The Nile Cruise, 1847 and 1897

View map of Wilkinson's 1847 Nile itinerary View map of Cook's 1897 Nile itinerary

For many nineteenth and early twentieth century travelers, a cruise along the Nile River was the centerpiece of a journey to Egypt. As Douglas Sladen remarked in 1910, “To me the Nile was a source of never-ending interest and delight; the shining thread which linked Egypt from end to end; the highway to the dark Sudan; the street of ancient Egyptian temples; the country road from which you see all the quaint procedure of Egyptian agriculture; a chapter in the history of the humours of Egypt” (387). Sladen's overwrought prose reveals not only the tourist's delight in the Nile cruise, but also the extent to which he and many of his compatriots viewed Egypt as site of the exotic and unchanging--or unchanged by time.

Until the 1870s, the principal way that tourists traveled along the Nile was in a dahabiya, a large houseboat with cross-sails. According to Donald Reid, in 1858 “a forty-day round trip from Cairo to Luxor cost about £110; a fifty-day trip to Aswan and back, about £150” (85). But the experience of the Nile cruise changed significantly over the course of the nineteenth century, as the tourism company Thomas Cook Ltd. brought speedy steamers and organizational skill to turn the Nile cruise from a leisurely three-month cruise to a twenty-day sightseeing expedition. As Reid notes, “Steamers had cut the time required for Upper Egyptian tours by one-half to two-thirds, freed tourism from the vagaries of the wind, and produced the precise schedules the industrial age demanded” (85). By 1900, the railroad presented an alternative to the steamer; dahabiyas were reserved only for the most wealthy, leisured travelers.

By comparing maps of Nile cruises based on intineraries given in Sir John Gardner Wilkinson's 1847 Hand-book for travellers in Egypt and Cook's 1897 Notes for Travellers, as well as the texts of these guidebooks themselves, we can see how travel routes and practices in Egypt changed between 1847 and 1897. In 1847, travelers had to make their own arrangements to cruise the Nile on a dahabiya. As Derek Gregory writes, “Travel writers offered particularly detailed advice on the dahabeeah voyage, which was constructed as the defining experience of tourism in Egypt during the middle decades of the nineteenth century” (120). Wilkinson gave detailed advice for hiring a boat, provisioning it, painting it, ridding it of pests, overseeing the boatmen, providing tips, and much more. But by1897, Thomas Cook assured travelers that they could feel confident in hiring a dahabiya through the company, since it promised that “Dragomans and other necessary servants and food supplies are carefully selected and provided” (14). However, Cook’s provided speedier service through 6 tourist steamers (“modern vessels built in Scotland regardless of expense”), four mail steamers, five paddle steamers, two steam dahabiyas, and five steam launches (Cook 13). In 1847, Wilkinson advised that “Twenty days may be reckoned a fair average for the voyage from Cairo to Thebes; with fair winds, it is possible to go from Thebes to the second Cataract and back again in a fortnight, though this is rarely done; and the least time for seeing Egypt conveniently, is three months” (2). In contrast, in 1897 travelers could take Cook’s first class tourist steamer from Cairo to the First Cataract (near Aswan) and back in twenty days; trips to the Second Cataract (near Wadi Halfa) required an additional seven days.

Speed required not only taking advantage of transportation technologies like the steamer, but also standardizing travel routes. Whereas Wilkinson includes a wide range of Nile itineraries, including several land routes, Cook's tours focus on key sites along the Nile, such as Abydos, Thebes, Philae, and Abu Simbel. Before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, some travelers going from Europe to India would cruise along the Nile to Qina or Thebes, then take the overland route to the port of Kossayr (Qusseir), where they would then board ships to India. Wilkinson thus describes several land routes to Kossayr, but the 1897 Cook's guide does not include this route.

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, Hand-book for travellers in Egypt; including descriptions of the course of the Nile to the second cataract, Alexandria, Cairo, the pyramids, and Thebes, the overland transit to India, the peninsula of Mount Sinai, the oases, &c. Being a new edition, corrected and condensed, of "Modern Egypt and Thebes (London: John Murray and Sons, 1847)

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875), a distinguished British Egyptologist, authored scholarly works on Egypt such as Topography of Thebes and General View of Egypt (1835), as well as more topical works such as Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837). In addition, he wrote a popular guidebook, Handbook for Travellers in Egypt (1847), that was based on his Modern Egypt and Thebes. Wilkinson’s Handbook went through many editions, reaching its seventh edition by 1888 (Mitchell 230). This guidebook, one of the first on Egypt, was written for John Murray and Sons, a leading British publishing house that produced the first modern travel guides (Thompson 167). Murray’s travel handbooks were aimed at middle-class travelers and were typically authored by members of the Royal Geographical Society and other experts. After having spent 1821-1833 in Egypt, Wilkinson again traveled there in 1841 to gather information for his guidebook. According to Wilkinson’s biographer Jason Thompson, “Many English travelers in Egypt subsequently floated up and down the Nile with Handbook for Travellers in Egypt in one hand and Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians in the other” (168). Murray’s handbook was the most popular guidebook to Egypt in English until the 1890s, when Baedeker’s began to lead the market (Gregory 118).

View map of Wilkinson's 1847 Nile itinerary

Thomas Cook Ltd. Cook's tourists' handbook for Egypt, the Nile, and the Desert. (London: T. Cook & Son, 1897)

Credited with being “the founder of modern tourism,” Thomas Cook established his tour company in England in 1841 byorganizing trips for the middle and lower class in the English Midlands (Hunter 30). In 1870, Egypt’s Viceroy Ismail granted Thomas Cook Ltd a concession to run the Egyptian government’s steamer fleet from Cairo to Aswan (the First Cataract); in 1874, he extended the service to the Sudanese border (the Second Cataract) and granted the company an exclusive concession to carry government mail along the Nile (Hunter 31). Thomas Cook Ltd. developed the infrastructure for a vibrant tourism industry in Egypt. The dahabiyas typically used to convey tourists along the Nile were too slow and small to sustain mass tourism, so Thomas Cook Ltd. invested first in improving the Egyptian government’s fleet of steamships, then in building its own fleet of fast, luxurious steamers. Through travel guides, its magazine Cook’s Excursionist, and advertisements, the company marketed Egypt “as a winter resort par excellence” that offered a mild climate and exotic ancient sites (Hunter 36). During the winter of 1889-1890, almost 11,000 tourists visited Cairo, “of whom 1300 went up the Nile” (Hunter 42); ten years later, as many as 50,000 visited Egypt (Hazbun 20). By the turn of the century, Thomas Cook Ltd. had developed a network of “tourist stations” along the Nile offering a range of accommodations and conveniences, from post offices to doctors’ offices. After first arriving at Alexandria, tourists could receive assistance from Cook’s agents in planning the rest of their travel in Egypt. The main stops along the Nile were Cairo, Asyut, Luxor, Aswan, and Khartoum. According to Douglas Sladen, a veteran of Cook’s Nile cruise, “Cook is the uncrowned King of Egypt, and this is the navy with which he won his battle of the Nile” (388). Sladen and his fellow travelers could cruise the Nile in luxury, staring out the window at the sights while reclining in bed or relaxing in the lounge, while servants attended to their every need. So successful was Cook in providing commercialized travel services in Egypt that, as F. Robert Hunter argues, “By the turn of the century, there were two empires on the Nile – Britain’s military occupation, and Cook’s Egyptian travel. The Nile had become the favourite winter resort of westerners. A traveller could leave his native shores and find the comforts of home aboard a steamship and in luxury hotels bathed in desert sunshine” (44). Cook's travel guides helped to sustain its hold on the tourism market. Passengers on Thomas Cook’s Nile steamers received a copy of Cook's Notes for Travellers, which was written in 1886 by E. A. Wallis Budge, Keeper of the Antiquities in the British Museum (Gregory 118). Cook's guide included a detailed MAP OF COOK'S STEAMER AND DAHABEAH SERVICE ON THE NILE that is credited to W. and A.K. Johnston (Edinburgh and London), a Scottish cartographic firm founded in 1825. This map traces the route from Alexandria to Cairo, then follows the Nile to the first and second cataracts.

View map of Cook's 1897 Nile itinerary

About Google Maps

We have created our own maps of Wilkinson's and Cook's Nile tours using the Google Map API. Although print maps have their own beauty and utility, the Google Map is more interactive and dynamic than a print map. For instance, you can view satellite imagery of contemporary Egypt, zoom in on particular locations, and navigate along the Nile route. At each marker, you will find an information window that contains a link to the section of the the guidebook discussing that site. (This link will open in a separate window; the text may take as few seconds to load.)

We used the NGA Geographic Names Database to determine the latitude and longitude of the locations included in the itineraries. In a few cases, we were not able to find the place in the NGA database, probably because of changes in the way that the place name is spelled.

There are some significant differences between the Google Maps and print maps, such as Cook's map of the Nile tour published in its 1897 guidebook. Perhaps most significantly, the Cook's map follows the curve of the Nile, while the Google Map uses a straight line to connect two points (places), so sometimes the Google route traverses land rather than water. Note also that the geography of Egypt has changed between the nineteenth century and the present (the time period represented by the Google Map); for instance, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s required that the ancient Egyptian temple complex of Abu Simbel be relocated, since otherwise it would have been submerged.

Works Consulted