The Egyptians have a long history of despotic rulers—a situation 19th century Europeans deplored in nearly every journal and travel account I read while researching Mr. Impossible. Florence Nightingale grieves for the oppressed Egyptians, too, but the following passage is more typical of her vibrant writing in this fascinating book—a surprise when I stumbled on it. As with Queen Victoria, one tends to see Florence Nightingale as an institution. But here she is as a young woman of twenty-nine, discovering an exotic world.
No one ever talks about the beauty of Cairo, ever gives you the least idea of this surpassing city. I thought it was a place to buy stores at and pass through on one’s way to India instead of being the rose of cities, the garden of the desert, the pearl of Moorish architecture, the fairest, really the fairest, place of earth below. It reminds me always of Sirius I can’t tell why, except that Sirius has the silveriest light in heaven above, and Cairo has the same radiant look on earth below . . . Oh, could I but describe those Moorish streets, in red and white stripes of marble, the latticed balconies, with little octagonal shrines, also latticed, sticking out of them, for the ladies to look straight down through; the innumerable mosques and minarets; the arcades in the insides of houses you peep into ,the first stories meeting almost overhead, and yet the air with nothing but fragrance on it, in these narrowest of narrow wynds!...
We strode down again into the city, swarming with life . . . you cannot imagine how you will get through the streets; you expect to run over every child, and to be run over by every camel, who, gigantic animals! Loom round every sharp corner just as you are coming to it, and are the tallest creatures I ever saw: there does not appear standing room for a fly. You address your ass in the tenderest terms, and in the purest Arabic; you adjure him by all the names of friendship to stop: but he understands no Arabic except his drivers, and on he goes, full trot, while you are making hairbreadth ‘scapes at every corner, yet receiving hardly a knock.
~~~ Florence Nightingale, Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-50.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.