A year passed, and my fantasy failed to fade. I found myself spending afternoons in my local library, pawing through books about Egypt and the Nile, studying photographs, gathering information about the river and about others who had traveled on it. Millions of people - including thousands of foreigners - had traveled on the Nile, among them the obvious centuries of Egyptian fishermen, farmers, and pharaonic slaves who daily went up and down the river as a matter of survival. Hadrian went up the Nile. Herodotus did it too. Plato did it. So did Helen of Troy. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra went up the Nile. So, reportedly, did Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Napoleon and his ill-fated soldiers did it in 1798, and along with them went Dominique-Vivant Denon and twenty-one mathematicians, three astronomers, seventeen civil engineers, thirteen naturalists and mining engineers, thirteen geographers, three gunpowder and saltpeter experts, four architects, eight draftsmen, ten mechanical draftsmen, one sculptor, fifteen interpreters, ten writers, and twenty-two printers, all sent to record and analyze every possible fact about Egypt, its monuments, its culture, and its people. The result of their efforts was the Description de L'Egypte, published between 1809 and 1828, an enormous nineteen-volume summary of the country, complete with highly detailed measurements, etchings, and drawings. The international publicity and huge number of maps the Description brought with it eventually inspired the world's curious to flock to Egypt in droves. (Thanks to Napoleon's expedition, by 1820 Egypt was the best-mapped country in the world.) The country that had been lost to the rest of the world by a thousand years of Arab rule, which had essentially barred foreign travelers from the Nile Valley, quickly became the favorite destination of explorers, scientists, tourists, and notables alike. When Victor Hugo wrote in his preface to Les Orientales in 1829, "We are all much more concerned with the Orient than ever before," the statement was directly due to Napoleon's fact-gathering expedition and the long-locked door it had opened. Edward Lane, Edward Lear, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Cullen Bryant all went to Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century. Florence Nightingale went in 1849. So did Gustave Flaubert. Herman Melville went, as well as kings and queens of numerous nations, the Prince of Wales, Émile Zola, Winston Churchill, and William Golding. In the 1950s, three men in kayaks, John Goddard, Jean Laporte, and Andre Davy, together paddled nearly the full length of the Nile, from the Kagera River to Alexandria, and in 2004, a team of explorers led by Pasquale Scatturo rafted the length of the Blue Nile from its source in Ethiopia to the Mediterranean Sea.
It has never been the custom, however, for foreign visitors to operate their own craft on the Egyptian Nile, and in modern times the government actively discourages such journeys. Tourists opt instead for the cruise ship or, less often, hire an Egyptian sailor to captain a felucca, the traditional lateen-rigged sailboat ubiquitous in Egypt. In my first four weeks in Egypt, I had neither seen nor heard of any foreigners on the river unaccompanied by an Egyptian captain or of a single woman, Egyptian or otherwise, operating a boat on the river. Still, I saw no truly persuasive reason that the trip I had in mind should not be possible for me. Narragansett Bay was a body of water complicated by altering tides, sometimes large waves, sudden violent weather, scores of international shipping tankers powered by propellers the size of houses, and speedboats occasionally operated by reckless drunken drivers. In Egypt, though the Nile did indeed have its own peculiar set of hazards, there would be none of that. The Egyptian Nile was hardly a wilderness: more than fifty-five million people lived alongside it; there were no ferocious animals left there to speak of; and I knew that a desperate traveler armed with a little bit of money could find her way off the river, one way or another, at any time.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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