BMCR 2016.10.57

Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters: Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries. Bloomsbury Egyptology

, , Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters: Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries. Bloomsbury Egyptology. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. 147. ISBN 9781472588807, 9781472588821. ebook.


Anglo-American experiences in Egypt and the Near East have been a popular subject in post-colonial studies since Edward Said published his seminal work Orientalism in 1978. Little attention, however, has been given to the “dragomen” that were often employed as interpreters and guides. These local men (and it was invariably men) were a conduit through which early travellers experienced the Orient and interpreted what they saw. In this well-written and good-humoured book, Mairs and Muratov examine the relationship between dragoman and client, and investigate the ways in which dragomen both reinforced and confronted Western perceptions of the East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Although voiceless in the recorded history of the region, dragomen survive in the letters and memoirs of the clients they served, where they were often reduced to caricatures such as the wily rascal or self-important buffoon. This book is motivated by biographical research into two dragomen whose voices have, by chance or good fortune, resonated louder than most. Drawing on a scrapbook of 80 client testimonials discovered on e-bay, Mairs examines the relationship between Solomon Negima and his clients who toured the Holy Land in 1885-1933. In contrast, Muratov overviews the well-recorded career of Daniel Z. Noorian, who guided the Wolfe Expedition through Mesopotamia in 1884, and who worked as foreman to the University of Pennsylvania’s excavations at Nippur between 1888-1890. The book is fundamentally structured on these two figures, and indeed might have been called “A Tale of Two Dragomans”, as the authors remark (p.6). The result is two distinct studies that are individually strong, but together feel like two books in one.

Building towards the Negima case-study, Chapters 1 and 2 investigate the role of dragoman as tourist-guide by drawing on an impressive comparanda of sources including memoirs, cartoons, letters, guidebooks, testimonials and postcards. The dragoman is explored as a cultural arbiter, who selectively interpreted aspects of his own culture to negotiate the distance between his clients’ romanticized image of the Orient, and the realities that they found. The underlying tension in this relationship concerned a perceived inversion of rank. Pilgrims reading The Church Weekly in 1898, for example, were cautioned against the dragoman who “glories in the joy of having a white man under his thumb, and asserts his power in a hundred ways” (p. 20). The authors successfully identify recurrent themes of status and honesty, in which a ‘good’ dragoman is one who knows his place in the colonial order, and an ‘honest’ dragoman is one who does not exploit his elevated role.

These chapters expose as trite the image of the banal or boorish traveller, as successfully as they do the stereotypical descriptions of their guides. The banal tourist was, of course, a well-recognized cliché at the time: hackneyed memoirs of countless journeys through Egypt and the Levant had come to define a new (and often turgid) genre of travel writing. Accounts such as Four Months on a Dahabëeh by Miss M. L. M. Carey (1863) provided a rich satirical vein for humourists such as Thackeray and Twain, although one reviewer for the Spectator had enough, describing the Nile as a river “as familiar as the Thames”, and Miss Carey’s book as one which “ought to exist, but in manuscript only”.

Yet it is clear, from the range of examples cited, that dragomen were as ethnically diverse as the clients they guided. Reflecting the cosmopolitan world of the east Mediterranean under Ottoman control, dragomen were Arab, Turkish, Circassian, Armenian, Italian and Greek. Did travellers relate differently to dragomen from particular ethnic backgrounds? And did dragomen change their behaviour when guiding tourists from America, Europe, Britain or its Dominions? These questions are best explored through the finer-grained lens of a case-study, and in this respect Chapters 1 and 2 neatly lay the foundations for Chapter 6, which examines the dragoman-client relationship using the testimonial book of Solomon Negima. Mairs convincingly depicts Negima through the eyes of his clients as a demure yet resolute man who took his responsibilities seriously. Additional travel writings also help articulate the distance between client and guide. While Miss Ellen E. Miller provided only a two-line testimonial praising Negima’s “honesty, straight-forwardness & general good conduct” (p.120), she chided his timorousness more fully in her memoir Alone in Syria (1891). As Mairs suggests, Miller was probably naïve of the dangers from which she had been sheltered, or of the damage to Negima’s livelihood should misadventure occur.

I wonder just how ‘typical’ a lens Negima provides for examining the post-colonial themes developed in Chapter 2. Negima was born a Syrian Roman Catholic, was educated in a German Protestant Mission, and had joined the British Army as a young man; he even served in the famous Relief Expedition sent to rescue General Gordon at Khartoum. His clients valued this background, and Negima certainly used it to his advantage. These experiences likely made him more effective at navigating his clients’ colonial expectations than most of his contemporaries, and they probably underlay his success. Yet this apparent singularity is, perhaps, the case-study’s greatest value, as it confounds the notion that a ‘typical’ dragoman ever existed.

Despite its neat segue to Chapter 6, Chapter 2 is followed by three chapters that explore the relationship between early archaeologists and the interpreters and foreman they employed, including the case-study of Daniel Z. Noorian. We can assume a very different relationship between foreman and archaeologist than between dragoman and client. Archaeologists had at least a basic knowledge of local culture and language, and they employed foremen for very different tasks, including the management of large excavation teams. While foremen still influenced the experiences of the archaeologists they served, the inherent colonial tensions between tourist and guide so well described in Chapter 2 were perhaps manifest in different ways. It is therefore disappointing that these chapters all but abandon these post-colonial themes.

Chapter 3 briefly overviews the archaeological careers of Petrie, Lawrence, Woolley and Mallowan, as well as Agatha Christie, Mallowan’s wife. Although the chapter promises to approach this well-trodden ground from the unique perspective of their foremen, it essentially distils to a discussion of how much Arabic or Turkish each archaeologist spoke. A particular oversight is the absence of Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, foreman to the British Museum’s excavations at Carchemish, and later to Woolley’s excavations at Ur. Upon hearing of the death of Lawrence, Hamoudi is reported to have said, “it is as if I had lost a son”.1 Woolley considered Hamoudi a life-long friend, writing that “too much could not be said” of his remarkable field skills or his ability to manage his men,2 and Katherine Woolley cast his likeness in bronze. 3 Hamoudi left a strong footprint in the historiography of the period, and it seems a lost opportunity, in a book such as this, to overlook the relationship between this celebrated foreman and some of the most influential archaeological figures of the time. The single-line reference to Hamoudi as guide for Mallowan and Christie’s tour of Syria in 1932 (p.66) reflects, perhaps, an over-reliance on Mallowan’s autobiography, particularly concerning the discussion of Woolley at Ur.

Chapter 4 describes the role of Daniel Z. Noorian as interpreter to the Wolfe Expedition (1884) and as foreman at Nippur (1888-1890), while Chapter 5 overviews Noorian’s subsequent career as antiquities dealer in New Jersey. These chapters present a comprehensively researched biography of a fascinating man. However, Noorian’s visibility in the historic record, including in American newspapers, reflects his unusual position as foreman at the time, at least compared to foremen such as Hamoudi. An auburn-haired Armenian Christian from Sirt, Noorian had been schooled at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey before he joined the Nippur team, and he returned to the US to become a naturalized citizen, eventually marrying into an established Anglo-American family.

Given this background, Noorian was likely placed in an unusual position as foreman at Nippur in respect to both his American employers and to the workmen under his command. These relationships provide fertile ground on which to explore the post-colonial themes outlined in Chapter 2, and Muratov demonstrates the high esteem in which Noorian was held by listing the range of tasks that his employers entrusted him to perform. However, the chapter refrains from exploring the potentially more interesting relationship between Noorian and the labour-force. Noorian’s habit of carrying a light chain into the trenches to encourage flagging basket-carriers (p. 87) suggests that this relationship exaggerated, in some way, a perceived colonial relationship between the archaeologists and Noorian himself. The fact that the first campaign ended prematurely after dissatisfied workers burned the expedition camp to the ground suggests that Noorian’s tenure as foreman had not been a success—an inference borne out by his resignation letter in which he claimed he was in fear for his life. Although he returned to Nippur for the second campaign, Noorian’s contract was not renewed thereafter. Muratov is not convinced by the suggestion, which emerged in the infamous Hilprecht-Peters controversy, that his role was terminated partly because he had demanded baksheesh from the workers he oversaw.

While the book presents a fresh and inclusive social history of formative archaeological work and, especially, early tourism in Egypt and the Near East, its greatest strength ultimately lies in the detailed biographies of its two key protagonists. In this respect, however, it is already partly overshadowed by Mairs’ definitive biography of Solomon Negima that Bloomsbury Academic published very shortly after,4 and presumably Muratov will publish an extended study of Daniel Z. Noorian in due course. One cannot help but feel that this slim volume would have a more lasting impact if it had developed further its post-colonial themes, particularly concerning the role of local foremen in shaping early archaeological field-work. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book that finds a ready place alongside post-colonial studies such as Stephen Quirke’s seminal research into Petrie’s Egyptian workforce through the archives at the Petrie Museum,5 or the many volumes published by the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East.


1. Bolton, K., “Forward” to T. E. Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom. London: Black House Publishing. 2013. p.8.

2. Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations. Volume II: The Royal Cemetery. A Report on the Predynastic and Sargonid Graves Excavated Between 1926 and 1931. New York: Publications of the Joint Expedition of the British Museum and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia. 1934. p.8.

3. McCall, H., “Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim”, Ur Online,

4. Mairs, R. From Khartoum to Jerusalem: the Dragoman Solomon Negima and his Clients (1885-1933). Bloomsbury Academic: London. 2016.

5. Quirke, S., Hidden Hands: Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives 1880-1924. London: Duckworth. 2010.