Monday, June 23, 2014

Toby Wilkinson's "The Nile"

Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist, Fellow of Clare College and Head of the International Strategy Office at the University of Cambridge.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Nile: A Journey Downriver Through Egypt's Past and Present, and reported the following:
In The Nile, I examine Egypt’s long and colourful history from the perspective of the silver thread that unites the past, present and future of this intriguing country: the river Nile. Taking a journey downriver from Aswan to Cairo, I explore the people, places and events that have been shaped by the Nile and that, in turn, have shaped Egypt’s unfolding story.

Twenty-five centuries ago, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus famously remarked that ‘Egypt is an acquired country... the gift of the river’. His observation remains true to this day: since time immemorial, lives and livelihoods in Egypt have been shaped by the river’s rhythms: from the earliest art (prehistoric fish-traps carved into cliffs above the Nile) to the Arab Spring (fought on the bridges of Cairo).

For over two thousand years, the Nile and the ancient monuments along its banks have also proved a draw for visitors. The same stretch of water that bore Julius Caesar and his lover Cleopatra has also witnessed the comings and goings of Christian hermits, Arab poets, European explorers, and a whole host of artists, writers and adventurers. All have been shaped by their encounter with Egypt; all have left their mark.

On page 99, I recount the story of the Scottish watercolorist, David Roberts, who did more than any other European of his generation to imprint Egypt in the Western consciousness. Following an extensive journey up the Nile in 1838, Roberts returned to England with
three full sketchbooks, 272 sketches, and a panorama of Cairo: in short, enough material to ‘serve me for the rest of my life’. Over the next decade, he made a series of new drawings from his sketches and published them as 247 large lithographs in the multi-volume The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia. It was the most comprehensive series of views of the Middle East ever presented, and won huge critical and popular acclaim. The paintings caught the imagination of the British public and made Egypt the most fashionable destination for the adventurous traveller.
One group for whom Egypt held a special attraction were sufferers of tuberculosis. Wealthy ‘invalids’ in search of warmer climes took to spending their winters in Egypt.
Staying at Luxor in 1881, one Englishman could not quite believe the improvement in his health:
‘In about a week the sunshine and warm air of Luxor enabled me to sit in the garden, in another week I could mount a donkey, in a month I was able to ride to Karnak… Upon me, at all events, the effect of the climate was little short of miraculous’.
Among those who sought respite from poor health amidst the monuments of ancient Egypt was the remarkable Lucie Duff Gordon, a woman ahead of her time:
Eccentric, pioneer, folk heroine: her seven years living in a ramshackle house atop the roof of Luxor Temple endeared her to the local people and made her a tourist destination in her own right, adding yet further to Luxor’s allure.
Four decades later, another invalid staying in Luxor discovered not just winter warmth but a passion for Egyptology. Lord Carnarvon also encountered an impecunious but brilliant archaeologist named Howard Carter, and together they made the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. The treasure of Tutankhamun caused a world-wide sensation, and established a popular fascination for the Nile and its wonders that has never abated.
Visit Toby Wilkinson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue