Early Explorers in Egypt and Nubia

This blog is intended
both as an instrument for researchers on early explorers in Egypt and Nubia, providing useful tools in the On-line Resources section (On-line books, Archives, Map Collections, Photo Collections, etc.), and as a place to publish original documentation and research on the subject (i.e. List of travellers, Accounts, Letters, etc.). Anyone who would like to contribute with suggestions or articles is warmly welcomed!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Excerpts of Early Travellers on the Village of Qurna

V. DENON, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt during the Campaign of General Bonaparte, London 1802.
“We first crossed the village of Kûrnû, the ancient Necropolis: on approaching these subterraneous abodes, the inhabitants, for the third time, saluted us with several discharges of musketry. This was the only spot in Upper Egypt in which it was refused to acknowledge our government; secure in their sepulchral retreats, like larves, they left them only to terrify mankind: guilty of many other crimes, they hid their remorse, and fortified their disobedience, in the obscurity of these excavations, which are so numerous that they alone attest the immense population of ancient Thebes”.

G.B. Belzoni, Narrative of the operations, etc., Vol. I, Murray, London 1822, pp. 240-251.
“The work at Gournou was continued also; and I must confess occupied a greater share of my attention than that at Carnak. Could it but be accurately known, with what a wretched set of people in these tribes travellers have to deal, their mean and rapacious dispositions, and the various occurrences that render the collection of antiquities difficult, whatever came from thence would be the more prized, from the consideration of these circumstances.
The people of Gournou are superior to any other Arabs in cunning and deceit, and the most independent of any in Egypt. They boast of being the last that the French had been able to subdue, and when subdued, they compelled them to pay the men whatever was asked for their labour; a fact which is corroborated by Baron Denon himself. They never would submit to any one, either the Mamelukes or the Bashaw. They have undergone the most severe punishments, and been hunted like wild beasts, by every successive government of Egypt. Their situations and hiding-places were almost impregnable. Gournou is a tract of rocks, about two miles in length, at the foot of the Libyan mountains, on the west of Thebes, and was the burial-place of the great city of a hundred gates. Every part of these rocks is cut out by art, in the form of large and small chambers, each of which has its separate entrance; and, though they are very close to each other, it is seldom that there is any interior communication from one to another. I can truly say, it is impossible to give any description sufficient to convey the smallest idea of those subterranean abodes, and their inhabitants. There are no sepulchres in any part of the world like them; there are no excavations, mines, that can be compared to these truly astonishing places; and no exact description can be given of their interior, owing to the difficulty of visiting these recesses. The inconveniency of entering into them is such, that it is not every one who can support the exertion.
A traveller is generally satisfied when he has seen the large hall, the gallery, the staircase, and as far as he can conveniently go: besides, he is taken up with the strange works he observes cut in various places, and painted on each side of the walls; so that when he comes to a narrow and difficult passage, or to have to descend to the bottom of a well or cavity, he declines taking such trouble, naturally supposing that he cannot see in these abysses any thing so magnificent as what he sees above, and consequently deeming it useless to proceed any farther. Of some of these tombs many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust rises, so fine that it enters into the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree, that it requires great power of lungs to resist it and the strong effluvia of the mummies. This is not all; the entry or passage where the bodies are is roughly cut in the rocks, and the falling of the sand from the upper part or ceiling of the passage causes it to be nearly filled up. In some places there is not more than a vacancy of a foot left, which you must contrive to pass through in a creeping posture like a snail, on pointed and keen stones, that cut like glass. After getting through these passages, some of them two or three hundred yards long, you generally find a more commodious place, perhaps high enough to sit. But what a place of rest! Surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies in all directions; which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror. The blackness of the wall, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surrounded me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the candles or torches in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described. In such a situation I found myself several times, and often returned exhausted and fainting, till at last I became inured to it, and indifferent to what I suffered, except from the dust, which never failed to choke my throat and nose; and though, fortunately, I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow. After the exertion of entering into such a place, through a passage of fifty, a hundred, three hundred, or perhaps six hundred yards, nearly overcome, I sought a resting-place, found one and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a band-box. I naturally had recourse to my hands to sustain my weight, but they found no better support; so that I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided again. I could not remove from the place, however, without increasing it, and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other. Once I was conducted from such a place to another resembling it, through a passage of about twenty feet in length, and no wider than that a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downwards, my own weight helped me on: however I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above. Thus I proceeded from one cave to another, all full of mummies piled up in various ways, some standing, some lying, and some on their heads. The purpose of my researches was to rob the Egyptians of their papyri; of which I found a few hidden in their breasts, under their arms, in the space above the knees, or on the legs, and covered by the numerous folds of cloth that envelop the mummy. The people of Gournou, who make a trade of antiquities of this sort, are very jealous of strangers, and keep them as secret as possible, deceiving travellers by pretending that they have arrived at the end of the pits, when they are scarcely at the entrance. I could never prevail on them to conduct me into these places till this my second voyage, when I succeeded in obtaining admission into any cave where mummies were to be seen.
My permanent residence in Thebes was the cause of my success. The Arabs saw that I paid particular attention to the situation of the entrance into the tombs, and that they could not avoid being seen by me when they were at work digging in search of a new tomb, though they are very cautious when any stranger is in Gournou not to let it be known where they go to open the earth; and as travellers generally remain in that place a few days only, they used to leave off digging during that time. If any traveller be curious enough to ask to examine the interior of a tomb, they are ready to show him one immediately, and conduct him to some of the old tombs, where he sees nothing but the grottoes in which mummies formerly had been deposited, or where there are but few, and these already plundered, so that he can form but a poor idea of the real tombs, where the remains were originally placed.
The people of Gournou live in the entrance of such caves as have already been opened, and, by making partitions with earthen walls, they form habitations for themselves, as well as for their cows, camels, buffaloes, sheep, goats, dogs, &c. I do not know whether it is because they are so few in number, that the government takes so little notice of what they do; but it is certain, that they are the most unruly people in Egypt. At various times many of them have been destroyed, so that they are reduced from three thousand, the number they formerly reckoned, to three hundred, which form the population of the present day, They have no mosque, nor do they care for one; for though they have at their disposal a great quantity of all sorts of bricks, which abound in every part of Gournou, from the surrounding tombs, they have never built a single house. They are forced to cultivate a small tract of land, extending from the rocks to the Nile, about a mile in breadth, and two and a half in length; and even this is in part neglected; for if left to their own will, they would never take a spade in their hands, except when they go to dig for mummies; which they find to be a more profitable employment than agriculture. This is the fault of travellers, who are so pleased the moment they are presented with any piece of antiquity, that, without thinking of the injury resulting from the example to their successors, they give a great deal more than the people really expect. Hence it has arisen, that they now set such an enormous price on antiquities, and in particular on papyri. Some of them have accumulated a considerable sum of money, and are become so indifferent, that they remain idle, unless whatever price they demand be given them; and it is to be observed, that it is a fixed point in their minds, that the Franks would not be so liberal, unless the articles were worth ten times as much as they pay for them.
The Fellahs of Gournou who dig for antiquities are sometimes divided into parties, and have their chief over each; so that what is found by any of the party is sold, and the money divided among them all. They are apparently very true to each other, and particularly in cheating strangers; but when they can find a good opportunity, they do not scruple to cheat each other also. One day when I had to purchase some antiquities according to appointment, and was going to the tomb of one of these companies, my guide told me by the way, that he had some papyri to sell, which he had himself found, previous to his entering into partnership with his associates; and it was agreed, that I was to repair to his house alone to see them. However, I took Mr. Beechey with me, and we had great difficulty to prevent those by whom we were observed from following us; as it is common custom among these people to enter each other’s houses as they please, and see and hear all that passes. In spite of all his caution, they suspected that the old man had a considerable hoard of papyri, and were persuaded that he wished them not to know the large sum he was to receive for them. Accordingly they did not fail to watch our coming out, so that they might see what we purchased; and when they saw we had nothing, they were all surprised and disappointed. One of the chiefs, who was a favourite with the English, approached the interpreter, to know what had passed; and when he heard that nothing had passed but words, he said, the old man dared not sell any papyri without the consent of the company, and that all they had to sell, and all he had, must be brought to us conjointly. They had no idea how this veteran had deceived them; for other articles of consequence are so very seldom found, that they did not suspect his having any thing but papyri to dispose of. Age and experience, however, had naturally rendered him a greater adept in the art of deceit. When Mr. Beechey, myself, and the interpreter, entered his cave, his wife walked out to watch if any one approached. The donkey-men, who brought us, were at some distance from the cave, and not a single being was near us. His dwelling was a grotto cut in the rock like the rest, and black as any chimney. He made us sit down on a straw mat, which is a luxurious thing in Gournou, and after a little ceremony, put into my hands a brazen vessel, one of the finest and most perfect pieces of Egyptian antiquity I have ever seen of the kind. It was covered with engraved hieroglyphics, very finely executed. It was about eighteen inches high and ten in diameter. The composition is extremely fine, and it sounds not unlike the Corinthian brass. I was most agreeably surprised, and could scarcely believe that I had such a treasure in my hands. I conceive it to be a sacred vessel used by the Egyptians. It has a handle something like our common baskets. We were examining it with astonishment, when the old man took it from our hands, and presented us with another exactly similar to it. The sight of a pair of antiques like these, their admirable preservation, and the opportunity we had of purchasing them, delighted us so much, that the bargain with the old man was made in a few words. The great difficulty was to take them to our boat, which the old man promised to do in the night, after all were asleep. We returned to Luxor in high glee, from the expectation of having in our possession two of the finest articles of metallic composition, that evere were to be found in Egypt. At night the old man did not come, which made me uneasy; but he came in the morning, and said, that he could not bring the vases with him, as his companions were watching, but that he would not fail to bring them at night; meanwhile he should be glad, he added, to receive the money and the present we had promised; and we paid him without hesitation, that he might not retract his bargain. At night, however, no old man came; nor the next day did he make his appearance. I thought it necessary therefore to go to his habitation. I found him at home, and he said, as before, he would not fail to come to us at night. Night, however, again arrived without him; but early the next morning he brought the vessels to our boat. Some time after, one of his companions inquired of me what the old man had received for his antiques. We wondered how he came to know any thing of the matter; when he informed us, the vessels belonged to the company, and the pretence of secrecy was a scheme of the old man to extract from us the present of a turbouse*, in which he had succeeded. *A red cap, or bonnet”.

A. EDWARDS, One Thousand Miles up the Nile, Longmans Green, London 1877.
“There were whispers about this time of a tomb that had been discovered on the western side – a wonderful tomb, rich in all kinds of treasures. No one, of course, had seen such things. No one knew who had found them. No one knew where they were hidden. But there was a solemn secrecy about certain of the Arabs, and a conscious look about some of the visitors, and an air of awakened vigilance about the government officials, which savoured of mystery. These rumours by and by assumed more definite proportions. Dark hints were dropped of a possible papyrus…
In a fatal hour we expressed a wish to see it. From that moment every mummy-snatcher in the place regarded us as his lawful prey. Beguiled into one den after another, we were shown all the stolen goods in Thebes. Some of the things were very curious and interesting. In one house we were offered two bronze vases, each with a band of delicately engraved hieroglyphics running round the lip; also a square stand of basket-work in two colours, precisely like that engraved in Sir Gardner Wilkinson’s first volume, after the original of the Berlin Museum. Pieces of mummy case and wall sculpture and sepulchral tablets abounded; and on one occasion we were introduced into the presence of – a mummy!
All these houses were tombs, and in this one the mummy was stowed away in a kind of recess at the end of a long rock-cut passage; probably the very place once occupied by its original tenant… I shall never forget that curious scene – the dark and dusty vault; the Arabs with their lanterns; the mummy in its gaudy cerements lying on an old mat at our feet.
Meanwhile we tried in vain to get sight of the coveted papyrus. A grave Arab dropped in once or twice after nightfall, and talked it over vaguely with the dragoman; but never came to the point. He offered it first, with a mummy, for £ 100. Finding however, that we would neither buy his papyrus unseen nor his mummy at any price, he haggled and hesitated for a day or two, evidently trying to play us off against some rival or rivals unknown, and then finally disappeared. These rivals, we afterwards found, were the M.B.’s. They bought both mummy and papyrus at an enormous price; and then, unable to endure the perfume of their ancient Egyptian, drowned the dear departed at the end of the week”.

H.V. MORTON, Through Lands of the Bible, Methuen, London 1938.
“When I came out of the tombs at Qurna, and before my eyes had become used to the light, I was aware that people were running towards me. One of the first to arrive thrust something into my hand. I looked down and saw that I was holding the hand of a mummy. I did not wonder to whom it had belonged, or whether it had been a beautiful hand or an ugly one; I was only anxious to get rid of it. It was dry, black and claw-like, and was even more hideous than it need have been by the loss of one finger.
The man to whom it belonged refused to take it back, believing that as long as I held it there was a chance I might give him the shilling he was asking in preference to all the other things that old and young were thrusting on me. While I was wondering what to do, I saw a man who looked as old, as brown, as dried up, and as horrible as any mummy, coming slowly in my direction, leaning on a staff.
Although his eyes were closed and he seemed to be blind, he found his way nimbly over the stone-scattered ground, and when he came near he cleared a way for himself by making savage swings with his staff at the legs of the crowd. Several children ran away howling, but I noticed that not one of those who received the blows showed any resentment, for such is the respect for age in the East.
The old man evidently had something important to say to me. When a few yards away, he slowly opened his eyes; and they were white. A desire to get away from this terrible old man came over me, but I waited to see what he wanted. Slowly he thrust his hand into the body of his shirt and drew forth a piece of coffin. It was horrible to see this old man, himself a walking mummy, trying to sell me a bit of coffin, and a nausea for this disgusting trade in tomb relics swept over me until I was ready to put distinguished archaeologist and all others who have dug up Egypt’s dead on the same level with this dreadful apparition.
I looked down at the mummy’s hand, which I was still holding, and decided to buy it for a shilling and bury it, or get rid of it somehow to put it out of its misery. My purchase seemed to astonish the crowd, and especially the man who had sold it, and they all disappeared shouting into the sandhills, leaving only the terrible old man standing in a bewildered, half-witted way, holding a piece of yellow coffin-wood.
I had no newspaper in which to wrap the mummy’s hand, and when I tried to put it in my pocket it clawed at the edge of the cloth and refused to go in. I began to feel sorry that I had bought it. To have buried it where I stood, or to have slipped it behind a rock, would have been futile, for it would have been rediscovered in a few hours and offered to some other visitors. There was nothing to do but to walk hand in hand with it until I could find a safe place to bury it”.

W.C. PRIME, Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia, Harper and Brothers, New York 1874.
“I left the Phantom and walked around the village [Luxor], my footsteps dogged by twenty donkey-boys, and as many donkeys, each of the former hoping that I would grow tired and patronize one of them. At every corner and turn a Coptic scoundrel would produce a lot of antiques for sale, and I amused myself by asking prices. At Luxor rates, Dr. Abbott’s collection is worth a million.
Oh! Confident Howajji [foreign traveller], beware in Luxor of Ibrahim the Copt, and on the western shore of Achmet-el-Kamouri, the Mussulman. Skilful manufacturers of every form of antiques are plenty in the neighbourhood, and these men have them in their employ, and sell to unwary travellers the productions of the modern Arabs as veritable specimens of the antique. Achmet is the chief manufacturer himself, and has a ready hand at the chisel.
The manufacture of antiques is a large business in Egypt, and very profitable. Scarabi are moulded from clay or cut from stone, with close imitation of the ancient, and sold readily at prices varying from one to five dollars. At Thebes is the head-quarters of this business. Still, no antiquarian will be deceived; and it requires very little practice to be able in an instant to determine whether an article is ancient or modern. When the Copt finds that you do know the distinction, he becomes communicative, and readily lets you into the secret of his business; and while he is confidentially informing you of the way in which the Arabs do it, and how this is modern and that is not, beware lest you become too trusting, and he sells you in selling a ring, or a vase, or a seal. He is a wily fellow and sharp, and he knows well how to manage a Howajji”.

W.G. BROWNE, Travels in Africa, Egypt and Syria from the Year 1792 to 1798, T. Cadell and W. Davies, London 1799.
“On landing with my Greek servant at Kourna no male inhabitant appeared; but two or three women were standing at the entrance of their dens. As we passed, in quest of the sheck-el-ballad, to request a guide, one of the women said, in Arabic, ‘Are you not afraid of crocodiles?’ I replied in the engative. She said, emphatically, ‘We are the crocodiles’, and proceeded to depict her own people as thieves and murderers. They are indeed a ferocious clan, differing in person from other Egyptians. Spears twelve or fourteen feet in length are deadly weapons in their hands.
In the temple of Medinet-Abu we observed a large quantity of blood, and were told by peasants of Beirat that the Kournese had there murdered a Muggrebin and a Greek, travellers passing from Assuan to Kahira, who had strayed thither from mere curiosity, or perhaps with a view to finding treasure, in which the Muggrebins pretend to superior skill”.

FOULKES JONES, J. (1860). Egypt in its Biblical Relations and Moral Aspect, Smith, Elder &Co., London, pp. 204-5.
“It is inconceivable the number and extent of these tombs. In some places the face of the mountain is so bored with holes as to look, at a distance, like an enormous warren. Those that I first visited were decent-sized chambers cut in the rock, with shafts and niches for the reception of the bodies. Many of the shafts have been opened, and the white bones of their occupants are now lying about the grave’s mouth like chips of wood, and bits of mummy-rags may be seen here and there drifting about, like withered leaves before the wind. Some of the vaults have been swept, and the Arabs have brought their mats here and what furniture they have, and they are now used as dwelling-houses. An old sheikh that I saw to-day lived in quite a mansion of a tomb; he had fitted it out in such grand style, and he slept every night in his Egyptian sarcophagus – what would King Og have thought of this granite “bedstead!” The village of Gournou has been deserted now for some years, the people having left their caly-huts and taken their abode in the tomb. It is a strange to think of a man having been born and brought up in a grave. But so it is among these troglodytes of Gournou; one-half of the present village has sprung from the tombs, their former occupants having been turned out of their niches to make room for the generation of the living. In some cases the interior of the tomb has not been opened, and the bodies are lying in their niches just as the old Egyptians left them; but the Arabs have taken possession of these like the rest, and here they live side by side with the mummied dead. They are perfectly free from cold or damp, clean, too, and healthy-looking, and, on the whole, I thought they were not bad places to live in – at least for Arabs, being a decided improvement on their wretched hovels, though this mingling of the dead and the living looks revolting enough. What would my reader take to spend a night here, and sleep by the side of a three-thousand-year-old mummy? These people think nothing of it – they are so familiar with Death”.

“The people had come rudely to the boat when I was absent, and had said that they would see whether this stranger would dare come out another day, having taken great umbrage at my copying the inscriptions; and they had dropt some expressions as if they would assault the boat by night, if I staid which, without doubt, they said that they might make me go away, for they seemed desirous that I should leave the place; as strongly possessed with a notion of a power that Europeans have of finding treasures, and conveying them away by magic art; they might also be envious of the sheik, imagining that I made him great presents. I talked, notwithstanding, of going abroad the next day, being desirous, if possible, to see the temple of Medinet-Habou, which the sheik’s son seemed to promise me; but I found these two governors of the neighbouring villages were not friends, and when the sheik came to the boat, we informed him of what had passed; he said I had seen every thing very well, and wrote a letter to the sheik of Furshout; and then he advised me to depart, and to go on as fast as we could all night”.

HAWKS, Francis Lister (1850). The Monuments of Egypt; or, Egypt a witness for the Bible, with Notes of a Voyage up the Nile by an American, Putnam-Murray, New York-London.
“Near these ruins lies the beautiful village of Gournou, which, among the Arab villages of Egypt, is perhaps the most attractive. It is extremely well built, and surrounded by fertile groves, like the ruins in the midst of a plain of luxuriant corn-fields, and fields of as fertile crops and fruits as when Osiren had his palace residence here, three thousand years ago”.
“The men of Gournou are adept in supplying the demand for Egyptian antiquities, and fabricate scarabei, small figures of the gods, and clay seals with royal names, sometimes in a most ingenious manner. They force a trade with intense perseverance, and every person in the Theban district had something of the kind to sell; even the children have a few to tempt purchasers. The adults are less difficult to deal with, never taking a refusal, but following and pestering the stranger wherever he goes, thrusting them upon him, and often exclaiming, with a stern of frown – “Buy, you buy! All gentlemen buy at Thebes”.

The staple trade is in scarabei; if genuine, large prices are asked for them. I have known instances of three and four pounds English asked, and obtained, for them. If false, they are by no means cheap, but, I need scarcely add, dear at any price. These men, from their great experience in rifling the graves at Gournou, have a perfectly educated eye for a true thing, and will not part with it cheaply. It is not safe for a mere “dilletante” visitor, or one not conversant with genuine antiques, to purchase at his own caprice at all. But of course advice of this sort is never taken; and the assertion “I brought it myself from Thebes” is too fascinating a thing to be able to say at home, and is generally considered argument enough against any amount of scepticism that may be exhibited”, pp. 267-68.

“There are intelligent native men on both sides the river, who act as guides to travellers; but it is a settled point of honour with them not to trespass on each other’s district, so that each devotes himself to accompany the visitor upon his own side of the stream. By long habit they have obtained considerable knowledge of the most important sculptured details of the various ruins, saving the traveller a vast amount of time and trouble in looking for them himself. Their local knowledge of course is perfect, for an Egyptian is no traveller except by dire necessity; and is quite content to vegetate for life in his own town or village, if he have his merest wants supplied. A very intelligent and venerable old man, named Achmet Gournou, accompanied me over the side of the stream where the village lies from which he obtains his name. He had also accompanied the American artist, Bayard Taylor, who has done such good service by his illustrated books of travel, always pleasant, instructive, and elegant. Achmet knew very little English, but had contrived to use that small quantity judiciously, and make himself clearly understood. He had the natural tact to understand his visitors, allowing them to loiter if they chose; but taking them at once to the most interesting points, if they desired to see them only, and not waste thought or energy over so vast a field as opens to them here. He knew all the gods perfectly well, and the subjects of the principal sculptures; but his natural quickness and limited English gave much abruptness to his mode of bringing them to notice; and “See! Osiris!” – “See! Battle!” are specimens of his style. I had much difficulty in keeping my gravity, so as not to offend the good old man, when he pointed to the offerings made to the gods, and exclaimed, “See! Lunch!”.
A ferry-boat carries passengers from Luxor to the opposite side of the river; but the shore shelves so gradually that persons are landed on the backs of the fellahs, unless a horse be brought to the side of the boat and mounted, the top of a saddle being nearly upon a level therewith. Horses may be had on both sides the river, but they are a heavy, raw-boned set of animals. Donkeys and sharp donkey-boys are, of course, in profusion. It is most amusing at early morning to watch the first boat-load of visitors cross the river, and to see the rush from the various quarters, by donkeys and drivers, over the mile or so of sand between them and the landing-place, as they all converge towards it for custom, and tumble helter-skelter into the stream, in numbers far exceeding all necessary requirements”, pp. 272-74.

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