ASTENE’s Bulletin Reviews Editor is Louise Ellis-Barrett.
Please note that this is a recent selection of book reviews from the last few bulletins, book reviews from bulletin 44 upwards can be found in the archived book reviews. All other book reviews can be accessed in bulletins.
If you would like to suggest a book for review, or are interested in reviewing for the Bulletin, please contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org
Bulletin 75 (Spring 2018)
Lehnert, Isolde, Zur Kur an den Nil. Die Ägyptenreise von Max und Otto Meyerhof im Winter 1900/01, Ludwig Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2017, 280 pp., 116 illustrations b/w, 147 illustrations colour, hardback, €69, ISBN: 9783954901364.
By Hana Navratilova
The series ‘Menschen – Reisen – Forschungen’; that is, ‘People – Travels – Research’, published by the German Archaeological Institute’s Cairo department (DAIK), is rapidly becoming a staple on the reading list for history of travel. Previous volumes have included Boote, Burgen, Bischarin: Heinrich Schäfers Tagebuch einer Nubienreise zum zweiten Nilkatarakt im Jahre 1900 by Thomas Gertzen and Westcar on the Nile by Heike Schmidt.
The series was initiated by a major archaeological institution that opted to include subject-relevant documentary editions as a standard part of its publication output. Whilst this is an increasingly frequent occurrence and for many scholars recognized good practice, it is not a universally shared approach among Egyptological institutions, often due to uneven funding that is by no means commonly in favour of editions and studies in disciplinary history. Kudos to DAIK for tackling its institutional and disciplinary history with consistency, and not avoiding the genre of editions.
The third volume of the series is dedicated to Max and Otto Meyerhof ’s trip to Egypt in winter 1900/1901. Max Meyerhof (1874-1945) was a distinguished physician, and his relative Otto Meyerhof (1884-1951) became a respected physiologist, and Nobel Prize winner. The Meyerhofs were a German-Jewish family of middle and upper middle class background.
The introductory part of the travelogue edition draws attention first to the contribution archive studies are making to the history of travel and of Oriental Studies. The archive history is a standard part of the editions in the series. The Meyerhof trip had been documented in a diary by Max Meyerhof, which was subsequently preserved as part of the Keimer Archive. The Keimer archive is based on the archival collection of Ludwig Keimer, a GermanCzechoslovak-Egyptian Egyptologist, writer, and a keen collector of books and archival materials, with a particular interest in travelogues, travel diaries and similar material. Keimer successfully acquired rare books and manuscripts for his collection that, as Lehnert points out, is comparable to major libraries in quality, if not quantity.
Keimer obtained diaries of his friend Max Meyerhof together with several hundred books from Meyerhof ’s library, and the corpus, being part of Keimer’s bequest, then came to the DAIK. Three handwritten diaries of Meyerhof ’s were brought to professional attention by Gisela Kircher in the 1960s. A history of the discovery is recounted in detail, as the original typescripts by Gisela Kircher and her sister Waltraud had been used a basis for the digital typescript that was then collated with the original manuscript and ultimately formed the backbone of the present edition.
Both protagonists, cousins Max and Otto Meyerhof, are introduced in detail, with their family background, education and professional formation featuring in a balanced narrative. The reader first meets the travellers as individuals within a familial and social fabric. Max Meyerhof was a physician specialising in ophthalmology. His Egyptian trip was brought on by a family decision. He accompanied a younger cousin Otto, who had a serious kidney condition, for which the Egyptian climate had been recommended as helpful. However, both Meyerhofs had a cousin with a particular interest in Egypt, Wilhelm Spiegelberg, hence the choice of Egypt as their travel destination was probably more than just fortuitous.
Max Meyerhof produced a diary, which was written as he was travelling, with spontaneity, but also with recourse to his travel literature – often to the Baedeker, which he most probably had with him in Egypt. The edition contains Meyerhof ’s original text and commentaries by the editor.
In line with historical editions’ good practice, the editorial standards are described in the third part of the introductory section, including the extent and aim of the commentaries. Finally, an excursus is dedicated to eye diseases and their prevalence in Egypt – a matter of professional interest to Max Meyerhof and one frequently referred to in the travel diary. He contacted specialists working in Egypt, including the Egyptian expert ophthalmologist Dr Mohammed Elwi Pasha, who invited Meyerhof to assist him as a guest physician in his private clinic. The illustrations used to accompany the edition are also based on the Keimer collection and the DAI archive, using contemporary visual culture – reaching from postcards and advertisements to photographs by travellers, dated mostly within a decade of the Meyerhofs’ visit. They stand in lieu of the Meyerhofs’ own documentary photographs.
The second part of the publication covers the Meyerhof diary fitted out with an extended commentary. Each part of the itinerary is provided with the editor’s introduction and other details added in footnotes. The perspective is mostly participatory, taking the reader into the physical environment of relatively well-situated Western travellers, who took a train from a European location (Berlin, Vienna), to the Austrian port of Trieste and then a ship to Alexandria. Then we follow the Meyerhofs to Cairo, sightseeing, on a trip up the Nile to Luxor and Aswan, and back to Cairo and Europe. We meet the people they met and see the places they saw, characterised by Max Meyerhof’s pen and visualised by period illustrations and photographs.
As the Meyerhofs were on a spa voyage, not just a sightseeing tour, they had more leisure time to spend on local trips and visits, and were becoming temporarily ‘locals’. Although they did the tourist tropes of pyramid climbing in Giza or bazaar shopping in Cairo, they also undertook desert trips, and professionally oriented excursions (Max did the latter). They also visited places that would have been less common stops for package tours, although strictly speaking not off the beaten track – such as the building site of the first Aswan Dam. Otto Meyerhof was an avid photographer – if his cousin and mentor Max is to be believed, initially almost as avid as he was struggling. Otto, however, improved with experience. It is not known whether anything of his archive survives, but given his later adventurous escape from war-torn Europe, it is not very likely. Max was also buying ‘potsherds’, i.e. inscribed ostraca for his cousin Wilhelm Spiegelberg.
The reader literally travels with the Meyerhofs, and Max Meyerhof is a witty and eloquent companion, who had an equal flair for a description of the Egyptian nature and its fascinating colours, as he had for the Westernised and cosmopolitan society that they temporarily became a part of. In so many ways his diary was a social life diary at least as much as a travel one. We meet innumerable travellers and locals, especially, but not exclusively, from the German-speaking communities in Egypt. The Meyerhofs were directly acquainted with a number of personalities from Egyptologists to physicians, from antiquities dealers to hotel owners. The diary partly reads as a “who was where when”. A typical Meyerhof day would start with a hotel breakfast accompanied by a conversation with fellow guests, followed by excursions and/or more socialising, often involving local expat communities. Some diary entries were exclusively dedicated to socialising, including jovial comments and witticisms concerning fellow travellers and Meyerhofs themselves – Max could be just as attentive in describing a clinic, or a monument, or a lady’s ‘winsome’ dimples.
The third part consists of a single chapter – an afterword, summing up the Meyerhofs’ later lives. Otto, as above mentioned, had an illustrious scientific career and Max eventually returned to Egypt, became an Egyptian citizen and died in Cairo in 1945.
The fourth section contains a very welcome apparatus of archive resources, literature references and indexes. The consistent referencing of archive resources is an example of good practice.
The publisher’s blurb characterises the editor’s approach as ‘infotainment’ – an accessible scholarly publication. In this particular case the editor takes her lead from the edited text – informative and entertaining at the same moment. The participatory view accompanies the travellers in their new and changing environment, which they received with interest and some wonder. In the commentary sections, there are well chosen parallels from contemporary travel literature – from the normative (guidebooks) to the subjective (other travelogues and also sketches and paintings). Lehnert is not avoiding the pitfalls of the Western visitors’ gaze and a tendency to an ‘othering’ of the visited country, but she is also making the readers keenly aware that a travellers’ gaze has always encompassed every visited country or place other than the most familiar. And the travellers’ gaze, whilst curious, descriptive and attentive to the picturesque or uncommon, could also become biased.
When it comes to the picturesque-cum-satirical observations, no one is spared, as said above, not even the Meyerhofs themselves – likewise, no nationality, age, gender, or profession is singled out as particularly troublesome. Meyerhof ’s pen is almost like Lance Thackeray’s pencil – and the editor makes a good choice in using Thackeray, a contemporary of the Meyerhofs, as a visual accompaniment. However, Max Meyerhof is more than just a Western middle-class conformist with an eye for the quaint and the hilarious. As a health professional, he was interested deeply in the health conditions of the country, and the personal side of his diary is at its best and most noticeable not only in good-humoured scenes from coffeehouses, city streets, and hotels, but also when diagnosing his fellow humans (he attended the locals en route medically on several occasions, obviously without a fee), or attending Dr Elwi’s clinic.
Lehnert does not use the depersonalized language of theoretically minded social scientists, but an attentive reader will not miss the complexities of visiting Egypt as a place of entertainment, socialising, education, yet also otherness, that was especially pronounced in respect of rural communities. After all, a bourgeois traveller in the 1900s would have found rural communities of the Balkans, or even in the Alps, or in some regions of Italy, or indeed perhaps Scotland, as equally picturesque and ‘other’, hence the phenomenon is not so much exclusively ‘Orientalist’ as more generally a matter of encounter of two parts of the world that had outwardly grown apart.
The volume is an edition with aspirations to address a broad audience. It is well done and informative, and fulfils the task. There are a few inaccuracies, e.g. the château Miramar in Trieste was more connected with the imperial couple Maximilian and Charlotte than with the Empress Elisabeth (Sissi, p. 26), but these are minor points. Some footnotes might have been expanded with further literature, especially on some less known Central European travellers, but the author mostly retains references that are widely accessible to an international readership, preferring German and English resources, so the limitation is understandable. ASTENE readers will find it a very helpful, well-written book, informative concerning the travellers’ life and habits, itineraries and meetings.
Bulletin 74 (Winter 2017)
Carroll, M., Greece: a Literary Guide for Travellers, I B Tauris, 2017, 290pp, ISBN 9781784533809, £16.99.
By Lucy Pollard
At first glance, I thought that this book occupied exactly the same space as Richard Stoneman’s A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece; on closer reading, however, I feel that it has something slightly different to offer. Stoneman’s book is no less valuable for being over twenty years old, but Carroll’s is very different in style. While there is significant overlap in terms of the writers quoted, the quotations chosen are often different.
Greece: a Literary Guide is arranged in seven sections by geographical region, but only includes the area covered by the current state of Greece, so the Greek cities now situated in Turkey are excluded. The authors chosen to illustrate Greek travels range from Homer and Herodotus to several born in the second half of the twentieth century; a number of names among them were unfamiliar to me, for example that of the French traveller Maryse Choisy, who succeeded in visiting Mount Athos, although the lengths to which she went in order to achieve this are not for the squeamish. Every reader is likely to regret some of the omissions – personally, I am sorry that Kenelm Digby and John Covel find no place here – but there is always the compensation of new discoveries. ASTENE members will recognise some old friends, such as William Leake. There is a useful section at the end of the book giving short biographies of the authors, though it is not comprehensive: Cyriac of Ancona and Jacob Spon are both missing.
Carroll’s text, in between quotations, is longer, more personal and much more discursive than Stoneman’s, and we learn more about the background of the various authors and the contexts of their travels. It is a pity that Carroll devotes space to some stories that have been told many times already, for example the abduction of General Kreipe 12 Astene Bulletin 74: Winter 2017 on Crete in World War II; but in contrast I enjoyed the humorous account of three students crossing the White Mountains in Crete in 1955: although we are never told the surnames of two of them, I imagine that ‘Michael’ is in fact the author of this book. Carroll occasionally resorts to purple prose (as in his description of approaching Corfu by sea on pp1-2), but he is also capable of writing with greater restraint and more power (the account of the funeral of Kostis Palamas on p126 is an example).
There are too many typos (as is the case with so many books published today) and one or two more serious errors: the author of The compleat gentleman is Henry Peacham, not Thomas Peachem (p82), and the title of Lucian’s work is the Anacharsis. There are an index, a bibliography, a map and a very helpful chronological table. While this book does not replace Stoneman’s more scholarly one, it is nevertheless an entertaining read, to be enjoyed either as a travel companion on journeys in Greece or by the armchair traveller.
The Travels of Ibn Battuta: a Guided Arabic reader, by David DiMeo and Inas Hassan. Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2016. x, 318 pp. $34.50 (paperback)
By Paul Starkey
This volume — unique in its conception, to the best of my knowledge — is designed for Arabiclanguage students ‘striving to reach, or already at, the Advanced level of proficiency’ (p. vi), and has a dual aim: to introduce them to classical Arabic literature through a detailed study of one of the greatest works of classical Arabic literature, and to offer them ‘a window into an important period in Arab culture and world history’ (p. vi). The main part of the volume is divided into twenty chapters, each centred on a certain stage of Ibn Battuta’s journey (‘Setting off on the Greatest Journey’/ ‘The Lighthouse at Alexandria’ / The Mamluk Sultan of Egypt’ etc.), and the volume also contains an Arabic glossary, indexes of people and places, and suggestions for further reading.
Each of the content chapters is structured around a series of short extracts from Ibn Battuta’s account, and is arranged in a similar fashion. There is first a map and a short introduction in English to the context and features of interest relevant to that stage of Ibn Battuta’s journey. This is followed by short extracts (in Arabic) from Ibn Battuta’s own account, with an Arabic–English vocabulary; various sorts of comprehension exercises; notes on ‘grammar, structure, and context’; and finally, a series of discussion questions, and suggestions for ‘research and presentation’.
My chief complaint about this volume would be that, although it has clearly been put together in a thorough and meticulous way, there really is not enough original Arabic text in it: none of the twenty chapters contains more than a page or so of extracts from Ibn Battuta himself, so a student who had worked through the whole book would have read no more than twenty or so pages of actual classical Arabic text. Given the energy required to work through the rest of the material (the book itself runs to over 300 pages!), this does not seem well proportioned, and it is hard to see many people actually working through it in full. Nonetheless, although unlikely to be of particular interest to most ASTENE members, there can be no doubt that the concept of the book is an interesting one, and it is fascinating to see one of the most important examples of Arabic travel literature (unknown in the West until the early 1800s, as the Introduction reminds us (p. vii)) being used for a pedagogical purpose in this way.
Bulletin 73 (Autumn 2017)
Brier, Bob, Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, 248pp, ISBN 9781474242936, £19.99.
By Tessa Baber
In his latest work Dr. Bob Brier, a Senior Research Fellow at Long Island University (USA) and well known Egyptologist, mummy-specialist and successful author of several best-sellers including: Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art (1996), The Murder of Tutankhamen (1998) and Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs (2013) presents a topic which has long captivated the public imagination: the removal of Egypt’s ancient obelisks to the Western World.
Brier focuses on the removal of Egypt’s most famous obelisks ‘Cleopatra’s needles’ which were transported to London, Paris and New York between the years 1831 and 1881. His book presents an up-to-date history of the needles, building on both modern sources such as Labib Habachi’s Obelisks of Egypt (1977) and Obelisk: A History (2009) by Brian A. Curran et. al. as well as those provided by early travellers, scholars and Egyptologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as: Cleopatra’s Needle: With Brief Notes On Egypt and Egyptian Obelisks (1877) by Erasmus Wilson, Cleopatra’s Needle: A History of the London Obelisk with an Exposition of the Hieroglyphics (1883) by James King, The New York Obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle: With a Preliminary Sketch of the History, Erection, Uses, and Signification (1891) by Charles Edward Moldenke, Cleopatra’s Needle: An Account of the Negotiations Leading Up to Its Gift to The City Of New York By The Khedive of Egypt (1908) by Elbert Eli Farman and E. A. Wallis Budge’s Cleopatra’s Needles and Other Egyptian Obelisks (1926).
Appearing at a time when obelisks are recaptivating the public imagination, and coinciding with publications by authors including Dorothy U. Seyler’s The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes (2015) and John S. Gordon’s Washington’s Monument: And the Fascinating History of the Obelisk (2016), Brier’s work provides a useful overview of the history and significance of these important monuments.
Consisting of seven chapters, the book begins by providing some background for the reader. The first chapter provides information on how ancient Egyptian obelisks were quarried, carved, and their relationship to other great monuments (both architectural and sculptural) of Egypt’s ancient past. Here, Brier makes mention of Reginald (Rex) Engelbach’s (1888-1946) early excavations of the Aswan quarry in the 1920s (the site of the famed ‘unfinished obelisk’), and his interpretations of how these colossal monoliths were created, reminding the reader of the part early travellers and protoEgyptologists played in the discovery, study and exposition of Egypt’s ancient wonders.
The subsequent chapters offer an account of the earliest fascination with and removal of obelisks by visitors to Egypt; Rome’s early removal of these colossal monuments during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) and their later rediscovery and conservation by the papacy in the 16th century AD), establishing that the Western World’s desire to collect these impressive monuments originated well before the Victorian era.
The first obelisk to leave Egypt (c. AD 10) now stands in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. Commissioned by Seti I and his son Ramesses II and originally erected at Heliopolis, it was transported via a special ship to Rome where it was installed with an inscription which claimed the monument as a war trophy for the emperor Augustus. A second obelisk from Heliopolis, one of the last obelisks ever to be commissioned by an Egyptian pharaoh (Psamtek II) was also brought by the emperor to Rome. Erected in the Campo Marzio, it served both as a war trophy and rather interestingly, a sundial, and remained in place until the 11th century AD: making it the longest standing of all the Roman obelisks. After falling into disrepair and becoming lost to the world around them, both obelisks were later rediscovered in the 16th century and the first was re-erected by Pope Sixtus V in 1587. The Campo Marzio obelisk would however not be restored until 1647, when it was rediscovered for the second time by workmen extending the Acqua Vergine. At this time, famed polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who was fascinated with ancient languages and who had recently published his ‘Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta’ (1643) in which he claimed (erroneously) to have deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics, was called upon to examine it and subsequently published the earliest known work on obelisks: Obeliscus Pamphilius (1650). Kircher was recalled to excavate the obelisk in 1666 but it remained in its prone position until 1748, when it was re-erected by Pope Benedict XIV. Today, a plaque above No. 3 Piazza del Parlamento commemorates the place in which it once stood.
Brier goes on to describe Rome’s other obelisks: (Esqualine, Quirinale, Capitoline, Piazza della Rotonda, Trinità dei Monti, Monti Picino, Viale delle Terme, Bernini’s elephant obelisk and Bernini’s fountain), each of which comes with its own fascinating story, reminding us that these monuments inspired a great many people after they left Egypt, and aided us to develop our knowledge of the fascinating and ancient civilisation which once inhabited the land of the Nile.
Brier spends the remainder of the book focusing on the most well-known obelisks, the famed ‘Cleopatra’s Needles,’ which he considers in chronological order relative to the date in which they arrived in the Western world.
The first obelisk to leave Egypt, ‘Napoleon’s Obelisk’ or ‘l’aiguille de Cléopâtre,’ arrived in Paris in 1831. Originally erected by Rameses II (c. 1303–1213 BC) outside Luxor Temple at Thebes (where its twin stands to this day), the Paris needle was presented as a gift to France in 1826 by Pasha Muhammad Ali (1769–1849) and in 1833, King Louis-Philippe I (1773–1850) had the ‘Luxor obelisk’ erected close to the spot where Louis XVI (1754–1793) and Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) had been guillotined in 1793.
In this chapter, Brier reminds us that the savants of the Napoleonic Expedition (1798-1801) were the first to conduct a scientific study of Egypt’s obelisks, the results of which were published in the Description de l’Egypte. Brier also provides information on the negotiations made over the acquisition of the obelisks acquired by both America and Europe; surprisingly, it appears as though initially Egypt found it difficult to gift her obelisks. The British were first offered one in 1811, but had little interest in acquiring one at the time. The Pasha renewed his offer of one of the ‘Alexandrian’ obelisks, originally erected at Heliopolis by Thutmose III (1481–1425 BC), in 1820 and again 1831 but the estimated transportation cost of £15,000 appears to have continued to dissuade them. The French on the other hand, immediately accepted an Alexandrian obelisk when offered one, but on the advice of Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), bartered instead for one of the Luxor pair, as having observed them during his recent travels (1828-29), Champollion deemed these to be in superior condition. In 1829, the French Naval Minister, Baron d’Haussez (1778-1854) wrote to Pasha Ali to request one of the Luxor obelisks and a ship (fittingly named The Luxor) was designed for its transportation to France.
The account published by Apollinaire Lebas (1797-1873), the architect responsible for bringing the obelisk to France, along with the account published by Lieutenant Léon de Joannis (1803- 1868) (second-in-command aboard the Luxor), reveals that this was far from a straightforward operation. Hampered by difficulties with transportation logistics, the disappointing discovery of an unexpected crack in the obelisk and the workmen being struck down with cholera, it would take the needle five years to reach Paris. However, on account of this delay, Lebas and Joannis were able to spend time exploring their surroundings, making trips to Abu Simbel (where Lebas made measurements of the colossi) and other sites rarely visited by travellers at the time, such as Dandur in Nubia. These additional nuggets of information on contemporary figures and their involvement with the acquisition and removal of these obelisks from Egypt, are a delight for those with an interest in early travel in the East.
In 1833, when the needle finally reached Paris, Lebas, with the help of 120 men, erected ‘L’aiguille de Cléopâtre’ in la Place de la Concorde in front of 200,000 spectators. Its twin remained in Luxor, whilst the Alexandrian needles (also a pair) were later to arrive in London and New York. The first of these needles was presented as a diplomatic gift to the British in the early 1800s. However, it would remain in Egypt for almost sixty years, having been deemed too difficult (and far too expensive) to transport to England. In time, a group of benefactors and engineers were able to put together an expedition to bring the obelisk to London. Funded by William James Erasmus Wilson (1809–1884), James Edward Alexander (1803-1885) would prove to be the driving force behind getting the obelisk to England, though it was Waynman Dixon (1844-1930) who was responsible for the physical operation of transporting the needle from Alexandria to London.
ASTENE members may recall a fascinating paper presented by Dr. Ian Pearce at the 2011 biennial conference in Oxford: ‘Waynman Dixon: In the Shadow of the Needle’ (which was subsequently published in Souvenirs and New Ideas: Travel and Collecting in Egypt and the Near East (2013)). Pearce’s paper detailed Dixon’s involvement in the removal of the London Needle to the banks of the Thames which was transported on a speciallydesigned floating cylindrical barge named Cleopatra, which was towed to England by the British steamer, Olga. Although as Pearce has stated, this remarkable journey has already been described in the past by authors such as Noakes (1962) and Hayward (1978) (both books entitled: ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’), Pearce offers additional insight into the tale of how this needle made it to British shores, through making use of archival information on Dixon’s time spent in Egypt (e.g. in the Metropolitan archives: Q/CN/8&9). As Pearce mentions, Brier is himself in the possession of 27 letters written by Dixon to his family in England between 1872 and 1876 (Dixon, W. 1872-76) (which Brier has previously discussed in ASTENE Bulletin 47 (2012: 15-16). In his chapter on the London needle, Brier promotes Dixon’s involvement (with the aid of his brother John) in the successful removal of the needle out of Egypt and details the logistics of its transportation to England. It is fitting that these men and those who took part in the operation, are discussed in detail here, for as Brier puts it: ‘the Dixon brothers would bring Britannia her obelisk,’ and the tale is a fascinating one.
Just like the French, the British also encountered difficulty in transporting their needle back to England, but despite the arduous and perilous journey which beset the Olga and Cleopatra, including a hurricane and a capsizing, it finally came to rest on London’s Victoria Embankment in 1877. Now that these two nations had successfully transported and installed these majestic monoliths, it appears that the Americans were spurred on in the acquisition of a needle for themselves.
In the same year that its twin reached London, the remaining Alexandrian needle was secured for America by the United States Consul-General, Elbert Eli Farman (1831-1911). The New York obelisk (which Brier charmingly deems ‘the oldest skyscraper in New York’) was the last needle to reach Western shores, and was erected in Central Park in 1881.
Although the Americans appear to have made no attempt to acquire a needle until London received hers in 1877, they had in fact been offered an obelisk as early as 1869. During the unveiling of the newly completed Suez Canal, William H. Hurlbert (1827-1895) (editor of The New York World) was approached by the Pasha and offered the monolith in what appears to have been some attempt by the Egyptian government to try and recoup some of the costs of its recent construction.
Hurlbert had been informed at this time by John Dixon that he was willing to transport the remaining Alexandrian obelisk to the U.S. for £15,000. Wealthy American philanthropist William Vanderbilt (1821- 1885) offered to foot the entire bill and he contacted Dixon to arrange the delivery of the obelisk. The newly appointed consul Farman was contacted about acquiring the promised obelisk for the Americans but he soon discovered that no such offer existed ‘officially.’ Undeterred, he began the process of negotiating the acquisition of one of Egypt’s five remaining large obelisks himself. In 1878, Farman officially propositioned the Khedive over the possibility of obtaining an obelisk for New York, arguing that as a larger and more populated city than London or Paris, such a gift would benefit Egypt’s tourist industry by encouraging tourists to visit the land of the Nile.
Despite changing attitudes at the time towards the acquisition of ancient artefacts (the Khedive warned Farman that the locals had already fiercely protested against the removal of the obelisk’s twin to London and figures such as Heinrich Brugsch (1827-1894) and Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), were opposed to the removal of any more significant artefacts from Egypt), in 1879 the remaining Alexandrian obelisk was offered to the Americans and arrangements were made for its transportation to New York. Dixon, following his difficult experience of transporting the London needle, had increased his fee for the operation and so a new ‘man for the job’ was sought. Henry Honeychurch Gorringe (1841- 1885), a lieutenant-commander in the American navy, answered an advertisement in the June edition of The World, asking for a brave volunteer to retrieve the obelisk using Vanderbilt’s funds. He was chosen to remove the obelisk from Egypt, and sail it across the Atlantic (no mean feat) to New York. Gorringe would make use of a self-powered ship this time, the Dessoug, and took inspiration from Count Carburi (who transported a colossal bronze statue of Peter the Great (1672-1725) across mainland Russia) for its journey from the New York’s docklands to Central Park.
Following a long sea-journey and after overcoming the difficulties of transporting it over dry land, the obelisk was erected using a specially designed device onto the foundation pedestal, which had previously been unveiled during a ceremony presided over by the Masons on the 9th October 1880 (attended by some 30,000 spectators and more than 8500 masons). On 22nd February 1881, an official welcoming ceremony for the needle was held at the Grand Reception Gallery of the newly built Metropolitan Museum of Art and in excess of 20,000 people attended the event. Unfortunately, Gorringe did not have long to enjoy his achievement as he died following a fall only a few years later; his eulogy is forever immortalised on the north face of the obelisk’s pedestal.
Although these tales about the needles and the figures responsible for their removal from Egypt are fascinating, Brier’s postscript reminds us that it is often the case that these important artefacts taken from Egypt and which now stand in cities around the world are not fully appreciated by many of us today. This book goes some way towards reigniting the original enthusiasm and appreciation felt for these rare and unique monuments.
Accompanied by numerous illustrations throughout, this book is a pleasure to read, but a minor quibble is the use of sensationalist wording throughout, such as the emphasis on ‘mania’ which cannot always be substantiated. To use the term in the context of the obsession which the Western World seemingly had with Egypt and her ancient dead in the Victorian period (‘Egyptomania’ and ‘mummymania’ respectively) seems appropriate, however, to claim that the Old Kingdom saw a period of ‘pyramidmania,’ or indeed, that the removal of obelisks from Egypt in general can be deemed worthy of the label ‘obeliskmania,’ is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Of course, this might be an attempt to captivate the reader’s interest, but at times it feels like an over-endorsement of a topic which is already inherently fascinating.
That said, Brier’s account of the needles is well informed and is a successful general interest work on a fascinating subject, providing perhaps for the first time a well-written and approachable introduction to the world of the obelisk. This work illuminates the captivating tale of the ‘second life’ of these monuments, which though ‘lost’ to the ancient land from whence they came, have fostered an enthusiasm for Egypt’s ancient past in their new installations in London, Paris and New York.
For ASTENE members with an interest in the acquisition and removal of these important remnants of Egypt’s ancient past to the Western world, this book provides a new insight into the history of these monuments and adds an additional measure of wonder to the remarkable modern cities in which they now stand.
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