Item 154 - Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

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Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence


  • 20-25 Dec. 1904 (Creation)

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1 slip fixed to 1½ sections from the border of a sheet of stamps, 6 single sheets

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Continues her account of her visit to Egypt.



8th Letter

Dec. 20th Dahabeah Bolbol.

So the days drift on, with a dear monotony of fulness of light: sense of time has gone—is it a week, a month or a year since we began? one scarcely knows, or stops to count. Only let it go on!. It is now Tuesday—5 days since Fred came—5 days since we got up in the dark, & left an illuminated boat, with Enani & Ali carrying lanterns. The train was late, & the dawn came stealing over the world—and it was light before we got back to the boat. A gorgeous day—no wind. The awnings of the boat were up—& there were so many things to talk about. The men took the opportunity to get their store of bread baked. We left Sohag about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, taking advantage of a little puff of wind to get away from the landing stage & the entourage of craft, & anchoring on a little island within sight of the town. The next day a good wind sprang up & has been with us ever since—and we have been sailing swiftly through dancing waves—the song of the day, of the sun, of the water dancing in the heart—the song of the men working the shadoufs on the bank haunting in its elusive rhythm.

On the banks are fishing fleets of pelicans, huge brown eagles gathered in tens & twenties—& smaller white ones amongst them; herons, storks, hawks & plovers, and the solitary dignified white ibis. The morning afternoon & evening melt into each other with infinite changes of colour, light & temperature. It is nearing sunset, & the river bends South East—behind us is a glowing sky and a purple river, before us a glowing sail and a flood of deepest blue—to our left, the rugged mountains covered with sand, have caught the radiance and are alight; & over the coarse reedy grass upon the near bank (the left) the shadow of our two great sails flies like a flying cloud—and on and on we go. Later in the moonlight, we take the rowing boat, or we stroll upon the dry sand—listening to stories or the reed flute with its high piercing passionate note. We lie on the sand Bedawin-fashion—tucked up in our warm rugs—and Enani tells the story which is the origin of the Bedawin phrase—“I have killed my camel a long time ago”.

Once upon a time there were two men, a “fellah” & a “bedawin” arab—they were journeying together—the fellah had a flock of goats, the bedawin had one camel. At night the fellah proposed that each should watch for half the night—but the bedawin wanted to sleep without care—so he killed his camel & lay down—while the fellah sat up & watched through all the night. And to this day, the fellah squats, while the bedawin takes his ease. And if anyone remonstrates he replies—“I have killed my camel”.

We moor at Abutig, at Balliana, at Nagh-Hamadah and Desluch {1}. At Nagh-Hamadah we met with some charming French people, & a glorious bouquet of lovely roses with great long stems & beautiful leaves is brought to the boat, from the sister of the chief engineer—a little box of chocolates which Fred has brought out from London is sent back with our thanks—the flowers are a great joy—with the roses are sprays of lemon-scented verbena, which are constant in their reminder that there are very nice people in the world.

A jackal strolls by our window early this morning, welcome as a sign of how far away we are from the restraining hands of civilization—launched well on our wander-quest. But oh, how can one put into words anything of the joy made up of endless appeal to sight & sense. One sits for hours & hours on the deck, with the sound of the water parting under the bows, with the leaping of the sail & of the flags, with the waves & the sunbeams running along with us in their thousands, laughing with the fun of the race—with the changing drama of the bank-side—content to be, and wanting nothing—books, thoughts, words put aside—life full of outward physical things, and time an eternal present.

Denderah! There is a fine temple a few miles from here, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, queen of love & beauty. A good gallop on donkeys brings us to the temple gate all too quickly—the great vestibule with its 24 columns each adorned with the head of Hathor leads one into the first temple, & thence into courts, in the ancient worship each more sacred than the last, until the Holy of Holies is reached. Every inch of stone, wall & pillar, stairway & roof—is covered with the imprint of human feeling & devotion & imagination. One feels how impossible it is by a mere visit, to grasp anything of the significance of such a building—one needs to pos[s]ess the key of knowledge first & afterwards to have time to think & dream oneself back to that old intensity of faith & feeling—that made such everlasting monuments possible. We can catch but the merest suggestion of all this. To us, the expedition is mainly a frolic. It is great fun, the gallop back, & lunch waiting at the end—and a magnificent sailing wind all the rest of the day.

Dec. 21. The shortest day and, as we fondly dream, our last on board our dear little Bolbol. At sunset we are but 8 miles from Luxor—& we sail forward into the West—a world of Asphodel—and behind us the white & mauve of the full risen moon—where gliding white sails follow our own. But a further bend due west brings us into the teeth of the wind—& for our flat-bottomed keelless boat makes the end of the journey impossible. Still, “we shall sleep in camp tomorrow night”—we say.

Dec. 22.

But it is not so written. For in the morning the same west wind blows strong. But the Sheikh of the village sends his son to invite us into his garden—& we spend a pleasant morning—we are taken to the Guest-house—coffee is brought—& we are urged to stay, until a feast can be prepared & brought. But this invitation we put aside with many thanks & are presently escorted back to the boat. Then men are engaged to tow the boat as the work against wind & tide is too hard for our unaided crew, & slowly through the afternoon we fight on through the difficulties of the way. But at last the bend of the river is turned & now we have the wind with us again. Away we go in first rate style. We make a brilliant arrival at Luxor—Enani fires off his revolver—there are congratulations all round & the due festivities. After dinner, we explore Luxor a little & get our first glimpse of the great temple in the serene light of the moon.

Dec. 23rd.

It is the first freshness of the morning & the light is dancing in the waves—as we set out in the little boat to cross the river. Two good donkeys are chosen & we set off at a good gal[l]op. The spot is chosen—just outside the boundary wall of the Temple of Karnak—not far from the river—close to a good well—a sufficient distance from the native village—& a few steps from “the sacred lake”. Back to the boat & breakfast & the Christmas post. Time to say “Goodbye” now to the dear Bolbol—but all the men are coming to see us safely settled in our camp. An hour or two of loitering in the bazaar at Luxor—then we set out of {2}for our new home. As we catch sight of the 4 white tents—set out under the sunshine—we feel a thrill of pleasure: the servants come forward to welcome us, anxious to see the effect of their morning’s work. The tents are double, white on the outside, on the inside a dark Turkish blue, embroidered with scarlet & white—very restful to the eyes. Luncheon is served in the ‘salon’ tent—and after getting things straight & resting till early tea—we set off on our donkeys for Thebes—cross the river in a ferry—(donkeys & all) & ride to the Colossi of Memnon. There we wait to see the moon rise & are held by the weird spell & fascination of these great figures, seated on their throne for thousands of years looking into the noon sun, while the generations of men, have sown & reaped their little harvest at their feet—& have been gathered themselves by the great Reaper. And they are sowing & reaping still—all unheeding of these watchers of Time—“They take no notice of these monuments?” “Well you see,” says Enani, “these monuments dont take much notice of them!” As the full moon rises, and the mysterious glamour of the light that softens & conceals falls upon those great figures—they seem to breathe with intense silent life—& to thrill with that passion which is patience. And all the time the donkey boys keep up their sweet monotonous little song—an Arab love lament. At last we have to go—& home we ride to find the camp glistening in the moonlight & dinner ready. A few hours later, & the tents are closed & we sleep for the first time in the desert, while the guards watch, & the dogs from the neighbouring village keep up a barking chorus.

Dec. 24th.

The dawn!—the sudden waking!—the dash for the door of the tent & the open—the world bathed in the first fresh radiance of day. A happy light on all the faces—a hasty dressing, a walk & the call the breakfast—and life has begun again.

The whole morning is spent in the great wonderful temple of Karnak—the greatest & most wonderful human conception of a divine habitation—to those who can read a great Book, full of intense meaning; to us, who can only look at the pictures, full of the interest of the obvious. We go again at night to see in the moonlight the presences of those who filed in great procession through these halls thousands of years ago.

Dec. 25. Christmas day—we are up soon after 5 o’clock, to see the day dawn, & the sun rise, from the top of the great Pylon of the Karnak Temple. Ali bears our rugs—& kettle, spirit-stove etc, for we mean to have our first breakfast there on the summit. It is all so beautiful—the Libyan Hills are rosy red and every moment the drama of glow & light & colour changes. We, wrapped in our rugs, wait for the signal of the sun; he rises in unclouded glory—and we begin our early Christmas Feast. Then back to the Camp—& to our real breakfast!—and at 10 o’clock we are in the train en route for Assuan. For we have arranged to leave the camp & have two days of hotel life & civilisation for the sake of seeing Philae & the Barage†!—& in order to come back to Luxor down the river (by the weekly post boat that leaves Assuan every Tuesday) we have to put in those two days now. So we kept our Christmas in camp on Christmas Eve, ate our Christmas pudding, thought & spoke of absent friends & drank their health—& tonight, we shall join with people of our own country and keep the feast with them. At the Station at Luxor, we find that our train has been delayed by some accident, but the Station Master is most friendly & polite—a local train is put on, & a restaurant car is attached for our sole convenience—there is only one other European on the train. We arrive about 4.30—& oh how good it is to turn out of the dusty train into the sunset light & delicious fresh air. We take two of those jolly little carriages with awnings—get to the Cataract Hotel & are shown into most delightful bedrooms, each with a verandah, overlooking the river & the sunset & the mountains. We lose no time in getting out for the glory of the evening is upon every thing touching all these new scenes with a glamour all its own. We are delighted with Assuan—the atmosphere is sparkling—the warmth is delicious, the rocks & cataracts of the river are wholly different from anything we have seen—& the whole effect is as though one had been put down in the enchanted land of some fairy tale. Civilisation is not so bad either! The Hotel is one of the very nicest possible, everything first rate. There is a gala dinner, with a lighted Christmas tree at the top of the Dining Hall. Music. The place is full—& everybody gay & jolly & friendly. We are all very merry & happy—and all of the same mind. We could not possibly have had a jollier Christmas.


A few alterations have been made to the punctuation of the original.
{1} The readings of these names are uncertain.
{2} A slip for ‘for’.
† Sic.

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      This description was created by A. C. Green in 2020.




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