A Trip to the Sphinx

Roger Hudson expands on a photograph of an Edwardian excursion to the sites at Giza around 1910.

British tourists, their costume making no concessions to climate, pose in about 1910 on their donkeys and camels at Giza outside Cairo, the Sphinx over their shoulders. There is every chance that for the duration of their time in Egypt they will have placed themselves in the hands of Thomas Cook & Sons. Ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 Cook’s have dominated tourism there, setting up their office in the grounds of the Shepheard’s Hotel, catering for travellers en route to India and further east as well as those merely wanting to see Cairo and journey up the Nile to view the pharaonic remains. They have a fleet of sailing dahabeahs and steamers on which Europeans can be insulated from the dangers that otherwise accompany eastern travel. In 1884 these came in handy when General Wolseley needed to transport his expedition to try to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, carrying 18,000 men and 130,000 tons of stores. When Kitchener eventually set out to avenge Gordon’s death in 1897, it was again Cook’s steamers that carried many of his men. By then they were the biggest employers of labour in the country, whether of sailors manning the steamers or fellahin (peasants) raising thepoultry and vegetables to be eaten on them.

These tourists would have been told that both the Sphinx and the pyramids were the work of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), carried out in about 2560 BC. Whether the 2.3 million limestone blocks needed to construct the Great Pyramid were dragged into position by free men or slaves, whether it is Khufu’s face attached to the lion body of the Sphinx and whether he was a heretic and tyrant, as the Greek historian Herodotus claimed 2,000 years after his death, was and will continue to be argued over. About the powers of the most recent de facto ruler of Egypt, Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, they would have had few doubts. The country may still have been nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, while Baring’s title may merely have been that of consul-general, and there may still have been the khedive, the Turkish sultan’s viceroy, but all knew that this was just so much dressing. ‘Overbaring’ or ‘Le Grand Ours’, the vice-viceroy or para-pharaoh, was the ‘whisper behind the throne’, with 6,000 British troops and with British officers holding all the key posts in the reformed Egyptian army under Kitchener’s command.

Installed in 1883 by a Liberal government that could not possibly lend itself to any annexation of Egypt, Baring was in theory committed to early withdrawal, but he was also expected to reduce the country’s debts and ensure the security of the Suez Canal. As the years went by he was able to convince himself that the only guarantee of being able to fulfil these expectations was for Britain to go on running the show. Pangs of guilt were assuaged by a vigorous programme of public works – drainage and irrigation schemes such as the Aswan Dam, improvements to the railways – and the upholding of the rights of the fellahin, with the courts reformed and forced labour abolished. But the urban, commercial, educated classes were ignored and no attempt was made to set up a proper system of schools and colleges. Lord Edward Cecil, son of  prime minister Salisbury and a world-weary senior figure in the Egyptian administration, knew the score, writing in the 1910s: ‘It is not, as some falsely hold, a corner of the Empire, inhabited by future pro-consuls and the grateful people they govern (as if any one ever did like being governed!), but an enormous and unending opéra bouffe.’