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Machines of the future

A Thousand Miles up the Nile: a momentous journey.

Text: Sabine Huebner

My book: Sabine Huebner, professor of ancient history, recommends: “A Thousand Miles up the Nile” by the British travel writer Amelia Edwards.

Prof. Dr. Sabine R. Huebner. (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)
Prof. Dr. Sabine R. Huebner. (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)

As a single woman in Victorian England, the writer Amelia Edwards decided quite spontaneously to set off on an expedition to Upper Egypt. This riverboat trip, which took her all the way up to the Sudanese border, was to change her life. I am fascinated in equal measure by Edwards’s account of her journey up the Nile in 1873/74 and by the author herself, who was exceptional for her time and held fast to her ideals in the face of numerous obstacles.

Despite her lack of academic training, after her trip she devoted herself to the preservation and study of Egyptian antiquities, led archaeological digs and became one of the founders of Egyptology. In A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1877), Edwards was the first to express misgivings about the sustainability of tourism in Egypt. She had seen for herself that the monuments were at risk and witnessed the carelessness of tourists and the methods excavators were using, which were geared towards profit.

However, financial resources were needed to fund the academic study and preservation of Egyptian antiquities. With that in mind, Edwards, an inspirational speaker, undertook a series of lecture tours around England and the USA, where she was able to secure the backing of some wealthy patrons. Soon a fund that she had helped to establish was supporting a number of scientific digs on the ground.

Her efforts did not go unrecognized by the profession: at a time when women were not even admitted to most universities, she held three honorary doctorates. She also left a bequest to set up the first British chair of Egyptology.

Incidentally, Edwards’s travelogue was an immediate bestseller and made her rich virtually overnight. When a nitpicker complained that the distance from Alexandria to Abusir was only 9641miles, not 1,000, she retorted that she had been able to see for at least another 145 miles from the endpoint of her journey, as far as the mountains at the third cataract. The horizon represents the limits of the attainable. If, instead of stopping, we press on, those limits can be pushed back indefinitely.

Sabine R. Huebner is Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. Her main research interests are the social, religious and economic history of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world, historical demography, epigraphy and papyrology.

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