Archival Follies

The Characteristics of American Tourists

Or, One of The Eternal Constants of History


You know how it is. You have a bit of cash, a bit of time for a vacation, and you want to see The World. So you decide that Egypt’s the place — history! pyramids! stargates! — Awesome, with an immensely favorable exchange rate on top of it.

But there are a few obstacles: you haven’t bothered to learn anything about the local contemporary culture, or the politics, or the laws – and you don’t even know a language in the same family, never mind dialect.

So, problems arise.

Having had the opportunity, far too many years ago, to be one of these ignorant schmucks (in the company of a tomb-raiding archeologist friend who, bless his heart, could read Hittite, Aramaic, and all kinds of hieroglyphics, but couldn’t give directions to a cab driver in Arabic), I can sympathize with folks who get stuck paying too much for an uppity camel.

Turns out this experience has quite a patina. Like the Pharaoh’s tombs, American ignorance is too monumental to erode. For proof, look upon this dispatch, ye Mighty, and despair!

The necessity for a Consulate at Cairo is to my mind “a fixed fact.” It does not spring from the commerce of the United States, for the operations of commerce will always be performed at Alexandria; but, it springs from the habits of the American people. Already, it is admitted that three hundred Americans from the United States annually visit the Upper Nile. The increasing facilities for travel, and the increasing affluence of the people of the United States , will swell the aggregate travellers [sic] to a much larger number.

Ignorant of the language and laws of this country these persons are thrown directly upon the hands of the public functionary here. They require boats, crews, rais [boat captains], dragomen [interpreters], &c &c, with whom contracts are to be drawn and legal guarantees are to be given and recorded by the observance of due forms. The discharge of these functions falls upon the consul, as will because of his proper care of his fellow citizens, as of the fact that the claimants do not understand, very frequently, the language or the laws of this country, and unless he does discharge this duty the voyages must be abandoned.

~Humphrey Marshall, “Cairo in Egypt,” to the U.S. Secretary of State, Washington City, 4 December 1852, Despatch No. 3

Image cite: blogefl, Giza,” Flickr, CC License