Egypt Through the Eyes of Flaubert
The author of Madame Bovary made the most beautiful descriptions of temples and ancient cities of a journey he made through Africa and The Orient during his youth.
In 1849, when he was 27 years old, Gustave Flaubert, novelist, embarked on a long two-year trip with his friend, journalist Maxime du Camp, to see ancient cultures in their natural environment: orientalism was in full swing, and young romantics turned their eyes to the Orient seeking to leave behind the frontiers that the old continent built only to tear down shortly afterwards.
Flaubert’s travels through Italy, Greece, Jerusalem and Egypt were recorded in the atmosphere of Salammbô: a sensual and exotic novel, as the European perception of its spiritual nation, the Mediterranean and Greco-Roman antiquity. But his journey to Egypt is especially well portrayed in the letters he sent to his mother, his niece and several friends from Cairo, Carnac and other cities located on the bed of the Nile.
In January, 1950, for example, he would write for Jules Cloquet:
Here we are then, in Egypt, the land of the Pharoahs, the land of the Ptolemies, the kingdom of Cleopatra (as they say in the grand style). Here we are, and here we abide, with our heads shaven as clean as your knee, smoking long pipes and drinking our coffee lying on divans. What can I say? How can I write to you about it? I have scarcely recovered from my initial astonishment.
Luckily, this sensorial “astonishment” that a young Flaubert experienced would prove to be merely rhetorical and fleeting, since there is no Cairo palm tree, there are no bread street vendors o dates that demand the novelists sustained and incredible awe-struck attention. Egypt, and the Orient in general (even when all non-European things could be considered exotic or “Oriental” in Flaubert’s time), was perceived as the Utopian promise of a cosmopolitan Babel:
There is jostling, there is argument, there are blows, there is rolling about, there is swearing of all kinds, there is shouting in a dozen different languages. The raucous Semitic syllables clatter in the air like the sound of a whiplash. You come across every costume in the Orient, you bump into all its peoples (I’m talking about here in Cairo).
Some of his descriptions are incredibly beautiful, like the following surrounding the famous Sphinx, which seen through the eyes of Madame Bovary’s author, gains commendable plasticity and intensity:
The sight of the Sphinx Abu el-Hol (the Father of Terror). The sand, the pyramids, the Sphinx, all of it grey, basking in a grand pink hue; the skies are bright blue, the eagles wheel slowly around the tops of the pyramids. We stop in front of the Sphinx, it fixes its ghastly gaze on us; Maxime turns as white as a sheet, I am afraid that dizziness may overtake me, and try to regain possession of my faculties. To gaze at it calmly, we sit on the sand and light our pipes. Its eyes seem full of life, the left side is stained white by bird-droppings (the tip of the Pyramid of Chephren has the same long white stains), it exactly faces the east, its head is grey, ears very large and protruding like a negro’s, its neck is eroded and thinner, from the front it rises even higher before you, that to a great hollow dug in the sand before its chest; its missing nose increases the flat, negroid effect. In any case it was certainly Ethiopian, judging by the thick lips.
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