May Tyssen-Amherst and the Crocodile in the Well

(Part 2)

From the moment she had set eyes on the distant Egyptian coastline, May had fallen in love with the country. As she set foot onshore, the enchantment deepened.

May's watercolour of villagers (1873/4)

May's watercolour of villagers (1873/4)

'To me, as the first glimpse of the East it seemed with the cloudless sky, the flat-roofed houses and the golden desert round it, like some place in a story, The Arabs with their bright-coloured picturesque rags looked like Joseph and Brethren, and other Biblical characters in the old yellow-bound ‘Sunday Book' at home.'

In 1871 Egypt was opening up to wealthy tourists, brought there in increasing numbers by ships which passed through the Suez Canal, which had opened just two years earlier, on their way to India and Australia. The canal itself was still considered to be a modern miracle, as May comments.

'I well remember hearing, when being taught my Map of the World as a small child, of a mad and impossible scheme for cutting a passage between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, which could never be done as the seas were different levels.'

The trip through the canal was wonderful also for the bird life which was all around them.

… Lake Mengalie [was] alive with all sorts of wild fowl, flamingos, spoonbills, pelicans and countless wild duck.

Ornithology was a life long hobby for May and indeed in 1904 she published her own book ‘Bird Notes From the Nile’ written while travelling The Nile in a felucca, called ‘The Dongola’, a small sailing boat able to access parts of the river that the larger ‘daharbeyas’ could not.

The Dongola

The Dongola

A particular thrill was that as they travelled through the narrow golden-banked canal they had to tie up for the night in a siding so that other ships could carry on past.

A substantial amount of time was spent at Suez during which May appears to have been allowed considerable freedom by her parents, and she enjoyed exploring the town on her donkey. She describes the narrow streets and alleys as ‘all mysterious and dark, as they were roofed with wooden boards.’  While the streets were rumoured to be full of many thieves and vagabonds, the worst thing that happened to May was that a cockatoo seized her hat and tore it to pieces, much to the amusement of May and the passers-by. She also found time to paint.

May's watercolour of the coast at Suez (1873/4)

May's watercolour of the coast at Suez (1873/4)

Life and travel in Egypt certainly had its comforts for the Amhersts as they were on excellent terms with Ismail Pasha. May explains how he kindly lent them his own private saloon car, which was cooler, and more dust-proof than the ordinary railway carriage. However the Khedive’s carriage with its windows open wasn’t proof against a flight of locusts.

'There seemed to be millions of them on the ground and in the air. They came into the saloon in hundreds … and it took some time to catch them or hunt them out again.’

As evening drew on their train approached Cairo and May describes her first view of the pyramids.

'I shall never forget seeing them, dark purple, silhouetted sharply against a pale citron and emerald sky. It was my first peep of Ancient Egypt, the Egypt that has lived through the ages. Things Egyptian had been familiar from baby hood. Yet I hardly could believe that those three dark points on the far horizon were really and truly the pyramids themselves.'

Like many wealthy Europeans, the Amhersts stayed at Shepheard’s as it was THE hotel. But it was not all wonderful, because although the rooms were according to May ‘large and comfortable, the mosquitoes and fleas were a nightly torment.’

Shepheards Hotel, Cairo

Shepheards Hotel, Cairo

This was a time when Cairo was developing fast. Building was going on at a tremendous pace throughout the city, including on a site on the opposite side of the road to Shepheards. May watched with interest.

' endless string of blue-cotton clothed workmen who ran all day long up and down the ladders singing continuously ‘Illah Allah’ as they carried up the full baskets of materials and came down with the empty ones. Most of the bricks and stones and mortar were brought in panniers on camels and donkeys.’

However in spite of its crowded streets and on-going building programme, May’s Cairo was a very different place to the huge, densely packed metropolis of today.

‘To the left [of Shepheards] there was a very large wide open space where a few large Lebbek trees grew in which kites roosted at night. Under the trees desert caravans unloaded their camels, which growled and grunted and bubbled their perennial protest… In front of the hotel verandah was a stand for donkeys. Some of them were fine little fellows, grey, white or black shaved in patterns, with smart coloured harness and red saddles and many charms and beads... Everyone rode donkeys for any short distances and always used the native saddles.'

Travel for May was not always on the back of a donkey.

'We had our own carriage with a pair of white Arab ponies with long manes and long henna-dyed tails. Ali, our coachman, was a great dandy, and for best wore a dark plum-coloured costume with much gold braid and buttons… or when the weather was very hot he wore white… Abdullah, our Seyce, who ran before the carriage to clear the way, [was] resplendent in an embroidered and much bespangled Zouave jacket and voluminous white muslin sleeves and full looped-up-skirt-looking trousers reaching to the knee. His brown arms and legs were as shapely as those of a Greek statue and his nice brown face with bright eyes much resembled an ancient Egyptian bronze.’

A View of the Pyramids.' London Illustrated News 1874. (1873/4)

A View of the Pyramids - London Illustrated News 1874

At that time an expedition to the pyramids was considered somewhat of an undertaking. May explains what the journey involved.

‘There were no trains, or motors and the [road] was one long elongated frying pan, for the trees were bare poles with a scanty tuft of leaves on the top. The usual way was to drive, or ride donkeys; the dust was terrible but how worthwhile it was. We had a camp at the Pyramids, so studied them and enjoyed desert life to our hearts content.’

May remembers how they pitched their tents right beside the Sphinx, and that was when she fell in love with the desert. She spent happy days exploring the pyramids inside and out. But the greatest pleasure was having the pyramids and Sphinx to themselves at night when the other tourists had gone home.

There were also particular excitements, such as when Mr. Dixon declared he had found a stone which he believed to be hollow built into the top of the doorway of the King’s Chamber in Khufu’s pyramid, and he hoped it might contain papyri giving up the secrets and the history of the pyramid. May was as disappointed as everyone else when the stone was discovered to be as solid as the rest of the great blocks of stones around it.

The Amhersts loved to escape from the city and were apparently early risers.

‘Very early every morning we drove out of town far away into the desert, out beyond the tombs of the Caliphs. Here we could breathe the crisp, pure air of wide spaces and boundless sand. The lights and shades in the early morning were beautiful, the colouring of hills and desert wonderful. On our way home we generally stopped at a little coffeehouse [close to the Bab el Nasa]. Here a dear old man like Father Abraham made us delicious Arab coffee, fresh roasted and ground, and while we were drinking it out of tiny blue and white cups he told us stories and legends which were translated [for] us by Hassan in his quaint broken English.'

Hassan was the Amherst’s Dragoman. He had known and travelled with William Amherst since one of William’s earliest trips to Egypt in 1860. His full name was Hassan Vyse. May explains that he was so called ‘because he had been, as a small boy, with Colonel Howard Vyse when he opened the Great Pyramid. He spoke excellent English, French, Italian and Turkish, but I do not think he could read or write.’

Hassan too must have enjoyed working with the Amhersts as he named his youngest daughter, Mary - after May.

Sakkara was also a favourite place for camping. The Amhersts loved its wild isolation and wandered freely amongst the tombs and pyramids. They spent happy hours exploring the Serapeum with the aid of magnesium wires.

Sometimes a Bedouin caravan would pass Sakkara.

‘… and for a short time the shuffling padding of camel’s feet and the voices of men and women awoke the echoes, and when they were gone the lonely silence seemed deeper than ever.’

(See Part 3)