Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt, by Anthony Sattin.
London, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2011. 320 pp, ISBN 978-1-848857-69-8. £10.99.
This book is a new paperback edition of Anthony Sattin’s Lifting the veil: British Society in Egypt, 1768–1956 (London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1988), and it focuses on this phase of Egyptian history during the rise and fall of British colonialism. The earlier edition has consistently been cited as a useful authority by many ASTENE authors. Although essentially a new edition of the original version, which was described by Roger Bowen as ‘wry and vivid’, it is one of those books you just cannot put down until it is finished. It is immensely readable but, at the same time, obviously the product of much appropriate wide ranging historical research into the adventures of a range of travellers, colonialists and merchants. It has been accurately described by the publisher as portraying ‘the shifting interests, dreams and failures, passions and intrigues of an extraordinary cast of characters. From Napoleon Bonaparte with his schemes to control the overland route to India, to tomb raiders such as Giovanni Belzoni; from scholars such as hieroglyph-decoder Champollion to Thomas Cook and his wide-eyed tourists and Cromer and his bureaucrats, this fast-paced and richly described narrative illuminates a bygone world and charts the end of imperialism and the advent of Egyptian independence.’
The book is arranged in two parts and is full of fascinating detail. The first part concerns the encroachment of the British and other foreign powers into Egypt from the middle of the 18th century to the mid-20th century. The book begins with James Bruce’s impression of Egypt at the start of his journey up the Nile, then explores the impressions of other earlier travellers. The second chapter begins with the arrival of the French in Egypt in 1798 and the subsequent arrival of the British in 1801. Their relationships
with Muhammad Ali, the adventures of explorers such as Burckhardt, Belzoni and Henry Salt are all described. The third chapter is an account of the opening up of lines of communication, while ‘Effendis and Others’ is about those making private collections of Egyptian antiquities;
authorities such as John Gardner Wilkinson, Edward Lane and Lucie Duff-Gordon; the overseas route from the Red Sea; and Orientalist painters such as John Frederick Lewis. ‘Planting a Firm Foot’ begins with slave trading and goes on to explore British interests in Sudan, coastguards, the demise of General Gordon, and Kitchener’s victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.
The second part focuses on the sights of most interest to British tourists (Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and the Sudan) and concludes with thoughtful reflections on the departure of British forces from Suez and the subsequent return of British tourists. While this section is delightful, some elements could have been updated in this new edition. For example, the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria is now far from moribund, as it was when Lawrence Durrell last visited in the 1970s, for it has recently benefited from a major renovation. Nevertheless, the chapter on Alexandria is a fine example of Sattin’s vivid writing. It is based on accounts by officials of the Egyptian Service: their social and political routines are introduced, but we soon read of the ‘sinister- rowdiness of the port’, its multi-ethnic community and its drug smugglers, its music halls, pleasure
gardens and poets.