Archive for April, 2014

Despite being in Egypt for merely eight months, the group managed to cover a lot of ground – visiting various towns, famous ancient monuments and studying the local environments. Harriet tells us that she was told that she would find Egypt uninteresting – this was not to be the case. Harriet was determined to experience and record as much as she could of the places she visited and states ‘I carried compass and note-book, and noted down what I saw, from eminence to eminence, along the whole valley, from Cairo to the Second Cataract’; she published her account of this journey in March, 1848.

In this ‘note-book’ she comments on aspects of the landscape and wildlife, noting the seemingly unceasing conflict between the Nile and the desert in claiming the land. It is clear she was aware of the then current research as she mentions the discoveries of watermarks high on the rocks made by Dr. Lepsius and his conviction that the Nile water bed had sunk over time; she ponders about the symbiotic relationship between the Nile crocodile and various birds. Of the various peoples her group encountered she notes Nubians with three cheek gashes as ‘beauty-marks’ and Nubian women with tattoo marks, blue underlips, nose rings and hair minutely braided. In keeping with her support of the abolition of slavery in America, she derides the evidence of human ownership which she actually witnessed in Egyptian slave-bazaars.

Majestic monuments

Upon seeing the Colossi of Memnon (or The Pair, as she terms them!) for the first time she says ‘my heart stood still at the sight…. there they sat, together yet apart…… keeping their untired watch over the lapses of ages….’ Harriet recalls Strabo’s views that the Colossi were damaged by earthquakes. As was quite usual with these tours up and down the Nile, groups often re-visited sites as they made their return journey to Alexandria thus Harriet says she could not resist visiting The Pair a second time – but this time the group had a closer look examining the statues from the base and not from afar as they had at the first sighting and, again, Harriet was taken with the ‘impression of sublime tranquility’ and their ‘keeping watch’.

Harriet’s group visited a large number of temples including: Dendera, Karnak, Kom Ombo, the Rammaseum, Abu Simbel. Philae and more. I shall select a few of her more interesting statements about some of the monuments her group visited and incorporate her words, where appropriate.

At Karnak, which she terms the ‘most extensive ruins in the known world’, Harriet notes that the lines of sphinxes are still imposing, despite many of them being headless. She, true to her word (ie. determined to note down information) measures and counts the numbers of columns at Karnak, noting they were ‘gay with colours’ (fig. 3)


fig. 3: painted column at Karnak

– and, interestingly again, she attributes their wrecked state to earthquakes. She considered the finest view of Karnak to be from a mound just above the lake and notes the remains of quays and baths around the ‘sheet of still water’ (fig. 4).


fig. 4: the still water of the sacred lake at Karnak

Upon viewing the ruined sections of the Ramasseum (fig. 5), Harriet suggests that those of ‘the propylon outwork alone could build a cathedral’ so great were the piles of stone lying around and, like thousands of travellers after her time, she was very impressed by ‘the remains of the largest statue that even Egypt produced’. Consequently, she set about measuring again – telling us that the second toe of the foot block was 2ft. 7 ins.


fig. 5: view of the Ramesseum today

Interestingly, Harriet seems disappointed by the larger temple at Abu Simbel, which, she says, was ‘the chief object of our Nubian voyage’; she felt it appeared smaller and less imposing than expected and that the smaller statues (of Nefertari) look ‘dollish’ and ‘do not make Ramesses look greater’! She gives thanks to Mr Hay who had cleared much of the sand away from the temple’s northernmost colossal statue and is determined to scale the remaining slopes of sand because, as she tells us, ‘one cannot reach the chin of a colossus every day’! There is a small frisson of excitement, upon examining the statue at close quarters, when she ‘made a little discovery worth noting’, that there is evidence of ancient repair work to the statue’s chin. Harriet was, however, rather more impressed by the smaller Abu Simbel temple of ‘The Lady of Aboshek’ (fig. 6) viewing it as ‘striking’ and that ‘their reclining backwards against the rock has a curious effect’.


fig. 6: the smaller temple at Abu Simbel dedicated to Nefetari, Great Royal wife of Ramesses II

Harriet was also impressed by the pyramids at Giza. She states that she had been warned that she would be disappointed in seeing the pyramids but ‘I had maintained that I could not be disappointed, as of all the wonders of the world this is the most literal…..so far from being disappointed, I was filled with surprise and awe……..this first view of them was the most moving’.

The greatest day of our journey

Harriet exhibits obvious excitement tempered by apprehension when her group decides to scale the cataract in a small boat from Philae. It is important to remember that in Harriet’s time Philae was in a different situation than it is now; it has been re-located in modern times. Harriet saw Philae in its original position partially submerged by the Nile’s inundations (fig. 7). Modern eyes will never see that sight!


fig. 7: Philae submerged, as seen by travellers in Harriet’s time

Despite her obvious concerns about the dangers of approaching the cataract, she declares ‘such as event as the ascent of the Cataract can happen but once in one’s life…… what I wanted was to feel it’ and ‘the next (day) was to be the greatest day of our journey’. She describes the four hour ascent of the cataract and marvels at the skills, current knowledge and sheer force of the men as they hauled and manipulated ropes to control the passage of their small boat. Later that day, the group returned to see Philae by moonlight.

Meeting mummies

On several occasions in her notes Harriet tells us of her experiences seeing the dead of ancient Egypt. At Asyut her group visits cave tombs and she recalls seeing a human skull ‘the bone of which was remarkably thick’ and on another occasion she states one of the group’s attendants actually dug up some mummies (fig. 8) – clearly for the entertainment of the visitors!


fig. 8: mummies such at this were often dug up for visitors

Harriet opines that ‘mummies are little more respected in Europe than by the ignorant Arabs who pull them up and to pieces, for sale and use….’ highlighting the then profitable trade in mummies in which Europeans were the purchasers and the local people (needing the money) procured and supplied the remains of the ancient dead. In keeping with her compassion for her fellow human beings (past and present), Harriet states ‘these ancient people’s hearts once beat as did ours with the thoughts of three thousand years ago’.

The legacy of Harriet’s works, beliefs and dedication to improving the human condition is kept alive today by the society named for her – The Martineau Society. In one sense she ‘lives on’ today – for what is little realised is that the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine Elizabeth “Kate” (formerly) Middleton is a Martineau direct descendant from Harriet’s sister, also named Elizabeth!


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