A Port on the Verge of the Desert
‘Gaza stands upon the verge of The Desert and bears towards it the same kind of relation as a seaport to the sea’, wrote the great Victorian traveller Alexander William Kinglake (1809-1891) when he took such a voyage from Gaza to Cairo in the 1830s, recorded in his book Eothen (1844).
As he proceeds for several days astride his camel with his Arab helpers on foot; nothing but the swirling sands about, and the ‘disk of the sun’ above, he comes across another camel-riding Englishman but cannot decide whether it is polite to stop and talk to him. ‘We passed each other quite distantly as if we had passed in Pall Mall’, he writes. Luckily, when they have passed and are thirty yards apart both his Arab porters and the camels unilaterally decide to commune.
‘I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him’, Kinglake writes, despite the fact that the Englishman he encountered was ‘returning to his country from India’ and Kinglake ‘had come pretty straight from England’.
His observation of hesitancy rings true. When I found myself in the 1990s somewhere deep in the Former Soviet Union, the last thing I wanted to encounter was another English metal merchant. I was wary of others whose behaviour in a deal might infect my own efforts. We didn’t want to mix contacts. We travelled better alone.
Kinglake’s account speaks of the awe in which the English were held while travelling solo, vulnerable to the interests of robbers and jackals, and at risk of plague. He suggests the reason was none other than the banking system, by which the Englishman was able to travel without coin – and therefore thin pickings for the robber. With the locals’ dependent on the gineih or piastre, the English dearth of coin was considered a sign they were under the protection of ‘Evil Demons’; a protective halo of finance at the root of Britain's power in the mercantile world of the 19th Century, bestowing such mysterious force.
Camels, travel, and metal merchants go together in other ways too. The former’s ability to take in water for the journey and survive the reckless voyages of their masters, is a lesson in stamina. In our world, the camel’s water management is an apt analogy for the metal merchant’s perseverance and, if you like, his ability to build up net worth. The journey of a career in metals can be long; the wolf and hyena lie in wait, plague (as we saw with Covid) will attack. Unfavourable conditions will occur, wars and fashion will change the flow of metals, and regulation can overwhelm.
As for Gaza, Kinglake provides a glimpse of ancient Palestine through the eyes of a 19th Century traveller and makes what is happening today even more unimaginable.
Robert Burns in his poem 'Man was made to mourn' coined the phrase used to describe atrocity as 'man’s inhumanity to man'.
It is hard to imagine that in 2024 the killing in Gaza will cease. Some say it has been indiscriminate but my feeling is that the Israeli response has been disproportionate and utterly cruel.
There is now no coin, British or other, that can repair the historic seaport on the verge of the desert.
By Anthony Lipmann 10.01.24
This is a different version from the article of the same title published on www.lord-copper.com