Secret of the Scarab book 5 of the Lady Caroline Mysteries set in Egypt 1920s
Historical Notes

Scarabs, Steam Boats and Secret Societies: Historical Notes for “Secret of the Scarab”

Researching the history behind Book 5 of the Lady Caroline Mysteries, “Secret of the Scarab”, was a lot of fun. I got to read travel guides to Egypt from the 1920s, track down archival images of markets, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, hotels, ancient Egyptian sites, and the interior of Nile steam boats. Among other things, I researched travel times between cities and monuments, itineraries of Nile cruises at the time, the weather in Cairo and Luxor in November, sunset and sunrise times, and secret societies through history that have been influenced by ancient Egyptian culture. I had to get to grips with the ancient Egyptian dynasties and their pharaohs, beliefs, and monuments. I even visited the Egyptian Museum in Turin, considered one of the best in the world (outside the one in Cairo).

The events in “Secret of the Scarab” take place in 1925. It was a time of great upheaval and change in Egypt. In 1922, the Egyptians won their independence from the British (although the British remained involved in running the country until the 1950s). That same year, the archeologist Howard Carter discovered the Tutankhamun tomb and Egyptomania gripped the world. I allude to both of these facts in the book.

Here are the historical tidbits that made it into the book.

Scarabs

Scarabs, the beetle shaped artifacts, are an undeniable symbol of the ancient Egyptians. They are found as hieroglyphs in their temples and tombs, as amulets hidden in the bandages of their mummies, as seals, and as records of important events.

These scarabs, usually carved out of stone, are a representation of the dung beetle. It might seem surprising to us that such a lowly animal was elevated to the status of a deity, but to the ancient Egyptians the dung beetle was highly symbolic. The dung beetle rolling its ball across the sands looked like the god Ra rolling the sun across the sky (one of the forms Ra takes is that of a beetle – called Khepri). The ancient Egyptians also misunderstood the dung beetle’s life cycle and believed that it regenerated itself out of its dung ball. That’s why they considered the dung beetle immortal.

As mentioned in the book, scarabs were sometimes substituted for the mummy’s heart. And official seals (worn as rings) were also fashioned in the shape of a scarab.

Curses

Despite popular belief to the contrary, there is no Tutankhamun curse. There was no text written on the walls of the tomb that cursed those who dared to disturb the pharaoh’s resting place. The curse was the invention of the newspapers. In fact, there are only a few tombs discovered so far that carry warnings directed towards would-be thieves.

Steamers and Dahabiyas

In the 1920s there were two ways to travel through Egypt – by boat or by train. The train was faster, and the sleeper from Cairo to Luxor was quite luxurious, but traveling by train deprived the visitor of all the sights along the Nile. Train would have been used by officials or by those in a hurry to see Egypt in a week (as one of the travel guides I read accused the American tourists of doing). A guide from 1914 assured the traveler that nothing less than a whole month was necessary in Egypt, but three months was more in line with what the guide recommended. But I digress.

As a rule, tourists traveled by boat. And there were two choices – a steamboat or a traditional Egyptian sailboat called the dahabiya. Of the two, the dahabiya was considered the more leisurely and desirable. But it was also the more expensive option. Most tourists explored Egypt from the comfort of a steamboat run by the Cook & Son company (see below).

Of the Cook & Son steamers, one, the Sudan, survives and is now run by a French luxury travel company. The ship was also used in the filming of the 2004 “Death on the Nile” Poirot episode, staring David Suchet. That steamship, together with surviving archival photos, and Agatha Christie’s own description of the ship, give us a good idea of what the boats would have been like.

The steam boats had (usually) three decks. The top one was called the sun deck, and was open and airy. This was where breakfast was taken and also served as the panorama deck, and the deck where people would go to relax in the sun. Below it were the promenade deck and the lower deck. The cabins and public areas, such as dining areas, lounges, bar, library, and other public areas, were distributed among those two decks. Cabins were luxuriously outfitted and had their own bathrooms. There were also smaller, less glamorous cabins for the maids and valets traveling with their employers. Furniture on the decks was rattan, and of English leather in the lounges and the bar.

The Egyptian Season

Travel in Egypt was during the winter season – from October through April. This avoided both the summer heat of Egypt and the winter misery of England.

Donkeys

Although the camel, along with the pyramids, has become synonymous with Egypt, it is the donkey that is, in fact, the most ubiquitous work animal in Egypt. Donkeys were used to haul stones to build the pyramids (there were no camels in Egypt at the time), and donkeys were used in the 19th and 20th centuries to ferry tourists to sites. The donkey is still very much used as the work animal in Egypt, carrying heavy loads or serving as transport.

Nile Crocodile

The Nile Crocodile is now hunted to extinction along the shores of the Nile. And it might have been a stretch to have a crocodile attack, even in 1925. But I used the poetic license available to authors because I liked the trope of a crocodile attack along the Nile.

Cook & Son Nile Tours

The travel agency of Cook & Son was synonymous with travel in Egypt. The company ran the fleet of tourist boats on the Nile, organized tours of the ancient sites, and owned most of the hotels along the Nile (and one purchased vouchers to be used at those hotels upon arrival at a destination). The company helped its customers through customs and employed its own porters. From arrival in Alexandria to departure back to Europe or America from the same port, tourists were tended to by Cook & Son employees.

In fact, Cook & Son, through their operation in Egypt, invented the modern packaged holiday.

A typical tour on a steamer would take about 7-10 days to reach Luxor. After departing from Cairo, the boat would stop that same day in Memphis and Saggara. On day 4, the boat would stop at the Deni Hassan tombs, and by day 7, the boat would reach the Ptolemaic temple of Dendera. And then it was on to Luxor, where the tourists would enjoy a moonlit ride on donkeys to Karnak.

After Luxor, the boat would continue to Aswan, but I omitted that leg of the trip in my book.

Department of Antiquities

The Department of Antiquities was a real institution that controlled all the archeological sites in Egypt. It was also in charge of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. All discoveries and artifacts had to be reported to the Department, and the Department decided how the finds were to be split between the archeologists and the Egyptian state. Any Egyptian antiques that were to leave the country had to pass inspection by the Department of Antiquities, so that important artifacts remained in the country. No doubt, there was a lot of smuggling of artifacts that made their way into private collections.

At the time of Lady Caroline’s visit, the Frenchman Pierre Lacau was Director of Department of Antiquities.

Cecil Rhodes and the British Empire

Cecil Rhodes was a British colonialist, who established the De Beers diamond company and the Rhodes Scholarship. I wanted to work him into the book as a symbol of colonialism, because in the 1920s, the spirit of the British Empire was still alive and well. And while Britain had lost control over Egypt in 1922, it still had India. Many men from the generation of Uncle Albert would have made their careers in India. For them, traveling on the Nile would have been reminiscent of traveling to India.

Mr. Dalton’s comment foreshadows the fall the fall of the British Empire.

The theme of Empire was an important one to weave in, because in many respects these were the Empire’s final days. The coming of WWII signaled the end of the British Empire.

The Winter Palace Hotel

This hotel still exists in Luxor. It overlooks the Nile, the west bank and the Valley of the Kings beyond, and the temples of Luxor. It was the place where Mr. Carter posted the first announcement that the Tomb of Tutankhamun had been opened.

Luxor and its sites

After Cairo, Luxor is the most important city for a traveler to Egypt to visit . The city sits on the east bank of the Nile, with the temples of Luxor and Karnak alongside it. Across the river, on the west bank, and further in, is the Valley of the Kings, where the Tutankhamun tomb, among many others, is located.

Secret Societies

Ancient Egyptian culture has fascinated people since ancient times – from Greeks and Romans, through to the modern era. Outsiders looking in were bewitched by the pageantry, the secret rites performed by priests, and the ancient Egyptian’s fascination with death. Before Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered in 1822 (here is the number 22 again!) by Jean-François Champollion (who incidentally visited the Egyptian Museum in Turin for his research), people believed that the writings of the ancient Egyptians held long-lost secrets about magic, riches and immortality. The ancient Egyptian symbology was adopted by secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Once the hieroglyphs were deciphered with the help of the Rosetta Stone, the writings of the ancient Egyptians were discovered to be nothing more than records of historical events, and the fashion of using ancient Egyptian symbology died away.

The secret societies of the various American universities mentioned in the book, almost all of which were formed in the 19th century, are also a fact. And they all still exist today.

It’s interesting to note that prior to independence from the British, there were several secret political societies that operated in Egypt. They were involved in civil unrest and assassinations.

Cult of Khepri

While Khepri is the dung-beetle form of the sun god Ra, and quite prevalent in tomb and temple hieroglyphics, the Cult of Khepri is of my own fabrication.

Ahmose and His Brother the Pharaoh

All the historical tidbits mentioned in the book about the Hight Priest Ahmose are historical fact – he was the son of Amenhotep II, and the brother of Thutmose IV, and was a high priest at the temple of Ra. His brother did have visions of the Sphinx and erected the famous Dream Stele sitting at the feet of the Sphinx of Giza. All of that is true, except that he never established the Cult of Khepri.

German Interest in Egyptian Artifacts

In the book, it is hinted that Mr. Dalton is a German spy, and he does not hide the fact that he has German clients. It’s an interesting historical fact that German archeologists in the early 20th century were quite interested in ancient Egyptian culture and artifacts. The reasons are intricate, having to do with the unification of the German Empire in the 19th century, the search for (and establishment of) a proto-German culture, and the fact that the German government, whose colonies in Africa were taken away after WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, was quite interested in having a foothold in Africa again. This interest in ancient Egyptian culture that had its roots in the 19th century would come to its zenith under the Nazi regime. For our purposes, it suffices to say that Mr. Dalton could very well have been hired by rich Germans to buy ancient Egyptian artifacts, and could also have been a German spy.

Zacharias Janssen and Hakim Said Farrokh

Two historical personalities briefly mentioned in the book are Zacharias Janssen and Hakim Said Farrokh. Zacharias Janssen was in fact a 16th century Dutch lens maker who claimed to have invented the compound microscope (a claim that was later disputed). However, he was also known as a counterfeiter of coins, and no doubt used his fine lenses for the task. Hakim Said Farrokh is a scholar of my invention, but he is a composite of middle-eastern scholars from the time of the Islamic Golden Age.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *