Eothen: Idle Wanderings in the Time of Plague, Alexander William Kinglake’s 1835 Journey of the Eastern Mediterranean

In 1835 Alexander William Kinglake was crossing the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza to Cairo when he encountered an unnamed Englishman travelling in the opposite direction. The two small caravans stopped for a brief exchange, ‘I daresay you wish to know how the plague is going on at Cairo?’ the other Englishman offered. This was valuable information for Cairo was tormented by a plague that was spreading throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Thirty or perhaps forty percent of Cairo’s quarter million population would eventually succumb to the disease. Upon arrival Kinglake found himself in the city in the midst of disease and death, throughout his stay he saw many of those about him perish, his landlord, a banker with whom he conducted his affairs, a magician which had failed to entertain him, the boy from whom he borrowed a donkey and the Italian doctor who he consulted. While in Cairo Kinglake himself contracted the disease.

Kinglake was routinely careless in his protection making little effort to avoid contact while in public; he seemed to be challenging the plague, daring it to affect him. He did recover and was able to continue on his merry way throughout the region. Kinglake put some thought into how the disease was spread and reluctantly decided that perhaps quarantine, or social distancing, was the best means to avoid the disease. His travelling companion in the early part of his journey, Methly, contracted the disease in Constantinople.

By 1836 Kinglake had returned to England and ten years later published Eothen an account of his idle wandering through the eastern Mediterranean. He starts his story in Belgrade in 1834, across the Danube lay the Ottoman Empire, Islam, the Turk and the Serb and the plague, it was the east or Eothen, the land of which Ryszard Kapuscinski would label as the Other. The crossing of the Danube is described in mystical, magical detail as his party is escorted by ‘compromised’ Christians to the realms of Islam. ‘We soon neared the southern bank of the river, but no sounds came down from the blank walls above, and there was no living thing that we could yet see, except one great hovering bird of the vulture race flying low and intent, and wheeling round and round over the pest-accursed city.’ The party continues onto Constantinople from where they pick up an interpreter, Mysseri, but their continuance is delayed as Methly recovers from the plague. They sail to Smyrna on the Turkish Aegean, onto Cyprus, then Lebanon at which point Methly is summoned back to England for reasons unknown. At this point Kinglake employs Dthemetri the Dragoman who is to be his guide, interpreter negotiator and on occasion his intimidator through the balance of his journey.

Kinglake continued his journeys through Lebanon where he visited the quirky British adventurer and archaeologist Hester Stanhope who had settled and would remain there for the rest of her life. He and his small party hired a camel train and an inept guide to form a small caravan that made their way to the Sea of Galilee down the River Jordan to the Dead Sea. Along the way they encountered Bedouin tribes and Turkish Janissaries. Upon arrival in Jerusalem he found tensions high amongst the competing churches of the Greek, Roman and Armenian persuasions as they vied for prime locations and for travelers to show about.

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The caravan journey from Jerusalem to Cairo is an excellent account dessert travel as his little band endured the conditions. This is not an account of the extremes of dessert conditions as Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands has given us, but of an idle wanderer enjoying his jaunt through an alien landscape. The caravansarai is described as are the outfitting arrangements made by Dthemithri the Dragoman for camels and a guide through the dessert. There were four of the beasts; one for supplies and baggage, one for Kinglake and one for each the Dragoman and Mysseri the interpreter, the four hired Arabs would walk. Of his trek across the sands ‘No words are spoken, but your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, your skins glows, you shoulders ache, and for sights you see the pattern and the web of the silk that veils your eyes, and the glare of the outer light. Time labours on – your skin glows, your shoulders ache, your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, and you see the same pattern in the silk, and the same glare of light beyond; but conquering time marches on, and by-and-by the descending sun has compassed the heaven, and now softly touches your right arm, and throws your lank shadow over the sand right along on the way for Persia.’ Kinglake found the ‘loneliness of the Desert…frightfully oppressive.’

From Cairo Kinglake continued to Suez on the Red Sea then to Damascus back to the Mediterranean then by ship to the southern coast of Turkey where his story ends. Kinglake’s narrative does not give us any of his journey from England to modern Belgrade nor does he tell us how he returned home. One hundred years later Patrick Leigh Fermer writes of the outbound journey that Kinglake did not provide where the mysterious Turk is replaced by the German that would soon be the bitter foe of the English, Fermer however in 1933 portrayed his German hosts as hospitable, amicable and in no way mysterious.

Throughout his travels, Eothen is his only such account; Kinglake does not provide us with grand descriptions of the pyramids or of the sites of Jerusalem. He does not ignore them, his observations are brief and based only on his impressions, he spends a few words on the immensity of the pyramids. He makes no real effort to discuss the architecture of the place nor of art. Kinglake is a story teller, and his stories seem to be true with no, or very few, fabrications. He brings the landscape, the Jordan Valley, the Mediterranean seascape or the dessert of the Sinai Peninsula, to life. He does the same for those who inhabit these lands, Greek Mariners, Bedouin tribesmen or Arab traders. This is an honest account of what it was like for the idle wanderer in the time of plague almost two hundred years ago.

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Kinglake leaves his reader in Satalieh, modern Antalya of Turkey. He and a recent Russian travelling companion had managed frustrate the local quarantine regulations requiring them to remain on their vessel for three weeks. He was aware of his contempt for the requirements, ‘I am not going to pretend, however, that the course we chose to adopt on the occasion can be perfectly justified.’ But his boldness paid off for by that afternoon he had found himself dining with the local Pasha then heading out into the Taurus Mountains on horseback.

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