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  • Karen Frost

Chapter 8: Sailing up the Nile

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

Before we sail into (ha! Pun!) sailing up the Nile, here's a super cool video about Cairo in the 1930s. And another video with still images from cities around Egypt pre-1952. Also, here's an interesting page on Egyptian beliefs about the Nile and the afterlife, and the Wikipedia page on Nile crocodiles.

Cruising up the Nile

For tourists to Egypt in the 19th and early 20th century, a highlight of the trip was a leisurely cruise up the Nile (up because the Nile runs north, so going "up" the Nile means sailing south). Until the mid-1800s, these tourists would sail in a dahabiya, a large, traditional wooden boat powered by sails that sailed slowly up the Nile. In 1858, the round trip from Cairo to Luxor (a little over 400 miles each way) by dahabiya took forty days. By the close of the century, however, there were two new methods of travel: steamer and train. The tour company Thomas Cook Ltd. had introduced steamers onto the Nile, cutting the travel time down to twenty days roundtrip (this is a cool article on the subject. These steamers ranged from steam powered dahabiyas able to carry a single family to multi-deck paddleboats that carried dozens of passengers. Both Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle traveled up the Nile, as did Agatha Christie, whose trip on the SS Sudan in 1933 inspired "Death on the Nile." Meanwhile, the train from Cairo to Luxor--enabled by the construction of new rail lines--was an easy overnight trip. Per this article, by the turn of the 20th century dahabiyas were considered the highest status method of travel, followed by steamship, and finally the train.

Although Cook gained the original concession to run all passenger traffic on the Nile in the 1880s, by the early 1900s that monopoly was broken by American companies starting routes there. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 40 tourist vessels traveling the Nile. There are a lot of great websites with information on these boats (like this website, this one, this super cool travelogue website, this fantastic website, and Cook's Excursionist and Home and Foreign Tourist Advertiser), but the single most helpful find for me was Cook's entry in "The World's Fair at Chicago, 1893: Information for Travellers," which listed all of Cook's boats and travel times as of 1893. Although that's a solid thirty years before the setting of "The Lady Adventurers Club," it was nevertheless the closest I could get to the information I was seeking.

As I looked for a boat that could travel from Cairo to Luxor in only a few days, I narrowed in on Cook's rental boats. Cook at the turn of the century offered a small paddle steamer, a steam dahabiya, and multiple "First Class Dahabiyas." The Nitocris turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. It was a small steam launch marketed for a party of four (Fun fact: Conan Doyle hired this exact boat to sail the Nile in January 1896!). Luckily, there's a bit of information to be found about the Nitocris online, including schematics and information that the ship had a crew of sixteen and berths for eight passengers (yes, that's dissonant with Cook's claim it housed only four).

Regarding travel times, the Hathor (one of that last category of Cook's dahabiyas), per this travelogue, is described as having left Cairo in late January and arriving in Luxor in early February. And when Howard Carter sent some things in 1924 from Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings to Cairo by barge, the trip took five days. Per the specs above, the max speed of the Nitocris was 10 nmph. The nautical mileage between Cairo and Luxor is 420 nm. Assuming the Nitocris traveled at top speed from 8 am to 6 pm every day, our travelers would have reached Luxor from Cairo in a little under four and a half days.

Of course, after all that work figuring out the Nitocris, I double checked Burton Holmes's travelogue and found that for his journey he rented the Nemo, a small steam yacht manned by a crew of 17. The von Hallwyls, meanwhile, in 1901 rented the steamship Columbia, which appears to have had a crew of 13. I could have saved myself a few hours of research and just used either of those boats. Oops.

History is Weird

Sometimes when researching history, you come across weird tidbits of information that make you scratch your head. The presence of American Civil War Confederate officers leading Egyptian troops against Ethiopia in the late 1800s is one of those things. Some background: Khedive Ismail Pasha was an ambitious ruler. In addition to wanting to turn Cairo into a city more beautiful than Paris, he had an ambition to make Egypt a Great Power whose territorial control would span everything above the Equator between the Sahara Desert in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east. Basically, he needed to conquer Sudan and Ethiopia. He had a relatively small army, so to compensate he thought he could pull Americans who had just fought in the Civil War and use their technological know-how and tactics to crush his enemies. He was encouraged in this belief by Thaddeus Mott, a former Union artillery officer who went to Constantinople after the war and presented himself to the Ottoman Empire as a mercenary. Mott convinced Ismail to hire former Confederate officers to oversee the modernization of the Egyptian army.

Long story short, the ex-Confederates did a lot to help the Egyptians, but two attempts to conquer Ethiopia (1876) failed anyway. Although the Ethiopians were fighting in chainmail and with swords, their sheer numbers were able to force a stalemate. For more about this weird moment in history, check out this article.

More About Egyptian Independence

When Georgette asks Anna if Egypt is safe for visitors/Europeans in December 1923, technically Anna lies a little when she says yes. Before England granted Egyptian independence in February 1922, the Egyptians burned buildings associated with the British. In addition, there had been assassinations of British officials since 1920 (and, in fact, all the way up to the November 1924 assassination of Sir Lee Stack, the British governor general of Sudan and commander of the Egyptian Army, who was killed in Cairo). So if more violence were to break out related to the January 1924 election, there would have been a real possibility that British interests would have been targeted again.

Chasing Stars

The Ancient Egyptians had constellations different from what we recognize today. Here's a paper about what they saw and how they depicted them. Why is a constellation a bull's leg rather than a snake? Who knows...

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