Thoughts on Eygpt by Margaret Varley
Note (attached to these hand written notes) Margaret F. Varley Roberts, d. Laughton, Essex April 1942 nee Brodie, formerly Fleming married Joseph Varley Roberts in 1913? She was older than he. No children. JVR MC married Margaret’s friend Gertrude Sawyer in 1943.
“This hand written album of Margaret’s experience in early C20th Egypt are wonderfully clear.” November 1936
Great blue Bay E and Lo Bay separated by Causeway built by Ptolemy to connect Pharos.
Dazzling Seafront - a white lighthouse and two white forts. 17 mile long Corniche - tall modern flats. Little wooden bathing huts, families live in all summer - insanitary, Huge cafes and dotted about street corners little wooden or reed shelters covered with vine or “morning glory” selling lemonade, etc.
Five Wide Streets Sycamore lined - splendid trains
Drive to Aboukir Gardens of date palms, bananas, oranges, lovely children picturesque by baskets of yellow guavas, stately women - brilliant skirts - bougainvillea’s and “morning glory” everywhere - in midst suddenly a tent or two of Bedouin black. Sheep flat fat tails.
Aboukir Rocky promontory stretches out to point - Queer old fashioned white washed fort deep (in desert). Little houses inside filled with black Nubian women and babies. Opposite the fort lies Nelson’s Island, yellow rocks long and low.
Lovely Gardens of Zoo - was magnificent club - 5 mile golf course - tennis - lawns - in distance curious sails of boats on canal. Numerous millionaires making a garden city.
King’s Palaces - one in harbour and one other end of Bay, at gates wretched native village. King drives whole corniche traffic stopped red cars.
British Military Barracks - and live force Depot on way to Aboukir Church of “Christ the King”.
Bridal Possessions - In Alex saw women carrying painted trunk on head with her trousseau - 2 or 3 carts piled up with gaudy Egyptian furniture - looks like a dolls house furniture. Soft padded quilts and cushions of brilliant pinks and yellows.
Dress - all see outdoors is grace of her carriage, long black dress and veil - gleam of her eyes and her anklets, on heads heavy water jars, pairs of clotties, baskets of cases - bundle around slender ankles.
Recreation in City - the baths are the only recreation outside the secluded courtyard of her home - there meets her friends - hears latest gossip and shows fine clothes.
Village Women - meet at river - washing clothes, wet clothes on head - wading into river - washing course - fetching water. [Goullah: small water pots] sometimes riding on donkey or camel generally walking quickly. In cart 8 or 10 and sit anywhere dark blue cotton, washed lovely colour look as picturesque marvellous balance will bend to pick up baby with heavy weight on head.
Head dress - wear hair in long plaits - false hair to length, finished off with purple wool - door key - coils and other things carried on end. Mandeel coloured kerchief over this Mellaya or veil sometimes Mallice long cloak of gathered silk (skirred) which covers head as well: this in country, in town more particular wear Buroagna and black mask.
Mena House - I saw a charming woman this morning her thin black robe showed on of the most brilliant red underneath - her dainty ankles and feet were bare, she jumped over a wall like a gazelle and walked with unspeakable grace and taste and presently returned with the most enormous pile on her head - still as swift and graceful as ever.
Camels - colour of brown, white or desert sand. Never drink before journey - at Menouf saw these being watered early in morn; man pumping up water. Often led by a baby boy driving a brown goat. String of camels - laden like walking stack of dhurra. Camel carrying plough - virigiliau plough - often seen a woman, baby on shoulders, basket on head, leading cow camel, sheep and gamouse. Grumbling and grunting shore in patterns to identify. Baskets of earth re brown on top. Gorgeous scarlet saddle clothes for special occasions - but generally goats hair. Baby camels.
Donkeys - some beautiful white baby donkey’s ears tied to make them stand up. Some big as ponies clipped and groomed blue heads gay trappings look as medieval as horses in fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli and riders almost as disfigured and splendid as Lorenzo - in their fined E. robes.
Gamouse - dark grey water buffalo love water - baby gamouse
Sheep and goats - often very much alike. Sheep fat tails - often brown mixed flocks coming home at night.
Villages and Roads
Roads - most by canals lined with trees. W. Harpur said 40 years ago few trees. British Government encouraged planting now many shady roads. Eucalyptus grows very quickly about 1 ft. a month. Lovely grey green against cloudless blue sky. One road we drove along was planted each side with flame trees, leaf-like acacia gorgeous scarlet flowers. Pods. Along the straight long shady road to the pyramids find extraordinary mixture of ancient and modern life. Stately poverty and Eastern leisureliness of movement and commerce. Nothing will make string of tall camels budge one inch from their chosen path nor will the slim supple brown limbed girl with her black shawl trailing in the dust turn her head at the most furious water holes. Arab riding on his lovely horse with its dainty limbs and glossy coat. The man carefully wrapped head and all in soft white camel’s hair shawl. Bare limbed donkey boys - herds of buffalo cows ridden by boys. Flocks of black goats driven by black Nubian shepherd. Droves of grey donkeys bearing long trails of purple-stemmed sugar cane. Sunburnt Bedouins, proud almond eyed Arabs, black Nubians, blacker but better looking Soudanese - soft footed evil eyed camels looking horribly bored “the disdainful duchess in a slum” and with all these telephone wires everywhere. Electric trains and magnificent Daimlers. One-way traffic - lovely flowers.
Narrow roads - between canals - deep soft and donkey laden with dhurra had to be unburdened, got scissors out to cut string men trying to untie with teeth.
Villages - All look same, houses mud brown without anything to break the outline. Very low and very dirty. Flat roofs piled with cakes of dried dung and heaps of dhurra stalks for fuel. A couple of higher house white washed an enclosed square with a few sycamores a few old men seated at their doors, often a big pond, ducks and geese. Endless children mostly dirty but picturesque in their gay clothes which look more vivid in the marvellous Egyptian light, black robed women laden with baskets on their heads and miserable looking babies covered with flies astraddle on their shoulders a confusion of fowls, sheep, goats and donkeys. A man on a seat with a Singer sewing machine working away. Near at hand all naked filth and ugliness but as you pass on and look back it becomes a patch of beauty on the landscape. Browns and soft grey green shimmering in the marvellous light behind the emerald foreground of cloves. Was ever such green as one sees in “Egypt.”
Egyptian Light - “In the light of Egypt the most ordinary things become extraordinary; the most simple wonderful. The oft washed blues and greys of the fellah’s falabeahs assume tones as pure and exquisite in colour as blues and greys of beads . . . . deceptive, bewildering Egyptian light! It transforms the bare Mokattam Hills into rolling seas of opals and minarets into shafts of white lotus flowers.” At sunset the whole world is pink, everything is a lovely soft blush-pink with deep heliotrope shadows.
Fellahine - How stately they look in their turban or flowing falabeah. Some in spotted white, others in cream some in grey of various shades. One I saw last night in the softest and most exquisite blue silk. All with their little caps, the camel driver who is walking along opposite me has a black falabeah with some bright scarlet at his neck. A group of men are in front of the great pyramid facing the East all saying their prayers (3 p.m.) - sit down and can lie down anywhere road, path.
The letter writer in the street - sprinkling sand for blotting paper.
The Water Carriers - “Sakkas” with their long drawn out cry. Water is one of favourite forms of charitable legacy rich giving. A man who killed another to get his wealth thinks he expiates his sin by one day in the year dressing as a beggar and offering water free to every person at the door of the Mosque.
Lemonade sellers -
Workman mixing mortar -
Police - at Mina House saw Arab in long cloaks going out each evening and returning at 6 a.m. their places then taken by Egyptian Police. Those on point duty had shelter.
Prayers - the Mosque at prayer is one of the sights which one sees over and over again in all sorts of places.
Moslem Funeral - very solemn, very modest, no music, no flowers, no hearse, coffin on shoulders on top laid his tax book and some of his personal belongings. Only men go, saw one at Menouf, graves very shallow, high domed erections built over them. Whitened.
Bread - great trays of round cakes like huge thick pancakes. So raised by baking hollow inside, they make a pouch of it by tearing on opening and putting inside a piece of pickle or other savoury.
Sweet cakes - and sticky looking biscuits sold in street.
Sugar cane -
Hospital - edge of town. N. W. corner. Canal flows by beyond the fields - vivid green - brown dhurra - soft green eucalyptus and sycamore fringing the distant large canal out of which rose tall white and pink turrets, seem almost fairy like. Never ending enjoyment from window.
Hospital prayers - 8 a.m. S. U. portion.
Girls School - Miss Hawes - artistic room - she grey haired, cultured (Miss Bland lives with her at present in England). All newest books. Kindergarten very sweet children in orange and brown uniform. Action songs.
Boys School - Revd. S. F. Cooper. Playground, younger boys playing cat and mouse. First class rooms.
Church - Upstairs room, hoping to build church room downstairs, one end children taught to play while mothers leave to make baby clothes and have lessons on hygiene and baby welfare. Afternoon school for street children. Model room in native house taught baby welfare.
Bible classes for Copts - who unusually hold all Christian faith but are terrible ignorant.
Mrs. Coopers classes for nurses and elder girls - like girls club, also educated women, needlework, games, &c.
Children - lovely faces. Marjorie says in Spring about our Easter time they have a feast called “Smelling of the Breezes” all go out into the fields with new dresses on looking gay as flowers - then wear it till next feast. Quite young carry water, picking up dung for fuel.
Clinic - in large yard, full of donkeys and people. Some terribly ill but refused to come to hospital.2 of them were T.B. Some very sick looking babies. Native catechist from South Sudan lives here. Saw his wife who said “where will someone from England come to live here and help us?” A very big town and on the way stopped at a tiny village clinic.
Bay el Arab - saw patients lying on floor after infections. Each patient given a card with a text in Arabic written on one side “Come unto the &c,”
Mr. and Mrs. Cooper - drove us out next day to see this work. Had been invited by principal Moslem in village to start school. Rented lrge house for 3 years - no rent if put in repair. Cleaned, plastered and white-washed walls, tiled floor and put windows in. Resident Evangelist going to be married to Asian girl. Mr. Cooper’s dream to reform the village through the school. Village very dirty, children wild, flies everywhere. Inside class of girls in clean cool room, pale green uniforms, buy themselves, learning to sew, read, write, count and hygiene.
Boys class - all spotlessly clean, 3 R’s, farming and bee keeping.
Welfare room - children taught also mothers - here they want bags for work not too small, sheets for cots old quite good, wool quilts an mosquito netting and mackintosh sheeting. Needle books, women taught to make own baby clothes - (12 outfits were wanted when we were there). Cradle cost about 2/= mattress stuffed with barley husks. Also bright coloured pictures specially loved little princess Margaret Rose.
For fathers - were having a Men’s club room, newspaper, games, &c.
Very fanatical Moslem village - missionaries had been stoned. Here the car wound into and out of narrow streets as bewildering as a maze. At last arrived gateway with C.M.S. who can tell thrill these letters give in a strange land. Here taken past the dispensary into the house occupied by Miss Lewis and Miss Pearson. Miss Lewis had worked her for 30 years with little or no visible result she was greatly loved and safe amid the riots. Had to go home last year but begged that the work should not be given up. Surrounded by a large garden. Before house a tiled terrace, some lovely large leaved shrubs with wonderful coloured foliage. Roses blooming, winding paths, rambler covered arch’s, tall trees round high wall. All spoke so lovingly of Miss Lewis and Mohammed, bright face curly head sent his love to Miss Lewis and be sure to tell her his wife was expecting a baby in May. He wanted to play us something on the harmonium in the waiting room. Tell Miss Lewis you go to see her. As we were leaving town he suddenly appeared on his bicycle with some bread for Bisuni who was driving us. How we got out of those narrow streets without killing someone I don’t know.
“An inexhaustible city of rich architecture and melancholy dilapidation.” Glorious flowers in rich suburbs. Noticed how Mohammed has stamped out race hatred, every man who becomes a Moslem becomes a member of one vast brotherhood.
Gharry - Two little houses in Victoria a feature of the city. One must pass through the Egyptian Babylon with its high wall and two circular towers to reach the Christian quarter of Cairo where are six exquisite Coptic churches - the Babylon fortress was Roman so called because built by Babylonian captives several hundred years before Christ by orders of one of Trojan’s generals to guard the Nile. We went up a long flight of marble steps into the lovely Coptic Hanging Church (so called because suspended between the two bastions of the old fortress). Lovely carved doors inlaid with ebony and ivory, and inside lovely wood carving, stone arabesques and lattice screen and as we came out one lovely screen labelled “Telephone” !!!
On our way we passed the oldest of all Cairo Mosques to which the King always goes on the last Friday of Ramadan together with people of all religions, Jews, Christians, Greek and Moslem to offer up prayers for water - there is a legend when Mosque of Amr exists no longer Islam will fall it is almost in runs now.
On our way to Old Cairo we meet the Scouts and Guides bearing wreaths strung on a long pole and one beautiful one, turning out to parade in honour of Armistice Day.
From there we went to the beautiful little church of Christ the Light of the World, so clean and bright and airy. With its lovely pink alabaster windows in the apsidal chancel and in one little side aisle a tiny window with gems of stained glass glowing like uncut jewels from a lace work of white marble. And there we had the joy of joining with our fellow Christians in the Communion Service, they in Arab and we in English.
The exquisite lace work in brown wood which lets fresh air blow in, but, excludes the warm sunshine. So closely fretted and pierced that no preying eye can see faces behind it and yet from inside can see all with ease. They are not really carved or fretted but pieced together out of countless knobs and almond shaped pegs of wood.
Birds and Flowers
- Ibis - this sacred bird, protected by law, like a tiny snow white stork wading in flooded fields.
- Hoopoe - brown striped with a golden colour pointed crest on head, insectivorous.
- Water wagtails -
- Sparrows -
- Kingfishers -
- Bougainvilleas - wine coloured
- Morning Glory - bright blue convolvulus
- Canna - scarlet and yellow
- Poinsettia - big trees - flame trees
- The loofah - bright yellow
- Acacia’s - powdered with gold
New system - being adopted, deep canals to carry off water.
Sakkiyeh - or native well under a group of shady trees two grey gamoose turn with stately tread the creaking wheel that is never greased - how would the owner know whether it was working but for that peculiar plaintive moaning song. The gamoose are blind folded. We saw a small boy sitting on the wheel doling out brown bunches of dhurra to the Gamoose as they went round.
Shadoof - a bucket worked by a man, with a pulley weighted with lumps of mud. We saw this at Alex.
Mena House - as I lie in bed I look straight on to the Great Pyramid the “Mighty Tomb of Cheops.” It is said that 1,300 men a week were told off to drag the stones and each week half died, then a fresh 1,300 carried on.
Simple as they look to construct efforts have been made over and over again to see how they build them. “A large body of engineers and miners tried to pull out the stones of the Red Pyramid and with untold and continuous efforts only managed to move one or two stones a day, these blocks fell down with a thunderous shock and buried themselves in the sand whence they were extricated with considerable toil and laboriously blown up.”
I have seen wonderful lights on the pyramid, the pale rose of dawn, changing to every shade of violet and the pure gold (quite indescribable) in the setting sun.