Tourism from the 17th century to the 19th

David Tresilian , Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

A new openness to the outside world led many early 17th-century English travellers to visit Egypt, writes David Tresilian. By the 19th century guidebooks had begun to emerge thanks to the pioneering efforts of early travellers


It was a new spirit of openness to the outside world and a hardheaded concern with commerce that brought a succession of English visitors to the Eastern Mediterranean in the early 17th century, when they headed for Istanbul and the former Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces. Many of them came to Egypt, and some of them left intriguing records of their experiences behind.

Among the best known are the extravagantly named A Relation of a journey begun an. Dom. 1610... containing a description of the Turkish Empire, of Aegypt, of the Holy Land, of the remote parts of Italy and ilands adjoining by the early 17th-century traveler George Sandys and A Voyage into the Levant, a breife relation of a journey lately performed by master H. B., gentleman from England by the way of Venice, into Dalmatia... Rhodes and Egypt, unto Gran Cairo, with particular observations concerning the moderne condition of the Turkes by his near contemporary Henry Blount.

While both books can make demands on the modern reader because of their unusual spelling and cramped typography, the fact that they can now be easily downloaded from the Internet means they can be conveniently read at home. Perhaps the idiosyncrasies of their early 17th-century printing even add an authentic flavour to the observations these authors make of life in Egypt 400 years ago.

George Sandys had a typical early 17th-century gentleman’s career, a period spent studying law and translating the Greek and Roman classics leading to time spent in the new Virginia colony in what is now the United States. But he is mostly remembered for his Relation of a journey begun an. Dom. 1610, which, as he says, he started out on in 1610 when he was 32 years old before publishing it in 1615.

The book starts with Sandys describing his reasons for making the journey before going on to describe his experiences in the Eastern Mediterranean and notably in Egypt. Travel should not be enjoyed for travel’s sake, he explains. Far from broadening the mind, he seems to have approached it as a way of reinforcing previous opinions.

The places he describes “are the most renowned countries and kingdoms: once the seats of most glorious and triumphant empires; the theatres of valour and heroic actions; the soils enriched with all earthly felicities; the place where nature hath produced her wonderful works.” But they have “become the most deplored spectacles of extreme misery: the wild beasts of mankind having broken in upon them and rooted out all civility, and the pride of a stern and barbarous tyrant” — he means the then Ottoman sultan Ahmed I — “possessing the thrones of ancient and just dominions.”

Sandys says that he intends to “draw a right image of the frailty of man [and] the mutability of whatever is worldly.” Having done so, he can get down to his real business, which is passing on his observations of life in Egypt and other places under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which in 1610 was somewhere near its height.

Approaching Istanbul on an English ship, he remembers Hecuba, wife of Priam, who, “in the division of the Trojan captives [during the ancient Greek war with Troy], to free herself from shame and captivity, leaped into the Hellespont [Dardanelles],” the same channel that saw “the unfortunate loves of Hero and Leander, drowned in the uncompassionate surges” and over which the Persian king Xerxes “is said to have passed over into Greece upon a bridge of boats.”

In the city itself, he is taken by the remnants of ancient empires, but he also pays attention to the manners of the time, describing the sultan’s janissary soldiers, the city’s palaces and gardens, and even the person of the sultan himself “in this year 1610, about the age of three and twenty, strongly limbed and of a just stature, yet strongly inclined to be fat… He had two elder brothers, of whom the eldest was strangled in the presence of his father on a false supposition of treason and the younger by an early death did open his way to the Empire.”

Sandys takes another English ship for Egypt, arriving in Alexandria in early 1611 where he is put up at the house of the French consul “unto whose protection strangers commit themselves.” At first, he sees Egypt, rather as he had Ottoman Turkey, through a European lens, repeating stories out of ancient Greek and Roman authors. Later he relies on local sources and observation.

Following “two hundred and seventy years” of rule that was “dreadful in power and abounding in riches,” Egypt’s Mameluke rulers were “overthrown at length by Selymus the first [the Ottoman sultan Selim I] and after sundry doubtful and mortal conflicts [were] utterly extinguished, together with their lives” in the Ottoman conquest of 1517.

The country is now “governed by a Pasha who hath his residence in Cairo and commands as an absolute sovereign,” Sandys says, adding that the Pasha’s iron rule “has caused him to confine himself to the Castle [the Citadel] for a twelvemonth before our coming to Cairo.”


IN CAIRO: Sandys arrives in Cairo at Boulaq, “the port town… where every Frank [foreigner] at his landing is to pay a dollar. Leaving our carriages in the boat, we hired six asses with their drivers for the value of six pence to conduct us into Cairo, where by an English merchant we were kindly entertained, who fed and housed us.”

He makes some observations about styles of dress among the different segments of the city’s population, identifying Turks, “Moors,” “Arabians,” Greeks, and Armenians. The “streets are narrow and the houses high-built, all of stone well nigh to the top; at the end almost of each a gate, which shut (as nightly they are) makes every street as defensive as a castle.”

He is impressed by the Mameluke architecture that then, as now, filled the streets of the older parts of Cairo. The mosques “exceed in magnificence, the stones of many being curiously carved without, supported with pillars of marble, adorned with what art can devise and religion tolerate.” He mentions the Bab al-Nasr, the Bab al-Futuh, and the Bab Zuweila, along with the pleasure grounds that once surrounded the lake at Ezbekiyya, “three sides thereof… clothed with goodly buildings, having galleries of pleasure which jetty over, sustained by pillars.” To the south, “and near the top of the mountain… stands the Castle, once the stately mansion of the Mameluke sultans and destroyed by Selymus.”

Modern Cairo is built on trade, Sandys says, and “the sacred thirst of gain and fear of poverty allures the adventurous merchant from far removed nations by reason of the trade with India and the neighbourhood of the Red Sea,” then overland, centuries later through the Suez Canal. Near the city are the Pyramids, and Sandys describes a visit to the interior of the Great Pyramid, the “heat within, not inferior to a stove,” as well as to some underground tombs, perhaps at Saqqara, where mummies are broken up “by Moors and Arabians… to be bought for dollars in the city.”

Perhaps his most famous observation is the method used by the 17th-century Cairenes for breeding chickens. “Than Cairo no city can be more populous, nor better served with all sorts of provision,” he says. “Here hatch they eggs by artificial heat in infinite numbers” using an ingenious incubation system. “Most of the inhabitants of Cairo consist of merchants and artificers [artisans], yet the merchants frequent no foreign marts. All of a trade keep their shops in one place, which they shut about the hour of five and solace themselves for the rest of the day, cooks excepted, who keep theirs open till late in the evening.”

The emphasis on trade in Sandys’s book is replaced in Henry Blount’s Voyage into the Levant by one on Ottoman military might and by a desire to find out more about the Empire’s administration. “No people should be more averse, and strange of behaviour, than those of the south-east” of the Mediterranean to “our north-west parts of the world,” he says in this book published in London in 1634.

He points to the “Turks, who are the only modern people great in action, and whose Empire hath so suddenly invaded the world and fixed itself such firm foundations as no other ever did.” Cairo piques his interest because “it being clearly the greatest concourse of mankind in these times and perhaps that ever was, there must needs be some proportional spirit in the government [of] such vast multitudes.”

Leaving Rhodes in May 1634, Blount arrived in Alexandria three days later, travelling from there to Cairo and arriving, like Sandys some 20 years before, at Boulaq, this time staying “at the palace of a Venetian gentleman” resident in Cairo “whose noble way of living gives reputation to his country and protection to visitors.” He is eager to see the Citadel, observing a “little house and garden all under the Castle’s view, therein the Pashas of Grand Cairo when deposed are kept, until they are either preferred or strangled.”

Like Sandys, Blount is ambivalent about the Ottoman administration, praising the atmosphere of order, but suspecting that this is bought at the expense of individual rights (he mentions frequent executions). He says of Cairo’s architecture that the city “hath not been yet above a hundred years [in fact 114] in the Turks’ possession, wherefore the old buildings remain, but as they decay, the new begin to be after the Turkish manner, poor, low, made of mud and timber.”

Egypt in general suffered much after the Ottoman conquest, since “it is the custom of the Ottoman crown to preserve the old liberties to all countries that come in voluntary [to the Empire] … but those whom they take by conquest, they use as booty, without pretending any humanity.”

“The Egyptians under their Circassian Mamelukes were defended against Sultan Selim like a flock of sheep kept by fierce mastiffs from the wolf; wherefore, his bloody victory made him rage the more, so that after he had slain all the Circassians… he took all, leaving no man owner of a foot of ground” and turning Egypt into a vast estate to feed the Ottoman army.

 Blount’s list of things to see and do in Cairo includes a visit to the Pyramids at Giza, where he also enters the Great Pyramid, though not accompanied, unlike Sandys, by Ottoman janissaries. Instead, “we passed [through] with every one a candle in one hand and a pistol in the other, for fear of rogues who often murder in those caverns.” There is a visit to underground tombs, where the mummies “lie, most of them in the sand, some on an open stone… in the pitch of the breast is set a little idol [an ushabti figurine], the head of human shape, with a prop under the chin; they are as big as one’s middle finger, with hieroglyphics on the back, and made of stone or rather baked mortar.”

“I was helped by an interpreter, to the speech of three Egyptian priests,” asking them to explain the hieroglyphic writing, he says. “But I found them utterly ignorant” of its meaning. Visitors to Egypt would have to wait for the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher hieroglyphics some 200 years later.  



Western tourism to Egypt began to take off in the middle of the 19th century owing to the introduction of steamships that not only cut the journey time from European ports but also made travel in general much more reliable. After the introduction of passenger services by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) and others in the early 1840s, travelers could embark from ports accessible by railway and expect to arrive at their destination at an exact date and time.

A new breed of tourists, previously a largely unknown category, was soon traveling by rail to Atlantic or Mediterranean ports ready to embark on passenger ships for previously mostly inaccessible destinations. The tourism revolution that later in the 19th century led to the development of Egypt as a leisure destination had been born, with all that this implied for the country’s economy.

With the growth of tourism came guidebooks, different from the earlier travel literature produced on Egypt because their authors were often anonymous and because the books themselves consisted largely of information. Invented in the mid-19th century by publishers like Murray in Britain and Baedeker in Germany, guidebooks soon developed into a familiar form, with headings telling tourists when to go, what to take, and what to do when they got there.

Egypt was one of the first countries to get the guidebook treatment, with recommended destinations including archaeological sites and activities including cruising down the Nile. Later in the century, more activities were added, and the development of domestic infrastructure, notably railways, made more of the country easily accessible, often more so than many parts of Europe.

Probably the first tourist guidebook to Egypt was Murray’s Hand-Book to Egypt, whose first edition by the British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson came out in 1847 when Egypt’s first modern ruler Mohamed Ali was still in power. Comparing the Hand-Book’s first edition to its fifth published in 1875 reveals the ways in which Egypt was transformed in the interim, including as a tourist destination.

In producing his 1847 Hand-Book, Wilkinson relied heavily on his own Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837-41), one of the first modern surveys of ancient Egypt. However, only unusually intrepid tourists are likely to have followed all the itineraries he suggests, since while he offers general advice on travel routes and accommodation, he can forget to do so for specific destinations and fill in with Egyptological material instead.

Wilkinson recommends October as the best month to visit Egypt, adding that “the least time for seeing Egypt conveniently is three months.” This may be an echo of the 12 years that he himself spent in Egypt, during which he is said to have visited all the country’s archaeological sites. Alternatively, it may simply reflect the time that early tourists could realistically expect to spend, given the limitations of mid-19th-century transport.

Wilkinson recommends taking a P&O steamer from Southampton in southern England to Alexandria, a journey time of 16 days with stop-offs at Gibraltar and Malta. He budgets “about 60 pounds for three months” in Egypt (around 6,500 today), depending on arrangements, and he provides an impressive list of things to take, most of them apparently not available in the country. Wilkinson’s tourist will want to take “some tools, nails, and string,” for example, as well as an umbrella, though “a coop for fowls” and “a tent (if required) and ladder” can be bought in Cairo.

Reading matter will have to be brought from England, and Wilkinson recommends Antione Clot’s (Clot Bey) Aperçu général sur l’Égypte, a sketch of Egypt under Mohamed Ali, E. W. Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, and Jean-François Champollion’s writings on hieroglyphics. He lists some suitable presents for Egyptian officials, including “a watch or telescope” as a suitable gift for a “Turkish governor.”

Money is another issue that tourists will want to arrange before they leave, Wilkinson says, not least because Egypt at the time was using multiple currencies. He recommends a stock of Spanish and Austrian dollars (the Spanish colonnato dollar and Austrian thaler, both worth about 20 piastres) along with English sovereigns (worth around 100). Medicine will have to be taken from England. The “violent plague that occurs about once in every 10 to 12 years” in Cairo and Alexandria can be avoided if visitors stay in Upper Egypt.

“A person is never respected [in Egypt] who is badly dressed,” Wilkinson warns, appending an English-Arabic vocabulary that includes items such as “wicker basket” and “custard apple” and implies that visitors could get into some ambitious conversations while in Egypt since there are Arabic equivalents for “I have nothing to do with it,” “it is not my fault,” “he is not guilty,” and, thankfully, “we have made peace with each other.”

Once in Alexandria, the accommodation is limited — Wilkinson recommends only two hotels, the Hotel d’Europe and the Hotel d’Orient at 40 piastres a day including board — and he says that the tourist will want to hire a Turkish janissary ($30 a month) or Italian, French, German, or Greek servants. Arriving by boat in Cairo at Boulaq, “the traveler had better engage a camel… and proceed immediately” to the city, Wilkinson says, there being no other mode of transport.

In Cairo, there is the British Hotel and the Hotel d’Orient. Houses can apparently be rented in the Turkish quarter for 100 piastres a month. “Cairo scarcely offers any places of public resort,” Wilkinson says, noting that Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mohamed Ali, “has begun a collection of Egyptian antiquities… [but imagine] my surprise and disappointment when I found nothing but a confused mass of broken mummies and cases.”

“The whole town is divided into quarters separated from each other by gates which are closed at night” and named by groups or occupations, Wilkinson says, giving 200,000 as the population. All the city’s mosques can be visited, he says, giving detailed descriptions of Ibn Tulun, Al-Azhar, Sultan Hassan, and others, as can the tombs of the Mameluke sultans, unfortunately in a poor state of conservation.

Boats can be hired to take tourists down the Nile to Upper Egypt. Wilkinson recommends that “the first thing to be done, after taking a boat, is to have it sunk, to rid it of rats.”


EGYPT IN THE 1870S: Reading the 1847 Hand-Book today, it is easy to get the impression that a visit to Egypt in the 1840s could be time-consuming and expensive and perhaps only something for the more intrepid. Frequent references to the through-traffic to India indicate that Wilkinson’s publishers had this market in mind.

By the time the fifth edition of the Hand-Book appeared in 1875, however, the situation had been transformed, and this is reflected in the far greater options listed in the new Hand-Book, updated and folded into a larger series that included many other international destinations.

“Since the accession of the Khedive Ismail Pasha, the work of change and progress has been carried out in Egypt at an almost feverish rate of speed,” the 1875 Hand-Book says, listing the extension of the railways, the telegraph system, and the Suez Canal. “Many parts of Alexandria and Cairo are so changed that those who saw them only a few years ago would hardly recognise them,” necessitating a thorough revision of Wilkinson’s guide.

In place of the couple of hotels recommended to tourists in Cairo in 1847, the 1875 Hand-Book offers seven, including famous establishments such as Shepheard’s and the New Hotel, owned by the Khedive and later renamed the Grand Continental, on Opera Square. In place of the few “places of public resort” recommended in Cairo in 1847, the 1875 Hand-Book offers dozens, including the Cairo Opera House, opened in 1869, the Egyptian Museum in Boulaq, later replaced by the famous building in today’s Tahrir Square, and a range of shops, banks, doctors, dentists, and other services.

All references to the plague and taking nails and string from England have disappeared. Local travel can be done by horse-drawn carriage on widened roads, making camels, at least in cities, redundant. Currency reform and the establishment of banks have obviated the need to stock up on Spanish and Austrian dollars.

Travel in Lower Egypt now takes place by train, with three express trains a day between Cairo and Alexandria and Cairo and Suez. The station for Lower Egypt is where it is today, although the present building was not built until the 1890s. Upper Egypt is still far less well-served, a separate terminus being at Imbaba. Tourists going south are advised to do so by boat, mooring at Luxor, “a small village of little importance in itself,” in order to see the Karnak Temples and the Valley of the Kings.

But however impressive a production, Murray’s Hand-Book had a formidable new rival in the German Baedeker Handbook for Travellers to Egypt, the first edition of which, at first limited to Lower Egypt, appeared in 1878. Baedeker later became the best known of all guidebook series among late-19th and early 20th-century tourists, and the Egypt volume was produced with typical thoroughness. A group of German professors was drafted in to write the historical parts, and the whole easily outdoes Murray in production values, with its 29 colour maps and dozens of illustrations.

“The facilities for travel in Egypt are now such that the intending visitor may make an outline of his tour at home with almost as great ease as for most of the countries of Europe,” Baedeker says, adding that the prospective tourist now has at least six steamship lines offering passenger services to Egypt to choose from, leaving at least weekly from Marseilles, Venice, Trieste, Naples, and other ports for Alexandria. In Egypt itself, the railways are recommended.

Baedeker strikes a note already heard in Murray when it says that “the traveler will find it exceedingly difficult to deal with the class of people with whom he chiefly comes in contact” in Egypt and recommending that he adopt “an imperative tone or vigorously brandish his stick” at street vendors. Baedeker, more than Murray, is full of racist remarks. The book recommends hiring a dragoman, a kind of tourist guide, adding that this will allow tourists “to obtain, as it were, a bird’s eye view of the country without being concerned with the cares of daily life.”

There are some literal-minded “rules” on visiting an “oriental house” that on the face of it do not differ much from those that might have been given at the same time in Europe. “The visitor knocks at the door with the iron knocker attached to it, whereupon the question ‘min’ (who is there?) is usually asked from within. The visitor answers, ‘iftah’ (open)… [and] he is then conducted into the reception-room. The first enquiries are concerning health.”

There are many pages of this sort of thing, made more tolerable by detailed treatments of Egyptian history, industry, agriculture, government, administration, and other subjects. Any tourist visiting Egypt and reading Baedeker would have had a comprehensive knowledge of late 19th-century Egypt along with much of its ancient and modern history. There is a similarly thorough treatment of the history and grammar of the Arabic language, along with some useful phrases.

It is this comprehensiveness that likely made Baedeker the guidebook of choice for many late 19th-century visitors to Egypt.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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