In September 2018, the world woke up to news of the raging fire that had engulfed Brazil’s National Museum, destroying most of its artefacts including those in the ancient Egyptian hall of around 700 pieces.
One of the most unique pieces was a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. Brazilian news reports said the loss of the beautifully painted sarcophagus was considered one of the “biggest losses” of the fire. Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), expressed his deep regret at the time, calling it “a great loss to humanity and the world’s heritage”.
But how did this unique sarcophagus along with the rest of the ancient Egyptian pieces in the Brazilian Museum travel from the Old World to the New? This question was answered in a fascinating exhibition that took place in Cairo in November 2021and is now at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria until mid-January this year.
The exhibition, entitled “Back to Egypt”, brings to life the travels of the 19th-century Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II to the Egypt of Ismail Pasha. It throws light on the diplomatic and cultural ties between the two countries during the heyday of mostly European but sometimes also non-European travel to Egypt. The exhibition in Egypt is part of an initiative to organise exhibitions in all the countries visited by the emperor.
In 1831, Dom Pedro II inherited the throne of Brazil from his father Dom Pedro I, along with the latter’s deep interest in ancient Egyptian civilisation. In 1826, the father had bought a collection of Egyptian artefacts from antiquities’ traders, one that kindled the son’s imagination and became the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in Latin America.
The sensational impact of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military and cultural campaign in Egypt (1798-1801), the publication of the Description of Egypt (1809-1828) by a team of French researchers, and Frenchman Jean-François Champollion’s deciphering of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone were still in the air and certainly held sway over the father. Dom Pedro II’s passion for past civilisations also made him learn many languages including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Arabic.
This deep passion for the East and Egypt turned into action when the emperor undertook two trips to Egypt in the company of his wife Dona Theresa Christina Maria. The first was in 1871 and the second in 1876.
In the words of Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, the Brazilian ambassador to Egypt, “the occasion was historic, not only because it represented the first trip by a Brazilian head of state to the Middle East, but also because it provided Brazilians with a first-hand perception of Egypt in the 19th century, raising widespread interest in its vast cultural heritage.”
The emperor’s interest in Arab culture continued beyond his first trip. After his return and with the assistance of the German writer Christian Friedrich Seybold, he contributed to the first translation of the Arabian Nights into Portuguese.
Dom Pedro II also kept the memory of the two trips alive in his diary, and his interest in photography, the new technology of the age, helped to document them visually too. Out of the 20,000 photographs he collected during his life, 500 featured Egyptian landscapes, monuments, people, and the royal couple at different historical sites on their trips.
The photographs were taken by photographers like Felix Boniface, Francis Frith, and Pascal Sébah, among others. In 1889, as Brazil was turning into a republic and Dom Pedro II was going into exile, he donated his rich collection of photographs, named after the empress Theresa Christina Maria, to the Brazilian National Library. It is currently housed at the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (FBN) in Rio de Janeiro.
The importance of the collection is such that it was the first Brazilian set of documents to be included in the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register and is recognised as the largest photography collection by a head of state in the 19th century.
THE 1871 TRIP: Dom Pedro’s two trips to Egypt were undertaken during the reign of the khedive Ismail Pasha (1830-1895), the grandson of Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt.
Ismail ruled Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879. His reign was marked by ambitious plans to modernise the countries both through major investments in their industrial and economic sectors, as well as their urbanisation and the expansion of their African borders.
The itinerary of Dom Pedro’s first trip started with Alexandria before moving on to Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said. He left Ismailia by train for Cairo before heading back to Alexandria and departing for Italy. The first visit lasted almost six months, during which he preferred to stay in hotels rather than the official accommodation offered by the khedive.
In Alexandria, for example, he stayed at the Peninsular and Oriental Hotel, and in Cairo at the Great New Hotel. The choice of non-official accommodation allowed the emperor to get a closer view of Egypt and the daily life of its people.
Dom Pedro II had a keen eye for the cultural diversity around him. He appreciated Islamic monuments like the Mohamed Ali Mosque in Cairo, which he described in his diary as follows: “the interior is of alabaster and vast, and the dome towers are majestic. Many birds flutter chirping inside the mosque, and the Arabs consider this a sign of happiness. The arcaded atrium that precedes the mosque is also beautiful and is filled with hanging ropes for chandeliers, especially at the coming of Ramadan.”
Later, the emperor visited the Bulaq Museum of Antiquities, the forerunner of today’s Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, where his attention shifted to ancient Egyptian culture, especially “the degree of perfection of the sculpture among the Egyptians 4,000 years before Christ”.
The Brazilian emperor met the khedive Ismail early on during his first trip. He held him in high regard and wrote that “he is intelligent and speaks good French.” The diary includes details of the menu of a dinner that he was invited to by Ismail. As a result, Dom Pedro was able to have an insight into both palace life and popular life in Egypt.
His visit to Cairo naturally included the Pyramids. The diary continues by saying that “[the Pyramids] seem small until you reach them, and you only have an idea of the height of the Great Pyramid when you observe those who climb it and become smaller and smaller” when seen from below. “I climbed up easily with the help of locals, and at the top we were more than 30 [people].”
Though this is no longer allowed today, climbing up the Great Pyramid was once highly sought after among adventurous foreigners and tourists. Having successfully climbed up to the top, some groups would hold picnics there and enjoy the view.
The emperor’s interest in Egypt’s multi-layered history encompassed Biblical history too, as he headed towards Matariya outside to collect “leaves from a beautiful sycamore tree they call the Virgin’s Tree, as it is traditional that Our Lady Mary rested in its shadow on the flight into Egypt.”
The visit was undertaken by the Brazilian emperor on top of a camel wearing traditional Egyptian garb. He was following in the footsteps of other 19th-century travellers like French novelist Gustave Flaubert and Englishwoman Lucie Duff Gordon, who tried to immerse themselves in the host culture by adopting its dress code and participating in daily life.
Despite his fascination with Egypt’s past, Dom Pedro did not turn a blind eye to the country’s modern architecture and developing urbanisation. On his visit to the Shubra Gardens in Cairo, he says that “today I felt the sun’s heat, but on the way back it cooled off and I walked through the Shubra Gardens, a work by Mohamed Ali. They are the most beautiful I’ve seen on the banks of the Nile.”
The following stop on the first trip was to Alexandria, where the emperor visited the Egyptian Institute, established originally in Cairo by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 and later in Alexandria in 1836. The honorary president of the institute at the time was Auguste Mariette, a famous Egyptologist and friend of the emperor, who invited him to deliver a lecture about his Egyptian tour.
An active traveller, the emperor agreed and wrote in his diary that “I said a few words to show that I already knew a little about Egypt in my homeland and travelled in it in a spirit of observation.”
To leave a strong Brazilian presence in Egypt and strengthen ties between the two countries, the emperor granted the request of the Honorary Consul of Brazil in Alexandria, Count Michel Debbané, originally from Lebanon, to establish St Peter’s Church in Alexandria in 1867.
In Debbané’s words, “this will be the only church in the Orient bearing the Brazilian flag.” It is a Greek-Melkite Catholic Church and uses the Byzantine rite with masses held in Arabic. The Debbané family is still responsible for the Church today.
Dom Pedro’s first trip to Egypt ended on this note in Alexandria, soon to be followed by another trip in 1876 with the khedive Ismail still in power as the country’s ruler.
THE 1876 TRIP: The second trip started in Port Said and then moved to Cairo. This time, Dom Pedro explored new places, as he cruised with his entourage to Upper Egypt and Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel. The trip ended with a visit to Cairo before his final departure from Alexandria in 1877.
The fascinating monuments of Upper Egypt were the main focus of the second trip, along with the cruise down the Nile from Giza aboard the steamer Feruz. But just as the emperor had paid attention to Egypt’s modern gardens and architecture on his first tour, on his second he also paid close attention to the socioeconomic situation and agricultural developments in Egypt.
Comparing notes between Brazil and Egypt, Dom Pedro was interested in Egypt’s sugar cane crop, also one of the most important economic activities in Brazil at the time. He was also interested in developments that could help Brazil advance, such as the railways built by British companies in Egypt, river navigation, the country’s artificial canals, and different irrigation techniques.
Dom Pedro tried to capture Egypt’s picturesque beauty in words and sketches. On board the steamer on the Nile, he writes of “the tops of the date palms [that] seem to ignite under the sun’s rays.” He tried to draw the outlines of the “strange shapes” of the mountains that could be seen from the Nile and other mountains in Minya.
Upon his arrival in Luxor, he immediately went to see the Temple of Amenhotep III and the twin obelisk to the one that was offered to Paris by Mohamed Ali in 1831. The second site that fascinated Dom Pedro in Luxor was the Karnak Temple, which he said contained “the most admirable assemblage of ruins in the world.”
The steamer sailed next to Aswan, where the emperor was impressed by the ruins on the island of Philae and the “original” view of “rocks of different shapes” and sizes. In a note to the Condessa de Barral, Dom Pedro writes that it had been an “excellent trip so far. What majestic ruins are those of Karnak. What a curious temple for the study of the religion of the Egyptians, and that of Dendera so well preserved. Those at Medinet Abou and Edfu are beautiful. At this one, I climbed to the top of the pylon... The view from there is magnificent. The Nile sunset is more and more enchanting every day.”
Different in appearance and dress, the Nubians in Aswan caught Dom Pedro’s eye. He describes how they surrounded him, with the boys laughing and asking for tips while the girls had fine braided hair like the goddess Isis. The Englishwoman Amelia Edwards, another prominent 19th-century traveller and Egyptologist, comments in her A Thousand Miles up the Nile, an account of her travels in Egypt, on the physical differences among the various peoples living in Egypt as she journeyed down the river.
In Aswan, the emperor immediately visited temples like those at Abu Simbel and was impressed by the “six colossi measuring about 71 metres high representing Ramses and his wife... with their children at their feet.” He also visited the second temple at Abu Simbel that “has on its main facade four colossal statues of Ramses… They constitute a beautifully crafted set, with the first one standing out… [and having] a remarkable, dazzling expression.”
The extensive tour of the monuments that Dom Pedro undertook on this trip drew his attention to acts of vandalism by various foreign travellers, as well as the then Egyptian government’s neglect of Egypt’s heritage.
For this reason, upon his return to Alexandria he went straight to the Egyptian Institute where he had given his first talk during the previous trip. His talk this time was entitled “le vandalisme des voyageurs” (vandalism by visitors), and in it he openly criticised the vandalism of foreign visitors and the neglect of the country’s heritage by the government.
His diary reads that “both in Dendera and in Abydos, traces of incredible vandalism are evident. The khedive could well spend part of the sum that he lavishes on his palaces on preserving these monuments that are so interesting for the study of Upper Egypt.” Dom Pedro’s call for the better preservation of Egyptian monuments and his criticism of vandalism was remarkable for the time and speak of a highly cultured person.
Despite the scathing criticism of the khedive in his lecture at the institute, the two rulers enjoyed an amicable relationship. Ismail gave the Brazilian emperor a sarcophagus containing the body of a singer found at the Karnak Temple as a gift, the same sarcophagus that suffered during the fire that hit the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in 2018.
The emperor departed in January 1877 never to return to Egypt again, but the memory of his two visits lasts through the written and visual documentation he left of the country. What distinguishes Dom Pedro from other 19th-century travellers like Flaubert was his attempt to steer away from a reductive orientalist discourse that exoticises the east and posits it against the more advanced west. Instead, his discourse was one of fostering transcontinental ties and bringing worlds together.
Egyptian scholar Tahia Abdel-Nasser’s recent book Latin American and Arab Literature: Transcontinental Exchanges explores the transcontinental literary ties between Latin American and Arab cultures. Travellers like Dom Pedro II started those cultural ties, as he was the first person to translate the Arabian Nights into Portuguese, as well as, and more importantly, translating Egyptian culture for Brazilians.
It is this rich spirit and these remarkable experiences that the Back to Egypt exhibition in Alexandria brings home to us.
The writer is a professor of Mediaeval Studies and Travel Literature at Alexandria University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.