Cities of Stone:
Stephens & Catherwood
in Yucatan, 1839-1842


  John Lloyd Stephens was born on November 28th, 1805, in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, the second son of Benjamin and Clemence Stephens. In 1806 the family moved to New York, where the elder Stephens' mercantile business prospered. John Stephens entered Columbia College (now Columbia University) at the age of thirteen and in 1822 graduated at the head of his class. He attended the law school of Tapping Reeve in Litchfield, Connecticut, the first law school in America. After a year of travel through the Midwest he resumed his studies as a "student-at-law" in the New York offices of George Strong, and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1828.

  The young Stephens became deeply involved in politics in New York City. Although himself not an active seeker of office, he was an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party in the elections of 1828 and 1832, and his considerable speaking skills were in great demand. In 1834, at the height of the New York gubernatorial campaign, he contracted a persistent throat infection which cut short his electioneering. To speed his convalescence his doctor prescribed a tour of Europe, which was to lead Stephens through Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Russia. He returned overland through Poland and Vienna, arriving in Paris in November, 1835. Rather than returning to the United States, as he had advised his family he would, Stephens impulsively boarded a steamer at Marseilles and sailed for Egypt.

  Alexandria in December 1835 was still suffering from the effects of the cholera epidemic of the previous year. Although efforts were underway to establish it as a modern port, its appearance was far from prepossessing. In remembering his entrance into the city, Stephens wrote,"... it would be difficult for any man... to dream of the departed glory of Egypt when first entering the fallen city of Alexander." The American consul there, George Gliddon, advised Stephens of the dangers of travel in that part of the world, and arranged an audience for him with the Pasha, Mohammed Ali, the Albanian-born soldier whose agrarian and bureaucratic reforms have earned him the popular title "The Founder of Modern Egypt." And so, "on the same day on which I arrived at Alexandria," Stephens wrote, "I was on my way to Cairo."

  At Cairo, after his interview with the Pasha, Stephens visited the pyramids. ("It is not what it once was to go to the pyramids," he complained. "They have become regular lions for the multitudes of travellers....") With the Pasha's passport guaranteeing his safe conduct, Temple of LuxorStephens chartered a river boat and sailed up the Nile as far as Aswan, exploring the ruins of Gizeh, Dendereh, Thebes, and Luxor. He returned to Cairo after three months, his craft still flying the American flag which he had commissioned from an Egyptian tailor, and readied himself for the overland journey to the Holy Land.

  Travel in the Middle East was as uncertain then as it is now. Although Stephens was protected by the might of the Pasha while in Egypt, the imperial firman meant nothing to the nomadic Bedouin who controlled the desert. Petra, one of Stephens' principal destinations, had become a Moslem shrine and was jealously guarded against outsiders. The German explorer Ulrich Seetzen was poisoned en route to the city when his disguise was uncovered. The Swiss traveler Johann Burckhardt, who rediscovered Petra for the Western world, spent two years preparing for the journey, learning Arabic and memorizing the Koran. Stephens, for his part, affected the dress of a Turkish merchant and traveled under the name "Abdel Hasis."



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