The file of Letters from Egypt by Jan Peelen 1859-1861
Then the bonus of finding the file of letters written by his father, Jan Peelen, from Cairo, where he lived from 1858 to 1861, when he was contracted by the Dutch engineering company Van Vlissingen Van Heel to build a steel works near Cairo for the Egyptian government. This was not an easy contract for him, it was marked by frustration and in the end the project was not completed, probably because the Egyptian government ran out of money, because it was involved in local wars, which now in hindsight presage some of the current political instability in Egypt and the Middle East.
|To save on paper, both sides were written on and left to right and then across.|
The letters from Jan Peelen are mostly to his brother Herman, with whom he also had a little trading enterprise going but were also always at the end addressed to he rest of the family, in-laws and friends, for they were precious information which would have been passed around. Jan Hendrik's birth is vividly described as was their daily life and through them I entered their world of 1859. Cairo was known then as the Paris of the East, famed for its parks and boulevards on the banks of the river Nile and her sophisticated night life. Jan and his wife Anna found the parties boring and only attended what they had to for appearances sake. They much preferred to stay at home and happily enjoyed each other's company.
Then I realised - I've been there too! I might have even stood in the same places they did. In late 1960, as a 9-year old I travelled by ship from Penang island back to Amsterdam. It was a freighter, so had few passengers. There was an elderly American couple on board and a young single woman and then our family of four. We were returning to Holland from dad's last posting in Penang with the Dutch Bank, then known as The Netherlands Trading Society.
One of the ports en route was Alexandria, where we would be for just one day. So dad decided to make the most of this opportunity to go ashore and see the great pyramids. The other passengers were also keen and joined our adventure. Once ashore we were met by a group of excited Egyptian taxi drivers cum tourist guides and dad exercised his best bargaining skills and scored a Volkswagen van and we set off. There wasn't much time to spare so the driver hurtled along the highway with us all hanging on to our seats or anything at all really as this was before mandatory seat belts. They didn't even exist then.
It was quite grey and overcast as we stopped for lunch at a huge empty hotel in the middle of the desert with a vast dining room where we were the only guests. It must have been around 2 or 3 pm when we arrived at the pyramids. We were in no time surrounded by eager hawkers offering all manner of souvenirs and camel and pony rides. I decided on a camel ride with dad and my brother chose to ride an Arabian pony. The most exciting part was at the start when the camel raised his hind legs first, tipping you forward and then the fore legs would come up tipping you backwards. And then we swayed gently around the pyramids.
So that was the pyramids done, now for the Tutankhamen exhibit at the museum. We rushed through peak hour traffic as it was near closing time! A friendly guide showed us the highlights and even that was a lot! I was quite fascinated by all these artefacts and had to be hurried along a couple of times.
But we had a boat to catch and it was already evening and we still had to have dinner plus we we had at least a three hour drive ahead of us. It was near 10 pm when we got to the port and our ship was already at anchor at sea, waiting for us, or was it the pilot? Whatever, we got ferried alongside and climbed up the gangway and soon we weighed anchor and we were on our way. Tick - done Egypt.
In 1859 the trip back to Europe from South East Asia would have taken around 88 days. First the journey by ship to Suez, then overland to Cairo, followed by a trip down the Nile to Alexandria, then by sea again to your destination in Europe, which would have been Amsterdam for our family. The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 meaning that the overland part of the trip was now only a day or two. A hundred years later, I was already on my fifth trip through the Suez Canal and the entire journey from Penang to Amsterdam took just three weeks.
How times have changed and yet much hasn't. The letters speak of the same family joys, sorrows, worries, frustrated professional ambitions and political unrest that we experience even today.