This morning I am eager to share with you, the details of my travels over the last week or so. My research has taken me to the exotic land of the Pharoahs. However, my love affair with Egypt began long ago, alongside the famous Archaeologist Howard Carter. How can I forget that pivotal moment when he peered inside Tutankhamun’s tomb?
I had not heard of the boy king, prior to my semester of archaeology in my grade 12 Ancient History class. From that epifanical moment, my life long dream was to see first hand the cause of Mr Carter’s notority. No other class during my 12 years of schooling held my undivided attention. I gleaned every minute detail of an archaeologist’s task in recovering and preserving each piece of antiquity as it saw light for the first time in centuries. So profound was my interest that I managed to achieve A+ for the first time in my educational life.
I finally achieved my dream in 1988 when I travelled to Egypt to see the ancient wonders of the world first hand. Being a typical tourist, I visited the pyramids and the Sphinx. I trod through the archaeological site of the Step Pyramid and was priveleged to see the man himself who uncovered the site. Then of course the icing on the cake was my visit to the Valley of the Kings to step into Howard Carter’s shoes and enter the tomb of Tutankhamun. At no time during my travels was I aware that my Great Grandfather had seen it all, 70 years before me.
Whilst he was there for the purpose of war, he and thousands of other men who were stationed in Egypt, spent their time as tourists as well as soldiers. Travel was not commonplace at the beginning of the 20th century and many of those men had never been far from their own back yards, let alone out of their own countries. Can you imagine their reactions upon seeing ancient monuments that still enthral tourists today? So it is with pleasure that I found myself once more trudging through the desert sands as a family archaeologist.
In following my Great Grandfather’s footsteps of 23rd January 1916, I made the 10 mile train journey from Bab al Louk Station of inner city Cairo to the garden town of Maadi. First established in 1905, its lush green gardens of leafy trees and flowering shrubs, give the appearance of a desert oasis. The pristine hedges and sprawling villas of European grandeur look peculiarly out of place on the Egyptian landscape. The expat British and European Diplomats and Government Employees who inhabit the town were none too happy about the establishment of the Australian Light Horse Camp on the edge of town. They accused the Aussies as being ill-mannered and unable to speak the King’s English. Mind you the Aussies’ opinion of them was not complimentary either.
Until my recent journey, I could not imagine the town at all. Then as usual, I googled the word ‘Maadi’ and found myself wandering through the streets of old manor houses with rambling gardens of leafy trees, swaying palms and tropical flowers. Guided by the voices of those who were there between the years 1915 to 1918, those streets came to life with mules carrying baskets of wares, turbaned men in long sweeping robes and carts trundling along the metal surfaced road. I could hear the vibration of hundreds of men rubbing shoulders at the sleepy little railway siding, fighting for a seat on a rattletrap bus for one piaster a piece. And the tavern next to the station is buzzing with thirsty soldiers getting drunk on nasty local beer.
From the little station, with a map in my hand, I took a right turn down Road 9 and once I reached the intersection of Road 84, I took another right, crossing the railway line and a bridge over the canal, until I faced the desert sands. With more assistance from ghosts from the past, I walked to the top of a rise and there before my eyes was the sprawling camp of the Australian Light Horse.
Thankfully, I was spared the expense of visiting Egypt personally, although that would give me such joy. By entering the world of cyber I followed the century old signposts marking the road. I listened to stories written by those who lived there alongside my Great Grandfather during the Great War. I also picked up free maps and photographs to find my way. Where would family historians be without the footprints left by our ancestors, in the hope that their stories will be found.
Finally, I would like to thank those men who kept detailed diaries of their day to day experiences during those times. My appreciation also goes to families who kept letters from their loved ones written so long ago. Without the words of those who lived through these events, there would be no story to tell. Now, by having access to those diaries and letters online, there are so many more possibilities for the family historian. They have opened a huge door to the past, for which I am forever grateful.