Saturday, August 20, 2011

Egyptian Childhood by Philippa Shaplin

One of my earliest memories is waking to the clucking of poultry and female Arabic voices raised in altercation. They were on the other side of a mud brick wall which divided our living quarters from those of someone called, I think, Abd el Hady. These walls were of endless fascination to me and my brother, for they incorporated not only the Biblical straw fragments, but also tiny shells which could be dug out with one’s fingernail (it was fifteen years before I learned the geological explanation of this phenomena).

I was two and a half years old, and we had come to live at Sakkara, near the Step Pyramid, and in the former quarters of the great French archeologist Mariette. Today the building has vanished; it has been replaced by a rest house for tourists convenient for visiting the Serapeum and various Old Kingdom tombs. We lived there until I was four, bathing in a portable tine tub and playing in the world’s biggest sandbox.

We had an English nanny as well as various Egyptian servants. Among these, Fathy, who appears from old photographs to have been about fourteen, accompanied us when Nanny took us out to play. He was in charge of our transportation, a donkey with specially made basketry paniers in which we rode. He had a long stick with the top of a large tin can fastened to one end which rattled and reflected the sun, and when we got off the donkey to play he stood by with his stick, which I have always assumed was meant to frighten off the scorpions and snakes. But the desert was a wonderful playground. Instead of a conventional hobby horse we had a miniature stone lion (Roman) to ride – we called it ‘the sphincus”- and all sorts of treasures might turn up in the sand; coins, pottery fragments and sometimes a tiny clay jar, whole and unbroken. Above all we loved the bones. There were plenty of them (human, although we didn’t know it) and it was fun to search for good long ones that could be planted upright in the sand to make fences, or featured in a favorite game called Mr. Firth’s Wine Bottles.

In the heat of the day we played in the sheltered entrances to the tombs of Ti and Ptahhotep. Our nanny sat in the shade and sewed, always in full uniform including the traditional veil. There is no doubt that we were considered ‘cute” by the visiting tourists, as my father has described in his Recollections of an Egyptologist, and when I revisited those tombs nearly fifty years later the dim interiors with their picturebook walls were strangely familiar. But more vivid, perhaps, is the memory of Nanny losing her scissors in the sand and the praise I received for finding them.

Not only scorpions but also sandstorms were hazards to be feared. I remember the anxious excitement when one of our servants was bitten, and how we were strictly confined to the house during high winds, where we watched the sinister line of sand drifting in and piling up before the crack in the front door.

We must have been very spoiled by the many visitors who came to Mariette’s House during those years. Among them were aunts, uncles, grandmothers and archeologists like Ambrose Lansings, who brought their little boy to play with us (he later married my as-yet unborn sister). I have an old photograph, taken in front of the house, showing my two-year-old brother, our parents, an aunt and uncle and two unnamed visitors. Forty years later a dear friend of mine found its duplicate among the effects of her deceased father, the distinguished English architect A.J. Davis, who had taken the original picture while on his honeymoon in Egypt in 1924, and had evidently sent my parents a copy. My friend identified one of the two “visitors” as her mother. No doubt these and other travellers made much of us with our tiny pith helmets and English accents.

In the spring of 1925 when I was four we acquired a new nurse, Nanny Ethel. I remember her first night with us at Sakkara and how shocked she was that we had not yet been taught the Lord’s Prayer. Shortly after this we moved to Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. My sister’s arrival was imminent and my father was leaving his work at the Step Pyramid to return to the Harvard Camp at Giza.

Our new house was very different from Mariette’s. It had stairs, a garden and water tanks where you pulled a chain instead of the familiar earth (or rather, sand) closet of Sakkara. On the third floor was a porch, open to the sky, where the whole family sometimes slept out on hot nights under mosquito nets. One early dawn I was awakened by the blast of a shotgun. It was my father frightening away thieves who had broken through the hedge to steal apricots from the garden. Between the house and the street was a ditch spanned by a little bridge which you had to cross to reach the garden and front door. The house had high ceilings, shuttered windows and a tiled roof – in fact, it was a sort of Italian Villa. In 1972 we took a taxi out to Maadi to see if we could find it again, but alas, what had seemed unique to me as a child was only one of dozens, and Maadi itself had grown into such a maze of suburban streets that we had to give up our quest.

In Maadi there were other children to play with and even an English school and church. Each day we went to the Sporting Club where there was a sandbox and swimming pool. We were taught to swim suspended on a rope. There were trees and flowers, purply-blue jacarandas, bamboos, eucalyptus and oleander; the smell of these last two will always evoke Maadi for me, along with the taste of fresh figs and apricots.

During our two years in Maadi the outstanding events, at least through the eyes and ears of a child, were essentially domestic. There was the arrival of a baby sister, going to school for the first time (where I was frequently sent out of the room for misbehaving), the thrill of learning how to swim, and to read, joining the Brownies, provoking a typhoid scare when I drank some water in which a neighbor’s donkey had just been washed (the whole family got “shots”: and only I, the guilty one, failed to have a reaction) and, greatest of all,. Nanny Ethel’s wedding to a gloriously kilted Scottish soldier stationed in Egypt, at which I played bridesmaid in a crepe de chine dress, carrying a basket of artificial flowers.

But what of archeology, the justification and purpose of this volume? We did not see our father as an archeologist, but as a kind and gentle man who rarely punished us and was full of jokes and stories. Every day he went off in his Model T Ford to work with “Poppa George” whom I remember only as my brother’s godfather and the possessor of a large gold watch. I believe my mother must often have accompanied him, for years later, while doing research for an undergraduate thesis on Egyptian pottery, I came across her handwriting in the Objects Registers of the Harvard excavations at Giza. We were taken to visit the Harvard Camp as a great treat, and I remember holding my father’s hand as we stood on the edge of what seemed like an enormous precipice while hundreds of men in long white nightgowns and turbans, carrying baskets of dirt on their heads, sang what I now know to be the characteristically African “call and response.” “They are making up verses especially for you,” said my father. Of course I went down the tomb of Hetepheres in a basket, a terrifyingly endless but thrilling descent. There was a hot, stuffy little room, with nothing of interest in it, at the bottom.

In 1927 the day finally came when we were told we would be leaving Egypt to go a live in America. Except for a few weeks during the previous summer I had not seen Americas since babyhood, and both my brother and sister had been born abroad. We wondered what the new school would be like, and knew that we would sorely miss our friends, Mohammad and Abd el Aziz, although Nanny and her husband, Alec, were to come and keep house for us. We had been brought up by an English mother, aunt, grandmother and nannies, but we had met many American relatives and visitors, and we realized our greatest problem was going to be our accents. A few days before leaving, my brother and I wandered into the garden with its tall hedges and apricot trees. Firmly holding our noses, we practiced what we fondly thought to be American speech.

Only four years of my childhood were spent in Egypt, but they were formative ones. Of course we lived as ‘colonial” children – wearing our little pithy helmets in the noonday sun, playing only with other Europeans, surrounded with and protected by legions of servants. We slept under mosquito nets and rank boiled milk. Yet the smells and colors linger on, together with a faint aura of past glamor. After all, it’s not everyone who has the opportunity to grow up under the Sphinx and Pyramids as part of a familiar childhood landscape.

Studies in Ancient Egypt, The Aegean, and the Sudan; Essays in Honor of Dows Dunham on the Occasion of his 90th Birthday, June 1, 1980; Edited by William Kelly Simpson and Whitney Davis; Dept. of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 1981


  1. Photos ( top to bottom): decent into the tomb of Hetepheres; Aerial view of Giza; the Step Pyramid.

  2. I was just sent this article by my Aunt Jeanette, she is the youngest daughter of "Nanny" Ethel and her "glorious kilted Scotsmen" Alex. A fascinating read. I knew when my Grandparents came to America, but I never knew why they came. My father, their firstborn, Andrew was born the following year.

    Thank you Philippa Shaplin for writing this, and John for posting it. I just read it to my 84 year old father, he did not know any of this either.

  3. Hello, My Name is Patrick Shaw. My Mother was Who isn't very computer Savvy, decided to google the name Dr. Daws Dunham whom her Mother(My Grandmother Ethel Sop) was a Nanny for in Egypt. She found this story, and is delighted to hear someone talk about the stories her Mother told her as a Child. My Mother has Pictures of this wedding, although they aren't in the greatest condition. She also has pictures of Pippa's parents and Abdul Aziz. Ethel and Alec moved to New York USA after this and Sadly Ethel passed away in the late 1950's...When My Mother (Jeanette McMenemy) was 16. My Mother Jeanette moved Toronto Canada after Ethel passed away, where she met my Father, and had two daughter and myself.

    These stories are very precious to my Mom as they are the words that an English Nanny working in Egypt would tell her New York Daughter. You have made her day by sharing this blog.

    My Mother would love to talk to you, She'd love to hear about Pippa. Ethel would call her Pepper.

    If you get this message, please email me @ or

    Thank you,

    Patrick Shaw