A Visit to the Holy Land by Ida Pfeiffer in 1842


Ida Pfeiffer was one of the most intrepid of Victorian travellers.  In the early to mid part of the 19th century she travelled not only to the Middle East, but also to other areas of the globe.  This entry is about her time spent in Egypt. 

The following entry is from her Vienna publisher.  It is a small masterpiece of Victorian rhetoric:

… In her earliest youth she earnestly desired to perform this journey [to the holy land] …

It was not, however, until our Authoress had reached a riper age, and had finished the education of her sons, that she succeeded in carrying into effect the ardent aspiration of her youth.

On the 2d of March, 1842, she commenced her journey alone, without companions, but fully prepared to bear every ill, to bid defiance to every danger, and to combat every difficulty.  That this undertaking should have succeeded may almost be looked upon as a wonder.

Far from desiring publicity, she merely kept a diary, in order to retain the recollections of her tour during her later life, and to impart to her nearest relatives the story of her fortunes.  Every evening, though often greatly exhausted with heat, thirst, and the hardships of travel, she never failed to make notes in pencil of the occurrences of the day, frequently using a sand-mound or the back of a camel as a table, while the other members of the caravan lay stretched around her, completely tired out…

After much trouble I succeeded in persuading the Authoress to allow her journal to appear in print.

My efforts were called forth by the desire to furnish the reading public, and particularly the female portion, with a very interesting and attractive, and at the same time a strictly authentic picture of the Holy Land, and of Madame Pfeiffer’s entire journey.

Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

After arriving from Beirut to Alexandria, she took a small, local boat to Cairo, and here are some of her observations:

I would counsel any one who can only make this journey to Cairo once in his lifetime to do it at the end of August or the beginning of September.  A more lovely picture, and one more peculiar in its character, can scarcely be imagined.  In many places the plain is covered as far as the eye can trace by the Nile-sea (it can scarcely be called river in its immense expanse), and every where little islands are seen rising from the waters, covered with villages surrounded by date-palms, and other trees, while in the background the high-masted boats, with their pyramidal sails, are gliding to and fro…

Delta village.  The boat in which she traveled up to Cairo from Alexandria would have been similar to this.  Source: Picturesque Egypt by Ebers.

Delta village. The boat in which she traveled up to Cairo from Alexandria would have been similar to this. Source: Picturesque Egypt by Ebers.

this Nile-water is not at all prejudicial to health; on the contrary, the inhabitants of the valley assert that they possess the best and wholesomest water in the world.  The Franks are accustomed, as I have already stated, to take filtered water with them.  When the supply becomes exhausted, they have only to put a few kernels of apricots or almonds chopped small into a vessel of Nile-water to render it tolerably clear within the space of five or six hours.  I learnt this art from an Arab woman during my voyage on the Nile…

When we landed at a village, the inhabitants would inquire by signs if I wished for any thing.  I wanted some milk, eggs, and bread, but did not know how to ask for them in Arabic.  I therefore had recourse to drawing; for instance, I made a portrait of a cow, gave an Arab woman a bottle and some money, and made signs to her to milk her cow and to fill my bottle.  In the same way I drew a hen, and some eggs beside her; pointed to the hen with a shake of my head, and then to the eggs with a nod, counting on the woman’s fingers how many she was to bring me.  In this way I could always manage to get on, by limiting my wants to such objects as I could represent by drawings…

[On arriving at Cairo] … I became involved in a dispute with the captain of the vessel.  I had still to pay him three dollars and a half, and gave him four dollars, in the expectation that he would return me my change.  This, however, he refused to do, and persisted in keeping the half-dollar.  He said it should be divided as backsheesh among the crew; but I am sure they would have seen nothing of it.  Luckily, however, he was stupid enough not to put the money in his pocket, but kept it open in his hand.  I quickly snatched a coin from him, and put it into my pocket, explaining to him at the same time that he should not have it back until he had given me my change, adding that I would give the men a gratuity myself…

A country estate on the outskirts of Cairo.  Source: Ebers-Picturesque Egypt

A country estate on the outskirts of Cairo. Source: Ebers-Picturesque Egypt

A ride of three quarters of an hour in a very broad handsome street, planted with a double row of a kind of acacia altogether strange to me, among a crowd of men, camels, asses, etc., brought me to the town, the streets of which are in general narrow.  There is so much noise and crowding every where, that one would suppose a tumult had broken out.  But as I approached, the immense mass always opened as if by magic, and I pursued my way without hindrance to the consulate, which lies hidden in a little narrow blind alley…

A street in old Cairo, about the time she would have been visiting.

A street in old Cairo, about the time she would have been visiting.


At four in the afternoon I quitted Cairo, crossed two arms of the Nile, and a couple of hours afterwards arrived safely at Gizeh.  As the Nile had overflowed several parts of the country, we were compelled frequently to turn out of our way, and sometimes to cross canals and ride through water; now and then, where it was too deep for our asses, we were obliged to be carried across.  As there is no inn at Gizeh I betook myself to Herr Klinger, to whom I brought a letter of recommendation from Cairo…

After chatting away the evening very pleasantly I sought my couch, tired with my ride and with the heat, and rejoicing at the sight of the soft divan, which seemed to smile upon me, and promise rest and strength for the following day.  But as I was about to take possession of my couch, I noticed on the wall a great number of black spots.  I took the candle to examine what it could be, and nearly dropped the light with horror on discovering that the wall was covered with bugs.  I had never seen such a disgusting sight.  All hopes of rest on the divan were now effectually put to flight.  I sat down on a chair, and waited until every thing was perfectly still; then I slipped into the entrance-hall, and lay down on the stones, wrapped in my cloak…

Before daybreak I took leave of my kind host, and rode with my servant towards the gigantic structures.  To-day we were again obliged frequently to go out of our route on account of the rising of the Nile; owing to this delay, two hours elapsed before we reached the broad arm of the Nile, dividing us from the Libyan desert, on which the Pyramids stand, and over which two Arabs carried me.  This was one of the most disagreeable things that can be imagined.  Two large powerful men stood side by side; I mounted on their shoulders, and held fast by their heads, while they supported my feet in a horizontal position above the waters, which at some places reached almost to their armpits, so that I feared every moment that I should sit in the water.  Besides this, my supporters continually swayed to and fro, because they could only withstand the force of the current by a great exertion of strength, and I was apprehensive of falling off.  This disagreeable passage lasted above a quarter of an hour.  After wading for another fifteen minutes through deep sand, we arrived at the goal of our little journey…

To the pyramids.  Source: Manning - Excursion aux pyramides

To the pyramids. Source: Manning – Excursion aux pyramides

As it was still early in the day and not very hot, I preferred ascending the pyramid before venturing into its interior.  My servant took off my rings and concealed them carefully, telling me that this was a very necessary precaution, as the fellows who take the travellers by the hands to assist them in mounting the pyramids have such a dexterous knack of drawing the rings from their fingers, that they seldom perceive their loss until too late.

I took two Arabs with me, who gave me their hands, and pulled me up the very large stones. 


Source: Ebers-Picturesque Egypt

Any one who is at all subject to dizziness would do very wrong in attempting this feat, for he might be lost without remedy.  Let the reader picture to himself a height of 500 feet, without a railing or a regular staircase by which to make the ascent.  At one angle only the immense blocks of stone have been hewn in such a manner that they form a flight of steps, but a very inconvenient one, as many of these stone blocks are above four feet in height, and offer no projection on which you can place your foot in mounting.  The two Arabs ascended first, and then stretched out their hands to pull me from one block to another.  I preferred climbing over the smaller blocks without assistance.  In three quarters of an hour’s time I had gained the summit of the pyramid.

For a long time I stood lost in thought, and could hardly realise the fact that I was really one of the favoured few who are happy enough to be able to contemplate the most stupendous and imperishable monument ever erected by human hands…

Vitaly Raskalov's Great Pyramid Climb

Vitaly Raskalov’s Great Pyramid Climb

But now the time came not only to look down, but to descend.  Most people find this even more difficult than the ascent; but with me the contrary was the case.  I never grow giddy, and so I advanced in the following manner, without the aid of the Arabs.  On the smaller blocks I sprang from one to the other; when a stone of three or four feet in height was to be encountered, I let myself glide gently down; and I accomplished my descent with so much grace and agility, that I reached the base of the pyramid long before my servant.  Even the Arabs expressed their pleasure at my fearlessness on this dangerous passage…

After walking about and inspecting every thing, I commenced my journey back.  On the way I once more visited Herr Klinger, strengthened myself with a hearty meal, and arrived safely at Cairo late in the evening…

 …  I saw many streets where there can hardly have been room for a horseman to pass.  The road to the Armenian church leads through such narrow lanes and gates, that we were compelled to leave our asses behind; there was hardly room for two people to pass each other.

On the other hand, I had nowhere seen a more spacious square than the Esbekie-place in Cairo…

Coptic Houses in Esbekyeh Square, Cairo, by W. Hammerschmidt, c. 1860-1863.  Source:  copticliterature.wordpress.com

Coptic Houses in Esbekyeh Square, Cairo, by W. Hammerschmidt, c. 1860-1863. Source: copticliterature.wordpress.com


It had originally been my intention to stay at Cairo a week at the furthest, and afterwards to return to Alexandria.  But the more I saw, the more my curiosity became excited, and I felt irresistibly impelled to proceed.  I had now travelled in almost every way, but I had not yet tried an excursion on a camel.  I therefore made inquiry as to the distance, danger, and expense of a journey to Suez on the Red Sea.  The distance was a thirty-six hours’ journey, the danger was said to be nil, and the expense they estimated at about 250 piastres.

I therefore hired two strong camels, one for me, the other for my servant and the camel-driver, and took nothing with me in the way of provisions but bread, dates, a piece of roast meat, and hardboiled eggs.  Skins of water were hung at each side of the camels, for we had to take a supply which would last us the journey and during our return…

For the first four or five hours I was not ill-pleased with this mode of travelling.  I had plenty of room on my camel, and could sit farther back or forward as I chose, and had provisions and a bottle of water at my side.  Besides this, the heat was not oppressive; I felt very comfortable, and could look down from my high throne almost with a feeling of pride upon the passing caravans.  Even the swaying motion of the camel, which causes in some travellers a feeling of sickness and nausea like that produced by a sea-voyage, did not affect me…

Source: Pfeiffer: A visit to the holyland.

Source: Pfeiffer: A visit to the holy land.

Ida Pfeiffer returned to Cairo, thence to Europe with no mishaps – and prepared to set off on other, equally interesting voyages around the world.

During her travels Ida Pfeiffer collected plants, insects, molluscs, marine life and mineral specimens. The carefully documented specimens were sold to the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna and Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin…

“She was a member of geographical societies of both Berlin and Paris, but not of Royal Geographical Society in London due to her sex.”   – Wikipedia

Based on her specimens, she co-authored at least one scientific article:

Pfeiffer, Wallace, Allen and Smith: “The discovery of the Hymenoptera of the Malay Archipelago,” Archives of Natural History 23:153-200 ISSN 0260-9541.

With an insect net.  Lithograph by Dauthag.  Source: Wikipedia

With an insect net. Lithograph by Dauthag. Source: Wikipedia


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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6 Responses to A Visit to the Holy Land by Ida Pfeiffer in 1842

  1. Pingback: Excursion to the Pyramids of Gizeh, August 25, 1842 | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture


  3. Clanmother says:

    Extraordinary woman, extraordinary journey!!! Fantastic post….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ergamenis says:

    Thanks for this interesting post!
    Here is a very interesting and deeply knowledgeable blog on the topic:
    And here is an entry in our blog with topic of similar interest:


    • dianabuja says:

      Thanks – and also for the links, which I’ll be reading this evening. I subscribe to the ‘earlyexplorersegypt’ blog, but missed the entry to which you refer. Interesting that the austrian work in Sudan is not more widely recognized, but then again – maybe not such a surprise given colonial dynamics of the time.


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