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,
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.