Past Perfect: Beneath the Pyramids
A British cartoonist spoofs his fellow travelers
Egypt has always been popular with tourists. In ancient times, travelers came from Greece and Rome to study at the library at Alexandria or consult the oracle at Amun Siwa. During the Middle Ages, globe-trotting adventurers like the Spanish-Jewish explorer Benjamin of Tedula marveled at the riches of Cairo and puzzled over the riddles of the sphinx. In the late 18th century, Napoleon not only conquered the land of the pharaohs but also created a special task force of peregrinating scholars to study the country’s art, architecture and ancient history. But the real foreign invasion of Egypt began in the middle of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution created a new class of leisured traveler. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt became one of most popular tourist attractions in the world. It was a special favorite of wealthy Brits, who entertained themselves with sumptuous banquets in ancient Egyptian temples, posh steamboat cruises down the Nile and lavish fireworks displays over the pyramids. By 1900, the once-incongruous sight of a starched Victorian matron riding a camel had become commonplace. One elegant gentleman who checked into Cairo’s Shepheard’s Hotel at the turn of the century was the tart-tongued, keen-eyed British cartoonist Lance Thackeray. A popular postcard artist and magazine illustrator, Thackeray devoted himself to recording the foibles of his fellow travelers. His colorful sketches and wry observations were published in book form in 1908 as The Light Side of Egypt—a cheerful, ironic commentary on conspicuous consumption abroad.
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