The painted eyes stared back at me from the centuries old alabaster face. The face of a king, a human believed by his subjects to be a god on earth. The Civil War did not feel so far away when placed on the timeline of world history. That conflict of the 1860’s occurred a couple thousand years after the ancient artisans completed this image, a couple thousand years after a boy king ruled for nine short years, a couple thousand years after a tomb was sealed – full of treasures from a by-gone time.
Wandering through the exhibit halls and studying the details on the artifacts found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, I indulged in my interest of history eras beyond the 1860’s. However, I couldn’t help wondering if there could be a connection between the American Civil War and ancient Egyptian history. Between exhibit halls, I fired off a text message to one of my colleagues at ECW: “Didn’t Grant go to Egypt during his world tour?”
When I went home and started returning from the history of thousands of years past, I did a little fact checking. Sure enough, former Union general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant visited Egypt during his world tour…and absolutely loved that country’s ancient history.
In 1877, Ulysses and his wife – Julia – embarked on their world tour – an extended vacation after the Civil War, years of military service, and two rough terms in the White House. Though they traveled as private citizens, they represented the United States abroad through their influence and fame and sometimes traveled on U.S. Navy ships, a courtesy to the former president and first lady. They met Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XIII, Otto von Bismarck, General Li Hongzhang, and other world leaders and military leaders on their trip around the world.
January 5, 1878 – the Grants arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, after about eight months in Europe. After staying at the palace of the Egyptian ruler, Ulysses and Julia and their little entourage set off on a trip up the Nile River. They hired an Egyptologist to travel with them to explain the ancient history and read the hieroglyphs. Along the way, local villagers welcomed the Civil War hero as the “King of America.”
Ulysses strolled through the ruins at Karnak, studied the ruins at Thebes, and gazed at the towering towers at Cairo. Julia went along on the site-seeing and history lessons, riding a donkey and creating a scene which greatly amused her husband. In all, Ulysses would remember his weeks in Egypt as one of the happiest times of his life.
In a letter to his son, he wrote:
We have just left Ancient Thebes, where we have spent two days in viewing ruins that have been standing– as ruins– some of them, for many ages before the beginning of the Christian era. We must stay one day here yet — on our return– to visit the tombs of the Kings… Egypt has interested me more than any other portion of my travels, though I have enjoyed it all. One sees well preserved ruins here which took thousands of years to build filled with inscriptions which can be read now by the Egyptologist— We have a great one with us, and it adds a thousand fold to the interest of the occasion. 
Valley of the Kings. The tombs of the pharaohs. The ones Ulysses visited had been discovered mostly empty, but their walls were covered with ancient artwork and writings. In the late 19th Century, archaeologists and Egyptologists excavated, opened, and studied the pharaohs’ tombs – discovering they were not the first to find the burials places. Grave robbers in earlier centuries had plundered the chambers cut into the rocky hillsides, leaving behind the desecrated, mummified bodies, the artwork on the walls, and a few precious ancient artifacts. Perhaps the Grants unknowingly walked past the still hidden location of King Tut’s tomb and its treasures which would be discovered decades later in 1922.
I wonder what Ulysses Grant thought as he stood at the base of the towering pillars or ventured into the dark chamber of a pharaoh’s tomb. A war hero from a barely hundred year old nation walking in the chambers of the ancients and the halls of the old temples. Literally in the shadow of history.
The “King of America” strolled in the ruins of a civilization, perhaps wondering how history would remember him. What would be engraved on his monuments? How long would those monuments stand? Who would visit his tomb? Face to face with history from thousands of years in the past, did he wonder about his own place in the record of time? We don’t know exactly what he thought.
But I know how I felt. Face to face with the engraved image of a pharaoh. Awed. Wondering. Feeling so small in the vast, twisted history of mankind. Yet curiously startled by the thought that one person, one life can impact, inspire, and intrigue…even centuries later.
Original letter by U.S. Grant, January 1878: https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/grant-in-egypt#transcripts