Cairo, and several of the great harems have been in quarantine. The apprehension has been induced by the fearful murrain (a fever infecting mostly animals) which has raged during nine months, as a similar misfortune has proved in former years the forerunner of a severe pestilence”.
Sophia’s detailed descriptions of Cairo’s bustling life and markets still hold true today and you can still capture the feel of the souks of the past.
“The shops in the Khan are mostly occupied by Turks, who deal in readymade clothes and other articles of dress, together with arms of various kinds, small prayer-carpets used by the Muslims and other commodities”.
She goes on to describe the twice weekly public auctions in the market.
“on which occasions the Khan is so crowded, that, in some parts, it is difficult for a passenger to push his way through. Clothes, shawls, arms, pipes and a variety of other goods are offered for sale by brokers, who carry them up and down the market”.
Her writings are still available to purchase today.
She died on 6 May 1891 at the home of her eldest son, Reginald Stuart Poole (1822–1895), at the British Museum, and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery. Another son, Edward Stanley Poole (1830–1867), became an Arabic scholar and editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Sultan hassan Mosque painting

What our clients have to say

What a unique experience this was for my husband and I and a group of friends ( 5 other couples). I felt like we were going back in time and living the life that a well to do 19th century family would have while they were sojourning down the Nile River. The decor of the living spaces on the second level upstairs on the upper deck looked like pieces you would see in a palace of royalty. The bedrooms on the first level that had windows that opened up just above the water level were spacious and comfortable. The bed was comfy as can be!!
The staff on the boat, and there were many, were so very attentive and tried their hardest to meet our every need and also surprised us with daily unexpected niceties and full on entertainment. The food was all homemade and delicious. Our chef was quite talented and the meals were never repeated( except for breakfast which was made to order eggs and an assortment of breads/muffins/croissants and fruit etc. Coffee and tea always available.
The tours that were scheduled for us were so well run and our Egyptologist, Ahmed , was obtaining his Ph.D in Egyptology and was so very interesting and knowledgeable. We had the opportunity to go on a hot air balloon ride and also a trip to Abu Simbel which were both amazing and unforgettable. After every tour we arrived back on the boat and were greeted by Tito and Adam with specialty cold lovely drinks and cold lemon scented wet towels to refresh ourselves with.
Tito took us shopping in the Luxor Market for a couple of hours the day before we left. He helped us negotiate the goods we purchased which was a huge help.
Lastly I have to mention our Dahabiya Cruise Captain, Mahmoud . This guy was amazing! He made sure we had everything we needed and kept us entertained with his humour and incredible dancing skills. Our group learned so much about the Egyptian culture from him during our dinner conversations.
Our group all agreed that we would miss these wonderful, thoughtful people that we spent a week with and hope they all knew how much we appreciated each one of them.

Joan Mancini
Travel date Sept 2021

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