Marjorie at the Pyramids

The Great Pyramids

No trip to Egypt could possibly be complete without seeing the Pyramids, and of course Marjorie’s trip was no different. After her quick tour of Cairo Marjorie and her chaperone Miss Helen Macartnay  made their way towards the Pyramids at Giza where they stayed at the world famous Mena House, a luxury hotel just a few minutes drive from the Pyramids which is still open today. Marjorie describes her accommodations:

It was an enormous room and beautifully fitted up – rugs, tapestries, pictures everything perfect and off of it was an alcove room with a piano, palms etc.  Of course the beds were only cot ones and I had to put up a pillow to keep me from falling into the wall and a chair to support me on the other side– but amid such surroundings what did that matter?

Here Marjorie describes her route to the Pyramids:

Egyptian woman at the Pyramids

On Thursday morning we set off for the Pyramids.  We drove again across the Nile bridge and up a long avenue to the left, partly along the river bank.  This avenue (some 6 or seven miles long) was entirely planted with Lebbec trees in two weeks time! The Empress Josephine was coming in state to Egypt – she would want to see the Pyramids and must have shade – et voila!

Lucky for Marjorie the normally bleak desert surrounding the Pyramids  must have looked lush with the newly planted foliage. The Lebbec trees she mentions are better known as Mimosa trees. In fact there are a few Chocolate Mimosas here at Blithewold, one in the display garden and one by the potting shed.

Pyramid at Saqqara (1)

Marjorie’s trip coincided with visits by several British royals (Egypt was after all a British colony at this time) but her mention of Empress Josephine is a bit peculiar. The only Empress Josephine that I am aware of is Napoleon’s first wife, but she died in 1814. However with a bit of investigating I think I was able to get to the bottom of this. Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon’s nephew Napoleon III, visited Egypt in 1869 for the opening of the Suez Canal. In honor of her visit the Khedive of Egypt turned a small lodge into the Mena House and vastly improved the old Pyramid Road Marjorie took to Giza. Napoleon III was deposed after the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71, and fled to the United Kingdom with Eugenie where they would live out the remainder of their lives. Eugenie would return to Egypt during the winter of 1904/5, roughly a year after Marjorie’s visit. It would make sense that the Egyptians would decorate the Pyramid Road based on its correlation to the former Empress. As is often the case with history one can never be absolutely certain, but I am confident that Marjorie’s reference to Josephine is simply a mistake. It seems like it might be easy to mix up the names of the two Napoleons’ wives. We must also keep in mind that these were simply casual letters written to her mother, which she rarely got a chance to edit—a fact which she apologizes for often.

Camels traveling

One her way to the Pyramids Marjorie notices another snippet of tradition, a family traveling on camel back, fortunately she provides us with a photo. [2] She’s also impressed by the massive change in landscape, going from lush fertile farmland to barren desert. It’s too bad black-and-white photos can’t capture this natural marvel. At the Great Pyramid Marjorie met a group of Englishmen climbing their way to the top. Though Miss Helen and the others in her company could not be persuaded to come, Marjorie was eager to make the climb. Each ‘step’ in the Pyramid is really a three foot ledge; I’d imagine that would be pretty strenuous in casual clothing, much less a constricting Edwardian dress. The ascent was certainly worthwhile:

But oh! the view is worth it. And wasn’t it nice.  It was quite cool and shady going up and then just as I reached the top the sun came out and gave me the perfect outlook.  There was the little mud village of Kaffra at my feet near the huge rough mass of the second pyramid;  then further on, the sphinx – her proud head almost hidden by the sand hills – and still beyond, the great flat nothingness of the dessert [3] – stretching in waves of pinkish yellow sand to the horizon. On the other side it was all so totally different, for there the wonderful old Nile held sway and the country was green with foliage and dotted over with date palms.  And then there was the long straight avenue of Lebbec trees and way in the distance the minarets of the citadel mosque.  I could have stayed forever.

Marjorie was mesmerized by the enchanting nature of ancient Egyptian mythology, and she was particularly amazed by the Sphinx. [4]  As she stands before it she is taken in by its grandeur. She describes to her mother how it seems as though the Sphinx had been given some great secret by the ancient kings and compelled by the gods to keep it for eternity. If only the Sphinx could speak, Marjorie inquires, then perhaps it could share with us great world changing knowledge lost for thousands of years. She theorizes that maybe it is trying to tell us something; maybe the fault lies with us for our inability to understand it. Egypt had captured the imagination of many westerners during Marjorie’s time. It was the height of Egyptology; archeologists were coming to Egypt en masse and were constantly making new discoveries about this ancient civilization. Quite a fascinating time to visit.

Marjorie on the S. S. Rameses the Great

Upon leaving Cairo Marjorie and company boarded the S.S. Rameses the Great, a steamship which would be her primary method of transportation as she embarked on her journey up and down (or is it down and up?) the Nile.

[1] This is an older pyramid a short trip down river from Giza. She notes seeing it from the ship. Marjorie stops here towards the end of her stay in Egypt on her return trip down the Nile.

[2] Marjorie’s photo album is a bit disproportional. What I mean by that is often there are many pictures from a place that she does not discuss much, or that she does not seem particularly interested in. On the other hand at many of her favorite places and most fascinating experiences she took few or no photos. Her trip to the Great Pyramids is a perfect example, she has no photos of the grandeur of Mena House, the view of the contrasting landscape around the Pyramids, or her beloved Sphinx. I guess we can blame this on limited technology (no camera phones, imagine that!) but we’ll just have to work with what is available.

[3] Marjorie mentions at the end of this letter that she just realized ‘desert’ had only one S, and asks her mother to disregard the second one.

[4] Interestingly enough she refers to the Sphinx as a she.