Tea with the Sphinx

I recently attended a two-day conference entitled ‘Tea with the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt and the Modern Imagination’ at the University of Birmingham. It was, as I was to find out, an interdisciplinary conference offering diverse subject matters from mummy heads to Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra (for full details see the programme here). For many at the conference, myself included, it was an opportunity to step out of their usual research and stretch their imagination in a new direction. As a result the conference provided new perspectives in the area of Egyptomania and the study of the reception of Ancient Egypt.

Having attended many conferences and organised a few myself I know how hard they can be to get right and the organisers Nichola Tonks and Ellie Dobson managed to do it, balancing academic standards with a friendly touch. Besides the usual minor technical difficulties, which are a hallmark and a necessity for any conference, it was brilliantly organised. What was evident from the first session was that this was going to be, and was, a welcoming environment for presenting ideas and fostering new relationships. As an early postgraduate student having such an environment to present and discuss your ideas is a must and ‘Tea with the Sphinx’ did this while still presenting a challenging experience. It expanded my knowledge and led me to think about the subject matter differently.

The relaxed and friendly atmosphere was summed up by the homemade Egyptianised cupcakes, by Nichola, which brought the concept ‘consuming ancient Egypt[1]’ to a whole new level! (they tasted amazing by the way!). The consuming continued in the aptly named 'Blue Nile' restaurant for the conference dinner where Egyptianising tropes and puns dominated the conversation. 

Some of the amazing Egyptomania Cupcakes! 

Some of the amazing Egyptomania Cupcakes! 

Over the two day conference multiple ideas and viewpoints were presented and the interdisciplinary nature of the conference meant that the attendees were constantly challenged and kept entertained. I’m not going to attempt to summarise all of the papers (HARN has started a blog post on this) but I think one session encapsulated the entire event, the ‘Comic Session’. Eagerly awaited, the comic session, like the conference itself, was engaging, funny, novel, thought provoking and inspiring (Thank you to Daniel and Nickianne).

“To be a modern women you need to look to the past’ Mara Gold
‘Superman, come look at my shabti' Daniel Potter
'Where do rabbits source their antiquities?' Martyn Barber

My own talk focussed on the reception of Ancient Egypt in Ireland. I had entitled my talk ‘Guinness with the Sphinx’ playing on the title of the conference to give it an ‘Irish’ twist. At the end I had included a slide of a fake antique Guinness poster I had designed (having found that none existed). I didn’t know if I would show it, I was going to see what the tone of the conference allowed. I showed it!

My Egyptomania Guinness Inspired Poster

My Egyptomania Guinness Inspired Poster

Thank you again to the organisers and all the attendees for an engaging and enjoyable two days. 


[1] McDonald, S. and Rice, M. (2003) Consuming Ancient Egypt. Left Coast Press. 

On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel - Book Review

Humphreys, Andrew, On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel, AUC Press, 184 pp., 274 illus., including 110 in colour, ISBN 9789774166938, $34.95.


Andrew Humpreys’s second book published by AUC press continues on the theme of the Golden Age of Travel in Egypt. While his first book (Grand Hotels of Egypt, reviewed by Deb Manley in Bulletin 51) concentrated on the titular grand hotels of Egypt, this book focusses on those that took to exploring Egypt from the Nile. This book deals with the evolution of the Nile cruise aboard dahabiyas and steamships but it should carry a sub-title that says ‘A History of Thomas Cook (& Son) on the Nile’, for essentially it deals with the birth, evolution and decline of Cook’s monopoly on Nile boat travel. This is by no means a negative aspect of the book; on the contrary, given the large amount of activity on the Nile during this time period (which Humphreys alludes to throughout the book) it makes sense to concentrate his research on the principle competitor.

The book is organised into nine chapters with a very useful annex which lists alphabetically the steamers used on the Nile passenger services from the 1880s until the second world war. The book traces Cook and Son’s activity on the Nile from 1869 to 1948 and weaves many anecdotes and historical event around this central theme, touching on the pleasures, wonders and sometime hazards of Nile travel.

The first chapter opens with a summary of Mrs Riggs’s travels in Egypt and serves as a backdrop to the introduction of the first Cook’s tour of Egypt in 1869. The second chapter steps back in time to look at how early visitors travelling on the Nile sailed on dahabiyas and includes the inevitable tales of sinking vessels to rid them of vermin. The subsequent chapters deal primarily with Cook and Son on the Nile, tracing the company’s early beginnings, its dominance of Nile travel and influence in Egypt, its expanding business and role in the British-Egyptian campaigns in Sudan, the Gordon relief expedition and World War I. The last chapters deal with the end of the Cook and Sons era on the Nile, the emergence of the modern Nile cruise business and the return in popularity of the dahabiya.

While tracing the evolution of river cruising on the Nile the author also touches on the fascinating social status attached to the Nile cruise. Starting with Thomas Cook’s aim to democratise travel on the Nile – to the horror of the establishment – Humphreys traces how Cook & Sons inevitably introduced a line of exclusive cruisers and dahabiyas. The book is also, in parts, a homage to ‘who was who’ in Egypt in the golden age of travel and has some very enjoyable entries on Wallis Budge, Amelia Edwards, Agatha Christie, and Egyptian and European royalty to name a few.

The aesthetic nature of On the Nile is hard to ignore. The book is beautifully illustrated, so richly in fact, that one is drawn to perusing the images at length before delving into the text itself. The illustrations are plentiful and rather than being there for ‘show’ they are a valuable addition to the text. Given the closeness in subject matter to Humphreys’s first book Grand Hotels in Egypt it is amazing that there is little repetition of illustrations in this book. The book cover, designed by Gadi Farfour, is striking. Harkening back to the golden age of travel advertising, the cover closely resembles an original piece of tourist memorabilia like the one used in Grand Hotels but it is an original piece of work that perfectly encapsulates the subject matter. However, the index of illustrations, while welcome, is not complete and there are some illustrations that are not annotated in full. This is a minor cavil, but people with an interest in this area of research may be left wondering about the provenance of some of the illustrations.

However, a book’s success is not dependent on its illustrations alone and the text in this book, as with Humphreys’s first book, is effortlessly readable and as a result a page turner. Hardened scholars of travel on the Nile in the nineteenth and early 20th century may not gain a vast wealth of new information on travel in Egypt during this period but for the majority of readers this will be a riveting and educational read. The book ends, fittingly, with a mention of the last commissioned Cook vessel, the SS Sudan, which is also the only remaining functioning steam ship from Cook’s original fleet operating on the Nile today. As Humpreys states, there are many more old steamships in varying states of disrepair in Egypt that are waiting to be reinvigorated. They may be ‘too far gone to be salvaged but, as with all journeys on the Nile, real and imagined, it’s good to dream’.

Humpreys has produced another gem of a book and in doing so whets the reader’s appetite for more. More information can be found on his website at http://grandhotelsegypt.com/