Why read old stuff when there is so much new stuff? Because classic travel books written by the ancients, or by travelers in earlier centuries, can give today’s traveler a sense of the underpinnings of today’s culture of a place. I have already sung the praises of using Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars as a practical guide to today’s Greece. Reading something written by a sharp observer from centuries ago can be a kind of time-travel, helping you get inside the mind set of the people of the day. Why did Olympian athletes run naked? Why did cities build those small buildings called Treasuries at Delphi? What’s with all those public baths in the ancient world? Clues exist in the writings of Pausanias, Thucydides, Homer, and Herodotus, among others.
I must admit also, that some of the favorite books on my travel library shelves, are classic travel books written by 18th and 19th century travelers. If nothing else, they provide a kind of grounding when I get frustrated with waiting in line for a security check at an airport. Would you rather….pack your bathtub on the back of your mule? sew gems into the hems of your garments to keep them safe from robbers on mountain passes? sleep four to a bed?(whose population went up by several hundred if you count bedbugs and lice?). As a woman, I might disguise myself as a boy for safety, but risk being propositioned by a man in the casbah. All of these delights of travel I have read about in the journals of earlier travelers to ancient lands.
And how do you find such books? Poring over the travel shelves of used book stores can be a lot of fun, but if you are allergic to the dust, and want a quicker way to find them, the Internet springs to your service. Read on for some on-line sources for books about travel in ancient lands and by travelers in earlier days.
AWOL-The Ancient World on Line brings the reader information about where to find openly available on line works about the Ancient World, or reproductions of literature of ancient times. The blog post linked here specifically provides sources for on-line sources of writings by ancient travelers. The author gives his definition of his paramaters, “The ancient world here is conceived as it is at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, my academic home. That is, from the Pillars of Hercules to the Pacific, from the beginnings of human habitation to the late antique / early Islamic period.”
Silk Road Travelers This list of travelers before the 18th century is one page of the web site of the Silk Roads Foundation, which also suggests present day tour books and Tour groups. Geographically, of course, this follows the Silk Road, China and the East.
Travellers in Egypt If you are interested in Egypt, this site is a must. If you have no interest in Egypt, one visit to this voluptuously beautiful site may convince you to go in search of Cleopatra and her relatives. [NOTE: September 2011: This site seems to have disappeared, and according to the cached version has not been updated since 2006. Really a shame.]
“It is our intention, on a regular basis, to publish articles and studies on the life, travels and discoveries of the numerous travellers to Egypt and the Near East, from ancient times to the nineteenth century, on their experiences as told in the travel books of the period, with descriptions of the places and people they encountered, as well as articles on many other related subjects, such as Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, the birth of Egyptology, studies on archaeological discoveries, the business initiatives of the period, including the tourist cruises organized by Tomas Cook & Son’s tourist cruises, and so on.”
Project Gutenberg. I have written about this site before when I talked about alternative ways to read books. Project Gutenberg, which publishes only books out of copyright, so comfortably old, has a section for Travel Books, and oddly, another section called Women’s Travel.
Do you like to read accounts by travelers from centuries past? Add those books to your traveler’s library? How do you think they benefit you as a modern traveler? Have you found other sources you would like to share?