Item 149 - Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

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Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence


  • [14–17 Nov. 1904] (Creation)

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5 sheets

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Continues her account of her visit to Egypt.



3rd Letter

Nov. 13th 1904. Monday.

How strange to think that we have been barely 6 days in this country! Every day one seems to live a life time in interest & happiness. So much to see, so much to learn. That first morning in Cairo—the excitement & ever new delight of the Bazaars, the glory of colour, the interest everywhere. We very soon entered into the fun of bargaining. It is a game—carried on with laughter & good humour on both sides—no one is angry or displeased whether the wares are accepted or not (they always are accepted) and everybody is pleased. We were very pleased with our own bargaining: I bought a dress length of very pretty washing silk for 15 shillings—and another lovely delicate silk for 18 shillings—and several other things with which I am delighted: a string of prayer beads of cut amber & antique silver is the most beautiful, although a ring with a green mecca stone, set with a dozen little sunset-purple opals I would not lose for many times over the sum I paid for it. It is a Mascot ring I am sure. The first moment I saw it, I knew it was meant for me to bring good luck: Marie picked out a very pretty blue scareb† & asked how much. “Oh nothing—you take it if you like it.” Meanwhile all the beautiful things in the shop are spread out before you & you sit, drinking coffee, or making an occasional snap shot, laughing & talking—& enjoying the moving panorama. A visit to the perfume bazaar is delightful to all the senses at once—the booths are lined with lovely Turkey rugs—every little booth, a scheme of colour & a joy to the eyes. You choose your man, & sit down on the rugs, & he gives you samples of all his perfumes—touching your arm, your hand with a little glass stopper with a pad of cotton wool—then you choose violet, banana, attar of roses, or what you will & you choose your bottle. I bought sandalwood & amber. It was great fun examining all the bottles to make sure that they gave room for the perfumes—the seller enjoys it as much as you—& he seems all the better pleased that you don’t mean to be cheated. I could spend days in the bazaars, they are so fascinating. And yet in the evening it was good to get out to the calm & quiet of the Pyramids, & to catch our first sight of them glowing against a sky of amber & gold. The road from Cairo to Mena stretches for 5 miles & is a long avenue of beautiful acacia trees. The Nile water still floods both sides of the road, it seemed like crossing a long straight bridge over a lake of liquid light. This is the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen—it is a perfect work of art—perfect from design to the merest detail: quite the very best style: the spirit of the whole management too is very harmonious and happy—so that from the first moment we settle down & feel quite at home.

The next morning—Wednesday—we are up early & out under the shadow of the 2nd pyramid. The wind is cool & we need our coats—though in the sun, it is hot. So far however we have never felt the heat unpleasantly—the weather is like a very fresh clear day in early June. We have taken letters & books—but we might as well have left them at home. Very soon we have the Arab boys about us, showing us treasures & bringing us letters from their former clients now in England. Very proud of these letters they are, & they like to hear them read aloud. The Fast of Ramadan has begun, for 1 month religion forbids the Arab to eat, or drink, or smoke from sunrise to sunset: they must look to Allah & pray five times a day. They tell us Allah helps them so that they feel no hunger & no thirst. Allah makes them strong & takes all desire away. In the city it is easy to forget Allah, & many there do not keep the fast at all, but here in the desert, Allah is so near that you cannot forget, but you want to pray, & to live a good life. Meanwhile, Hetty has sent word to her Arab Shekh Abdul Enani Khattab that she is here & presently he is seen striding over the desert, he sees us & begins to run, salutes her & us with the right hand touching his brow, his lips & heart in token of submission, devotion & truth—& the Eastern Good Morning—“Naharak saiid Embarak” (“May the Light shine upon thee—may thy day be blessed”.) His face is lighted up with joy & he becomes from that moment our servant, carries our things & follows us, & is ready to render with eagerness any possible service. Josephine Plunkett (Hetty’s sister) joins us with her three children & we spend the day together—send to the hotel for a lunch basket, & return about 4 o’clock to have tea in the Verandah. Then we see Josephine drive off in the dogcart—& meanwhile Abdul has got our camels waiting & we have our first experience of mounting & riding a camel. It has been described often, but it was very funny: the camel kneels down & then one takes ones seat, the beast groaning & swearing horribly—he then gets up & quickly strides along—it is (to me) a comfortable & easy motion. I felt quite happy both when the camel was walking or running—& the others were quite happy & easy too. The sun had already set when we reached the Sphinx, and the sky & desert were rosy with the wonderful afterglow. No tourists were about. We dismounted, and we watched in silence that wonderful monument, hewn out of the desert rock six thousand years ago: looked in silence until there seemed a stir in the colossal figure, until a soul dawned in those wonderful eyes & held us fascinated as if by a spell. The Arabs, who with a kind of instinctive perception had left us alone, now joined us & we soon found that we had each a servant, only too ready to talk & entertain us. It grew dark. I could not see Marie or Hetty—they were each the centre of a separate little group: within call; and when, all too soon we were warned by the hour that [we] must must† return to the hotel, we mounted our camels & rode back under the stars, with a delicious night wind in our faces.

Now follows day after day with something in each of repetition, and yet full of ever new & ever changing aspects of delight. Evening by evening finds us by the Sphinx. Sometimes listening to a story or a song—no one in sight except sometimes a few silent black figures squatting in the sand or sometimes a passing camel—our two Arabs ready to do anything to please us. Here we sat one evening, while all the hills & all the desert glowed rosy & then purple, Marie lying on the sand wrapped in a Shekh’s black cloak, & the other two wrapped in our thick coats—listening to stories fascinated and amused. No description can give the charm of that atmosphere or of that moment. One might come to Egypt a dozen times again & miss it. One {1} Sunday morning we were up early to see the sunrise—but for once, the sun failed us & a sharp patter of rain made us take refuge in the temple.

Wednesday. Nov. 16th.

The last day of our stay at the Pyramids. Arrangements have been going on all this time & our dear little houseboat, which is to be our home for the next four weeks is nearly ready. We are looking forward to a new life & a new experience with great delight. We seem to start with everything perfect. “Enani,” and “Latief” & “Ali” for our servants—men devoted to Hetty, & all ready to vie with each other to please us—everything very comfortable—a boat big enough for a party twice our number & yet not too big to move quickly before the wind.

All letters can be sent to Cooks Office Cairo—as we keep in continual touch with that office all the way—& letters will duly reach us with small delay.

Think of us, dear Friends for the next month in our little dahabeyah “Bolbol”—flying the English flag, & gliding up stream through all the changing lights of day & night.

Thursday. Nov. 17th.

Farewell to Mena House Hotel! We leave with feelings of goodwill to all. Never was there a more delightfully managed hotel—waiters, servants and all the officials ready to help & serve in every way—everything refined & gracious & free from any sense of commercialism. It is a great pleasure to think that we are coming back. And our dragoman the Shekh Enani is waiting, attired in his most gorgeous array—tussore silk robe, flowing blue coat, with purple silk lining—new shoes of the brightest yellow, new turban & sash of richly coloured silk, & prayer beads of white moonstones. And the boat is waiting—and our first lunch is ready. Josephine Plunkett & her boy & the baby are coming to lunch. Everything is deliciously cooked & served, a bottle is champagne is opened, healths are drunk, all is gay. Who cares that there is scarcely any wind, & what there is of it blows from South instead of from North. Are there not plenty of things to be done in Cairo? We all start of[f] after lunch and spend an afternoon in the very most dreadfully quick way, any time can be spent—shopping in Cairo. Home, that is The Bolbol—for the sunset, & for dinner—turkish coffee on deck, & then a Fantaseheh by the crew. The crew proper numbers 8, cook, waiter & 2 servants makes 12, not counting the Shekh or ourselves. A little open fire of wood is burning on the lower deck, one lamp is hung above, & the men sing round in a circle, chanting, & beating the tom-tom, & the cymbals—or clapping with their hands—till one after another is moved to take the floor & gives a native dance—Nubian, Ethiopian, Abyssinian, Soudanese. The sight is grotesque, & fascinating beyond words. How one longs for the pencil of a Mortimer Memphis. Moonlight, & lapping of the water, the cry of a water bird, the faint breath of night, make a charm that keeps one from sleep for very delight—then—heaven let loose, & the dawn, & the great sun, & the best omelette I have ever tasted, almost converting me to omelettes—& still no favouring wind. Another day in Cairo, a call on Josephine—purchase of a filter, flags & various little things. Another sunset, another merry evening, more new dances—& sleep. Another glorious dawn—& another day without wind. We write a French letter for Enani to his last—what shall I call them, patients?—children?—the people with whom he travelled for 8 months—they were believers in spirits—& oh what stories Enani tells & how we laugh. We ask them to send some spirits quickly to blow the boat up the river; Mussi the waiter comes in & hears something about it & almost falls on the floor with fright—if the spirits come he goes! At last he believes that we are joking. We had better go & see the Museum at Cairo. The things we have not seen would make a long list: but one or two very last purchases—we must first make curtains to replace the half tumbled ones in the boat, Japanese lanterns—a guitar, which we hire for 2 months—which they insist on our taking away without paying—“it will do when you come back”—& lo & behold the time has gone & we are due back at the boat for lunch.

A little breeze in the afternoon brings all the little boats out on the other side—oh so pretty—with crossed sails like two wings—but the breeze soon dies away. We write our letters as well as we can for the distraction of the eye—such a silvery sunny sky & river—the sun sets—the gun goes from the citadel—the arabs may take their first bit of food & drink for the day. An audible “grace” goes up at the welcome sound—wonderful the patience & endurance & good spirits, of these people during the last & trying fast:

Goodbye to our friends. Goodnight. We are going to pay another call on the Sphinx tonight. Think of us all as we think of you. God bless you all.


Some of the dates in this letter are clearly incorrect. For instance, the date at the beginning of the letter, 13 November, was a Sunday and not a Monday. A few alterations have been made to the punctuation of the original, which is erratic and often indistinct.

{1} Probably a slip for ‘on’.

† Sic.

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