January 15, 1920
In three days it will be five months since I left home and saw you all standing on the station platform at Englewood, just as I looked back twenty-nine years ago and saw my dear old father standing and looking after the train that carried his boy away for years of study in Germany. But the months are passing very fast now, and before we know it we shall all be together again.
The enclosed official order may interest you. When I broached the matter at the Residency, Lord Allenby’s A.D.C. said at once they would arrange it. A few days later, just as Lord and Lady Allenby were leaving for a trip in Equatorial Africa, the Air Commodore had replied that they would of course take me, but that the regular charge when it was done for a civilian was 20 pounds ($100) an hour. When the A.D.C. went in perplexity to Lord Allenby about it, he said it was absurd: that the purpose was scientific work and it must be done without charge. A few days later I received the enclosed duplicate of the official orders in the matter. I had a pleasant interview with the Air Commodore, whose rank is that of a general in the army, and on Tuesday, that is the day before yesterday, having put on warmer clothing than usual, I went out with Bull by tram to Heliopolis. We had lunch together at the hotel, and after losing much time finding the right airdrome, we were carried by an R.A.F. car to the proper place. There we found a group of young air men gathered around their major at the door of their mess, greatly enjoying his efforts to clean up the mess dog, which somebody had been decorating with red ink. There was of course much hilarity and good-natured chaffing as the major, a mere youngster, soused the poor little brute in a bucket of soap suds and thrust his thumbs into the little beggar’s eyes, the victim howling dismally all the while. We explained our errand and were informed that my bus was coming up from Helwan. So we sat down on the porch of the mess while the washing of the pup was completed, and waited until we saw a speck rising over the southern horizon. It grew and grew, and wheeled off seemingly for Suez but really only to come down on a head wind and landed just in front of the mess.
It had been, as my ill luck would have it, a cold and cloudy morning, with little prospect of enough sunshine to do the photographing I wanted to do. It cleared, however, while we were at lunch, and the sun was now shining brightly, but it was much colder than normal. The young officers were inclined to regard my experiment as a good joke, but I was not in the least disturbed by their apprehensions. My pilot climbed down from his machine and brought me a helmet fur-lined, fur-mounted goggles, an air pilot’s huge leather overcoat and a large pair of heavy gauntlet gloves. Bull stood by and gathered in the stuff I peeled off as I got inside all this array handed me by the pilot. The young officers crowded around and fastened me into my gear, till I looked like Peary in the Arctic regions as Bull stepped off and took a snapshot against the machine. The pilot disappeared over the top of his covered perch telling me as he did so that he had fastened a notebook and pencil over my seat and I could write to him all I wanted him to do. I had explained to him just what course I wanted him to follow, so that I would need to give him only some additional local directions. The young airmen showed me where to put my feet to find the steps up the tall side of the machine and presently I was perched behind the pilot ready to start.
He put on the power and we marched slowly down the field, rolling on the wheels to the other end of the airdrome, so as to turn around and rise facing the wind. I was very busy adjusting my camera and seeing that the strap which held it around my neck was safe and firm. Then with a tremendous roar the machine rushed back across the field again, as the young fellow put on full power, and presently we lifted and were off over the roofs of the hangars and the buildings of New Heliopolis. It was terrific. As we sat directly behind the propeller we received in our faces the full power of the terrible vortex caused by the revolving screw. It was impossible to speak a word in the crashing noise of the engine and the rush of the wind. I opened my mouth to find myself gasping and choking and quickly perceived that one could only breathe through the nose. But I was seriously asking the question whether I could stand two hours of it, for I saw that the pilot has a glass wind shield and the observer was not protected in anyway, except that he sat deep in his perch.
We rose rapidly and headed directly westward across the southern apex of the Delta. Then the full splendor of it all broke upon me, and it was thrilling beyond all words to express. Five thousand feet below spread the green carpet of the Delta with the misty wilderness of the desert stretching for a hundred miles on east and west. I will not burden you with fruitless efforts to convey such impressions. All that one would say is so futile and feeble after such an experience. Before I knew it we were sailing over the margin of the desert at the western edge of the Delta, and I was looking obliquely down on the ruined pyramid of Aburoash, and its vast causeway, up which I had ridden with Lord Allenby only three weeks ago. It had seemed a long ride up that causeway then, and now from a height of 5000 feet it looked like a child’s sand bridge on the sea shore. I had the camera all ready for the first shot, and when I lifted it above the edge of the car the blast flattened the bellows and drove them into the field of the picture. Do what I would I could not prevent it, and I had to make the exposure anyhow, with much of the view cut off by the intruding bellows.
Airplane view looking west across the vast construction causeway of the demolished pyramid of Abu Roash, Egypt (N. 4195, P. 7800)
Then the five miles from Aburoash to Gizeh were passed in less than as many minutes and we hovered over the Great Pyramid. I suppose I am the first archaeologist who has ever opened a camera on the pyramid from a point where all four sides could be seen at once. The pilot veered and banked the machine sharply so that we tilted far over to one side and I looked over the side of the machine, my eyes looked straight down upon the Gizeh group and the camera was somewhat protected. It is a curious sensation to look down for 5000 feet, straight down, with nothing under you whatever. Then came Zaweit el-Aryan and Abusir, Sakkara and Dahshur and far to the south Lisht and the Fayum.
As we passed the grand pyramid group at Dahshur I turned and looked northward along a magnificent line of pyramids thirty miles long, an imposing vista which I shall never forget, with the giants of Gizeh towering in the background thirty miles away. I snapped the camera on this twice and devoutly hope that the bellows may not have spoiled the picture. By this time I was getting groggy. I had to put a new roll into the camera, first of course taking out the old one. The air was very lumpy and at frequent intervals we dropped with a sickening fall into a hole in the air, as you come down in an elevator. This had been going on for nearly an hour. I stuck to my pictures and to studying the terrain from one great pyramid cemetery to the next, grinding my teeth and swearing I was not going to give up to it. But it was all of no avail. I leaned over the cockpit rail and surrendered to the Sahara a very good thirty piaster lunch! The pilot had written me a very nice little note and poked it back at me, asking me how I felt and if he was going right. This was when we were crossing the Delta. I had replied that I was fine and to hit it up as much as he liked. I was glad he was not writing me any more such inquiries over Dahshur. I lost my Eversharp writing him where to go on the return trip, and I had to let the pictures go for a little while and gather a little gimp to begin again.
I was not a bit sorry when we turned about and sailed away northward on the return. I learned after I came down that they rarely keep anyone up more than twenty minutes on the first trip. I tried to stick to the camera, and I think I got two fine views of Abusir as we passed it again going north, but I was pretty seedy. The magnificent panorama of the eastern desert illuminated by the low afternoon sun behind us as we swung northward I shall never forget. It was in marvelous contrast with the rich and sumptuous green of the valley in the foreground, behind which the desert cliffs and ranges rose in one plastic yellow snow drift after another. At Gizeh we turned northeastward, sailing over Cairo at 6000 feet so that I could have dropped another lunch directly into the Ezbekiyeh Garden! We passed directly over the Citadel and in a few minutes more the pilot turned off almost all his power, the awful roaring and the terrific wind blast ceased, and in the first really pleasant motion there was every sensation of buoyant flight as we spiraled gently downward, tilting alarmingly to be sure as we banked on the short curves, but at length shooting out upon the landing field as one coasts down a toboggan slide, the wheels taking the ground so gently that I was hardly aware of it. A moment more and Bull was running out from the mess house porch to greet us, and my trip was over. We had been out nearly two hours.
The young officers came out to see how much there was left of me, and were quite surprised to find that I still had my camera, and that I had not lost my helmet. To be sure the first blast of the gale from the propeller had nearly carried it away, but I had saved it, and drawn the fastenings tighter. I could not hear what they said, and it was only after we had sat at tea in the mess room for half an hour that I recovered my hearing, but it was not until the next day that I heard normally again. The young air men were much interested in what I had been trying to do, and listened eagerly for half an hour to the story of the cemeteries on the pyramid plateau. The young major in command, the artist of the dog-washing, was very cordial and asked me to come out whenever I could. Finally, when I was a little rested, Bull and I took the trolley for Cairo. I had twenty exposures of the pyramids in my pocket!
For the full story of my exciting trip you should come to the special exhibit “Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919-1920,” at the Oriental Institute!
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