Eothen -- the Greek means "from the dawn," that is, "from the East" -- has long been regarded as a classic Victorian travel book. My late friend and Book World colleague Reid Beddow used to urge it on me. "Dirda," he would say, "it's soooo good." One day I happened upon a late-19th-century edition (370 pages), bound in half leather, and quickly bought it for a paltry $5. As the years went by, I would occasionally pick up the pretty little book and glance at a few sentences, then stop. But finally in 2003 the time seemed right to read about the Levant of the 1830s.

Eothen chronicles the adventures of a well-to-do young Englishman, escaping the "utter respectability" of country-house life for the excitement of the wild East. "There comes . . . a time for loathing the wearisome ways of society -- a time for not liking tamed people -- a time for not sitting in pews." And so, announces Alexander William Kinglake (1809-1881), one flees that "poor, dear, middle-aged, deserving, accomplished, pedantic, and pains-taking governess, Europe."

The book opens as Kinglake crosses to Constantinople, knowing full well that plague is rampant but certain that he will escape its deathly touch. He caravans to the major sites of "Asia": Troy, Smyrna, Cyprus, North Africa, Palestine, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Cairo, Suez, Damascus and Lebanon. The description of this journey is intensely personal, almost casual -- Kinglake spent years polishing his sentences to convey just the right air of nonchalance: "From all details of geographical discovery or antiquarian research -- from all display of 'sound learning and religious knowledge' -- from all historical and scientific illustrations -- from all useful statistics -- from all political disquisitions -- and from all good moral reflections, the volume is thoroughly free."

Instead, he prefers to dwell "upon those matters which happened to interest me, and upon none other." To complement this ingratiating egotism, he regularly pokes fun at himself -- for falling off a dromedary or getting lost alone in the desert -- and reveals a boyish taste for foolhardiness. He faces down murderous would-be thieves, barges into the tents of unknown Bedouin, and blithely spends three weeks in Cairo while everyone he meets -- "my banker, my doctor, my landlord, and my magician" -- slowly dies of the plague. Somehow his sang-froid and self-confidence -- he is, after all, a proper English gentleman -- allow him to muddle through.

Plus he's funny. In the very first chapter, Kinglake sets down a dialogue between the Traveller and the Pasha, as mediated by a dragoman who translates for the two eminences:

"Traveller. -- Give him my best compliments . . . and say I'm delighted to have the honour of seeing him."

"Dragoman (to the Pasha). -- His Lordship, this Englishman, Lord of London, Scorner of Ireland, Suppressor of France, has quitted his governments and left his enemies to breathe for a moment, and has crossed the broad waters in strict disguise, with a small but eternally faithful retinue of followers, in order that he might look upon the bright countenance of the Pasha among Pashas -- the Pasha of the everlasting Pashalik of Karagholookoldour."

This goes on for several delicious pages, as the dragoman works the same trick in reverse, reducing the extravagant rhetorical flights of the Pasha to a simple "you are welcome."

Before long, Kinglake reveals himself a thoroughgoing romantic, rhapsodizing periodically about the opposite sex -- "You smile at pretty women -- you turn pale before the beauty that is great enough to have dominion over you" -- and lamenting what he views as the frequent plainness of Arab wives. He also displays a real flair for simile: "Endless and endless now on either side the tall oaks closed in their ranks, and stood gloomily lowering over us, as grim as an army of giants with a thousand years' pay in arrear." He observes "chickens of tender years so well brought up as scarcely to betray in their conduct the careless levity of youth." And when he misses seeing a pyramid made up of 30,000 human skulls ("I fancy it was in the year 1806 that the first skull was laid"), he regrets the chance to admire "the ample grandeur of the architect's conception" and "the exquisite beauty of the fretwork."

After setting sail for Cyprus on a Greek ship, our restive pilgrim discovers the inadequacies of the Aegean's mariners, who timorously hug the shore, thus prolonging the trip intolerably. "I used to think that Ulysses, with his ten years' voyage, had taken his time in making Ithaca; but my experience in Greek navigation soon made me understand that he had had, in point of fact, a pretty good 'average passage.' "

Like many of us, Kinglake turns out to be fascinated with magic and the occult. In Cyprus he interviews Lady Hester Stanhope -- once the hostess for her uncle the prime minister Pitt but eventually an exile to the East, where she becomes a living legend. None dares to thwart her will, and she is widely regarded as "more than a prophet." When Lady Hester tells Kinglake that "the spell by which the face of an absent person is thrown upon a mirror was within the reach of the humblest and most contemptible magicians," he remembers her claim and later decides to test this skill in Cairo, with laughable results. Generously, Kinglake decides to give the local sorcerer another chance and contracts with him to "descend with me into the tombs near the Pyramids, and there evoke the devil." I won't tell you what happens.

Lady Hester, by the way, is quite irresistible, and has been much written about, but I love Eothen's description of her skill at invective: "She displayed a sober, patient, and minute attention to the details of vituperation, which contributed to its success a thousand times more than mere violence."

Violence, however, always lurks nearby in these pages. When Kinglake hires a young Christian at a monastery to help guide his little caravan to the Holy Land, the young man doesn't actually know the way. The troupe consequently gets lost and is nearly massacred by a fierce, cave-dwelling tribe. When they search fruitlessly for a place to ford the Jordan, things start to look desperate. "And now it was, if I remember rightly, that [my dragoman] Dthemetri submitted to me a plan for putting to death the Nazarene, whose misguidance had been the cause of our difficulties." Kinglake goes on: "There was something fascinating in this suggestion; for the slaying of the guide was, of course, easy enough, and would look like an act of what politicians call 'vigor.' If it were only to become known to my friends in England that I had calmly killed a fellow-creature for taking me out of my way, I might remain perfectly quiet and tranquil for all the rest of my days." And then he adds, almost as an afterthought, that such a deed might even give him a rather glamorous Byronic reputation.

Still, he doesn't kill the lad, though Kinglake's likable cynicism never deserts him. While visiting the Holy Sepulchre, he discovers that the Crucifixion actually took place quite nearby and that considerable strife exists between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics over the guardianship of the shrine. The Greeks "possess the golden socket in which stood the cross of our Lord, whilst the Latins are obliged to content themselves with the apertures in which were inserted the crosses of the two thieves. They are naturally discontented with this poor privilege."

During the crossing of the desert to Cairo, there occurs the most famous episode in the entire book. In the vast emptiness, our intrepid traveler descries "a mere moving speck in the horizon. . . . Soon it appeared that three laden camels were approaching, and that two of them carried riders." Before long, Kinglake recognizes that one of the riders is wearing western costume and is almost certainly a fellow Englishman. "As we approached each other, it became with me a question whether we should speak." Kinglake doesn't really want to, nor apparently does the other fellow. So, in the middle of the desert, "we lifted our hands to our caps, and waved our arms in courtesy" and "passed each other quite as distantly as if we had passed in Pall Mall."

And so it goes, as our hero enjoys or endures many other adventures. In plague-ravaged Cairo, he awakens one day with a sore throat, fever and loss of appetite. In Syria, a young Christian wife repudiates her religion in return for the expensive gifts of a lustful sheik. In the city of Safet, a rabid fanatic incites mob violence against the Jews. Plus c{cedil}a change. . . . Finally, in tandem with a Russian general, an almost giddy Kinglake beards the Pasha in his lair. With a neat modern touch, Eothen then ends, only not quite: In its last sentences we merely glimpse Kinglake jogging along on horseback through "rugged defiles," slowly wending his way westward.

Obviously, this minor Victorian classic is a principal template for scores of later books by sandy-haired Brits going off to seek adventure in far-flung, exotic places. Think of Robert Byron on the road to Oxiana, Eric Newby taking a short walk in the Hindu Kush, Bruce Chatwin trekking through Patagonia. For all its charm, though, a 21st-century American will grow quickly aware that Eothen is suffused with many of the classic prejudices of the Westerner toward "Oriental" cultures and civilizations. Kinglake sometimes admires the people he encounters, but whether he does or not, he makes clear, if only implicitly, that the "soft Asiatic" belongs to an inferior race and his customs are barbarous, or laughable, or just too damn mysterious to be understood.

I suspect that in Victorian times, most readers never noticed this callousness, though today it's shocking to hear such an amiable fellow speak so disdainfully of Levantines, Israelites and Arabs. As Kinglake asserts, "You will find, I think, that one of the greatest drawbacks to the pleasure of traveling in Asia is in being obliged more or less to make your way by bullying." Even the Greek Orthodox Dthemetri forthrightly insists that one must always "strike terror and inspire respect" in the Arab soul to get one's own way. (Now, of course, we prefer the terms shock and awe.) Doubtless our own undetected prejudices will awaken similar amazement and regret in the century to come.

A.W. Kinglake didn't write another book after Eothen until relatively late in his life, when he brought out his eight-volume History of the War in the Crimea (1863-87). Another masterpiece, I'm told, and beautifully written. My friend Reid Beddow paid several hundred dollars for his set, and I've often wondered if he got the chance to read it. *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.