François-René de Chateaubriand

Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem et de Jérusalem à Paris

(Record of a Journey from Paris to Jerusalem and Back)

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2011 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

Part Six: Egypt

Map of Lower Egypt

‘Map of Lower Egypt’
The History of the Rise and Progress of the Revolution in France (p526, 1802)
The British Library

I found myself extremely discomforted on my return to Jaffa: there was not a single vessel in the harbour. I wavered between the idea of embarking at Saint Jean d’Acre, and of travelling to Egypt overland. I would have much preferred to carry out the latter project, but it was impracticable. Five armed groups disputed the Nile region at that time: Ibrahim Bey in Upper Egypt; two other small independent beys; the pasha to the Porte in Cairo; a band of Albanian rebels; and Muhammed Alfi Bey in Lower Egypt. These different parties infested the roads, and the Arabs, profiting from the confusion, succeeded in closing them all.

St. Jean d’Acre, Mount Carmel in the Distance

‘St. Jean d’Acre, Mount Carmel in the Distance’
Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor - John Carne, Thomas Allom, William Henry Bartlett, William C. Stafford (p430, 1861)
The British Library

Providence came to my rescue. The day after I arrived in Jaffa, as I was preparing to leave for Saint Jean d’Acre, a saïque (ketch) was seen entering the port. This saïque, from the port of Tripoli in Syria, was in ballast, and seeking a cargo. The Fathers sent for the captain: he consented to transport me to Alexandria, and we soon came to an agreement. I have retained this petty contract, written in Arabic. Monsieur Langlès (Louis-Mathieu Langlès), known for his erudition in Oriental languages, deemed it worthy of being placed before the eyes of scholars, because of its various peculiarities. He was kind enough to translate it himself, and I had the original engraved:


‘The purpose of this writing, and the motive for which it has been drawn up, is that on the day and date shown below (the ‘day and date’, ‘el-youm wa tarikh’, have been left out. Apart from this omission, I noted several quite serious spelling errors, whose correction can be found at the bottom of the facsimile of the Arabic original: Note by Monsieur Langlès) we the undersigned have hired out our vessel to the bearer of this contract, the signor Francesko (François), to travel from the port of Jaffa to Alexandria, on condition that he does not enter any other port, and sails straight to Alexandria unless he is forced by bad weather to take shelter somewhere. The cost of chartering this vessel is four hundred and eighty esedi gurush (thelion’ gurush, or Dutch thaler), which are each worth forty paras (though the Arabic word faddah is used, whose strict meaning is silver, here it means the very small coin known in Egypt as the para or medin, valued at eight and four sevenths deniers, in the Yearbook of the French Republic, l’Annuaire de la république française, published in Cairo in the year IX. According to the same book, page 60, the Turkish piastre, the gurush of forty paras, is worth one livre, eight sous, and six and six sevenths deniers: Note by Monsieur Langlès). It also agreed between the parties that the aforesaid price for chartering the vessel shall be paid only when it reaches Alexandria. Decided and agreed between the parties, and before the undersigned witnesses. Witnesses:

Sidi (Lord) Moustapha El Baba: Sidi Hhosein Chetma. – Ra’is (Captain) Hhanna Demitry (John Demetrius), of Tripoli in Syria, affirms the truth of the contents of this writing.

Ra’is Hhanna has in his hands, out of the charge for the charter of the vessel in the above statement, the sum of one hundred and eighty esedi gurush; the rest, that is to say the three hundred gurush more, will be paid to him in Alexandria, and since it serves as insurance for the above vessel from Jaffa to Alexandria it remains in the possession of signor Francesko for that reason alone. It is further agreed that the captain will provide, at a fair price, water, fuel for cooking, and salt, with any provisions lacking, and food.’

It was not without genuine regret that I left my venerable hosts on the 16th of October. One of the Fathers gave me letters of recommendation for Spain; for my plan was, after seeing Carthage, to complete my travels by visiting the ruins of the Alhambra. Thus the monks, who remained exposed to every indignity, still thought to be useful to me beyond the seas and in their own homeland.

Before leaving Jaffa, I wrote the following letter to Monsieur Pillavoine (André Alexandre Pillavoine), the French Consul in Saint-Jean d’Acre:

Jaffa, the 16th of October, 1806.


I have the honour to send you the letter of recommendation that the French Ambassador in Constantinople has granted me. The season being already well advanced, and my affairs recalling me to our mutual homeland, I find myself obliged to leave for Alexandria. I regret losing the opportunity of meeting you. I have visited Jerusalem; I have witnessed the harassment that the Pasha of Damascus inflicts on monks in the Holy Land. I have counselled resistance, as you have. Unfortunately they learnt too late of the deep interest the Emperor takes in their fate. They have therefore partially conceded to Abdallah’s demands; it is to be hoped that they will exhibit more fortitude next year. However, it seems to me that they have shown no lack of prudence or courage this year.

You will find, Sir, two other two letters accompanying that of the Ambassador: one was given to me by Monsieur Dubois, a merchant; I had the other from the dragoman belonging to Monsieur Vial, the French Consul at Modon.

I take a further liberty, Sir, in recommending Monsieur D… to you, whom I met here. I was told he was an honest man, poor and unfortunate; those are the three main titles to the protection of France.

Accept, Sir, I beg, etc.

F.A. de Ch.

Jean and Julien having carried our luggage on board, I embarked on the 16th of October, at eight in the evening. The sea was high, and the wind unfavourable. I remained on deck as long as I could still see the lights of Jaffa. I confess I felt a certain sense of pleasure, in considering that I had accomplished the pilgrimage I had meditated for so long. I hoped soon to bring to an end this sacred adventure, of which the most hazardous portion appeared complete. When I thought I had crossed almost the whole continent and the seas of Greece,; that I found myself all alone still in a small boat in the depths of the Mediterranean, after visiting the Jordan, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem, I regarded my return to Egypt, Barbary, and Spain, as the easiest thing in the world: I was wrong, however.

When the lights of Jaffa were lost to sight, and I had saluted the shores of the Holy Land for the last time, I retired to the captain’s cabin; but the next morning at daybreak we found ourselves still opposite the coast of Gaza, as the captain had set a southerly course. Dawn brought us a strong breeze from the east, the sea was fine, and we set course for the west. So I followed the same path that Ubaldo and the Danish knight had traversed to rescue Rinaldo. My boat was scarcely larger than that of the two knights, and like them was driven on by fate. My journey from Jaffa to Alexandria took only four days, and I have never enjoyed a swifter or more delightful passage over the waves. The sky was constantly clear, the wind favourable, the sea glittering. The sails barely needed trimming. Five men made up the crew of the saïque, including the captain; men less lively than my Greeks from the isle of Tinos, but seemingly more skilful. Fresh food, excellent pomegranates, Cyprus wine, coffee of the highest quality, granted us an abundance of joy. This excess of prosperity should have given me cause for alarm; and if I had owned Polycrates’ ring, I would have been well advised not to throw it into the sea, on account of that cursed sturgeon.


Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia - David Roberts, George Croly, Louis Haghe (1842 - 1849)
The New York Public Library: Digital Collections

There is in the sailor’s life something adventurous which delights and attracts us. The continual passage from calm to storm, the rapid change of land and sky, stimulate the voyager’s imagination. It is, in its unfolding, the very image of man here below; forever promising himself to remain in port, and forever spreading his sails; seeking enchanted islands which he will never reach, and where if he landed he would only experience ennui; speaking only of repose, yet delighting in the tempest; perishing in the midst of some shipwreck, or dying an old pilot on the shore, unknown to the young voyagers whose vessels he regrets being powerless to follow.

On the 17th and 18th of October we crossed the Gulf of Damietta: that city more or less occupies the site of ancient Pelusium. When a country offers a wealth of significant history, memory, in order to rid itself of an overwhelming weight of images, focuses on a single event, which is what happened to me on traversing the Gulf of Pelusium: I began by recalling the early pharaohs, and ended by only being able to think of the death of Pompey, which is, in my opinion, the finest passage of Plutarch, and of his translator Amyot (Jacques Amyot: Vies des hommes illustres 1559-1565: his translation of Plutarch’s Lives: Pompey:78-80)

On the 19th of October, at noon, after two days without seeing land, we glimpsed a moderately high promontory, called Cape Brulos (Burullus), forming the northernmost point of the Delta. I have already noted, regarding the Granicus, that the hidden significance of names is a wonderful thing: Cape Brulos revealed itself to me as a little mound of sand; yet it was the extremity of that fourth continent (Africa), which it alone remained to me to explore; it was a corner of that Egypt which was the cradle of the arts, the mother of religion and law: I could not turn away my gaze.

That same evening we had cognizance, as sailors say, of several palm trees that appeared in the south-west, and seemed to emerge from the sea; the land that bore them could not be seen. To the south, a dark and confused mass was visible, accompanied by a few isolated trees: this was the remains of a village, a sad sign of the fortunes of Egypt.

On the 20th of October, at five in the morning, I saw a line of foam on the green and wrinkled surface of the sea and, on the far side of this bar, pale calm water. The captain came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, in the lingua franca of the Levant: ‘Nilo!’ Soon after, we entered and sailed among those famous waters, which I wished to drink of, and found salty. Palm trees and a minaret announced the location of Rosetta to us, but the surface of the land was still invisible. These shores resembled the lagoons of Florida: their aspect was quite different from the coasts of Greece and Syria, and recalled the appearance of horizons in the tropics.

At ten, we saw at last, below the tops of the palm trees, a line of sand that extended west to the promontory of Aboukir, before which we had to pass in order to reach Alexandria. We were then facing the true mouth of the Nile at Rosetta, and were about to traverse the Bogas (a mouth of the Nile, and the sand-bar across it). The river water was in this place a reddish-purple, the colour of heather in autumn; the Nile, whose flooding was over, had been declining for some time. Twenty or so djerms, the boats of Alexandria, were anchored in the Bogas, awaiting a favourable wind to cross the bar and ascend to Rosetta.

In continuing to head west, we reached the extremity of the outflow from this vast lock. The edges of the river-water and the sea did not merge; they were distinct, separate; they foamed on meeting, and seemed to attend jointly on the shoreline (for a description of Egypt see the whole of the eleventh book of Les Martyrs).

At five in the evening, the coast, which we had kept on our left, changed its appearance. The palm trees seemed aligned to the shore, like the avenues with which the chateaux of France are adorned: nature was thus pleased to recall the creations of civilization in the country where civilization was born, and where today ignorance and barbarism reign. After doubling Cape Aboukir, we gradually abandoned ourselves to the wind, and we could not enter the port of Alexandria until nightfall. It was eleven o’clock when we dropped anchor in the commercial harbour, amongst the ships anchored before the city. I chose not to go ashore, and waited for daylight on the deck of our saïque.


Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor - John Carne, Thomas Allom, William Henry Bartlett, William C. Stafford (p124, 1861)
The British Library

I had plenty of time to devote myself to my reflections. To my right I could see vessels, and the fortress which replaced the tower of Pharos; to my left, the horizon appeared bounded by hills, ruins and obelisks, which I could barely see amidst the shadows; in front of me ran a confused line of black walls and houses: one could see only a single light, and there was no sound. Yet this was Alexandria, that rival of Memphis and Thebes, which boasted three million inhabitants, which was the sanctuary of the Muses, and which echoed in the darkness to the noisy revels of Antony and Cleopatra. But I lent an ear in vain, a fatal talisman has plunged into silence the people of the new Alexandria; that talisman is despotism, which extinguishes all joy and allows not even a cry of pain. And what noise could a city raise, where at least one third is abandoned, where another third is devoted to sepulchres, and of which the living third, between these two dead extremities, is a sort of palpitating trunk, that has not even the strength, between the ruins and the tombs, to free itself from its chains?

On the 20th of October, at eight in the morning, the saïque’s boat transported me ashore, and I had myself conducted to Monsieur Drovetti (Bernardino Michele Maria Drovetti) the French Consul at Alexandria. So far I have spoken of our consuls in the Levant with that gratitude I owe them; here I go further and say that I contracted with Monsieur Drovetti a relationship which became a real friendship. Monsieur Drovetti, a distinguished soldier born in beautiful Italy, received me with that simplicity which characterizes the soldier, and that warmth which is the influence of a happy climate. I do not know if, in the desert where he lives, these writings will reach his hands; I hope so, in order that he might learn that time has not weakened my feelings; that I have not forgotten the emotion he showed when I said my farewells on the shore: a noble emotion, when one wipes away the signs of it, as he must, with a hand mutilated in the service of his country! I have neither credit, nor patrons, nor fortune; but if I had, I would employ them for no one with more pleasure than for Monsieur Drovetti.

A description of Egypt will not be expected of me, I am sure: I spoke at some length regarding the ruins of Athens, because after all they are not well known to amateurs of art, I went into great detail concerning Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was the principal object of my journey. But what could I say of Egypt? Who, these days, is still unaware of it? Monsieur de Volney’s Travels are a veritable masterpiece in every respect, in all matters except those of pure scholarship: that scholarship has been exhausted by Sicard (Père Claude Sicard), Norden (Frederick Louis Norden), Pococke, Shaw, Niebuhr and others; the drawings by Monsieur Denon (Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon) and the large paintings at the Institute of Egypt have brought the monuments of Thebes and Memphis before our eyes; and besides, I have said elsewhere all I have to say myself regarding Egypt. That section of Les Martyrs, where I talk about this ancient land is more complete with respect to antiquity than the remaining sections of that same work. I will confine myself simply to following, without pause, the daily records of my journal.

Monsieur Drovetti granted me lodgings in the consulate, built almost on the seashore, within the commercial harbour. As I was in Egypt, I could not leave without at least having seen the Nile and the Pyramids. I asked Monsieur Drovetti to charter me an Austrian vessel bound for Tunis, while I went off to contemplate the wonders of the tombs. I found two very distinguished Frenchmen in Alexandria, attached to the legation of Monsieur de Lesseps (Mathieu Maximilien Prosper, Comte de Lesseps, the father of Ferdinand de Lesseps), who was then about to take over, I believe, as Consulate General of Egypt, and who, if I am not mistaken, has since transferred to Livorno: their intention being to travel to Cairo as well, we chartered a djerm, in which we embarked on the 23rd of October for Rosetta. Monsieur Drovetti took charge of Julien, who had a fever, and allotted me a Janissary; ​​I sent Jean to Constantinople, on a Greek vessel which was preparing to set sail.

We left that evening for Alexandria, and arrived at night at the Bogas of Rosetta. We crossed the bar without incident. At daybreak we found ourselves at the entrance to the river; we landed on the headland, to our right. The Nile was in all its beauty; it ran full, without flooding the banks; along its course it revealed verdant rice-fields, planted with isolated palm trees which resembled columns and porticos. We re-embarked, and soon reached Rosetta: it was then that I first had sight of that magnificent Delta, where all that is lacking is free government and a happy people. But no country is beautiful that lacks liberty: the most serene of skies is odious, if one is chained to the earth. The only thing I found worthy of those beautiful plains was the memory of my country’s glory: I saw the remains of the monuments (several buildings erected by the French are still to be seen in Egypt) of a new civilization created by French genius on the banks of the Nile; at the same time, I recalled that the lances of our knights and the bayonets of our soldiers had twice reflected the light of that brilliant sun; with this difference that the knights, who lost the day at Mansoura (Al-Mansurah, 1250) were avenged by the soldiers at the Battle of the Pyramids (1798). For the rest, though I was delighted to find a wide river and fresh vegetation, I was not greatly impressed, since here were my rivers of Louisiana and my American savannas, to a nicety: I would have liked to have found those forests too where I set the first illusions of my life.

Monsieur de Saint-Marcel (Pierre-Emmauel de Mazières de Saint-Marcel), the French Consul at Rosetta, received us with great politeness; Monsieur Caffe, a French merchant, and the most obliging of men, wished to accompany us to Cairo. We made an agreement with the captain of a large vessel; he allotted us the cabin of honour; and for greater security, we were accompanied by an Albanian chieftain. Monsieur de Choiseul has described these soldiers of Alexander perfectly:

‘These proud Albanians would always be heroes, if they had a Skanderbeg (George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, known to the Turks as Iskender Bey, Lord Alexander) at their head; but they are nothing more than brigands, whose exteriors announce their ferocity. They are all tall, lithe and intense; their clothing consists of ample breeches, a short skirt, and a jacket adorned with steel plaques, chains, and several rows of large silver beads; they wear boots attached with straps sometimes rising to the knees, in order to attach moulded steel-plates to their calves, to protect them from becoming sore while riding. Their cloaks, slashed and trimmed with braid in several colours, serve to render this mode of dress extremely picturesque; they have no other head-covering than a red cloth cap, though they remove that when charging into battle’ (Voyage pittoresque dans l’Empire ottoman, en Grèce, dans la Troade, les îles de l’Archipel et sur les côtes de l’Asie-mineure, du Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier Volume I, Chapter 1. The hems of Albanian garments are white and the stripes red).

The two days we spent at Rosetta were employed in visiting that lovely Arab city, its gardens and its groves of palm-trees. Savary exaggerated the amenities of the place somewhat; but he did not distort the truth as much as some would have us believe. The pathos his descriptions seek to arouse has undermined his authority as a traveller, but it is fair to say that his style is more lacking in truth than his descriptions.

On the 26th of October, at noon, we embarked on our vessel, aboard which were a large number of Turkish and Arab passengers. We set sail, and began to ascend the Nile. On our left stretched verdant marshland as far as the eye could see; on our right a cultivated strip bordered the river, and beyond it the desert sands could be seen. Palm trees scattered here and there indicated villages, like the trees planted round huts on the plains of Flanders. The houses in these villages are made of clay, and raised on artificial mounds: a vain precaution, since there is often no one in these houses to defend from the Nile flood. Part of the Delta lies fallow; thousands of fellahin were massacred by the Albanians; the rest have migrated to Upper Egypt.

The Nile Boat

‘The Nile Boat’
The Nile Boat or, Glimpses of the Land of Egypt - William Henry Bartlett (p6, 1849)
Internet Archive Book Images

Opposed by a contrary wind, and the speed of the current, we spent seven long days travelling upriver from Rosetta to Cairo. Sometimes our crew pulled the vessel along with ropes, sometimes we sailed with a northerly wind that blew for no more than a moment. We often halted to take Albanians on board: four of them arrived on the second day of our voyage, and commandeered our cabin: we had to suffer their brutality and arrogance. At the slightest noise they climbed on deck, picked up their muskets, and, like madmen, feigned to make war on some distant enemy. I saw them lying down to aim at the children who ran along the shore begging: the little wretches ran to hide behind the ruins of their huts, as if accustomed to these terrifying games. During that time our Turkish merchants went ashore, squatted quietly on their heels, turned their faces towards Mecca, and surrounded by fields performed their species of religious rite. Our Albanians, half Muslim, half Christian, called out: ‘Mahomet, and the Virgin Mary!’ hauled rosaries from their pockets, uttered obscene words in French, gulped down large jugs of wine, loosed musket-shots into the air, and trampled on the bodies of Christians and Muslims alike.

Is it possible then that the rule of law can make so much difference between men! What! Can these hordes of Albanian brigands, these foolish Muslims, these fellahin so cruelly oppressed, live in the same land where so industrious, so peaceful, so wise, a people once lived, a people whose customs and morals Herodotus and above all Diodorus Siculus were pleased to describe for us! Is there a more beautiful picture drawn in any poem than this one?

‘In the early days, the life which the Egyptian pharaohs lived was not like that of other men who enjoy autocratic power, who do just as they please in all things without being held to account, rather all their actions were regulated by rules set out in laws; not only their administrative acts, but also those to do with their daily life, and with the food they ate. In the matter of servants, for example, none were slaves, such as had been acquired by purchase or born in their household, but all must be sons of the most distinguished priests, all over twenty years old and the best educated of their fellow-countrymen, in order that the king, by virtue of his having the noblest men to care for his person, and attend him day and night, might follow no base practices; since no ruler descends far on the road of evil unless he has those about him who minister to his passions. And the hours of day and night were laid out according to plan, and at the specified hours it was absolutely required of the king that he should do what the laws stipulated and not what he thought best. For example, in the morning, as soon as he was awake, he had first to receive the letters which had been sent to him, in order that he might be able to despatch all administrative business and perform every act fully, being thus accurately informed about everything that was being done throughout his kingdom. Then, after he had bathed and decked his body with rich garments and the insignia of his office, he must sacrifice to the gods. When the victims had been brought to the altar it was the custom for the high priest to stand near the king, with the people of Egypt gathered round, and pray in a loud voice that health and all the other good things of life be given the king if he maintained justice towards his subjects. And an open confession had also to be made of each and every virtue of the king, the priest declaring that he was piously disposed towards the gods and most kindly towards men; for he was self-controlled, just, magnanimous, truthful, and generous with his possessions, and, in a word, superior to every desire, and that he punished crimes less strictly than they deserved and rendered his benefactors gratitude exceeding the benefaction. And after reciting much more in a similar vein he concluded his prayer with a curse concerning things done in error, exempting the king from all blame, and asking that both the evil consequences and the punishment should fall on those who served him, and had taught him evil things. All this he would do, partly to lead the king to fear the gods and live a life pleasing to them, and partly to inure him to a proper manner of conduct, not by harsh warnings, but through that praise most agreeable and conducive to virtue. After this, when the king had performed divination from the entrails of a calf, and had found the omens good, the sacred scribe read from the sacred books, before the assembly, various edifying counsels and acts of their most distinguished men, in order that he who held the supreme leadership might first contemplate in his mind the best general principles and then turn to the prescribed administration of his several functions.’ (Diodorus Siculus:Bibliotheca historica: I.70.1-9)

It is a pity that the illustrious Archbishop of Cambrai (Fénelon), instead of painting an imaginary Egypt (see Les Aventures de Télémaque), did not borrow this description, giving it the colours which his happy genius would have known how to apply. Faydit (Abbé Pierre-Valentin Faydit: Télémachomanie, 1713) is correct on this one point, if one may be correct while lacking all decency, good faith, and taste. But it was quite essential that Fénelon retained, at all costs, that setting for the adventures he invents, and recounts in the style of the early ancients: the Termosiris episode alone is worth a long poem (see Nicolas Boileau: L’art poétique: ‘Un sonnet sans défaut vaut seul un long poème’).

‘I plunged into a gloomy forest, and suddenly saw an old man holding a book in his hand. This old man had a large bald head, a little wrinkled; a white beard hung to his waist; his figure was tall and majestic; his complexion was still fresh and ruddy, his eyes were bright and piercing, his voice soft, his words plain and friendly. I have never seen such a venerable old man; his name was Termosiris…’ (Fénelon: Les aventures de Télémaque: II)

We sailed along the Menouf Canal, which prevented me from viewing the beautiful palm grove on the main branch to the west, but Arabs infested the western edge of that branch which borders the Libyan Desert. On exiting the Menouf Canal, and continuing upriver, we saw on our left, the peak of Mount Mokattam, and on our right, the tall sand dunes of Libya. Soon, in the empty space created by the two separate chains of hills, we saw the summits of the pyramids: we were still more than twenty miles away. During the remainder of our journey, which lasted almost a further eight hours, I stood on deck, to gaze at those tombs; they seemed to mount the sky as we approached. The Nile, which was by then like a small sea; the mingling of desert sands with the freshest verdure; the palm trees, sycamores, domes, mosques and minarets of Cairo; the distant pyramids of Saqqara, from whence the river seemed to flow as if from its vast reservoirs; all of this formed a tableau which has no equal on earth. ‘But whatever men may do,’ said Bossuet, ‘their nothingness appears everywhere: those pyramids were tombs! The kings who built them lacked the power even to be buried in them, and had scant joy of their sepulchre.’ (Bossuet: Discours sur l’histoire universelle:III)

Yet I confess that at the first sight of the Pyramids, I felt only admiration. I know the philosopher may well smile or groan at the thought that the greatest monument built by human hands is a tomb; but why see in the pyramid of Cheops only a heap of stones and a skeleton? It is not through a feeling of his own nothingness that man built so tall a sepulchre, but the sense of his own immortality: that sepulchre is not the boundary marker that proclaims the end of a transient existence, it is a monument that marks the entrance to life without end, it is a species of eternal portal built on the edge of eternity. ‘For the inhabitants of Egypt,’ as Diodorus Siculus says, ‘consider the span of this life to be of no importance whatever, but place the greatest value on the time after death, when they will be remembered for their virtues, and while they give the name of lodgings to the dwellings of the living, so indicating that we inhabit them but a brief time, they call the tombs of the dead eternal homes, since the dead spend endless eternity there; consequently they give little thought to the furnishings of their palaces, but with regard to their burial they display every zeal.’ (Diodorus Siculus:Bibliotheca historica: I.51.2)

Nowadays, people would prefer to believe that all the monuments had a material purpose, and no one dreams that nations might possess a moral purpose of a far superior order, which the laws of antiquity served. Does the sight of a tomb teach us nothing?

If it signifies something, why complain that a pharaoh sought to render that lesson eternal? The great monuments are an essential part of the glory of all human society. If we do no more than maintain that a nation has the right to leave or not leave a name to history, we are prevented from condemning those edifices that sustain the memory of a people beyond its own existence, and makes it live contemporaneously with the generations who come to dwell in its abandoned fields. What matters it then whether the buildings were amphitheatres or tombs? Everything becomes the sepulchre of a people that is no more. When a man is dead, the monuments of his life are vainer even than those of his death: his mausoleum is at least useful to his ashes; do his palaces retain anything of his pleasures?

Without doubt, to take it to its extreme, a little grave does for all, and six feet of earth, as Matthieu Molé once said, will suffice the greatest man in the world. God can be worshipped beneath a tree as well as under the dome of Saint Peter; one can live in a cottage as well as the Louvre. The flaw in this method of reasoning, however, is to confuse one order of things with another. A nation is not as happy when it lives in ignorance of the arts, as when it leaves behind glorious witnesses to its genius. We no longer believe in those societies of shepherds who spent their days in innocence, taking their sweet pleasure in the depths of the forest. We know those good shepherds warred with each other, to steal their neighbours’ sheep. Their caves were not hung with vines, nor fragrant with the perfume of flowers; there one was stifled by smoke and suffocated by the smell of curds and whey. In poetry and philosophy, an insignificant semi-barbarous people can enjoy every virtue, but pitiless history submits the rest of humankind to its calamities. Those who cry out so against glory are they not desirous of even a little fame? For myself, rather than regarding as foolish that pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid, I take him instead as a monarch possessed of a magnanimous spirit. The idea of ​​vanquishing time by means of a tomb, of forcing the sea of generations, customs, laws, ages to break against the foot of a coffin, could never have arisen from a common mind. If it is merely pride, at least it is magnificent pride. A vanity such as that of the Great Pyramid, which lasts for three or four thousand years, may eventually be said to count for something.

Moreover, the pyramids reminded me of less grandiose monuments, which nevertheless were also sepulchres, I mean those turf monuments that cover the ashes of Indians on the banks of the Ohio. When I saw them, I was in a state of mind very different from that in which I contemplated the mausoleums of the Pharaohs: then I was beginning a journey, and now I was finishing it. The world, at these two periods of my life, presents itself to me in the image of two wildernesses, in which I saw those two species of tomb: that of smiling solitude, and that of the arid sand.

We landed at Boulaq, and hired horses and donkeys to Cairo. The city, overlooked by the Babylon Fortress and Mount Mokattam, presents a picturesque aspect, due to the multitude of palm trees, sycamores and minarets that rise from its enclosure. We entered via a network of roads, and a ruined suburb, amidst vultures devouring their prey. We descended to the district of the Franks, a kind of cul-de-sac to which the entrance is shut every night, like the external cloisters of a monastery. We were received by Monsieur ….. (by the greatest of ill-luck, the name of my Cairo host, in my journal, has faded, and I am doubtful of having remembered it correctly, so I dare not repeat it. I would not forgive a like misfortune if my memory proved as unfaithful to the services, helpfulness and politeness of my host, as it has to his name) to whom Monsieur Drovetti had entrusted the care of the affairs of the French in Cairo. He took us under his protection, and sent notice to the Pasha of our arrival: at the same time he advised the five French Mamelukes, in order that they might accompany us on our trip.

A Street in Cairo

‘A Street in Cairo’
The Nile Boat or, Glimpses of the Land of Egypt - William Henry Bartlett (p72, 1849)
Internet Archive Book Images

The Mamelukes were attached to the service of the Pasha. Grand armies always leave behind them a few stragglers: ours had lost two or three hundred soldiers, who remained scattered throughout Egypt. They took service under the various beys, and soon became renowned for their bravery. Everyone agreed that if these deserters, instead of remaining divided, had met and appointed a Frenchman as Bey, they might have taken control of the country. Unfortunately they lacked leadership, and almost all perished in the service of the masters they had chosen. When I was in Cairo, Muhammad Ali Pasha (the Wali of Egypt from 1801) was still mourning the death of one of these brave men. The soldier, who had once been a little drummer-boy in one of our regiments, had fallen into the hands of the Turks through the fortunes of war; as a man, he found himself enlisted in the army of the Pasha. Muhammad, who did not know of him as yet, seeing him charge a host of enemies, exclaimed: ‘Who is this man? He can only be French,’ and it was indeed a Frenchman whose actions he had witnessed. From that moment he became his master’s favourite, and nothing was spoken of but his valour. He was killed shortly before my arrival in Egypt, in a skirmish where the other five Mamelukes lost their horses.

The latter were from Gascony, Languedoc and Picardy; their leader admitted to being the son of a shoemaker of Toulouse; his second-in-command acted as interpreter for his comrades. He knew Turkish and Arabic quite well and in French always said: I were, instead of I was. A third, a tall young man, thin and pale, had lived in the desert with the Bedouins for some time, and greatly regretted that way of life. He told me that when he was alone on a camel amongst the sands, he felt transports of joy which overmastered him. The Pasha took such notice of these five Mamelukes he preferred them to the rest of his spahis: they alone recalled and surpassed the fearlessness of those terrible horsemen destroyed by the French army at the Battle of the Pyramids. We are in the age of marvels; every Frenchman, these days, seems called upon to play an extraordinary role: five soldiers, taken from the lowest ranks of our army, were in 1806 almost the masters of Cairo. Nothing was as amusing and singular as to see Abdullah from Toulouse take lengths of cord from his caftan, strike the faces of Arabs and Albanians who importuned him, and thus open a wide path for us through the most populous streets. Moreover, these kings of exile had adopted, like Alexander, the customs of the people they had conquered; they wore long robes of silk, beautiful white turbans, superb weapons; they had a harem, slaves, thoroughbred horses; everything their fathers in Gascony and in Picardy lacked. But amongst the mats, carpets, sofas that I saw in their house, I noticed a reminder of their homeland: it was a uniform slashed by sabre cuts, which covered the foot of a bed made in the French style. Perhaps Abdullah reserved those honourable remnants for the moment when he woke from his dream, like the shepherd who became a minister of justice:

Le coffre étant ouvert, on y vit des lambeaux,

L’'habit d'un gardeur de troupeaux,

Petit chapeau, jupon, panetière, houlette,

Et, je pense, aussi sa musette.

Opening the chest, they found a tattered smock,

The clothing of a guardian of the flock,

A cap, a jacket, food-bag, shepherd’s crook,

And out of it a knapsack too, they took.

(La Fontaine: Fables: Le berger et le roi)

The day after our arrival in Cairo, on the 1st of November, we entered the Citadel, in order to view Joseph’s Well, the Mosque, etc. The Pasha’s son occupied that fortress at the time. We presented our respects to His Excellency, who was about fourteen or fifteen years old. We found him seated on a carpet, in a dilapidated room, surrounded by a dozen obliging servants who hastened to obey his every whim. I have never seen a more hideous spectacle. The father of this child was barely master of Cairo, and controlled neither upper nor lower Egypt. It was in this state of affairs that a dozen wretched savages nurtured a young barbarian, imprisoned for his safety in a dungeon, on a diet of the most extravagant flattery. Behold the master the Egyptians waited on, after such misfortune!

In one corner of the fortress, then, they degraded the soul of a child destined to lead men; in another corner they minted currency of the basest alloy. And in order that the inhabitants of Cairo should receive, without a murmur, the debased gold and the corrupted leader prepared for them, the guns were aimed at the city.

I preferred to view the scene outside and admire, from the heights of the Citadel, the wide spectacle there revealed of the Nile, the cultivated fields, the desert and the Pyramids. We almost seemed able to reach out and touch them, though we were twelve miles away. With the naked eye, I could see the foundation stones perfectly, and the head of the Sphinx emerging from the sand; with a telescope I could count the steps at the corners of the Great Pyramid, and I could see the eyes, mouth and ears of the Sphinx so prodigious are those masses!

Cairo and the Valley of the Nile

‘Cairo and the Valley of the Nile’
The Nile Boat or, Glimpses of the Land of Egypt - William Henry Bartlett (p86, 1849)
Internet Archive Book Images

Memphis existed in the plain that stretches from the far bank of the Nile to the desert where the Pyramids stand.

‘The Meadows, the mythical dwelling-place of the dead, is….close to the lake which is called Acherousia, which is near Memphis, and around it are fairest meadows, and marsh-land covered with lotus and reeds. It is not without cause that the dwelling-places of the dead are said to be in these regions, since the most numerous and largest of the Egyptians tombs are situated there, the dead being ferried across the Nile and Lake Acherousia, and their bodies placed in the vaults there.

And other myths about Hades, current among the Greeks, also correspond with customs practised even now in Egypt. For the boat which receives the bodies is called baris, and the passenger’s fee is handed to the boatman, who in the Egyptian tongue is called charon. And near these regions also, they say, is The Shades, which is a Temple of Hecate, and the Gates of Cocytus and Lethe, which are covered with bands of bronze. There are, moreover, other Gates, namely, those of Truth, and near them stands a headless statue of Justice.’ (Diodorus Siculus:Bibliotheca historica: I.96.7-9)

On the 2nd of November, we went to Djizé and the Island of Roda (Rawdah, or Al Manyal ar-Rawdah). We examined the Nilometer (the name given to columns placed at different locations in Egypt and used to measure the flood waters of the Nile) in the ruins of the house of Murad Bey. We were thus quite near the Pyramids. At that distance they seemed of immense height: as one viewed them, over the green rice fields, the river, the tops of palm trees and the sycamores, they looked like colossal structures built in a magnificent garden. The sunlight, with a delightful gentleness, coloured the arid Mokattam range, the Libyan sands, the horizon towards Sakkarah, and the plain of the Tombs. A fresh wind was driving little white clouds towards Nubia, and wrinkling the vast sheet of the Nile’s waters. Egypt seemed to me the most beautiful country on earth: I even loved the deserts that surround it, and open immense fields to the imagination.

On our journey back, we saw the abandoned mosque which I spoke about in relation to the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat As-Sakhrah) in Jerusalem, and which seems to me to be the architectural source for the Cathedral of Cordoba.

The Pyramids

‘The Pyramids’
The Nile Boat or, Glimpses of the Land of Egypt - William Henry Bartlett (p142, 1849)
Internet Archive Book Images

I spent a further five days in Cairo, hoping to visit the tombs of the Pharaohs; but this proved impossible. By a singular fatality, the Nile’s waters were not low enough to ride across to the Pyramids, and not high enough to approach them by boat. We had the fords probed and the terrain investigated; all the Arabs agreed in saying that it would be necessary to wait another three weeks to a month before attempting the trip. Such a delay would have obliged me to spend the winter in Egypt (since the westerly winds were about to rise); now that suited neither my business affairs nor my finances. I had already had too many delays en route, and I would have exposed myself to never seeing France again, by wishing to remain in Cairo. I was therefore obliged to resign myself to fate, return to Alexandria, and rest content with having seen the Pyramids with my own eyes, thought not having touched them with my hands. I instructed Monsieur Caffe to carve my name on those great tombs, according to custom, at the earliest opportunity: one must fulfil all the little duties of a pious traveller. Do we not delight in reading, on the ruins of the statue of Memnon, the name of the Romans who listened to its sigh at the break of dawn? Those Romans were, like us, strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus: 22:21 et al), and we too will pass on as they did.

As for the rest, I would have been quite happy to stay in Cairo; it is the only city that appeared to me to resemble an Oriental city as usually represented: for example, in the Thousand and One Nights. It still retains many traces of the passage of the French; the women show themselves with less reserve than before; one is absolute master with respect to coming and going wherever one wishes; European dress, far being an object of insult, is a title to others’ protection. There is a very pretty garden, planted with palm-trees in circular alleys, which serves as a public promenade: it is the work of our soldiers.

Before leaving Cairo, I presented Abdullah with a double-barrelled shotgun manufactured by Lepage (Jean Le Page). He promised to use it at the earliest opportunity. I parted from my kind host and my travelling companions. I went to Boulaq, where I embarked with Monsieur Caffe for Rosetta. We were the only passengers on the boat and we sailed on the 8th of November at seven in the evening.

We descended with the current: we entered the Menouf Canal. On the 10th, in the morning, on leaving the canal and returning to the wide Rosetta branch of the river, we saw that the western bank was occupied by an Arab encampment. The current carried us towards that side despite ourselves and forced us to close with the shore. A sentry hidden behind an old wall called to our captain to approach. The latter replied that he was anxious to get to his destination, and besides he was no enemy of theirs. During this interchange, we came within pistol shot of the shore, and the tide was running in that direction for a distance of a mile. The sentry, seeing that we were continuing with our journey, fired at us; this first ball almost killed the pilot, who retaliated by discharging his blunderbuss. The whole camp was then alerted, the Arabs rushed along the shore, and we encountered their line of fire. We were travelling very slowly, because the wind was contrary; to crown our luck, we ran aground for a while. We were unarmed; as I have said, I had given my gun to Abdullah. I wanted Monsieur Caffe to descend to the cabin, whose concern for me was exposing him to this unpleasant adventure, but though a father and already elderly, he insisted on remaining on deck. I noticed the unusual swiftness of one Arab: he fired his gun, reloaded while running, and fired again, all without falling one step behind the boat. The current finally carried us to the other side; but saddled us with an encampment of Albanian rebels, more dangerous to us than the Arabs; since they had cannon, and a single cannon-ball would sink us. We saw movement on the shore, but fortunately nightfall intervened. We lit no fire, and maintained complete silence. Providence conducted us, without further accident, through the midst of these hostile parties, to Rosetta. We arrived there on the 11th of November, at ten in the morning.

I spent two days with Monsieur Caffe and Monsieur de Saint-Marcel, and left on the 13th for Alexandria. I saluted Egypt, on leaving, with those beautiful lines:

Mère antique des arts et des fables divines,

Toi, dont la gloire assise au milieu des ruines


O grandeur des mortels! O temps impitoyable!

Les destins sont comblés: dans leur course immuable,

Les siècles ont détruit cet éclat passager

Que la superbe Egypte offrit à l'étranger.

Ancient mother of the arts and myths divine,

You, whose glory rests in ruins sublime,


O mortal grandeur! O time’s pitiless force!

The Fates combine: immutable in their course,

The centuries destroy the transient splendour

That majestic Egypt offered to the stranger.

(Joseph Alphonse Esménard. La Navigation: Canto I)

I arrived on the same day, the 13th, at Alexandria, at seven in the evening. Monsieur Drovetti had chartered an Austrian vessel for Tunis. This vessel, of a hundred and twenty tons, was commanded by a Ragusan; the first mate was named Francesco Dinelli, a young Venetian very experienced in his role. Preparations for the voyage and storm-winds confined us to harbour for ten days. I employed the ten days in repeated exploration of Alexandria.

I mentioned in a note to Les Martyrs, a lengthy passage of Strabo (Geographia: 17:1:6-10), which gives the most satisfactory details regarding ancient Alexandria; the modern city is no less known, thanks to Monsieur de Volney (Travels in Syria and Egypt: I:1): that traveller has drawn a most complete and accurate picture of it. I invite the reader to revisit that picture: there is no better a passage of description in our language. As to the monuments of Alexandria; Pococke, Norden, Shaw, Thévenot, Paul Lucas, Tott (François Baron de Tott: Memoirs), Niebuhr, Sonnini (Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt: Travels to Upper and Lower Egypt), and a hundred others have examined, counted, and measured them. So, I will content myself here with giving the inscription from Pompey’s Pillar. I believe I am the first traveller to publish it in France (I am wrong: Monsieur Jaubert has done so before me. An expert, Jean-Baptiste Gaspard d’Ansse de Villoison, has analysed it in an article for the Magasin encyclopédique, Year VIII, Volume 5, page 55. The article is worth citing. The learned Hellenist proposes a reading somewhat different from mine.) The scientific world owes the transcript to some British officers; they managed to take a copy by applying to its surface, and peeling from it, a coat of plaster.

Cleopatra's Needle, Pompey's Pillar

‘Cleopatra's Needle, Pompey's Pillar’
Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, Undertaken by Order of the Old Government of France - Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt (p137, 1800)
Internet Archive Book Images

Pococke copied various letters of the inscription, and several other travellers have seen it; I myself clearly deciphered several features, with the naked eye, among others, the beginning of this word...Δίοχ, which is decisive. The plaster cast has furnished these four lines:





We must first supply, at the head of the inscription, the word ΠPOΣ. After the first full stop, N ΣOΦ; after the second, Λ; after the third, T; to the fourth, AYΓOYΣ; finally, to the fifth we must add ΛΛIΩN. We see that nothing is arbitrary here except the word AYΓOYΣTON, which is however of little importance. Thus we read:






That is to say:

‘To the wisest of Emperors, the Protector of Alexandria, Diocletian Augustus: Pollio, Prefect of Egypt.’ (Modern variants suggest Postumus or Publius, for Pollio).

Thus, a great deal of confusion regarding Pompey’s Pillar is dispelled (that is, as to the text; the column itself being much older than its dedicatory inscription). Yet is history, in fact, silent on the subject? In the life of one of the Desert Fathers, written in Greek by a contemporary, I seem to read that, during an earthquake which took place in Alexandria, all the columns collapsed except that of Diocletian.

Monsieur Boissonade (Jean François Boissonade de Fontarabie), to whom I owe so many obligations, and whose kindness I have so often and so extensively proved, suggested that I should suppress the ΠPOΣ of my reading, which is only there to govern the accusative, and of which there is no trace on the base of the column. What is therefore implied then, as in a host of inscriptions reported by Chandler, Wheler, Spon, etc, is έτίμησε, honoravit (to the honour of). Monsieur Boissonade, whose erudition is intended to console us for the loss or retirement of so many distinguished scholars, is clearly right.

I was to experience in Alexandria one of those little feelings of pride of which authors are so jealous, and which had already aroused my self-esteem in Sparta. A wealthy Turkish traveller and astronomer, named Ali Bey el Abassy, ​​having heard my name, claimed to know my works. I went to visit him with the Consul. As soon as he saw me, he exclaimed: ‘Ah, mon cher Atala, et ma chère René!’ Aly-Bey seemed to me worthy at that moment of being descended from the great Saladin. I was even somewhat persuaded that he was the wisest and politest of Turks in the world, even if he was not fully acquainted with the use of adjectival gender in French; since non ego paucis offendar maculis: I am not offended by trivial faults (Horace: Ars Poetica: 351). (Note to third edition. So much for glory! I am told that Ali Bey was a Spaniard by birth, and he holds some office in Spain today. A suitable lesson for my vanity! Ali Bey was the pseudonym of Domingo Badía y Leblich, a Spanish explorer, and supposed spy)

Though I may have delighted in Egypt, Alexandria seemed the saddest and most desolate place on earth. From the high terrace of the Consul’s house, I saw only the naked sea, which broke on a low shoreline which was even more naked, harbours well-nigh empty, and the Libyan desert sinking below the southern horizon: this desert seemed, so to speak, to augment and extend the yellow flattened surface of the waves: one seemed to be gazing at a single ocean, one half agitated and sounding, the other motionless and silent. Everywhere the new Alexandria mingling its ruins with those of the ancient city; an Arab on a donkey, galloping through the debris; a few skinny dogs devouring carcasses of camels on the beach; the flags of the European consuls floating above their residences, deploying among the tombs, their alien colours: such was the spectacle.

Sometimes Monsieur Drovetti and I took to our horses, and went to walk in the old town, at Necropolis, or in the desert. The plant (salsola soda) which yields soda ash (sodium carbonate) sparsely clothed the arid sands; jackals fled before us; a species of grasshopper raised its shrill importunate sound: it painfully recalled the labourer’s hearth, in that solitude where no rural column of smoke ever rises to summon you to an Arab tent. Those places are all the more sad now that the English have flooded the vast basin that served as a garden to Alexandria: the eye no longer meets anything but sand, water, and Pompey’s eternal pillar (the British, under General Sir John Hely-Hutchinson, had breached the dike or isthmus between Mareotis and Lake Aboukir on the 12th of April 1801, in order to cut off the freshwater supply to the French garrison in Alexandria)

Monsieur Drovetti had a tent-shaped aviary, built onto the platform of his house, where he fed quails and partridges of diverse kinds. We spent hours walking through this aviary, talking of France. The conclusion of all our conversations was that it was necessary at the earliest opportunity to seek some little place of retreat in our own country, there to enclose one’s wide-reaching hopes. One day, after a long discussion regarding repose, I turned towards the sea, and pointed out to my host, the ship, tossed about by the winds, on which I would soon embark. It is not, after all, as if the desire for rest is not natural to mankind, but the goal which seems to us least ambitious is not always the easiest to attain, and the cottage evades our wishes as often as the palace.

The sky was always cloudy during my stay in Alexandria; the sea dark and stormy. I fell asleep and woke to the constant sigh of the waves that broke almost at the foot of the Consul’s house. I might apply to myself those reflections of Eudorus, if one is allowed to quote oneself:

‘The sad murmur of the sea is the first sound, in life, that struck my ear. On how many shores since have I not viewed those same waves crashing, which I see today! Who would have thought, all those years ago, that I would hear the waves, which I saw rolling towards the fair sands of Messenia, sigh against the coast of Italy, on the shores of the Batavians, the Bretons, and the Gauls! What shall be the end of my pilgrimage: fortunate if death had surprised me before I started my voyage on this earth, and had no adventures to recount?’ (Chateaubriand: Les Martyrs: X)

During my enforced stay in Alexandria, I received several letters from Monsieur Caffe, the brave companion of my Nile voyage. I will quote only one; it contains various details regarding the affairs of Egypt at that time:

Rosetta, the 14th of February, 1806.


Although it is the 14th already, I have the honour to write to you again, convinced that the receipt of this letter will find you yet in Alexandria. Having completed my missives for Paris, four in number, I take the liberty of recommending them to you, hoping you will be so kind, on your safe arrival, as to see them delivered to their address.

Muhammad Aga, now treasurer to Muhammad Ali, the Pasha of Cairo, has moved south: they say that he is demanding five hundred purses of silver as a levy on the recent rice-crop. See, my dear Sir, how matters go from bad to worse.

The village where the Mamelukes defeated the Albanians, which both despoiled, is called Nekle; the one where we were attacked by Arabs bears the name of Saffi.

I shall always regret not having had the satisfaction of seeing you before your departure; you have deprived me by that of much solace, etc.

Your most humble, etc.

L. - E. Caffe.

On the 23d of November, at noon, the wind blowing favourably, I went aboard the vessel with my French servant. I had, as I said, sent my Greek servant home to Constantinople. I embraced Monsieur Drovetti on shore, and we promised each other mutual friendship and remembrance: now I am paying my debt.

Our ship was at anchor in the great Port of Alexandria, where French vessels are admitted today just as the Turkish vessels are; a change due to our display of arms. I found, aboard her, a rabbi from Jerusalem, a native of the Barbary Coast, and two penniless Moors from Morocco, descendants perhaps of the Abencerages, returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca; they begged their passage-money of me in the name of charity. I welcomed the children of Jacob and Mohammed in the name of Jesus Christ: in fact, it showed no great merit in me, because I got it into my head that these unfortunates would bring me good luck, and my fortunes would be smuggled through, hidden amongst their miseries.

We weighed anchor at two o’clock. A pilot saw us out of port. The wind was light and blowing from the south. We remained for three days in sight of Pompey’s Pillar, visible in the distance. On the evening of the third day, we heard the sound of the evening gun from the port of Alexandria. That was the signal for our final departure; since a northerly wind arose, and we set sail for the west.

We attempted to cross the Libyan Gulf at first, but the north wind, which was not too favourable by this time, veered northwest on the 29th of November and we were obliged to tack between Crete and the African coast.

On the 1st of December, the wind, settling in the west, absolutely barred our course. Gradually it shifted to the south-west, and turned into a storm which only ceased on our arrival at Tunis. Our voyage was merely a kind of continuous forty-two day shipwreck, which is rather lengthy. On the 3rd, we brought the sails about, and began to flee before the waves. We were thus carried, with extreme violence, as far as the coast of Carmania. There for four whole days, I gazed at leisure on the high and melancholy peaks of Mount Cragus (Babadag) veiled in cloud. We battled with the sea, from time to time, endeavouring, at the slightest variation of the wind, to distance ourselves from land. We thought at one moment to enter the harbour of Chateau Rouge (Tripoli), but the captain, who was extremely timid, dared not risk anchoring. The night of the 8th of December was very troublesome. A sudden gale from the south drove us to the island of Rhodes; the waves were so rough and close together, they placed great strains on the ship. We came upon a small Greek felucca half-submerged, to which we could give no assistance. She passed us, a cable-length from our stern. The four men who were sailing her were kneeling on deck; they had hung a lantern from their mast, and the wind brought us their cries. On the following morning, we could no longer see the felucca.


Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor - John Carne, Thomas Allom, William Henry Bartlett, William C. Stafford (p247, 1861)
The British Library

The wind having swung to the north, we set the foresail, and endeavoured to maintain position off the southern coast of the island of Rhodes. We sailed close to the island of Scarpanto (Karpathos). On the 10th, the wind returned to the west, and we lost all hope of continuing our journey. I wanted the captain to renounce the Libyan Gulf, and take refuge in the Archipelago, where we might hope to find more favourable winds; but he was afraid to venture among the islands. We had already been seventeen days at sea; to occupy my time, I copied and set in order my travel notes and various descriptions intended for Les Martyrs. At night I walked the deck with the first mate, Dinelli. Nights spent amidst the waves, on a ship battered by storm-winds, are not barren as regards the soul, for noble thoughts are born of great spectacles. The stars, showing fleetingly between broken clouds; the waves glittering around you; the blows of the breakers forcing a dull note from the vessel’s hull; the wind moaning in the masthead; all announce to you that you are beyond the power of man, and that your life depends only upon God’s will. The uncertainty of your future sets objects at their true worth; and the land, contemplated from the surface of a stormy sea, appears like life as viewed by a dying man.

After traversing the same tract of sea twenty times, we found ourselves on the 12th of December close to the Island of Scarpanto. This island, formerly called Carpathos and, by Homer, Krapathos, gave its name to the Carpathian Sea. Some verses of Virgil are today its only claim to fame:

Est in Carpathio Neptuni gurgite vates.

Caeruleus Proteus, etc.

A seer, Proteus, lives in Neptune’s Carpathian waters,

who, sea-green, travels the vast ocean in a chariot

drawn by fishes and two-footed horses.

Even now he is revisiting the harbours of Thessaly,

and his native Pallene. We nymphs venerate him,

and aged Nereus himself: since the seer knows all things,

what is, what has been, what is soon about to be:

since it’s seen by Neptune, whose monstrous sea-cows

and ugly seals he grazes in the deep.

(Virgil Georgics IV:387-395)

I would not go, even if I could, and inhabit the isle of Proteus, despite those lines from the Georgics, beautiful in Latin or French. I still seem to see those sad villages of Anchinates, Horo, and Saint Helia, visible through a telescope amongst the mountains of the island. I have not, like Menelaus or Aristaeus, lost my kingdom or my bees; I have nothing to hope for from the future, and I leave to the son of Neptune secrets that hold no interest for me.

On the 12th of December, at six in the evening, the wind veering to the south, I persuaded the captain to pass to the north of the island of Crete. He consented, grudgingly. At nine he exclaimed, in accord with his usual custom: ‘Ho paura!’ then went away to sleep. Monsieur Dinelli took it upon himself to navigate the channel formed by the island of Scarpanto (Karpathos) and that of Coxo (Goxo, now Casos, or Kasos). We entered it to a strong gust of wind from the southwest. At daybreak we found ourselves in the midst of an archipelago of islands and foaming reefs all around. We set a course to reach the port of the island of Stampalia (Astypalaia), which lay before us.

This melancholy harbour had neither vessels in its waters, nor houses on its shore. We saw only a village hanging, as usual, from the summit of a rock. We anchored off the coast; I went ashore with the captain. While he climbed up to the village, I examined the interior of the island. I saw everywhere only heather, wandering streams that flowed among the moss, and the sea which broke on a fringe of rocks. Yet the ancients called this island, the Table of the Gods, Θεων τράπεζα, because of the flowers with which it was sprinkled. It is better known under the name of Astypalaia; a Temple of Achilles was located there. There may well be a few very happy individuals in the wretched villages of Stampalia, people who perhaps have never left their island, and have never heard of progress. I asked myself if I did not wish for such happiness; but I was already nothing but an old navigator incapable of responding affirmatively to such a question, and whose dreams are the children of the winds and storms.

Our sailors took on water; the captain returned with some chickens and a live pig. A Cretan felucca entered harbour; no sooner had she dropped anchor near us, than the crew began to dance about the wheel: O Graecia vana!

The wind still continuing to blow from the south, we sailed on the 16th at nine in the morning. We passed to the south of the island of Namfi (Anafi), and in the evening at sunset saw Crete. On the following day, the 17th, setting a course for the north-west, we saw Mount Ida: its summit, shrouded in snow, looked like an immense dome. We reached the island of Cerigo (Kythera), and were fortunate enough as to pass it on the 18th. On the 19th of December, I saw the mainland of Greece once more, and saluted Taenarus (Cape Matapan). A storm arose from the south-east to our great joy, and in five days we arrived in the waters off the island of Malta. We saw it on Christmas Eve; but on Christmas Day itself, the wind, veering west-north-west, drove us south of Lampedusa. For eighteen days, we floated off the east coast of the kingdom of Tunis, between life and death. I shall never, in all my life, forget the day of the 28th. We were in sight of Pantelleria: a deep calm ensued at noon; the sky lit by a dim light, was threatening. Towards sunset, so profound a blackness fell from the sky it justified, to my eyes, that beautiful expression of Virgil: Ponto nox incubat atra: dark night rests on the sea (Virgil: Aeneid:I:89). Then we heard a dreadful sound. A storm burst upon the ship, and whirled it round like a feather in a basin of water. In an instant the sea was so troubled its surface was nothing but a layer of foam. The vessel, which no longer obeyed the helm, was like a black dot in the middle of this terrible whiteness; the vortex seemed to lift us and snatch us from the waves; we spun in all directions; the stern and bow plunging alternately in and out of the waves. The return of daylight revealed our danger to us. We were almost aground on the island of Lampedusa. The same gale, striking the island of Malta, sank two English warships, as the daily newspapers reported. Monsieur Dinelli considering our shipwreck inevitable, I wrote a note conceived thus: ‘F.–A de Chateaubriand, shipwrecked on the island of Lampedusa, on the 28th of December, 1806, while returning from the Holy Land.’ I placed the note in an empty bottle, intending to throw it overboard at the last moment.

Providence saved us. A slight change in the wind carried us to the south of Lampedusa, and we found ourselves in open sea. The wind veering again to the north, we ventured to set sail, and traversed the Lesser Syrtis (Gulf of Gabes). The bed of this gulf continually rose towards the shore, so that by progressing with the sounding-lead in hand one could anchor in whatever depth one wished. The shallowness of the water renders the sea calm in the midst of high winds; and this shore, so dangerous for the barques of the ancients, is a kind of open-water harbour for modern vessels.

We dropped anchor off the Kerkennah islands, close to the fishing grounds. I was so weary of this long voyage, that I would have liked to land at Sfax, and travel from there by land to Tunis, but the captain did not dare attempt the harbour of Sfax, whose entry is indeed dangerous. We remained eight days at anchor in the Lesser Syrtis, where I saw the year 1807 commence. Under how many stars, and with what varied fortunes, had I witnessed the birth of years, the years that pass so swiftly or last so long! How distant are those days of childhood when I received parental blessings and gifts, my heart beating with joy! How each New Year’s Day was longed-for! And now, on a foreign vessel, in the midst of the sea, in sight of a barbarous land, this day arrived for me without witnesses, without pleasure, without the embrace of family without those tender wishes of happiness for her son that a mother utters with such sincerity! This day, born in the womb of storm-winds, brought to my brow only worries, regrets and white hair.

Nevertheless, we thought we should honour the day, though not as the birthday of an agreeable guest, yet like that of an old acquaintance. We slaughtered the rest of the chickens, with the exception of a brave rooster, our faithful alarm-clock, who had never ceased to keep watch and crow in the midst of the greatest perils. The rabbi, the native of Barbary, and the two Moors emerged from the hold of the ship, and came to receive their presents at our banquet. This comprised my family dinner! We drank to France: we were not far from the island of the Lotus Eaters, where Ulysses’ companions forgot their homeland: I know no fruit delightful enough to make me forget mine.

We almost touched on the Kerkennah islands, the Cercinae of the ancients. In Strabo’s time there were fishing-grounds close to these islands, as there are today. The Cercinae were witnesses to two great blows of fortune, as they saw in turn Hannibal and Marius pass by as fugitives. We were close enough to Africa (Turris Annibalis), from which the first of those two great men was forced to sail to escape the ingratitude of the Carthaginians. Sfax is a modern city: according to Doctor Shaw, it takes its name from the word sfakouse, because of the great quantity of cucumbers grown in its neighbourhood.

On the 6th of January 1807, the storm having finally subsided, we left the Lesser Syrtis, sailed up the coast of Tunis for three days, and on the 10th rounded Cape Bon, the object of all our hopes. On the 11th, we anchored below the headland of Carthage. On the 12th we anchored in front of La Goulette, the port or harbour of Tunis. The boat was sent ashore; I wrote to Monsieur Devoise (Jacques-Philippe Devoise), French consul to the Bey. I was fearful of having to undergo further quarantine, but Monsieur Devoise obtained permission for me to go ashore on the 18th. It was with real joy that I left the vessel. I hired horses for La Goulette; I made a tour of the lake, and arrived at five in the evening at the house of my new host.

End of Part Six