Susan’s Repose in Egypt

“Give us something about the Nile they say. Tell how the Sphinx looks; is the nose really knocked off? and how about the Pyramids, are they equal to their fame? and were you disappointed in Karnak?” – Susan E. Wallace, The Repose in Egypt

Susan Wallace traveled with her husband to many of the places his duty took him. By August 27, 1881, Lew and Susan were in Constantinople. They spent May and June of 1882 traveling through Europe.

“Travel enriches memory and lavishes treasure for imagination, but it is a wearing pleasure, and we felt no time was to be lost till we set our faces in return toward the best land the sun shines on.” – Susan E. Wallace, The Repose in Egypt

Egypt and England

Note the Sphinx head in front of the pyramid; Susan purchased this photograph in Egypt
Note the Sphinx head in front of the pyramid; Susan purchased this photograph in Egypt

However, by July 9, 1882, a tense situation had arisen between Turkey and England in regard to Egypt. Egypt was Turkey’s vassal. However, the British and the French owned the Suez Canal and were supervising Egyptian the government. Sultan Abdul Hamid II encouraged a nationalist insurrection.

Believing Egypt to be in rebellion against the sultan, the British requested the sultan take action. The sultan appointed Lew to act as his mediator, the U.S. State Department offered Lew little support. He did ask Washington to provide naval protection for American citizens.

The British anchored two warships off Alexandria. Egypt built earthworks on shore and placed two cannon behind them. The British ordered them to withdraw.

On July 11, 1882, the British bombarded the fort at Alexandria. Lew Wallace fired off a 62-page report to Secretary of State Frelinghuysen. In part, the report stated that the British Embassy was asking for war. On July 12, the British occupied Alexandria, captured Cairo, and seized the Suez Canal.

Lew consoled himself with the thought that at least Turkey had not gone to war. He had convinced the Turks of America’s good will. The British and Lord Dufferin still respected American diplomacy. As a result of his efforts, General Wallace was promoted from Minister Resident to Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. This was the highest rank in the diplomatic service at the time. The United States would not have ambassadors until 1893.


“Near Suez is a noted camping-ground for caravans; the camels of which sometimes number thousands. The Western traveler never loses his interest in the caravan; each one brings fresh and endless suggestion, vague imagining out of the voiceless regions traversed by the train which makes a sinuous line like a crawling serpent. To watch their comings and goings is to feel the spirit of the farthest East.” – Susan E. Wallace, The Repose in Egypt

The Repose in Egypt

A line of camels in the desert of Egypt
A string of camels

Later that year, Susan’s sister Joanna Lane joined them in Constantinople. In December, they made a pilgrimage to Israel and then went on to more than a month in Egypt. Susan would later write her book The Repose in Egypt about their time there. “After a voyage, smooth from Beirout, without incident or accident, we landed at Port Said.” This book included the area’s history, and personal anecdotes from her own experiences. She also included religious mythology about the years Jesus’ family spent in Egypt hiding from Herod.

“There is no more delightful memory than Cairo. Even the traveler who has visited the palaces of Europe and the splendors of Asia must yield to the fascination of its dim bazaars, and the mysterious, close-barred lattices which shut in the beauties of the harem—darlings bought with a great price.” – Susan E. Wallace, The Repose in Egypt

Continuing Troubles

Politically, Egypt proved to be a continuing problem. The British had promised to leave when things were stable. When a religious leader known as the Mahdi appeared, the British decided to stay. They eventually sent General “Chinese” Gordon into the Sudan. He and his troops dug in at Khartoum.

“You may travel by steamer from Alexandria twelve hundred miles, and afterward in a light sailboat, only the guide-book may tell how far. Away, away, to mythic haunts of the Phoenix, the regions of Chimeras, Flying Serpents, Basalisks, Vampyres and Dragons; where men’s feet blister and lions’ manes are scorched off by the heat. Of the mysteries and marvels of the Upper Nile, the ancients told many wonderful stories.” – Susan E. Wallace, The Repose in Egypt

Advising the sultan that the United States would not become involved, General Wallace obtained a six-month leave, and he and his wife departed Constantinople on May 13th. It would be their first visit home in three years.

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