open country

When reading Hebrew at university, you could forgive me some self-indulgence when I would imagine the Hebrews walking out of Egypt and becoming nomadic peoples across the countries of the Middle East. Dark brown eyes protected from the sun by thick eyelashes – there is dust on their toes, they chatter in the rhythmic, guttural tones of their language.

Until the Dead Sea scrolls were found, the lion’s share of romance with the ancient world was given to Egypt. The scale of the surviving buildings, the mystery of the hieroglyphics, the wealth and stature of the pharaohs all combine in one heady reaction to the heat, gold and desire for the afterlife in Egyptian culture.

A talk given by the author and journalist, Anthony Sattin, was no ordinary discourse on Egypt’s treasures. He had come to the Borders to speak to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the last lecture of the season.

Egypt was where Anthony found his voice and where he fell in love. His romantic liaison with the country is not only founded in the culture – he also he met his wife there.

While researching a history of travellers in Egypt at the British Library, he discovered that Florence Nightingale had made a trip there in the winter of 1849. Her love-life had not been so happily nurtured. She went to Egypt to forget.

Abandoning her fiancé, she agreed to travel down the Nile with family friends. She wrote two journals and many letters which illustrate a young woman quite different from the angel of the Crimean War whom we know as the Lady with the Lamp.

Anthony discovered another then unknown personality was on the same trip. Gustave Flaubert traveled down the Nile with a friend and he too was running from disappointment. His first book had been badly received by friends who recommended that he did not publish it.

Florence describes some of the sites with delicate detail. On observing an obelisk from the Temple of the Sun she writes, “Wild bees have settled all over the obelisk and their pleasant hum filled the citron trees and cactuses, and the sweet smells floated on the air. How pleasant it was, how lovely.”

“Here Moses sat, and Plato, the pair of truest gentlemen that ever breathed. But Moses was the greater man: for whereas Plato only formed a school, which formed the world, Moses went straight to work upon the world, the chisel, as it were, to the block…”

The prophetic nature of her preference for the man of action cannot go unnoticed with consideration to the career that she carved for herself – a vocation that was initially strongly opposed by her wealthy parents and aggravated by her refusal to marry, regardless of her emotional sacrifice.

Anthony notes that Gustave is often more interested in people than in the ancient monuments. At the entrance to the Valley of the Kings he meets an old Greek man who deals in antiquities. He describes him: “He lives there as though in a tower, in the middle of the mountain, in a house full of mummies, all alone, and far from humans. Some withered old corpses propped up against a wall grimace from a corner of the tower.”

We learned that Gustave was actually most interested in the women who were available to lie with the male tourists in that unkempt and uninhibited way.

The juxtaposition of the young Florence who viewed Egypt through romantic eyes and the randy exploits of Gustave made this one of the most interesting talks I have attended. I think the talk could be described as titillating in parts, but that is not meant as derogatory.

Initially I was disappointed when I learned that Anthony’s new book about these two travellers, A Winter on the Nile, was not a historical novel, but an historical travel book. Anthony Sattin gave us his dulciloquy in the low light of the lecture hall and I felt as if I was going through the emotions and senses of these travellers – disappointment turned off.