In her introductory blog Deirdre discussed Charles Edwin Wilbour, the American Egyptologist whose collections form the backbone of the Museum’s Egyptian holdings. This post is about Wilbour’s interest in Egypt. Some of the photographs and documents illustrated here are in the Library Display Cases at the Brooklyn Museum until May 2010.
Wilbour spent his winters in Egypt, working at sites throughout the country from 1880 until his death in 1896. Wilbour travelled from site to site by train, postal steamer, or hitching a lift on the steamer belonging to the Department of Antiquities. By the time of his visit in 1886, however, he had decided to buy a dahabiya (houseboat), which would accommodate him, his visiting family, and his library in greater comfort.
Travelling by dahabiya was simple: you used the prevailing wind to sail upstream (south), and drifted downstream (north) with the current. This method had changed little over millennia—the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘travel north’ is a boat with its sail furled, and ‘travel south’ a boat with its sail raised.
Wilbour never regretted the purchase of The Seven Hathors: “Greece and Italy are delightful, but the moment when I feel twice as much alive comes to me when the Nile banks begin to slide past the dahabiya from Bedresheyn to Aswan.”
The following excerpts from Wilbour’s letters to his mother and aunt show his acquisition of The Seven Hathors, and its maiden voyage:
November 29, 1886
Thursday Arminius the Copt came to my terms about his dahabiya, declared before witnesses that she was mine, and I went over to raise the Stars and Stripes on her. … We have in the house part a space 16 2/3 feet by 54 feet, just nine hundred square feet, and on the deck about seven hundred feet more covered in by canvas. Below I have to stretch a little to reach the ceiling, so there is no danger of Dora bumping her high hat. I think we shall be comfortable and only wish you had an Enchanted Carpet to transport you suddenly to this Land of the Sun.
Monday December 13, 1886
They [Wibour’s wife Charlotte (‘Lottie’), their children, Victor, Evelyn, and Dora, and Evelyn’s husband Ned] arrived Wednesday after a bad voyage and ever since Lottie and I have been running about buying the things for housekeeping. You may get almost everything here, but you have to bargain which takes time.
They are all very much pleased with the boat and instead of wanting to wait and see the splendours of Cairo are anxious to be off up the river. There are yet carpenters and plumbers and painters at work, but Victor says that it seems like home. Lottie is already speaking of the things she will put over to do next year and so her occupation in Egypt which was to be for this winter only, seems already growing to be like the English. We go out mostly afternoons to the boat and see the sunset there, which is gorgeous.
… We have held Council over the boat’s name and have concluded to call her The Seven Hathors. It lends itself to hieroglyphic decoration and Egyptians will call her “Seven,” Seba. We find the Seven Hathors on most of the more perfect temples. In the sky they are the Pleiades. Being a wooden boat she would almost float if full of water, but in order to make a life boat I am having four hundred empty petroleum cans sealed up to be put in her holds at its sides. If she should ever fill with water they will lift seven tons and so prevent her from sinking. I have done this so that Lottie might sleep better…
December 20, 1886
We came on board Saturday the eighteenth and have not digested our trunks. And yesterday we took on board four hundred dollars worth of provisions, so you see we have a considerable chaos …
Approaching Beni Suef
December 29, 1886
… Lottie has been struggling this far with our belongings and the rear room is beginning to get into shape. The deck is still pretty much chaos… We bought an eight-dollar sewing machine and Dora has been running it today. The Library is still encumbered with many eatables. But the machine begins to work and when we got back from Saqqara Lottie said she was glad to get “home”. It is a pleasure to have a moving house and ours is as big as the one Columbus first crossed in.
Tuesday January 4, 1887
We sailed to Bibbeh, where next morning we visited the Coptic Convent and Ned made a sketch in the Church of it… New Year’s Day we put up our streamer. The blue end of it was a cook’s apron. A Hathor hieroglyphic is applied to it in white and then on the white and red streamers below is a hieroglyphic 7, thus:
Altogether it is our American colors adapted to our Seven Hathors name. When we get where there are good Pharaonic Hathors to copy Ned will do something for the decoration of the boat. At Minya we hope to find letters, and butter from Isigny in France, sent up from Cairo by post. Hitherto I have not eaten butter in Egypt. Even at Shepheard’s Hotel they do not have good butter…
Tom Hardwick studied Egyptology at Oxford University, where he is working on a doctorate in Egyptian sculpture. He worked as Keeper of Egyptology at Bolton Museum in the UK, 2005-2009, and is currently volunteering in the Wilbour Library of Egyptology. He has published articles on Egyptian art, the history of Egyptology, and the history of collecting.