Early European Travellers in Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Thebes (Modern Luxor) in Upper Egypt was for many centuries a lost city whose existence as Diospolos Magna was famous from Latin texts but whose exact location had been forgotten. This absence was partly due to the relocation of the Egyptian capital north to Memphis (modern Cairo) and partly to the fog of history. For more than a millennium, the facts of the great Egyptian civilization were largely invisible in European cultural history.

One of the first appearances on early European maps is 1595 by Abraham Ortelius of Amsterdam now in the British Museum. One of the First Europeans on the ground journeyed to Luxor in 1589. There is also reputed to be an early account from two Capuchin friars to Luxor and Esna in 1668, which may even mention Qurna.(1)

One of best documented early accounts comes from the correspondence of Jesuit missionary Claude Sicard (1677–1726). He traveled south from his base in Cairo, sailing up the Nile ostensibly visiting Coptic monasteries en route but also describing surviving antiquities as well as the customs and manners of the local Arab and Coptic populations. He made several maps of the country including one of the earliest dated 1722 which shows Luxor, Karnak as well as three small villages on the west bank, Medinet Habu, Corna and Kom al Byrat .

Diopolis Magna (Thebes) is in the right hand square

A few years later Richard Pococke, an English cleric retraced his footsteps, recording in greater detail the remains and encounters with the people. Egypt at the time was part of the Ottoman empire and authority was vested in a hierarchy of regional officials. The Governor of Upper Egypt was based in Asyut or Assiut. At the most local level was the Sheikh Beladi, the native chief of each village who might also have been overlooked by a Nazier Sheikh (source Wilkinson “Topography” p 276-7).

Foreigners could travel the length of the Nile provided they visited the right official and possessed the necessary paperwork/letters of introduction. Claude Sicard’s introductions led him to an entirely different Sheikh Beladi, indeed rival to those encountered by Richard Pococke.

When Sicard arrived in Thebes he traveled to the west bank and across to the valley of the Kings in the company of the people of Medinet Habu. Pococke made landfall slightly further north at Qurna and stayed with their local Sheikh. Thus in Pococke’s account he records that they also went to the valley of the kings although the sheikh was nervous lest the people of the nearby village (obviously not his native Qurna) came over the hills via the known mountain tracks and in some way harassed them.

The entire sacred mountain is shown here on this rather charming engraving from his published memoir. The projection is slightly fantastical, although the village of Qurna is visible (shown just to the right (north) of D). Also shown is the artificially flatted face of the cliff at the head of the valley where nowadays one visits the temple of Hatshepsut.


It’s interesting to compare these accounts with another made by Danishman Frederik Norden just a few years later in 1737-38. Norden’s local contacts seem less good and he is actively harassed by the people of Medinet Habu as he copies the inscriptions on the Colossi of Memnon. All sources remind one of the importance of the gift as all important social facilitator in Arab culture. Norden is disparaging about this and seems quite mean in his responses. I was struck by the fact that this exchange of gifts was not one sided and in addition to the accommodation, hospitality and guidance the local Arabs often gave expensive gifts in return. At least they did to Richard Pococke who was well supplied with suitable gifts and in exchange for the assistance from the Prince of Akmin, gave a bag of rice, some tobacco, soap and “a pair of such red shoes as they wear”(p90) . The prince’s officers returned with the letters of introduction and a present of a whole sheep!

Having established the antiquity of local settlements such as Qurna, my next question would be what about that Tomb of Sheikh abd al Qurna, one of two local village “saints” linked to Qurna? Its dramatic location dominates the whole necropolis on the eastern flank. But who was Sheikh abd al Qurna and how long has the shrine been there? See next blog post.


(1) Baines & Malek (2000) Atlas of Ancient Egypt. p 22-23. These early accounts published in Voyageurs Occidentaux en Egypt, Cairo 1970

Other sources
Norman De Garis
Kees Van Der Spek
Robert Hay

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