CAIRO – Any tourist traveling to Egypt should stop first at London’s British Museum. Not only because the museum contains many of Egypt’s most prized relics — it also provides a primer on how tourism got off on the wrong foot.
The Brits’ version of our Smithsonian Museum starts with an exhibit about the Enlightenment ideals upon which this museum of antiquities was built. This signature exhibition elegantly summarizes how tourism’s roots led to a franchise of consumerism, objectification, bigotry and neocolonialist venturism.
Privileged young Englishmen in the 1700s often stopped out for world travel after their university education and before beginning their career. This came to be known as the Grand Tour. It served as both a rite of passage for the elites and a humanist version of a pilgrimage. The wonders of the ancient world formed the centerpiece. Italy and Greece were the most common destinations, but only because Egypt was politically unstable.
Young men from influential families returned with relics to demonstrate their learning, but also their wonder. These would be displayed in their Cabinets of Curiosities — early Enlightenment conversation starters. They also returned with ideas. The Greek Revivalist architecture that shaped so much of early America’s public works projects drew its inspiration from the Grand Tours taken by our young country’s intelligentsia.
Mark Twain took his own version of the Grand Tour and sent dispatches back to a San Francisco newspaper. The series was bound and published as “The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress” in 1869. It sold 70,000 copies its first year and it remained one of Twain’s most popular titles throughout his life.
Recreational travel had by then gotten easier and cheaper and accessible to almost anyone. The Grand Tour lost its grandness and became tourism. Thomas Cook began marketing grand tours (without the capitalizations) in 1850. His name survives to this day in the industry he helped create.
Tourism’s original missteps can be attributed in part to another Cook: Captain James Cook, commissioned for relic retrieval by physician, collector, and chocolatier Sir Hans Sloane. When Sloane died in 1753, he willed the 71,000 objects he had collected to King George III, and the British Museum was born.
Sloane believed that the entire world could be understood, if only its component parts were properly categorized. As the second president of the Royal Society (after Isaac Newton), he oversaw or inspired the categorization of almost anything that can be collected. What the Dewey Decimal System is to librarians and Google has become for the rest of us, Sloane’s categorizations were to natural scientists.
But Sloane was an obsessive genius. Those who followed overlearned or misapplied the lessons of the Grand Tour.
Observing, collecting and categorizing became more than a rich man’s hobby. It became a posture toward life — or, may I say, a posture leaning away from life. Travel became less about connecting and more about observing, less partaking and more collecting. Collecting became plundering. Grand Tourists believed their modernity made them superior, and so import companies like the Honorable East India Company progressed from trading spices to selling slaves. Any commodity of value was, quite literally, fair trade.
That trend has continued uninterrupted for two centuries, so the objectification of persons and the commoditization of experience has largely replaced the learning and wonder that was the original motivation for recreational travel.
So when my friend Ehab Elhanafy invited me to visit him and his family in Egypt, I saw an opportunity to do what I believe the Grand Tour should have been: partaking in the culture, feeling the discomfort of being far away, forging human connections in new ways.
I brought no list of sites to be seen, hoping instead to gain entrance into people’s homes and thoughts. Egypt has been prominent in the news for the past several months, but I came looking for small stories that are significant to us only because they fit in this time and place. The faces and stories and relationships will last longer than any trinkets brought home for my Cabinet of Curiosities.
Travel can and should make our world both smaller and larger. Tightened connections reduce distances. At the same time, the expanse of possibility widens with learning and wonder.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.