Egypt of the Magicians


(by John Radcliffe>


Publication History

These seven letters were first published in the Summer and Autumn of 1914 in Nash’s Magazine under the title “Egypt of the Egyptians”, and Cosmopolitan Magazine as “Egypt of the Magicians”, I, II, III, etc., without sub-titles.

The articles are collected in:

  • Scribner’s Edition, vol. xxviii, p. 241.
  • Letters of Travel, 1892-1913 (1920)
  • Sussex Edition, vol. xxiv, p. 247.
  • Burwash Edition, vol. xix..

In the collection in volume form, entitled “Egypt of the Magicians”, the group has on the back of its title page a text from Exodus 7,22:

And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments.


Kipling had become increasingly interested in Egypt, and on February 7th 1913 he and Carrie caught a train to Marseilles where they boarded a P & O. liner en route to Port Said. They visited Cairo, where Kipling, reminded of his years in the great Muslim city of Lahore, felt he was returning to the familiar East. They then travelled up the Nile by steamer to Upper Egypt, See Andrew Lycett pp. 424-428.

Historical background

Egypt, Muslim since the Arab conquest in A.D. 639, became part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in 1517. By the late eighteenth century the rising mercantile European powers, in particular France and Britain, were threatening Ottoman rule there. A large, productive, populous country, dominating the eastern Mediterranean, and lying across the route to India and the East, Egypt was of great strategic and commercial importance.

After a brief French invasion by Napoleon in 1798, Egypt fell into chaos, out of which Muhammad Ali, ‘Ali Pasha’ (right), a military commander sent by the Turks to restore order, emerged as the dominant figure. He established a dynasty, first under nominal Turkish sovereignty, and later under the British, which was to survive until the mid-twentieth century. He and his successors called themselves the Khedive, which roughly means ‘Viceroy’, and was later recognised by the Turks.

The cultivation of cotton from the 1820s transformed the rural economy of Egypt. It attracted interest from many trading companies and investors from abroad, and generated much wealth. Ali Pasha’s successors continued to develop the country. In 1869 the Suez Canal was built in partnership with the French. The project was initially opposed by the British, but went ahead, transforming communications between Europe and the East. However, its cost was punishing, and the Egyptian government had to sell its share in the canal to the British, and cede control of the zone around it to the Anglo-French Canal Company. Egypt continued to experience serious financial difficulties, and the farmers suffered great hardship.

The British and French managed Egypt’s economy through ‘controllers’ who sat in the cabinet. Notable among these was Evelyn Baring. later Lord Cromer (left), who was instrumental in stabilising the country’s finances over the years. When a group of nationalist officers, under Colonel Ahmad Urabi—’Arabi Pasha’—rebelled in 1879-1882, the British and French saw that their position was threatened. They bombarded Alexandria and sent in their armed forces, defeating the Egyptian army at Tel el Kebir in 1882, and re-establishing the young Tewfik Pasha of the Muhammad Ali dynasty as Khedive, under British ‘protection’.

Thus when Kipling visited Egypt in 1913, it was, in effect, part of the British Empire, though its formal status and its governing arrangements, were highly complex.



The Sudan

In 1820 Ali Pasha invaded northern Sudan, with the aim of adding this vast land up the Nile from Egypt to his domains. This was pursued further by his successors, and by the 1860s most of modern-day Sudan was conquered. The Egyptians made significant improvements—mainly in the north—especially in irrigation and cotton production.

In the 1870s, a Muslim cleric, Muhammad Ahmad (left5), preached renewal of the faith and liberation of the land, and began attracting followers. Soon in open revolt, he proclaimed himself the Mahdi (The Guided One), and declared a Jihad, or holy war, against the ‘Turks’, represented by the Egyptian government troops, and seeking to put an end to the foreign presence in Sudan.

In 1883 the Egyptian government raised an army of 10,000 men, under the command of the English Colonel Hicks (Hicks Pasha) against the Mahdi. The expedition was ambushed and annihilated by the Mahdists, with forces from the Beja and the Baggara tribal groups (‘Fuzzy-Wuzzies’ as the British soldiers later called them.)

Another Egyptian force under Colonel Valentine Baker (Baker Pasha), was sent to Suakin on the Red Sea coast in an attempt to relieve the Egyptian garrisons besieged in Tokar; this force was also defeated by the Mahdi’s general Osman Digna. Both these defeats are recalled by Kipling in his letters.

The British Liberal government under Prime Minister Gladstone had sought to stay out of affairs in Sudan. However in early 1884 they felt the need to intervene directly, and sent two British brigades already stationed in Egypt, with cavalry and artillery, to the support of the Egyptian army in Suakin. In February 1884 they took Fort Baker, attacked the enemy at el Teb, defeated the Mahdist forces, and relieved Tokar.

Meanwhile another British officer, General Gordon (righr), had been seconded to the Egyptian forces and was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan. The Government in London saw his role as the withdrawal of Egyption garrisons from Sudan, with the aim of permitting some form of self-government under the Mahdi.

However, this was an extremely difficult task because of the number of small forces spread out over this vast country. It was also one for which Gordon, strong-willed, impulsive, prone to disregard orders,and convinced of the need to defeat the Mahdi by force of arms, was ill-suited. Sent by the Khedive to Khartoum, he was besieged by the Mahdists, decided that he was unable to extricate his garrison and called for reinforcements. Gordon’s refusal to leave his troops, and his popularity in Britain, forced Gladstone’s goverment to step in with the ‘Gordon Relief Expedition’, a British force to relieve Khartoum. Command was given to Lord Wolseley, who moved his soldiers south by gunboat up the twisting Nile, with a Desert Column taking a shorter but more difficult route over land. They encountered considerable difficulties in making the journey and met some stiff resistance, arriving outside Khartoum on 28 January 1885, two days after the city had fallen to the Mahdi, and Gordon had been killed.

The Gordon Relief Expedition withdrew from the immediate area of Khartoum and the Mahdi later withdrew to Omdurman. Six months after taking Khartoum, he died, probably of typhus. He was succeeded by the Khalifa Abdullahi who was equally keen to stay independent of Egyptian or British control. After Gordon’s death, it was decided to build up a British, Indian and Australian force based on Suakin with a view to reasserting British authority, and steps were taken to construct a railway from Suakin to Khartoum (‘the Suakin-Berber Railway’)

The build up was under way by mid-March 1885, but was opposed by Beja tribesmen under Osman Digna, who attacked British troops who were building a defensive compound at Tofrek on 22 March. This was ‘McNeill’s Zareba’, which Kipling refers to in “The Face of the Desert”. Both sides suffered heavy casualties but the Beja losses caused the tribesmen to lose heart.

The British Government then had other concerns, so that was effectively the end of this ‘Early Campaign’, which fizzled out in the sweltering Sudanese summer of 1885. The Suakin-Berber Railway was abandoned after only fifteen miles of track had been laid.

The Mahdist forces in the Sudan were not finally defeated until the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, and the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat, a year later. The fate of Gordon was long remembered in Britain. In 1899 an agreement was reached establishing Anglo-Egyptian rule, under which Sudan was to be administered by a Governor-general appointed by Egypt with British consent.

In practice Sudan became a British imperial possession, and the British did much to establish orderly government and develop the Sudan’s resources, as Kipling briefly describes in his seventh letter, “The Riddle of Empire”. See also Kipling’s “A Deal in Cotton” (1907), and “Little Foxes” (1909), both collected in Actions and Reactions (1909); also The Light that Failed, and “Fuzzy-wuzzy”.
Kipling’s visit

Of Kipling’s biographers Andrew Lycett, in his authoritative and well-documented study, gives particular attention to these seven travel letters, and we are grateful to be able to quote him extensively in introduction. Lycett points out that in 1913, following fighting in the Balkans between Turkey and Serbia, Rudyard was concerned about the breakup of the Turkish Empire, and its possible effect on India:

After their winter break in Engelberg in January 1913, the Kiplings decided to investigate for themselves and proceed to Egypt, where they knew several people, ranging from Lord Edward Cecil, now Financial Adviser to the British agent and consul-general, to Lionel Landon, Perceval’s brother, who, a couple of years earlier, had been awarded the Egyptian decoration the Order of Osmanieh (fourth class), in recognition of his work as Inspector of Irrigation in Sudan. The connection between the Middle East and Europe was evident in Rudyard’s letter to Roderick Jones, the Reuters chief in South Africa, to whom he wrote, ‘We are just off to Switzerland and, if Austria will only be reasonable, for Egypt in February – maybe even Khartoum.’

On 7 February 1913 the Kiplings caught a train to Marseilles, where they boarded the P. & O. liner s.s. Persia en route for Port Said … Since the weather was cold and wet, the Kiplings did not stay long in Cairo, even though Lady Edward Cecil, the chatelaine of Great Wigsell, was staying at the same hotel, the Semiramis. Instead, they made their way up the River Nile to Luxor and Aswan on the s.s. Rameses III, owned by Thomas Cook.

From Aswan they travelled twelve miles on donkey to view the dam that Willcocks built, before proceeding up stream to Wadi Halfa in Sudan, where they had arranged to meet their friends Rudyard’s American publisher ‘Effendi’ Doubleday and his wife Nellie, who had been on a Roosevelt-type tour of Africa.

While waiting at this sweltering desert outpost for the Doubledays to arrive by train from Khartoum, Rudyard asked someone the names of the intervening stations. Having learnt they were called Station Number One, Station Number Two and so on, he later liked to amuse Sudanophiles with alternative suggestions: the surnames of Kitchener’s generals seemed his favourite.

En route back to Cairo, Rudyard stayed at the American financier Pierpont Morgan’s house in Thebes, while he visited the Metropolitan Museum’s excavations in the Valley of the Kings. The Doubledays probably arranged these stopovers, though the bibliophile Morgan had been in touch with Rudyard two years earlier when he sent him a carefully restored copy of The Golden Latin Gospels.

In the Egyptian capital Rudyard at last met Lord Kitchener (right), the British Agent and Consul-General, who failed to impress: there was a ‘butcherly arrogance’ about this ‘fatted Pharaoh in spurs’, who had alienated the business community with his agricultural and financial reforms.

He reminded Rudyard of ‘a sort of nebulous Rhodes, without grip or restraint’. (To do Kitchener justice, Lord Edward Cecil commented of him, ‘His energy is quite appalling. He starts a new scheme every morning which he wishes finished by 8 a.m. the next day’. Indeed, Rudyard’s antipathy to Kitchener smacks of some vendetta of Cecil’s wife.)

Rudyard was more inspired by the administrators he had met further south, the Sudanese equivalents of Scott in India (in `“William the Conqueror”). These men had created a country which, ‘less than sixteen years ago … was one crazy hell of murder, torture and lust, where every man who had a sword used it till he met a stronger and became his slave:’ In Egypt of the Magicians, Rudyard forecast that the Sudanese would, in time, forget their precarious existence under the Mahdi:

They will honestly believe that they themselves originally created and since then have upheld the easy life into which they were brought at so heavy a price. Then the demand will go up for ‘extension of local government, Soudan for the Soudanese’, and so on till the whole cycle has to be retrodden. It is a hard law but an old one—Rome died learning it, as our western civilisation may die—that if you give any man anything that he has not painfully earned for himself, you infallibly make him or his descendants your devoted enemies?’

As well as the usual travel reportage, the book provides amusing geopolitical analysis:

Here is a country which is not a country but a longish strip of market-garden, nominally in charge of a government which is not a government but the disconnected satrapy of a half-dead empire, controlled pecksniffingly by a Power which is not a Power but an Agency.

However, as its title implies, Rudyard was also interested in another side of Egypt—the one that fascinated students of esoteric religion, its history as a crucible of spiritual development. He had been alerted to this aspect by Rider Haggard, a regular visitor to the country and a friend of the great Egyptologist Wallis Budge … The sense that Rudyard was embarked on a spiritual quest comes in the book’s mock conversation with Pharaoh Akhenaten who bewails the fact that he mistook the conventions of life for the realities. When Rudyard, trying to be helpful, chips in, ‘Ah, those soul-crippling conventions.’ the Pharaoh corrects him, saying that he had wrongly regarded them as lies, but they were in fact invented to cover the raw facts of life – the most important being that ‘mankind is just a little lower than the angels, and the conventions are based on that fact in order that men may become angels. ‘But if you begin, as I did by the convention that men are angels they will assuredly become bigger beasts than ever.

This was a Pharaonic gloss on Rudyard’s religious premise that one should not look too closely into the mind of God, for that way madness lies. It recalled “The Prayer of Miriam Cohen”, with its cry for `A veil’ twixt us and Thee, Good Lord. More mundanely, it can also be read as justification for Rudyard’s Hobbesian political philosophy. But in this case he was pursuing a spiritual quest, as was emphasised in the poem ‘A Pilgrim’s Way’, which accompanied the articles when they were published in Nash’s Magazine in June 1914:

I do not look for holy saints to guide me on my way,
Or male and female devilkins to lead my feet astray …
The people, Lord, Thy people, are good enough for me!.

Not that Rudyard gave much away: as another mock interviewee, a four-thousand-year-old Egyptian nobleman, described the riddle of the Sphinx: ‘All sensible men are of the same religion, but no sensible man ever tells”‘—one more pithy echo of Rudyard’s own opinion (albeit a crib from the seventeenth-century Earl of Shaftesbury, refracted through Disraeli’s Endymion.) [A.L.]


©John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved