British writer and explorer who promoted the protection and preservation of ancient Egyptian sites
Amelia Edwards was an English novelist, journalist, explorer, artist, and Egyptologist. She wrote everything from ghost stories to travel books. Her 19th century voyage up the Nile was not a common journey to be made by a woman in this time period. It was on this voyage that she found a love for ancient Egyptian life and artifacts. Most would agree she did more than anyone in the 19th century to encourage interest in ancient Egypt. Her dedication to ancient Egyptian heritage earned her the nickname “The Godmother of Egyptology.”
Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards was born in London, England on June 7, 1831. Her father Thomas was a retired army officer who became a banker after his service ended. Her mother was of Irish decent. Amelia was educated at home by her mother, and displayed talent in art and music. But she especially showed promise as a writer at a very young age. By the 1850s, Amelia began her career as a journalist and writer.1 In 1855, her first novel My Brother’s Wife was published. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Amelia published several short stories and novels, many centered on travel.2 Although Amelia Edwards had brief travels in her early journalism years, her most memorable, and documented journeys came after her parents’ death in 1860. After their passing, Amelia had little reason or desire to remain in London. She would take this opportunity to travel more herself, instead of just writing about it. From her experiences would come several great stories.
Amelia Edwards enjoyed travel, spending much time in France and Italy. While in Italy, she would travel with her friend Lucy Renshaw. She is simply referred to as “L” in Edwards’ diaries.3 This is unusual, yet bold for women during the 19th century when women traveling alone, even if in a pair, was not always socially acceptable. Yet, Amelia and Lucy did not let this stop them. The two women went on a pioneering journey of the Dolomites, a mountain range in northeastern Italy. According to her book on their journey, Amelia and Lucy set out in June 1872.4 They traveled via train to Venice. From Venice, they left civilization behind, and headed towards the Dolomites. The Dolomite ranges contained almost no roads, scarce and simple accommodations with little comforts.5 But Amelia, along with Lucy, were determined, no matter what obstacles or challenges they may have encountered. She wanted to write a detailed book that included all aspects of the area, good and bad, especially those off the beaten path. Her artistic skills came in handy in creating maps along the way.
Along the way, they traversed valleys, climbed tall mountain peaks, and encountered numerous lakes and rivers. Their journey took almost a month, and required much grit to push through the rough terrain. Amelia’s enthusiasm and passion for travel and exploration of new places was seen in her book on the Dolomite voyage. She recounted the trip in Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys, published in 1873. It would not be long after this publication that her most memorable voyage would take place, and impact the future of archaeology and Egyptology – the scientific and historic study of ancient Egypt.
Amelia Edwards spent the winter of 1873 into 1874 sailing up the Nile and back. Her Nile River exploration and journey began with her arrival in Cairo, Egypt on November 29, 1873.6 Lucy Renshaw, again referred to as “L” in Edwards’ notes, once more accompanied Amelia on her journey. They spent several days exploring and studying Cairo, including visits to the great pyramids. By December 13, they acquired their transportation for sailing the Nile and began their journey. They would be traveling on a by dahabeeyah (also spelled dahabeeyah or dahabiah), an Egyptian house boat with sails. It is a shallow, flat-bottomed vessel that can be used with sails or by rowing. Their dahabeeyah, named Philae, had 2 masts; an upper deck with cabins and lower deck area for crew.7 They traveled up the Nile from Cairo for seven weeks and roughly 800 miles to Abu Simbel, arriving January 31, 1874.8
Edwards and her party spent eighteen days at Abu Simbel. While at Abu Simbel, Amelia got to take part in some excavations that were happening at various ancient sites, including the great temple of Ramesses II. Amelia maintained a very detailed record of everything she saw and experience in Abu Simbel. Unfortunately, some of those experiences were negative. Amelia witnessed thefts and the physical destruction of ancient sites. On February 18, 1874, they departed Abu Simbel. The party sailed down the Nile to Thebes and arrived in time to watch the Egyptian authorities supervise the opening of a recently discovered tomb. She recorded the discovery and opening of the sarcophagus and the examination of the wrapped mummy. Amelia and her party made their way back down the Nile in Early spring. Amelia was excited about her Nile voyage and ancient excavations, but also concerned with the treatment of artifacts discovered by looters and thieves. This exploration down the Nile would change Amelia’s path in life.
Later Years and Death
The voyage up the Nile changed Amelia Edwards’ life and led to the publication of A Thousand Miles Up The Nile which was published in 1877. Edwards was quite upset by what she saw happening in Egypt. She reported in her book that tourists from all over Europe were destroying much of Egypt’s legacy. They were defacing monuments, looting graves, and more. So concerned about the preservation of Egypt’s cultural heritage, Edwards stopped writing fiction and spent the rest of her life championing the cause of archaeology and Egyptology. In 1882, Edwards, along with financial backers, helped found the Egypt Exploration Fund to carry out proper excavations in Egypt. She spent her later years traveling to promote what she’d witnessed in Egypt, and encouraging protection for the historical sites and artifacts discovered. On April 15, 1892, Amelia Edwards died in Westbury-on-Trym from influenza.9
Amelia Edwards was a brilliant writer, and supporter of ancient Egyptian heritage sites. Her voyage up the Nile is not just a travel log. It is the only detailed description of the condition of numerous Egyptian artifacts along the Nile region. Through her writings and lectures, she became one of the leading voices of the era to champion the protection and preservation of Egypt’s cultural heritage. She left an extensive library of Egyptology and a collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College, London along with 2500 pounds – British currency – to found the Edwards Chair of Egyptology.
- Jennifer Speake, ed., Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2003), 379.
- Christine L. Krueger, Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003), 120.
- Speake, Literature of Travel and Exploration, 378.
- Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards, Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1873), 20.
- Speake, Literature of Travel and Exploration, 378.
- Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1878), 19.
- Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, 63.
- Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, 52; 60.
- Speake, Literature of Travel and Exploration, 379.
Speake, Jennifer, ed. Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Krueger, Christine L. Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003.
Edwards, Amelia Ann Blanford. Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1873.
Edwards, Amelia Ann Blanford. A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1878.