Father Hecker on the Nile
by Father Paul G. Robichaud, C.S.P.
January 14, 2008

by Father Paul G. Robichaud, C.S.P.

From Dec. 9, 1873 to March 30, 1874, Isaac Thomas Hecker wintered on the Nile. An adventure that in many ways has overshadowed his larger journey across the Atlantic. His months on the Nile were but a part of a projected two- to three-year trip to the Mediterranean.

In 1873, Isaac Hecker was 54 years old, and his health had been failing for almost a year. He had gone to Florida and Cuba the previous winter with little success. On the recommendation of his doctors, Hecker decided to try hydrotherapy, the water treatments at a health spa in Ragatz, Switzerland. But Hecker was seeking more than the restoration of his health. His physical illness was accompanied by bouts of depression, and this depression was only compounded by the present state of the Paulist community.

A new generation of Paulists entered the community after the Civil War. Unhappy with the experimental nature of Hecker’s community, the younger Paulists called for more structure. What had appeared adequate for a handful of missionaries in 1865 was far too unstable for a new generation in 1870. Without more structure, new members wondered whether the Paulists were little more than a temporary experiment.

Augustine Hewit, Hecker’s right hand, tended to side with the new Paulists. This produced a series of confrontations between the two old friends. Combined with his lack of energy, Hecker grew tired of arguing with Hewit. As he wrote to his brother, George, his idea of the Paulists followed the model of Philip Neri and the Oratorians. What this new generation wanted was Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits.

Hecker informed Hewit that he was going on an extensive journey. In his absence, Hewit could make whatever decisions were necessary for the good of the community. The Holy Spirit had guided the founding of the Paulists and would continue to do so whether Hecker was present or not. Hewit was aghast. He believed that Hecker’s presence was absolutely necessary. After Hecker’s departure, Hewit would do everything he could to change Hecker’s mind and come home. Hecker left New York City in June 1873 in the company of George Deshon, like Hewit, another early member of the community. As Hecker began the treatment at Ragatz, Deshon traveled about the continent. In August, Hecker wrote to Hewit, “People say I look better, and no doubt, I do. … The scenery, the air, the baths, all about here, is well calculated to aid one in regaining health and strength.”

Initially the hydrotherapy helped. As Deshon prepared to return to New York in August, Hecker began to complicate a trip up the Nile. The Nile had its attractions, particularly as winter approached, for Egypt had the warmest climate on the Mediterranean.

The eight-day voyage from Marseilles proved difficult. It rained every day, and Hecker became quite seasick. When he arrived in the city of Alexandria on Nov. 21, 1873, the sun shone, bathing the city in 70-degree weather. Hecker was rapturous.

“The city is in full view, the air is pleasant, and the imagination can now recreate on the past grandeur of this most renowned spot, the city where Cleopatra flourished, where the Apostle Mark preached, where Origen taught and the heathen philosophers speculated. My fancy is too little exercised and my imagination altogether too feeble to stretch over and take in the romance, the antiquity and the grand events which the history of Egypt calls up before the mind.”

Upon arrival in Cairo a few days later by train, Hecker wrote to the Paulists: “My heart and its affections are present with you, could I realize its desire I would shed a continuous flow of blessings on each like the great River Nile which Abraham saw and whose banks were hallowed by the footsteps of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

Donkeys were the principal means for tourists to travel through the markets of Cairo and out to the ruins. From the hotel steps, donkey drivers called out to the tourists in English, “Hey, Yankee Doodle, Hey, Bismark or Hey Bonaparte.” Hecker traveled by donkey to the pyramids at dawn; a trip of some two hours in each direction. Too tired to climb the great pyramid, he paid a young Arab boy to run up and down for him and timed him with his pocket watch.

The grand tour also required a trip “up the Nile” to the Second Cataract in Nubia. One traveled “up” in a southerly direction toward Khartoum in Sudan. Two methods were available in the 1870s. A tourist could take the steamboat that roared up and back, some 1,400 miles in a period of two weeks. The wealthy could travel in a more leisurely fashion aboard a dahabeah that made the trip over three months. Hecker chose the latter.

The leasing of a dahabeah was a complex project. This 70-foot-long boat with a single sail contained four to six staterooms, a dining salon and a kitchen. The staff included 10 boatmen, a pilot, a cook, a serving boy and an experienced dragoman. As an 1874 guidebook to the Nile reminded tourists, the choice of a dragoman was critical for the success of any expedition, as the dragoman functioned as an interpreter and guide. Hecker contracted with a Moslem named Achmet.

With Achmet’s assistance the rest of the crew was hired and provisions for the three-month journey were purchased together with a variety of chemicals and potions for any emergency illness.

Three Americans joined him on the dahabeah. Mr. Slevin, a seasoned traveler who was accompanied by his 20-year-old cousin, Mr. Edwards, and Mrs. Donnelly, a widow. Hecker wrote, “We are on board of our dahabeah since the evening of the 4th and expect to leave on the 7th. More likely the 8th [the feast of the Immaculate Conception] after Mass. Our boat is fitted up for six, but we are only three giving us in every direction ample room. Mrs. Donnelly is fitting it up only as a woman and of refined taste can.”

Hecker purchased a pair of drawers for each crewmember “to put on when they go into the water – otherwise we should have occasionally had a sight!”

Hecker also received a letter of introduction from the Franciscan superior at Cairo. The letter would allow him to celebrate Mass at various stations along the way. The dahabeah did not leave Cairo until Dec. 9. On the evening prior, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, replete with stole and holy water, Hecker blessed his dahabeah and named it “Miriam” after the Mother of God.

The trip up the Nile was leisurely and relaxing. Each morning Hecker would take tea from his bed in his stateroom. Then he busied himself walking through the villages studying Muslim culture, shopping in the markets or reading The Arabian Nights on the ship’s deck under a canvas awning. In a moment of absolute delight, he wrote in his diary: “The sun is up, the air is warm and pure … Think of this, New Yorkers, on the 11th of December!” Sunsets on the Nile were the highlight of the day’s journey. Hecker wrote: “The sunset last evening was striking – I never saw so great a variety of colors … green, gold, pink, blue, salmon … It seemed artificial to my western eyes.”

Hecker mused about Islam, “The idea of God is less distant from the from the minds of these Muslims that it is with us Christians. In this one must feel conscious of his inferiority – to be jealous of this trait of character, no matter how they come by it. … These Arabs have the gift of prayer. We Christians might learn form them a lesson on this point and not a small one, either. For prayer is the beginning of all other graces.”

As the dahabeahs moved south, beggars swimming alongside the boat were a regular feature of Nile life. Villagers would swim out with their hands extended for coins, calling out “backsheesh” or “alms.” Early in the voyage, as they passed a Coptic monastery, Hecker wrote: “Something black was descried bobbing about in the water, looking like the head of a hippopotamus. It was the head of one of the monks of the convent, swimming with might and main towards our boat, crying out at the same time, ‘Ava Christian ya Hawagha!’ A sorry Christian and a pretty monk he looked like in his dark skin, the only clothing on his stout, athletic limbs! By and by we saw two other tawny heads in the water, of the same order, making for us. … I thought of F. Deshon and his fondness for the water, and speculated whether he would not be tempted to join the monks and establish a branch on the North River or Lake George, and overhaul the passenger boats as they passed by! What was the object of this aquatic excursion? Why, backsheesh, which they did not fail to ask. … These Arabs all swim like ducks.”

Hecker kept a daily diary, which he drew upon for his weekly letter to George and Josephine Hecker. Josephine wrote back that “Uncle Isaac’s” letters were read aloud to the children at Sunday dinner. Hecker searched the various village markets or souvenirs he could bring home to his family. By the end of his journey, he had acquired quite a collection. His prizes included ancient coins, bird feathers, silver rings and bracelets, a flute, shreds of papyrus and a mummified crocodile. His daily stroll through the villages where his dahabeah docked allowed Hecker to observe at close hand Islamic culture. He commented on weddings and funerals, slave markets, children at play and women working on the riverbank.

As he wrote to George and Josephine: “Traveling in a dahabeah is certainly the perfection of traveling. … for Egypt has a climate in winter that is all that one can wish. Then the scenery on this great river is unique. Every moment there is a turn in the river, or a village, or some novel sight to fill your imagination or excite your curiosity. All along the banks are palm groves, spots of green vegetation, tombs and singular sights. … Then the crew is ever drawing your attention: making music, singing, mostly some litany or invocation of the Deity, or praying; an amiable, childlike and playful set. Then we run aground; out come the poles, and they grunt and push until the boat is off, or over they jump into the water … and away we go, then a calm, and they go on the shore with a rope … and we are pulled along. Every night we are tied up near a village.”

For Hecker, the slow pace of life in the midst of eternal monuments were a far cry form the hurried and busy life of the West. The simplicity of the people and their evident closeness to God made a deep impression on him. He wrote: “How little do they know of Egypt who imagine that a trip up the Nile is accompanied with any unusual dangers or difficulties! It is, as a river, much safer than the Mississippi – and as for the inhabitants of the banks, I would rather trust them than those who as a class live on the banks of the Hudson.”

Hecker’s comments are filled with contradictions. At one moment he would glory in the primitive state of Egyptian life: “What a contrast between the oriental and western mind! The consciousness of one is habitually in the region of those faculties, which are in relation to the spiritual world. The one looks naturally upward as the other does downward” and yet in contrast to his criticisms of Western life and materialism, he penned, “With modern appliances, there is no reason why the valley of the Nile should not become, with its incredible fertility, an immense resource of production of the necessities of life.”

Hecker visited the ruins of Thebes of Karnak on his journey up the Nile. He spent many hours making charcoal rubbings from the hieroglyphics found on the walls and steles. Perhaps unaware of how common the design of a cross bar was for ancient peoples; Hecker was fascinated to find the cross rampant among the hieroglyphics. A certain sign of the coming of Christ Hecker noted in his diary.

On Jan. 9, 1874, the “Miriam” passed through the First Cataract. The rapids were dangerous and the boat was damaged, requiring two days of repair. Hecker found his new Nubian crew far less competent and far more noisy. He wrote to George and Josephine that his nerves were taxed! Nubia, however, was to Hecker even more beautiful than Egypt. The spectacular ruins of temples, visits to other dahabeahs for evening tea, striking sunsets and the existing presence of crocodiles soon improved his attitude. While Slevin and his nephew tried to shoot a crocodile with little success, Hecker kept count of everyone they saw, adding the crocodile total to his weekly family letter.

On Jan. 16, he wrote: “How much better than the life led in a hotel at a fashionable winter resort! But he who wishes to travel rapidly, let him not make the Nile trip in a dahabeah! He who takes any account of time, of hours, of days, weeks or months, he should not visit the East, but remain in the West. There is not a compass, a watch or a clock … on board of our boat except what we possess. The sun tells them all they desire to know.”

After a visit to Abu-Simbel on the 23rd of January, the “Miriam” turned about and began to flow with the current north to Cairo. Hecker wrote: “We go with the tide homeward, and as the prevailing winds are north, the men row … On my return to Cairo, my intention is to go to Jerusalem for Easter … Tell Georgie we saw two more crocodiles, making, so far, nine!”

The crew of the “Miriam” would spot some 31 crocodiles during their stay in Nubia, yet despite their best effort, neither of the Slevins were able to bag one. Frustrated, they visited an English dahabeah that had managed to kill two crocodiles. The visit improved the Slevins’ shooting. Hecker surmised that his brother, George, would have done much better. Frustration also overcame the Nubian crew. For some 10 days the wind blew in a southerly direction and a full days rowing produced little movement north. On Feb. 7, Hecker wrote: “We are stuck! Who can manage the winds? Or Arab boatmen?”

On Feb. 10, the “Miriam” passed through the First Cataract, where the dahabeah had been damaged some few weeks earlier. The passage across the cataract made Hecker nervous. A return to the Egyptian Nile did little to help his mood, as the wind continued blowing in a southerly direction.

“Drifting and rowing” became the daily entry Hecker made in his diary. While the various temples and monuments interested him, Hecker’s growing singular goal had just become reaching Jerusalem in time for Holy Week. He wrote on Feb. 17: “God alone, and perhaps these Egyptians know when we shall get as far as Cairo again! Patienza! Patienza!”

Hecker’s comments on the delightful simplicity of the Arab people was now succeeded by criticism about the lack of Arab earnestness. On Feb. 23, he wrote: “It is the self-interest of both the captain and the dragoman to prolong our journey, and no doubt has a great deal to do with our present slow gait. At present we are actually floating up the river instead of down – of course our whole direction is inscrutable, inconceivable Arabic management of the boat and their purposes.”

Even with visits to the great temples at Karnak, Luxor and Thebes, the southern wind and Arab management were souring Hecker’s mood. Despite the fact the Nile’s current ran north at four miles an hour, the “Miriam” seemed to drift south.

“Going up the Nile is one thing, coming down the Nile is quite another,” Hecker wrote. “If the going up is the poetry of traveling, the coming down, in regard to sailing, is the prose, and very bad at that.”

On March 26, he wrote to his brother: “It is hardly probable that we should reach Cairo to make Jerusalem for Easter Sunday.” Then turning to the Paulists, he wrote, “F. Hewit has not written, and I hope he will not, in regard to the government of the community, etc. Let those who are in office exercise their judgment and fulfill their charge. … The more they consider me as I desired, ‘as a dead man,’ the more consolation it will give me. … This trip has been in every desirable respect much more to my benefit that my most sanguine expectations. It seems to me almost like an inspiration, such have been its beneficent effect on both to my mind and body. … I feel somewhat like one who has been in solitude for three or four months.”

The “Miriam” reached Cairo on March 30, 1874. A letter from Hewit awaited him. Hewit was convinced that such exhaustive and foreign travel as his trip to the Nile could only endanger Hecker’s health; he should come home. Hecker wrote back that the trip had been good for him.

“My whole past seems crushed out of me by the hands of God, and I am reduced to nothing in his presence. … There is nothing left for me to do but wait on the will of Divine Providence. Perhaps all this was intended for my purification, and He will open in due season, the way for my return to former labors. In the meantime, the difficulties of your proposition are clearly before my mind. … It is a trial to us all. The hand of God is in it. … Leave me in the hands of God awhile longer. None of you will be the losers by my banishment.”

Hecker finally left Cairo on April 13 and headed for Jerusalem. From Palestine he returned to Paris, then Geneva and finally back to Italy. After many letters from Hewit cajoling him to come home, Isaac Hecker returned to the United States on Oct. 12, 1875. He had been away just over two years. This would be the last grand moment of travel Hecker enjoyed. After his return to New York, Hecker never left the East Coast of the United States.

To Hewit, Hecker’s journey up the Nile was an extravagance, and he reminded Hecker that no other member of the community had the freedom or resources to take such a trip. To George Hecker, who underwrote his brother’s travels, this trip was a necessary hiatus in the hopes of restoring his health. For Hecker himself, the Nile was solitude; the most complete time alone, away from all the distraction he had experienced in his lifetime. Ironically, the community survived in Hecker’s absence. Despite his discomfort, Hewit guided the community through a new stage of development during which the community grew and flourished. Even after his return, Hecker continued to remain distant from the day-to-day affairs of the Paulists.

Despite the solitude, Hecker never recovered what he sought from his journey. He explained in this most eloquently in a letter from George and Josephine from Turin, Italy, in October 1874, when he wrote: “Before going up the Nile, I used to say to some of my friends that I once knew a man whose name was Hecker, but had lost his acquaintance, and I was going up the Nile to find him. Perhaps I would overtake him at Wady Halfeh or Nubia! But I didn’t. Sometimes I think the search is in vain, and I shall have to resign myself to his loss and begin a new life.”