Lane (1801-76) is one of the greatest of the early orientalists, author of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), translator of the classic English version of The Thousand and One Nights (1839-41), compiler of An Arabic-English Lexicon (1863-74), one of the greatest dictionary projects every attempted. And suddenly, he has a new book! Thompson, a historian at AUC, has done signal service in taking a manuscript dating from 1831 and preparing it for publication so many years later; AUC Press deserves praise for making so major a work available, and at so reasonable a price. (Although the text was accepted for publication way back then, the overwhelming attention paid to the Reform Bill of 1832 meant that nothing else was selling, so the editors put off Lane's description; later in the decade, the taste for large, illustrated travel books had passed.)
In contrast to Manners and Customs, a social outline, Description recounts the physical state of Egypt, as seen during Lane's travels starting in Alexandria and ending the whole way south in Wadi Halfa, during the years 1825-28. Lane leisurely digresses along the way on such subjects as Muslim dynasties, contemporary history, and Pharaonic life. The account is therefore drier and more limited to specialist readers (who in turn will find treasure troves of new information). Although in the form of a travelogue, the action is meager; the author sets out meticulously and systematically to describe monuments, scenery, and natural geography. Even here, Lane's keen eye and sharp prose, plus his thorough immersion into the life of Egypt,2 bring the descriptions to life (a great thoroughfare street in Cairo, he writes, "is generally somewhat irregular both in its direction and width. In most parts the width is scarcely more than is sufficient for two loaded camels to pass each other; while in some parts only one camel can proceed at a time"). Lane's 160 detailed and accurate illustrations rise indeed, as Thompson notes, to the rank of minor works of art. In all, the appearance of this major work of scholarship at this late date is a major boon to the study of Egypt's history between the pharaohs and 1828.