"Beautiful Journey" to the East
Dr Mieczyslaw Rokosz (UJ Krakow)
Translation from the Polish: Anna Czechowicz.
It is easy to conceive what made the Romantic poet travel Greece, Egypt, and Jerusalem, if we examine the general background of the journey.
Greece was enjoying the first years of freedom as an autonomous kingdom after a long, bloody uprising. Advancing since the end of the 18th century, the revival of the Greek national spirit was going hand in hand with the awakening of philhellenism in Europe. Hellas, in a way the motherland of each educated European, now wrapped in charms of Byron’s poetry and reflective descriptions of François R. Chateaubriand - was becoming a fashionable travel destination. The early Romanticism was simultaneously another Renaissance of the antiquity, chiefly of the Greek one, which was developing as Neo-Hellenism. Greece in particular could be a magnet for Slowacki, whose father Euzebiusz was a classical scholar and translator. Since his boyhood and school years in the excellent lycée of Krzemieniec (now Kremenetz, Ukraine), Juliusz was keen on studying the history and culture of Hellas.
Egypt too was experiencing the fame of an ancient land de novo discovered, thanks to Bonaparte’s expedition, by Champollion. It was already after the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the decipherment of the hieroglyphs. A few years had passed since Champollion and Rosellini’s triumphal expedition to Egypt, when they deciphered the sacred signs and managed to read the writing on old stones, evoking in Arab Egyptians respect and admiration. The Louvre collections were filling with Egyptian antiquities. The seeds of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were germinating. Champollion’s works, fundamental to Egyptology, had already appeared in print. Their author had been resting since 1832 on the Parisian cemetery of Père Lachaise under the obelisk on which no more than his name appears, but in Europe Egyptology emerged from Oriental studies and entered the path of an independent development. Moreover, Egypt under Muhammad Ali was opening up on Europe. It excited curiosity and became more than a stage on a pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem - as the land of flight and refuge of the Sacred Family. It became a fascinating destination in itself.
For centuries, Jerusalem had been the centre of the world as the place of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ and the birthplace of the Church. Pilgrimages of worshippers from all Christendom had constantly streamed there. The pilgrimages stopped in the 18th century. It was a century of enlightened disbelief, which Napoleon himself closed by concluding a concordat with the Pope, while Chateaubriand opened the new century with his Genius of Christianity. The arising Romanticism referred to the chivalrous the Middle Ages and returned to religion. Published in Paris in 1802, in an edition of 4,000 copies, The Genius of Christianity sold immediately. It was an unprecedented fact in the history of bookselling.
Finally, the Orient, the Islamic East with all its great, rich, exotic culture - lured as Romantic fashion. Among Poles, this fashion had had earlier traditions, springing from direct contacts with the Horde and the Crimea. The fondness of the Polish nobility and magnates of swords from Damascus steel and Arabian horses had begun much earlier than in the 19th century. While searching for roots of this orientalising Romanticism by Slowacki, it is perhaps worthwhile to mention a personage surrounded in legend already in his lifetime, Waclaw Rzewuski Emir. This magnate from Podolia, a lover and breeder of purebred Arabian horses, who boldly and hazardously travelled across the mountains of Asia Minor and the deserts of Arabia, who was befriended with Bedouins and lived according to their customs - lived in Krzemieniec when Slowacki was a child. He was friends with Tadeusz Czacki, sponsored the lycée, and listened to public exams of the school’s alumni. He also scared and delighted everyone with his wild horse riding. It was impossible for Rzewuski not to know Professor Euzebiusz Slowacki. An even earlier proof that Juliusz was fascinated with Emir than the poet’s eastern journey had been his Duma o Waclawie Rzewuskim (Elegy for Waclaw Rzewuski). In the end, one should take into account the poet’s consciousness of his Armenian descent.
Finally, European - precisely: French - literature, had two works of travel writing which had set the routes of Romantic Oriental journeys and devout pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The books were the 4-volume Itinéraire de Paris a Jérusalem (Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem) (1811) by the author of The Genius of Christianity, and Voyages en Orient, impressions, pensées et paysages (Voyage to the Orient) (1836) by the French Romantic author Alphonse de Lamartine.
Chateaubriand begins his book as follows: "When in the year 1806 I intended to go for a journey to the East, Jerusalem was completely forgotten. A century of disbelief distracted the memory about the cradle of our religion (…). My imagination pictured a thousand difficulties and dangers on my way to the Holy City. I ventured this journey and experienced what happens to everyone who courageously approaches the figment of his imagination. The phantom disappeared. I crossed the Mediterranean Sea without any vital hazards. I found Sparta and visited Athens. I adored Jerusalem, admired Alexandria, saw the ruins of Carthage and after the spectacle of so many cities, I took rest among the ruins of Alhambra. Thus, I rendered the tiny service of beginning this undertaking, and I have looked with pleasure how many have followed my example. My work has served as a guide for plenty of travellers".
Lamartine, a whole generation younger than Chateaubriand, in 1832 set out on an 18-month journey to the East. He wandered across Greece, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine; he saw Beirut, Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and the contemporary European part of Turkey. All that world of Islam Lamartine paints in unusually alluring colours, without a shadow of grimness and with extraordinary fondness. Bedouins - sons of the desert are kind, friendly and protective, the whirling dervishes - fascinating. He records with gratitude all these people of the East who guided, served, protected him, and cared for him like brothers. Who during countless changes of fate of this long journey "on the strange soil proved that every religion has its divine morality (…), that all people have a sense of what is just, beautiful and good - in different alphabets written on their hearts by the hand of the Everlasting". So finishes Lamartine his 4-volume Voyage to the Orient, in which he showed himself to be a poet and a thinker as much as a learned erudite.
So, the way had been smoothed. Before Slowacki, the ruins of ancient cultures and civilisations had treaded Chateaubriand and Lamartine.
Indeed, these books, in the distinct political situation of the newly acquired Greek independence and of the Europeanising of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, lured many to embark on an Oriental ramble, as well as on a religious pilgrimage. Chateaubriand confesses that, to be sure, the motive of his journey was scholarly and cognitive, but most of all it was a pious pilgrimage. So does Lamartine, who zealously asserts e.g. the authenticity of holy places in Jerusalem. Slowacki too will call his wander "my pious journey".
We know direct motives of Slowacki’s trip. The relatives with whom he had been staying in Rome and Naples for some time were fervently trying to stop him. Friends, on the other hand, kept encouraging him cleverly and effectively and lent him the money. Slowacki confesses that the thought about a trip to the East had been with him for long; that the schedule, which he had long been drafting and had rejected a few times as too scary, finally came true. Tempters of Slowacki were Zenon Brzozowski and Aleksander Holynski. Brzozowski (1806-1887) was three years older than Slowacki and an alumnus of the lycée of Krzemieniec, he has known Juliusz since school time, but their friendship had not tightened until they were in Rome in 1836, nevertheless their mothers had always been friends. Brzozowski had many exceptionally noble characteristics. A philanthropist, he liberated the peasants in his estate and kept convincing others to do the same. He zealously aided artists and writers (he was the one to lend Slowacki the equivalent of 1,000 French francs in roubles). He was vividly interested in horse breeding. The purchase of Arabian horses, apart from the desire to make a romantic journey, was his motive of the trip to the East. Aleksander Holynski (1816-1893) was 7 years younger than Slowacki, a nobleman from Podolia, since the November Uprising in exile. He travelled a lot. He became friends with Slowacki in Italy. He tried to convince the poet to the journey to the Orient, which he had planned with his elder brother Stefan, guided by romantic motives as well as by the purchase of horses for their stable.
He left unexpectedly. Krasinski, having lost sight of Slowacki, upon learning eventually that he went to the East, worried about Jul, if it would not ruin his health, "because he is not long-lived", and finally added that he was a coward with an adventurer’s soul. The 26-year-old Slowacki, whom swimming in the sea in Sorrento exhausted, was indeed frail. Still, he himself wrote to his mother in the letter preceding his departure, "I expect that this journey will be useful for me. Should it solely give me the power of character needed for this undertaking and doing of things connected with sizeable hardships, it will be a sufficient gain, and I will return with my heart full of memories and pictures". As we will see, he was not disappointed and came home richer as a poet and as a person.
Apart from friends’ persuasions, books could have been a prevailing argument. Just then, in 1836, Didot had published in Paris Impressions… by Lamartine. An Italian translation of the book appeared simultaneously in Milan. Slowacki mentions having read Lamartine. The book could be an encouragement to make itineraries, and what he did not find there, because Lamartine had not been to Egypt, he found by Chateaubriand. Moreover, in 1836 appeared posthumously Volume I of the extensive work by Champollion: Monuments de L’Egipte et de la Nubie. The intended route of the journey was supposed to lead through Greece, Egypt, and Syria to Palestine. The first stage was Greece.
Slowacki and Brzozowski started from Naples through Apulia to Otranto on 24 August 1836. The Holynski brothers had left earlier. In Otranto, our travellers were late for the ship. They had to wait until 2 September. Then they embarked on the miserable sailing ship "San Spiridione". Before they sailed out, Slowacki had written to his mother, "… I cannot explain it to myself why I’m giving myself up with such sad zeal to the unknown world full of dangers… in Greece plunder … pest in Egypt". Slowacki took with him on the journey a wooden travelling escritoire, a pen, a book for notes, as well as a pencil and a sketchbook. They reached Corfu on 4 September. Here Slowacki met the Greek poet Solomós, whom he had known as the author of Hymn to Liberty. After four days of waiting, during which he had been drawing the fortifications of the island - they sailed to Patras on the Peloponnese Peninsula. They passed by the rock Levkas, from which Sappho, as the legend holds, leapt into the sea, and by Missolonghi, commemorated by Byron’s death.
In Patras Slowacki visited a hero of the Greek struggle for independence, the old Kanaris. Later, having hired porters and guides, they headed for Návplion on horseback along the northern coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula. This seaside town, only two years earlier, had been the seat of the first government and of the first king of independent Greece.
En route, the orthodox monks at Megaspilleon put them up, not very hospitably though. The monks admired the tsar, while the wanderers were Poles, and Slowacki had a French passport. Further through the plain of Argolis: Argos with cyclopean walls, on 19 September they reached Mycenae. Schliemann was to come there 40 years later and add lustre to this place with his discovery of the gold of Atreus. Nevertheless, Mycenae, surrounded in the Homeric legend about the ill-fated House of Atreus, whose bloody and grim story had also been told by Aeschylus in the Oresteia - had been a magnet long before. Cyclopean walls of the citadel were awe-inspiring, although the famous Lion Gates, buried in millennia-old debris, hardly jutted out with their ornaments of two lionesses climbing the columns. The famous Agamemnon’s tomb, or the Treasury of Atreus, situated nearby outside the castle walls, did not resemble its present state. The passageway and the gate leading to it were half-buried, even though in the beginning of the 19th century some gold objects had been found there. Mycenae, especially the Agamemnon’s tomb, was Slowacki’s first strong impression in the course of this journey. He wrote about it to his mother, drew it, and most importantly wrote the excellent verse, which he later included into his digressive poem: Podroz do Ziemi Swietej z Neapolu (Journey to the Holy Land from Naples) as the beginning of Song VIII. In place of the legendary tomb of the Trojan hero, against the historical background of the ancient Greece and graves at Thermopylae and at Chaeronea, he reflects on the luckless fates on his own nation. The sad memory of the Fatherland was with Slowacki this entire journey long.
On 19 September, they were in Corinth, the next day in Athens, where they stopped for a week, sightseeing and contemplating the ancient ruins by day and by the moonlight. Lord Elgin, to Byron’s indignation, had already managed to strip the Parthenon on Acropolis of Phidias’ sculptures and transport them to the British Museum in London. The then Athens was actually a barren place, untouched by an archaeologist’s shovel. The young Greece initially intended to locate its capital in the vibrant seaside resort Návplion. Before Athens, Slowacki was delighted with the blue bay of Salamis famous for the victorious battle of the Greeks with Persians (480 BC).
To get to Egypt they had to go to the island Síros, from which there was a ship service to Alexandria. They waited there for two weeks because of foul wind. While Slowacki, who did not mind it, created Songs 1 and 3 for his poetic travel diary, his companion Brzozowski felt fed up and irritated. They set off at last. Slowacki notes briefly in his diary: "Síros – stones – strong wind, sea journey – shores disappear, mist, flocks of storks – at Alexandria sunset – Hymn". Towards the end of this weeklong cruise, "one hundred miles away from either shore" on course for Alexandria, the pilgrim poet wrote his Hymn (I am sad, Saviour…). It is a purest example of religious poetry in the style of a private prayer, a confession of longing for the homeland and awareness of the flimsiness of life. It is hard to believe that this is a poem by a 26-year-old man.
In Alexandria Slowacki and Brzozowski were staying for a week in the hotel At Golden Eagle. It was their first experience of the Arab Orient, a flurry of impressions. Egyptian women with bowls on their heads, beggars…, women on donkeys, camels with water…, Arabic music - in sum, a whirl of pictures. They visited the catacombs outside the city, stood at the colonnade of Pompey, and paid a visit to the viceroy of Egypt Muhammad Ali.
It was an Albanian, who during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign fought as leader of the Albanians in the Turkish army. When, after the French forces had left, Cairo became the arena of anti-Turkish upheavals, it helped Ali to seize power and obtain the governorship from the sultan. Sly, ambitious, cruel - having massacred the Mamelukes, who since the 18th century were factual rulers of Egypt, he removed the essential obstacle to his rule. Using the military talent of his son and the military weakness of the Ottoman Empire, he conquered a considerable part of the Arabian Peninsula, Sudan, Syria, Palestine, and Cilicia. He cunningly upheld relations with France and Russia. He opened Egypt for the European influences. This illiterate man was a great reformer of all domains of life in Egypt, which he turned into an independent state exercising hegemony over the Arab world. To this ruler of the new Egypt spoke Slowacki and Brzozowski. Coincidentally, in the same October days of 1836 on the Paris’s Place de la Concorde Engineer Lebas was placing the great obelisk that Muhammad ferried from Luxor as a gift for the king Louis Philippe: France supported Muhammad as the viceroy of Egypt - the field of French influence in the Sultanate. The viceroy received our travellers "very politely, seated them next to him and… entertained with conversation" about the changes that he had made. This visit did not impress Slowacki much, since we only learn about it from the memoirs of Brzozowski, put in writing by his sister Ksawera Grocholska.
On 28 October, they set off up the Nile to Cairo. Slowacki was drawing riverside landscapes in his sketchbook. Subtle minarets of mosques, sad palm groves, old Coptic monasteries, Egyptian villages where the fellahin dwelt, sailing boats on the riverbank. He kept drawing throughout the whole journey. To his mother he wrote, "Beautiful journey, I have drawn a lot because words fail to convey all eye-catching things". Upon reaching Cairo, he noted in his diary, "Cairo - Joseph’s well - slave market - a pretty Abyssinian woman - mosques - suq", all in all hubbub and street trade. Hence, we know that he was in the Citadel, where in the 14th-century Al-Nasr, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Arab world, there is the legendary well of Joseph, from which the Holy Family apparently drew water on its flight to Egypt. Another mosque, called alabaster mosque and designed in Byzantine style, was currently under construction. Slowacki probably visited also the famous mosque Al-Azhar, around which developed the oldest Islamic university, where they teach medicine and law but most of all theology. To his mother he writes, "I arrived in Cairo in a boat. A grand city, the pyramids can be seen in the distance… many palm groves…, suburbs in gardens". On the following day, they went to huge pyramids on little donkeys. There Slowacki remarked on the humorousness of this disproportion.
Pyramids at Giza on the west, desert bank of the Nile are tombs of the pharaohs from the 4th Dynasty. These monuments of the Old Kingdom date from nearly 5,000 years ago. Already in the antiquity, they had been included among the Seven Wonders of the World. These holy mountains, shaped geometrically from millions of big sandstone blocks, are symbols of continued existence. They have roused admiration and reverie for a long time. For Slowacki the sight of pyramids must have been a strong impression too, although he wrote to his mother, "… the pyramids did not delight me with their size… I saw the pyramids but lost their picture that I had had in my imagination". It seems that pyramids rather disappointed Slowacki. Nevertheless, two poems - Piramidy (Pyramids) and Na szczycie piramid (On Top of the Pyramids) - belonging to the cycle Listy poetyckie z Egiptu (Poetic Letters from Egypt) and the poem Rozmowa z piramidami (Talk with the Pyramids) contradict it.
When our travellers approached these extraordinary monuments, "a crowd of Bedouins in white cloaks assembled to offer their services as guides and, taking us by the hand, they pulled us through the dark, granite passageways to small rooms in the heart of the pyramid… Having gone out of the dark pyramid, I began to climb to its top, while two Arabs were pulling me up by my hands. I was on the top of the largest pyramid: a wonderful view". Hence, Slowacki was in the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Cheops and on its top. He writes, "On the peak of Faulhorn, on St Peter’s dome, on Vesuvius, and on the pyramids I felt like a poor little bird that sits on the treetop to rest".
The Arabs removed the alabaster that once covered the pyramids and used it to build mosques in Cairo. They uncovered the structure of huge sandstone blocks, from which the pyramids had been built. Since then the pyramids, especially the Pyramid of Cheops became a climbing destination for tourists and a source of income for Bedouin guides. Slowacki was not the first Pole to climb the Great Pyramid. We know that other Poles had preceded him. For example, Sierotka Radziwill, coming back from the Holy Land via Egypt in 1582, wrote that the Pyramid of Cheops is "in the shape of a huge mountain…, climbing it is hard due to thickness of the stone, but safe. Still, after an arduous climb, I only reached the top after one and a half hour". The top of the pyramid was already flat then. The priest Jozef Drohojowski, a member of the Order of the Reformati (branch of the religious order of Franciscans in Poland, known elsewhere as Observants), in the 1780s stopped in Egypt on his way to Jerusalem and described the pyramids. Jan Potocki in 1788 also contented himself with an elated description and a drawing. However, a certain Szumlanski, serving as first lieutenant under Bonaparte, a member of the Egyptian campaign, also took part in the famous savants’ expedition to the pyramids and on the Pyramid of Cheops. He described the view from the top: the endless desert, the green valley of the Nile, and the plain with the ruins of the ancient Memphis. We know also that General Henryk Dembinski, whose portrait by Henryk Rodakowski hangs in Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in Krakow, was staying at Muhammad Ali’s in 1833. Dembinski came to reorganise the Egyptian army and supply it with four hundred Polish émigré officers. He climbed the Pyramid of Cheops and he, most likely, engraved this significant inscription, "Przekazcie wiekom pamietny dzien 29 listopada 1830", i.e. "Pass on to the centuries the memorable day of 29 November 1830".
This inscription, which Slowacki noticed, was still there before World War I. Now it is no longer visible. It left the poet with mixed emotions and thoughts about the disaster of his Fatherland:
I was thoughtful, while my eyes wandered over the stones
And fell on an inscription - my stream of thoughts came down...
Somebody had recalled November 29,
With the Polish language marking this Egyptian tomb…
I read sad - maybe the author had been too in gloom.
However, in Rozmowa z piramidami (Conversation with the Pyramids) the final of the poem is more heartening:
O pyramids, is there in your bourne
Yet another hollow casket,
Where I could lay down my spirit,
So that Poland would rise reborn?
Suffer and work! Show your mettle,
For your nation is immortal,
We only know the departed,
And have no coffins for the spirit.
Slowacki was the first and perhaps the only poet to introduce the pyramids into Polish poetry. He never mentioned Sphinx, which was then stuck neck-deep in the sand of Sahara.
Let us confront Slowacki’s experience of the pyramids with descriptions of these monuments by Chateaubriand. From full of fascination and delight Chateaubriand’s description of Cairo it seems that pyramids lured him the most. He looked out for them from the height of Cairo’s Citadel. He writes, "I preferred to look outside and from the castle walls admire… the pyramids. It looked as though I could touch the pyramids with my hand but I was four (French) miles away from them. With a naked eye I could see a layer of stones and Sphinx’s head protruding from the sand, I counted the steps of the Great Pyramid from the distance … so huge were the pyramids".
Chateaubriand writes in another place of his refined as well as full of fresh reflections and poetry work, "I must confess …, that when I saw the pyramids I felt nothing but admiration. I know that a philosopher could complain or regret that the largest manmade monument is a tomb, but why should we regard the Pyramid of Cheops as a tomb? Is it only a mass of stones and a human skeleton? Not the feeling of precariousness caused the human to raise such a tomb but the feeling of his own immortality. This tomb is not a goal of a one-day race; it is a monument signifying the entrance to life without bounds. It is… an eternal gate at the frontiers of eternity". Further on he writes, "I came close to the pyramids… they had an immeasurable height. They were visible among green rice plantations, the flow of water, over the palm trees and sycamores. They were like colossal edifices built in a wonderful garden…" and "the deserts carry the imagination in infinity". However, Chateaubriand neither climbed nor touched the pyramids. It was the time of the Nile flood. The Nile had not yet receded enough to make the pyramids accessible overland but was too low to boat to them. All Arabs said that one would have to wait for three weeks or a month. Chateaubriand could not afford such delay, "I had to - he writes - yield to the necessity and be content with seeing the pyramids in the flesh, even though I could not touch them. I only asked Mr. Caffe to write my name on the blocks of the great tombs, as is customary". Caffe was a French merchant met in Alexandria.
Egypt with its monuments of the ancient civilisation made wanderers and pilgrims muse on time and its passing. Cairo with countless mosques, hubbub, noise, trade, quarrels and fights, poverty and wealth, beautiful but also repulsive, with all its smells and sounds - playing its role in The Thousand and One Nights - suited a European’s image of an Oriental city. Slowacki totally gave in to its atmosphere.
On 6 November, elated by Cairo and the pyramids, Slowacki and Brzozowski hired for a month a sailboat with a crew of six and, with Pasha’s letter from the consulate, they safely sailed away up the Nile to Upper Egypt. En route, in Dendera, they met the Holynski brothers, who were constantly ahead of them during this journey and were currently going back to Cairo. Together they saw a huge temple of the goddess Hathor built during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Slowacki will recollect this in a letter to his mother one year later, "The second largest edifice (after the pyramids) sank me in delight. We walked among the columns enchanted… In sum, we feasted our eyes and hearts, and have cherished ever since this day among relics of the past that was so wonderful that it even strengthened our friendship". In his travel-diary, Slowacki noted, "… the ribbon of the Nile - psalms - the moon rising late - evening - redness of the sunset… two vultures on a white rock - midday - heat of the desert - cranes and storks sit near me in a screaming flock…" It was sort of an outline of the letter to his mother that reads, "…great numbers of cranes fly in the blue, a host of other water birds, clouds of pigeons soar over the villages, little mud huts, most often surrounded by palm-groves, sometimes huge rocks and man-sized vultures sit on the mountains at sunset. At Sint on the sand, we saw the first crocodile - at last… All this is like a beautiful dream… It was nice to hunt on the sand and to draw sketches of monuments and huts thinking that I am in Egypt". After 15 days of sailing up the Nile, on 21 November, they reached Luxor and Karnak. These two then poor Egyptian villages - now towns - grew on the colossal ruins of ancient Thebes, the capital of the Middle Kingdom.
Karnak grew in the premises of the Theban temple of Amon built over a period of 1,300 years. To it leads a long alley of ram-headed sphinxes and a few obelisks stand aside. Six men can hardly embrace the granite columns. One part of the temple is larger than St Peter’s in Vatican, or the London Cathedral. On its walls, there are thousands of square meters of reliefs of historical events and hieroglyphic inscriptions. In Slowacki’s day, rubble covered the temple area to a considerable height. No sooner than in the late 19th century appeared technical means for the excavation. The ruins in Slowacki’s sketches sink in rubble. He also wrote that the Thebes’ ruins "surpass everything with their size". Besides, in Luxor there is a Theban temple of the sun god Ra. Amenhotep III raised it with flair that suited the imperial ambitions of the New Kingdom. Ramses II founded two pylons, adorned with reliefs recounting his victory over the Hittites in the battle of Kadesh. Two colossi on thrones at the entrance and two standing colossi inside the temple also depict this pharaoh. Ramses II built moreover the alley with sphinxes in front of the temple and placed there two obelisks. One of these obelisks Muhammad Ali sent to Paris. Slowacki noticed its absence. One year later, he wrote to his mother that on her nameday he had been standing "at the obelisk in Luxor, which seems to miss its contemporary recently snatched from its homeland and moved to Paris… Look, even sculptures carved from the same granite sever - and go in exile! ".
At Thebes, as was customary in the antiquity, the travellers got onto the west bank of the Nile (such crossings are still commonplace there). On the border of the desert, there is a colossal statue of the famous Memnon and another colossus - the only remnants of ancient Egyptian temples.
Since Roman times it had been customary to come to Memnon at sunrise and hear it sing. Probably it was wind whistling in splits of the eroded stone blocks of the colossus. Even Emperor Hadrian himself came once to listen to Memnon’s song. He had an inscription carved out on the statue’s leg. Slowacki drew Memnon and wrote, "…I liked most of all the statue of Memnon and the statue standing next to it. I was watching them at sunrise. These are two granite colossi, each the size of a three-storey house, sitting quietly on a huge field with faces to the east. On Memnon’s leg, there are Roman inscriptions. One of these long dead voyagers wrote, "I have heard Memnon". Strangely, it saddens a poor man to read today these words that bear witness to distant past". This note strikingly resembles, but also differs from, the reflection of Chateaubriand, who writes, "We should fulfil all duties of a traveller. It is nice to read on Memnon’s statue the names of Romans who heard its sound at daybreak. These Romans were, like us, foreigners in Egypt and we will pass away as they did".
Nearby, a few kilometres from Memnon’s back, there was the forgotten and not yet discovered temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings. For the moment, there was nothing to see there but desert and jackals. In Slowacki’s day, travellers did not venture there.
After seeing Thebes, Slowacki and Brzozowski sailed up to the first Nile cataract. All the same, they reached the outskirts of the ancient Egypt. On their way back, they stopped once more among the Theban ruins. After over thirty days long journey on the Nile, they came back to Cairo. In the shade of Ramses’ colossi, the poet wove the plan of a poem about Ramses that he never wrote. He wrote the poem Piesn na Nilu (Song on the Nile) and one more, very short. His sketchbook filled with drawings. Such was the fruit of the Nile journey.
TO JERUSALEM AND FARTHER
After 5 days of rest in Cairo, having bought a tent, having mounted the camels, our travellers - with their two servants and Bedouins - on 15 December left across the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula for Jerusalem. They chose the northern route, which led along the Mediterranean coast, on sand. In so doing, they passed round the hilly part of the peninsula, where one can see the famous orthodox monastery of St Catherine in place of the "burning bush" and the way that Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai. Impressions from the first stage of this journey on camelback across the desert Slowacki described in a letter to his mother. It was constant getting on and off the camel, which "feels like a house crumbling under you". It was night in "a small white shrine with a dome" at a tomb of a Muslim saint, by the nightlong singing of an owl. "Splendid sunsets" and thorny bushes burning in "lights of the sunset with a live fire" like Brabant laces, which reminded of Moses. It was "steppe life" and moonlit nights in a tent under a palm tree. He saw "a few gazelles hopping on the steppe", "hyena's footprints", "a caravan passing by", and "a solitary Bedouin". All these were merely interludes in the monotony of hours of the desert journey, but in sum, it was a "pleasant trip"; "that lifestyle and that journey had for Slowacki a most wonderful charm. It was a most beautiful time".
During this trip, Slowacki was in care of a first-rate guide. His dragoman (from Arabic targuma - to translate), i.e. interpreter and guide, was Soliman, "famous and proud because he had interpreted for Champollion and Rosellini (during their triumphant journey across Egypt), as well as for Fresnel, and many others". We have already mentioned Champollion and Rosellini, now let us introduce Fresnel. Fulgentius Fresnel (1795-1855) was an outstanding French Orientalist and Arabist and a member of the French diplomatic service in the East. Among other things, he was consul in Mecca; later (1854) he headed a scientific expedition to Mesopotamia and made researches in Babylon. "The beautiful Arab" Soliman told Slowacki "about his earlier masters and details of their trips". On moonlight evenings, he would sit near the tent and sing old Arabic poems. These "sad melodies" rocked Slowacki to sleep. Moreover, Slowacki learned during this journey 200 Arabic words.
Halfway, on 22 December, the necessity to undergo "on pain of the sword" 12-day quarantine under guards’ and doctor’s supervision stopped our pilgrims near the town El-Arish. The site of the quarantine was a "sad, sandy valley between two palm forests, with a view on the Mediterranean Sea". Here they spent Christmas and the New Year. On the very Christmas Eve, they had to evacuate from the valley, where they had carelessly pitched their tent, onto a hill because of a violent tropical thunderstorm. After that on the New Year’s Eve, they felt the earthquake that in Syria affected many cities and took a heavy human toll. Only in Tiberias, which they later visited, 500 people died.
The supervisor of the quarantined, doctor Steblea - an emigrant from Italy, told Slowacki a moving story about an Arab, whom the plague took all his family during the quarantine. It became the groundwork of the later written woeful poem Ojciec zadzumionych (The Father of the Plague-Stricken in El-Arish). Doctor’s young wife - Mrs. Malagamba, a famous Oriental beauty, whose charm had already been praised by Lamartine, baked bread for our poet, and only by accident he never met her in person. Here in the tent Slowacki wrote a humorous poem with New Year’s greetings for Zenon Brzozowski. One can see how in spite of adversities Slowacki managed to be stouthearted. Moreover, during the quarantine he wrote Song VII of his poem about this trip and began to sketch Song VIII. The description of these twelve days of compulsory camping at El-Arish is in letters to his mother and in the preface to The Father of the Plague-Stricken in El-Arish.
On 2 January, they moved on. In Gaza, they saw the feast for the end of Ramadan. In Jaffa - folk celebrations, but Slowacki did not meet his old friend Aleksander Spitznagel, who was vice-consul there, because "he had gone to Greek celebrations in Jerusalem and was supposed to go to Mount Sinai afterwards". They stopped in Ramla because of rain. Finally, after 10 days trip, on the night from 12 onto 13 January 1837 our pilgrims stood at Jerusalem’s walls. Slowacki writes, "Gates to the city closed - complete silence - the moon - dogs’ barking, when we knock on the gate, uncertainty (if their documents will suffice to get in)… At last after two hours the gate opens and we arrive in the monastery". There took place the painful meeting of Slowacki with Spitznagel, who died soon after because of mental derangement.
Jerusalem! It was the ultimate destination of Slowacki’s "pious journey". Even before the trip, he wrote e.g., "I will be thinking about death at Christ’s sepulchre, I will pray there for those I love…" Indeed, the day after the arrival, he decided to spend the night from 14 onto 15 January at Christ’s sepulchre. He thought about it intently and confessed afterwards that this night left him a strong, lifelong impression. Before the evening, he stayed alone in the closed church and threw himself "crying on the tombstone". He was reading the Bible that he had with him. He was thinking about death and resurrection, as well as about Poland, which in a letter to his mother he called his poor "cousin", unintelligibly for the censorship. He ordered Mass for his Fatherland. A Polish priest celebrated the Mass and Slowacki served at it. Before, however, he had covered the double-headed eagle on the votive lamp donated by the Russian tsar. He knelt with feeling on the "spot where the White Angel told Magdalene ‘He is not here: for he is risen’" - and he was thinking about Poland’s resurrection.
After the night at the Holy Sepulchre, he came back to the monastery and fell asleep like a child weary of crying. One can see how the thought about Poland and her fate was with Slowacki this entire journey long, from Agamemnon’s tomb at Mycenae through the pyramids to Christ’s Sepulchre. This pious wander was the source of poet’s deepest personal experiences. Just before the night at the Holy Sepulchre, he wrote this poem:
And having abandoned the worldly illusions,
And having heard my heart’s cry telling me: I’m pure!
I threw myself in great despair on the tombstone,
Under that for three days you lay dead, o Saviour!
I told my pain to the tomb, and my grievance was
Neither against the people, nor against my God...
He wrote one more poem, in which this toilsome pilgrimage is a metaphor of earthly life. As a pilgrim longs for rest, so does the soul long for the better, bright after-life world:
Is it so that the earthly warrior has to
fight an endless fight? Are not the days of man
on earth like the days of a mercenary?
And as a servant waits to have some repose,
As a worker waits for his retribution,
So do I, ‘cause you have given me, o Lord,
months that bring losses and days full of sorrow;
When I lie down, I think about getting up
And I think of nothing but a soon daybreak,
Waiting for dawn, I am abject and troubled,
My skin is already partly worm-eaten,
It is dusty - and peels off with large pieces…
The processes of biological necrosis and decay (putrefaction) have been perennial symbols of spiritual disintegration, which may result in a spiritual rebirth. The above poems may be inconspicuous, but they indicate the personal metamorphosis that Slowacki underwent during this trip.
Slowacki visited other places as well. He was in the Valley of Josaphat outside the walls of Jerusalem. From the Garden of Gethsemane he took a handful of earth for his future grave of an émigré pilgrim. He was in Nazareth, attended Mass in Bethlehem and saw the Dead Sea, the Lake of Gennesaret, the River Jordan, the grave of Lazarus in Bethany, and Tiberias. The atmosphere of these places gave his mind a state of "some kind of simplicity and saintliness". The beauty of this holy land was overwhelming him.
Further, he visited Damascus and after crossing on horse the snowy Anti-Lebanon Mountains, he saw the ruins of Baalbek and Palmyra, which he had known from engravings that he had at home. Next, "I fortunately crossed on horseback Lebanon, also covered with snow". On 17 February, our travellers were already in Beirut. Here Slowacki parted with Brzozowski, who bought Arabian horses and "drove them to Constantinople by land", whereas Slowacki stayed in Syria by himself and had some rest. He spent the period from 20 February to 1 April in the Capuchin monastery Betcheba in the Lebanon Mountains, on the seaside. It was a beautiful place and he felt well under the rule of a religious order. At Easter time, he went to confession - after a break of many years. Moreover, he wrote here the first version of his Anhelli. When he was leaving the monastery, he envied the monks on the fixedness of their lives. At his parting, they gave him a huge bottle of wine. He was going to Beirut to get on a ship to Europe. Yet in Beirut it turned out, that he had to wait for 40 days. He spent this time in the French consulate, enjoying the trifling pleasures of social life. The elder of the Holynski brothers, Stefan, who had encouraged him to make this trip, was keeping him company there. The younger Holynski "stayed in Cairo in love with an Arabian woman". When the poet was leaving, the consulate gave a farewell party for him. "It was a dance with a musical box accompaniment", as the pianos were out of tune and the consulate would have to send them to Europe to have them tuned up. The Beirut high society compared Slowacki to Lamartine, whose unfortunate journey they remembered. At last in Tripoli around 10 May he got on a ship to Europe.
The cruise took 40 days. Luckily, they met no pirates, who would still plunder ships off the Greek coast. Slowacki’s days on the ship’s deck were rather dull: he was watching groups of dolphins in still waters and playing checkers with monks coming back to Europe. In his mind, however, he had a whirl of impressions and memories from the just finished "beautiful journey", "full of pleasures and delights". He was thinking about his nearest future, too.
After reaching Livorno (Italy) on 16 June, he had to undergo almost one-month quarantine. He wrote a jocular poem for the Parisian bookseller Eustachy Januszkiewicz at that time. The piece was full of reminiscences from the trip. On 11 July, he disembarked. The journey was over.
Slowacki had assumed that this trip would put his character to the test, strengthen his body, enrich his poetic imagination, and deepen his religiousness. He attained all these goals.
He wrote to his mother from Beirut, "For six months I have been rambling like crazy", "I am like someone returning from a far journey". "Despite many inconveniences and hardships, my health has been superb". "I endured on horse 10 days of continuous rain on our way to Jerusalem", and "there is no reason to fear Oriental countries". During the quarantine, he wrote poems despite hardships. "Since I left Cairo, I have been travelling by horse for two months, and I like it" - he wrote. "I got used to various inconveniences, I learnt to eat meals without meat, and I think it is good to fast sometimes. (…) My health has been almost wonderful. I have often slept on wet earth, in a tent, and in the wind, and I am healthier than I used to be". "It will be strange to come back to European customs after this Oriental life". In sum, he was describing in the letters to his mother the "wandering life" that made him happy at last.
Slowacki admits that he had received "particular protection from God" and thanks God that He had led him through various countries and seas "and never put him to danger, not even to a sight of it".
"The entire trip was full of pleasures and delights". He was going home with very few pieces of clothing and penniless. All his belongings were a rug bought in Cairo, on which he would sleep at night, and a hookah, or narghile, that is a tobacco pipe with a glass base.
Slowacki was coming back full of impressions, all "beautiful like a dream". His sketchbook filled with drawings.
He liked very much Greece, full of most wonderful ruins. It delighted him more than Rome did. However, when he saw Egypt, Greece faded from his memory - "there is nothing more amazing than ruins on the Nile".
The trip was also fruitful regarding Slowacki’s poetic creations: Hymn o zachodzie slonca (Hymn), Piesn na Nilu (Song on the Nile), Rozmowa z piramidami (Conversation with the Pyramids), a few songs of the poem Podroz do Ziemi Swietej z Neapolu (Journey to the Holy Land from Naples). Moreover, he wrote poetic letters from Egypt: Piramidy (Pyramids), Na szczycie pyramid (On the Top of the Pyramids), List do Aleksandra Holynskiego (The Letter to Alexander Holynski), an outline of the poem Ramzes (Ramses), the New Year poem for Zenon Brzozowski, the first version of Anhelli and the plan for Ojciec zadzumionych (The Father of the Plague-Stricken in El-Arish). One should mention also the unfinished poems: Czyz dla ziemskiego tutaj wojownika… (Is It So That the Earthly Warrior…) and I porzuciwszy droge swiatowych omamien… (And Having Abandoned the Worldly Illusions…). This journey was also the inspiration for the verse to Eustachy Januszkiewicz, written later in Livorno.
Ultimately, Slowacki included the memories, traces, and echoes of this journey in many of his later literary works.
Slowacki was going home full of impressions, and physically and spiritually stronger (he had returned to religious practices). The fruits of this trip enriched and diversified Polish literature.
PS Dr Mieczyslaw Rokosz quotes four poems by Juliusz Slowacki. Therefore, I had to find the English versions of these stanzas. Unfortunately, I only managed to find one: the English version of the last stanza of "Conversation with the Pyramids" comes from the beautiful translation by Michael J. Mikos. The remaining three quotations are my own translations (forgive my boldness - I realise that they are far from the flair of Slowacki’s poems on Polish).