Two accounts of Egypt

David Tresilian , Tuesday 22 Feb 2022

David Tresilian attended Marseilles exhibition that reconstructs the background and afterlife of French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s North African novel Salammbô, and read the 12th-century Iraqi physician Abdel-Latif al-Baghdadi’s account of his visit to Egypt


Many people will be familiar with Flaubert’s letters from Egypt, the record of a trip the French novelist made to Alexandria, Cairo, and beyond in 1849. But how many will be familiar with a similar trip he made a decade later to Tunisia, this time to research one of the strangest novels to have appeared in French in the 19th century and one out of step with almost everything else its author wrote?

 The result of Flaubert’s Tunisian trip, his ancient Carthaginian novel Salammbô, has long been a puzzle for literary historians. Why did Flaubert, otherwise known for his exacting portrayals of French provincial life, invest so much time and effort in writing a novel about a mercenary revolt in ancient Carthage, the ruins of which are in today’s Tunisia, even going as far as to make an extended visit to them as part of his research?

Even allowing for some personal fascination on Flaubert’s part that caused him to devote so many hours to a sword-and-sandals epic about ancient North Africa, there also remains the question of why the novel was so popular with 19th-century audiences. Whereas Flaubert’s more respectable novels – the ones that are widely read today – did not have a wide appeal on their initial publication, Salammbô was a great popular success.

Help is at hand for those whose curiosity is piqued by such questions in a new exhibition on the background and afterlife of Flaubert’s novel. First shown at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in the northern French city of Rouen and now at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in the southern port city of Marseilles, the exhibition, entitled Salammbô, Fureur! Passion! Éléphants!, has been organised in cooperation with the Tunisian Institut national du patrimoine, the Tunisian national heritage organisation.

It heads to the Bardo Museum in Tunis for a further stint later this year and presents almost everything there is to know about Salammbô and its impact in the 19th century and beyond.

While the exhibition contains material that is likely to appeal to the most committed Flaubert fans such as pages from his notes for the novel as well as from his letters and manuscripts, Flaubert’s intentions make up only half the story. Almost as soon as it was published, Salammbô took on a life of its own, escaping from its author’s grasp and swiftly spawning what today would be seen as desirable textual tie-ins, from paintings based on scenes from the novel to an opera version and illustrated editions.

Flaubert hated all that, insisting that his novel, though a work of the imagination, needed to be treated as a work of history and judged by its fidelity to ancient sources. Imagine his distress when images from it started to turn up on the backs of playing cards and in advertising, almost as if it were the kind of writing, replete with cheap emotion and escapist day-dreaming, that he always said he most despised.

However, perhaps Flaubert was not so very disappointed at the reception given to his new novel, his first since the publication of his most famous book Madame Bovary in 1856. The latter had been widely misunderstood, to Flaubert’s glee, since it only served to confirm his already low opinion of the French reading public, especially when the book was prosecuted for alleged obscenity.

Salammbô did not suffer that fate, and perhaps it was always chiefly meant to bamboozle his critics. For some the novel, though ostensibly about antiquity, might also have been an indictment of the false certainties of bourgeois France.

There had been a revolution in France in 1848 followed by a period of disorder that only ended with a coup d’état in 1851. Flaubert may have thought of his novel, particularly in its moods of violence and tedium, as a way of commenting on the contemporary situation.

As co-curator of the exhibition Sylvain Amic explains in his foreword to the catalogue, it was after Flaubert had been acquitted of the charges against Madame Bovary that he hit on “the need to get out of the modern world… and write a novel set in the 3rd century BCE.” Writing about contemporary life, Flaubert explained, was both “tiring” and “disgusting,” with an unfocused ennui, or boredom, being his usual reaction to the events of his time.

“Few people will ever guess how sad one has had to be to resuscitate Carthage. It’s the desert to which disgust with modern life has pushed me,” Amic quotes Flaubert as saying, noting that these words were later quoted by the German critic Walter Benjamin in 1940, then fleeing the much more threatening political events of his time.


ORIENTAL IMAGES: The exhibition opens with background on the North Africa of Flaubert’s time and on what would then have been known about its ancient Carthaginian civilisation, destroyed by Roman forces at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BCE.

Flaubert may at first have intended to write a novel set in the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps drawing on memories of his visit to the region in 1849. However, his attention soon turned westwards, eventually settling on the remains of Carthage located east of Tunis between the modern city and the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said.

Following a period spent in France reading everything he could find about ancient Carthage, he eventually made a visit to the city’s remains in 1858, travelling via Philippeville, today Skikda, in neighbouring Algeria and stopping off at other destinations on the way. Very little would have been visible of either the ancient Carthaginian or the ancient Roman site that replaced it in Flaubert’s time, since excavation only started in earnest some decades later.

The exhibition conveys this background by looking at the ways in which the city had been imagined by earlier generations of Europeans as well as at some of the few surviving archaeological and other remains. Flaubert himself used the ancient Greek historian Polybius’s account of a mercenary revolt taking place in Carthage after the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome in the 3rd century BCE as the basis for his novel, even adopting the main characters in Polybius’s version together with many of the main events.

His readers are thus introduced to the Carthaginian generals Hamilcar Barca and Hanno, the mercenary leaders Spendius, a runaway slave, and Matho, a Libyan freedman, along with incidents such as the initial revolt, Hanno’s failure and Hamilcar’s recall, the siege of Carthage by the mercenaries, and their eventual gruesome defeat.

What he adds to this material is in the main Salammbo herself, the beautiful daughter of Hamilcar, and the love between Salammbo and the Libyan mercenary Matho, together with more fully worked out battle scenes and a famous scene of child sacrifice to the Carthaginian god Moloch described at length in the novel’s chapter 13. Much of this is contextualised in the accompanying catalogue, which explains some of Flaubert’s inclusions and omissions.

For Tunisian historian Leila Ladjimi Sebai, the introduction of Hamilcar’s daughter Salammbo in Flaubert’s novel, not mentioned by Polybius, and the focus on her as the main character should be seen within the context of powerful female figures in Carthaginian history systematically occluded in accounts coming out of Rome.

According to the city’s traditional foundation story, Carthage was founded by a Phoenician princess, Elissa, from Tyre in today’s Lebanon, in the 9th century BCE. In the guise of the Carthaginian princess Dido, she later fell in love with Aeneas, the hero of the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, when he stopped in Carthage on his way to Italy to found the city of Rome after the defeat of Troy.

Elissa-Dido, Ladjimi Sebai says, should be seen as part of an eastern tradition of powerful female figures starting with “the legendary Kubaba, queen of Sumer [in southern Iraq], and continuing to Cleopatra, without forgetting Medea, Athaliah, Salome, Zenobia, and other female figures” of antiquity. It is little wonder, she says, that Virgil should have made Dido into a “pathetic figure, seduced and then abandoned by a handsome stranger,” since Aeneas represented the opposing masculine power of Rome.

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Tunisian archaeologist Ahmed Ferjaoui supplies more on the background to the Carthage of Flaubert’s time, noting that the accounts of child sacrifice by the ancient Carthaginians to their gods Moloch or Baal found in ancient Greek and Roman authors are almost certainly biased.


Flaubert makes much of this supposed feature of ancient Carthaginian religion in Salammbô, his gruesome descriptions sometimes being cited as evidence. Yet, as Ferjaoui comments, there is no archaeological evidence to support this interpretation of Carthaginian religion, and the modern consensus is that child sacrifice did not in fact take place.

The second section of the exhibition presents artefacts drawn from Salammbô’s considerable afterlife, from paintings and illustrations inspired by the novel to opera scores and, most recently, heavy metal-style cartoons. At first, the novel was seized on most by artists working within the traditions of 19th-century European orientalism, and a series of mostly French painters produced images drawn from it in typically overwrought style. Later, there were illustrated editions of Salammbô, including an 1887 edition from Paris publisher Quantin that contained influential renderings of various episodes and then a larger one in 1900 from Ferroud.

An operatic version of Salammbô received its premiere at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1890 with music by the French composer Ernest Reyer and libretto by poet Camille du Locle. The exhibition contains some of the stage designs for the Brussels and later Paris productions as well as images of costumes by Eugène Lacoste. Rather like the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s famous ancient Egyptian opera Aida, first staged some 20 years earlier at the Cairo Opera House in 1871, Reyer’s ancient Carthaginian opera is written in the European musical idiom of the time.

On the whole, wandering through the areas of the exhibition devoted to the novel’s afterlife in pictures, music, and film, it is hard to feel that it has given rise to much that is lasting, perhaps underlining the impression that in Salammbô Flaubert produced a kind of cuckoo in the nest. He spent some five years researching and writing it, much the same time he devoted to writing Madame Bovary or L’Education sentimentale, among the 19th-century’s most influential works of fiction. While the present exhibition goes a long way towards contextualising Flaubert’s North African novel, much of its mystery remains.


Salammbô: Fureur! Passion! Éléphants! Du roman culte à l’exposition, MUCEM, Marseilles, until 7 February



New York University’s Library of Arabic Literature series of mediaeval and later works of Arabic literature in translation has been going from strength to strength, bringing neglected works to wider notice and in some cases making them available in reliable English translations for the first time.

A case in point is the kitab al-ifadah wa-l-itibar, “the book of edification and admonition,” translated as A Physician on the Nile by Tim Mackintosh-Smith and a record of a visit by Baghdad physician Abdel-Latif al-Baghdadi to Egypt in 1196 CE.

Al-Baghdadi, also listed as the author of 173 other books few of which survive, gives his impressions of Egypt under Ayyubid rule in his book and describes some of the country’s ancient monuments. He also describes a terrible famine and then a plague that hit Egypt during his visit, the “stuff of nightmares,” his translator comments.

Born in Baghdad in 1162 CE, not much is known about al-Baghdadi’s life aside from what Mackintosh-Smith provides in the useful introduction to his translation, which is complete with a facing and newly edited Arabic text. Al-Baghdadi, he says, was “like so many keen young scholars” of his time and always in search of patronage. It was this that drove him first to Damascus and then to Cairo.

While in the Egyptian capital, al-Baghdadi was taken under the wing of important patrons, apparently also hobnobbing with other intellectuals of the time including the Jewish thinker Maimonides, then living out his final years in Cairo. Mackintosh-Smith says that al-Baghdadi followed a busy schedule, giving “Qur’an classes at the great mosque-academy of Al-Azhar, teaching medicine, and writing,” as well as visiting the ancient Egyptian monuments that figure in his book on Egypt, among them the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx.

He does not seem to have been very successful in safeguarding his literary works for posterity, however, since, as his translator notes, his Egypt book, like many others, very nearly did not survive. There is only one manuscript of the work in existence, now housed in the UK, and if Mackintosh-Smith is to be believed, it is written in al-Baghdadi’s own hand.

The story of this manuscript is of interest in its own right as it reveals much of the vicissitudes that such material had to undergo before it reached modern audiences. It was acquired by Edward Pococke, first holder of Oxford University’s professorship of Arabic, on a trip to Aleppo in Syria in 1636. Pococke made some attempts at translating it, and his son, also a professor of Arabic, eventually came up with a translation into Latin in 1691.

However, the work was never published, and non-Arabic-speaking readers, and, indeed, anyone not having access to the single manuscript, had to wait until 1800 when another Oxford professor, Thomas Hunt, produced an edition of the Arabic text with a facing Latin translation.  

Readers of modern languages had to wait for the French orientalist Silvestre de Sacy to publish a translation into French, the Relation d’Egypte par Abd-Allatif, médecin arabe de Bagdad, in 1810. This remained the standard modern translation of al-Baghdadi’s book until an English version appeared in London in 1965 entitled The Eastern Key. While this can scarcely compete with the scholarly qualities of de Sacy’s French version, it did have peculiarities of its own.

These are adverted to in Mackintosh-Smith’s introduction, where he explains that John and Ivy Videan, al-Baghdadi’s English-language translators with Kamal Hafuth Zand, were spiritualists convinced that they were in communication with al-Baghdadi from beyond the grave. They thought that he was helping them to make his book better known to 20th-century English-speaking readers.

While it is not clear why the shade of al-Baghdadi should have cared so much for his literary posterity in English, rather than in Arabic, form, according to Mackintosh-Smith he was regarded by some as “a universal master who leads and directs a band of workers on and around the earth.” Reading the book today, and whatever its considerable interest, there does not seem to be material in it that would justify this description.


BAGHDAD TO CAIRO: The vicissitudes of the manuscript and its translation make an intriguing introduction to al-Baghdadi’s account of Egypt, however, and the book itself does not disappoint.

Among its most striking features is the special attention al-Baghdadi gives to Egypt’s pharaonic heritage, defending it from those who saw it as a source of potential riches – there were many treasure-hunters operating at the time – as well as from those who might have discounted its interest to later generations as merely the relics of a pagan civilisation.

Instead, al-Baghdadi emphasises what could be learned from the monuments of ancient Egypt, seeing them not as the prey of treasure-hunters or convenient repositories of stone for building, but as objects to be studied in their own right. This was partly because of the magnificence and ingenuity of their construction – there were many engineering lessons to be learned – and partly because of what they had to say about a now-disappeared but clearly once extensive and powerful civilisation.

Thus, of the Great Pyramids he says that “when you meditate in depth upon them, you discover that noble intellects gave the Pyramids their all, that pure minds exhausted their every effort for their sake, and that enlightened souls outpoured their loftiest capabilities on their design.”

“Architectonic expertise brought them forth into the realm of reality to stand as exemplars that are the pinnacle of the possible. Because of this, they all but speak aloud of their builders, telling us what sort of folk they were, giving voice to their scientific attainments and their intellects and relating the stories of their lives and times.”

He describes the dimensions and manner of construction of the Pyramids in detail, as well as the fate of those who go inside them. The Great Pyramid is full of “bats that grow to the size of pigeons,” he says, and, relating a visit he made inside it, he adds that “I got about two-thirds of the way in, but I suffered a fit of vertigo, fell into a swoon, and only made it back out at my last gasp.”

Al-Baghdadi’s grasp of ancient Egyptian history was limited by the fact that he did not have access to material that might have helped him, and while he quotes from Aristotle and some other classical writers, he does not seem to have known of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’s long description of ancient Egypt or the descriptions of it in other classical Greek and Roman writers.

Like all writers on ancient Egypt until the early 19th century when they were deciphered by the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, al-Baghdadi also did not have access to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, meaning that for him, like for all visitors to Egypt until Champollion’s time, the monuments of ancient Egypt, though written over in all directions, were mute and their secrets unrevealed.

“There are inscriptions on the stones written in the ancient characters that no one understands,” he comments. “In the entire land of Egypt, I have never found a single person who so much as claimed to have heard of anyone who knew how to read them.”

But there was still much to be learned from the architecture and construction of the monuments, and they could speak to later generations in other ways. Mackintosh-Smith emphasises this point in his introduction, and he is surely right to say that one of the most striking features of al-Baghdadi’s 12th-century account of the ancient Egyptian monuments is their capacity to communicate over time in extra-verbal ways.

Of the Sphinx, for example, he comments that “Old Father Dread,” its name in Arabic, has a “face that is handsomely, indeed admirably portrayed, with a touch of elegance and beauty about the features, as if a smile were playing across them.” He notes the “harmonious proportions” of the Sphinx’s face, adding that “the wonder is how the sculptor was able to follow the rules of harmonious proportion in the figure’s features, given that they are so enormous.”

There is an emphasis throughout on what al-Baghdadi describes as the harmony and proportion of ancient Egyptian architecture and sculpture, perhaps betraying his underlying Aristotelianism. While he admits he does not understand the meaning of the paintings and drawings he finds on ancient Egyptian temple walls, he is prepared to make a stab at them, indicating that they should be taken seriously as another civilisation’s attempts at rendering the divine.

“The obvious implication is that these depictions were intended as an allegory for higher matters, nobler activities, and more elevated forms of being,” he opines, describing what appear to have been depictions of daily life found in ancient Egyptian tombs. They are “pointers to occult mysteries,” he says, “not executed as an idle pastime… so much effort would not have been expended on producing them for merely decorative ends.”

Meanwhile, every effort should be made to protect and preserve the remains of ancient Egyptian civilisation for future generations to learn from and enjoy, al-Baghdadi says, warning of the “ignoramuses and imbeciles” who have dug beneath temples in search of buried treasure and the “despicable good-for-nothings” who have damaged stonework in search of the lead and copper clamps used to hold the stones together.

When one contemplates the “idols” (statues – al-Baghdadi uses the Arabic word sanam / isnam) left behind by the ancient Egyptians in such vast numbers and of often such huge dimensions, “the perfection of their figures, the precision of their forms, and the manner in which they imitate nature are all in truth cause enough for admiration,” he comments.

But not only that, there is also the extraordinary technical prowess involved in making them, he says, all but out of reach among the artisans of his time. “The greatest wonder… [is] how the rule of nature and of true proportion have been strictly observed in execution in spite of [the statues’] huge size.”

“Regarding the idols’ faces, their beauty and harmony of proportion are the utmost accomplishment man could achieve, and the perfect embellishment stone could receive. The only thing lacking in them is the portrayal of actual flesh and blood.”

Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, A Physician on the Nile, translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, New York: Library of Arabic Literature, 2021, pp256.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: