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It would naturally be supposed that a country which for so long a time exercised such influence upon the world at large would be extensive and densely populated.
Neither is the case, however, for though upon the map Egypt appears to be a large country, the greater part consists of rock and burning sand, and is practically uninhabited.
The real land of Egypt is the narrow strip of alluvial soil which forms the Nile banks, and the fertile delta which spreads fan-like from Cairo to the sea. These two divisions of the land practically constitute Upper and Lower Egypt. In area each is less than Wales, while the total population of the country is not twice that of London.
It is its extreme fertility which has made Egypt prosperous, and throughout the world's history it has been a granary for the nations, for while drought and famine might affect other lands, Egypt has always been able to supply food to its neighbours.
How does this come about? Let me try and explain.
Thousands of years ago, when the world was very young, the whole land was covered by the sea, which is plainly shown by the fossils embedded in the rocks, and which lie scattered over its highest deserts.
As the sea receded, the Nile, then a mighty river, began to cut its channel through the rock, and poured into the sea somewhere about where Cairo now stands.
As the ages passed the river cut deeper and deeper into its rocky bed, leaving on either side the mountains which hem in its narrow valley, and at the same time depositing along its banks and in the delta forming at its mouth the rich alluvial mud which it had carried with it from the heart of Africa.
In this way the Egypt of history has been formed, but, surrounded as it is by sandy wastes, and often swept by hot desert winds, no rain falls to bring life to the fields, or enable the rich soil to produce the crops which are its source of wealth.
Nature provides a remedy, however, and the river which first formed the land is also its life-giver, for every year the Nile overflows its banks, re-fertilizing the soil, and filling the canals and reservoirs with water sufficient for the year's needs, without which Egypt would remain a barren, sun-baked land, instead of the fertile country it is.
The first view of Egypt as it is approached from the sea is disappointing, for the low-lying delta is hardly raised at all above sea-level, and its monotony is only broken by an occasional hillock or the lofty minarets of the coast towns.
Formerly the Nile had several mouths, and from many seaports Egypt carried on its trade with the outside world. Today only Rosetta and Damietta remain to give their names to the two branches by which alone the Nile now seeks the sea. These interesting seaports, mediæval and richly picturesque, are no longer the prosperous cities they once were, for railways have diverted traffic from the Nile, and nearly all the seaborne trade of Egypt is now carried from Alexandria or Port Said, the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, and it is by either of these two ports that modern visitors make their entry into Egypt.
Alexandria is interesting as the city founded by Alexander the Great, but with the exception of Pompey's pillar and its ancient catacombs has little attraction for visitors. The town is almost entirely Italian in character, and is peopled by so many different races that it hardly seems Egypt at all; boys, however, would enjoy a visit to the Ras-el-Tīn Fort, which figured so largely in the bombardment of Alexandria, and away to the east, near Rosetta, is Aboukīr Bay, the scene of a more stirring fight, for it was here that, in A.D. 1798, Nelson destroyed the French fleet,1 and secured for Britain the command of the Mediterranean.
AN IRRIGATED FIELD.
After the monotony of a sea voyage, landing at Port Said is amusing. The steamer anchors in mid-stream, and is quickly surrounded by gaily painted shore boats, whose swarthy occupants — half native, half Levantine — clamber on board, and clamour and wrangle for the possession of your baggage. They are noisy fellows, but once your boatman is selected, landing at the little stages which lie in the harbour is quickly effected, and you and your belongings are safely deposited at the station, and your journey to Cairo begun.
Port Said is a rambling town, whose half brick, half timber buildings have a general air of dilapidation and unfinish which is depressing. The somewhat picturesque principal bazaar street is soon exhausted, and excepting for the imposing offices of the Suez Canal Company, and the fine statue to De Lesseps, recently erected on the breakwater, Port Said has little else to excite the curiosity of the visitors; built upon a mud-bank formed of Suez Canal dredgings, its existence is its most interesting feature, and the white breakers of the Mediterranean, above which it is so little raised, seem ever ready to engulf it as they toss and tumble upon its narrow beach.
Leaving Port Said behind, the train travels slowly along the canal bank, and we begin to enter Egypt.
On the right the quiet waters of Lake Menzala, fringed with tall reeds and eucalyptus trees, stretches to the far horizon, where quaintly shaped fishing-boats disappear with their cargoes towards distant Damietta. Thousands of wild birds, duck of all kinds, ibis and pelican, fish in the shallows, or with the sea-gulls wheel in dense masses in the air, for this is a reservation as a breeding-green for wild-fowl, where they are seldom, if ever, disturbed.
On the left is the Suez Canal, the world's highway to the Far East, and ships of all nations pass within a stone's throw of your train. Between, and in strange contrast with the blueness of the canal, runs a little watercourse, reed fringed, and turbid in its rapid flow. This is the "sweet-water" canal, and gives its name to one of our engagements with Arabi's army, and which, from the far-distant Nile, brings fresh water to supply Port Said and the many stations on its route.
To the south and east stretches the mournful desert in which the Israelites began their forty years of wandering, and which thousands of Moslems annually traverse on their weary pilgrimage to Mecca; while in all directions is mirage, so perfect in its deception as to mislead the most experienced of travellers at times.
Roaming over the desert which hems in the delta, solitary shepherds, strangely clad and wild-looking, herd their flocks of sheep and goats which browse upon the scrub. These are the descendants of those same Ishmaelites who sold Joseph into Egypt, and the occasional encampment of some Bedouin tribe shows us something of the life which the patriarchs might have led.
In contrast with the desert, the delta appears very green and fertile, for we are quickly in the land of Goshen, most beautiful, perhaps, of all the delta provinces.
The country is very flat and highly cultivated. In all directions, as far as the eye can see, broad stretches of corn wave in the gentle breeze, while brilliant patches of clover or the quieter-coloured onion crops vary the green of the landscape. The scent of flowering bean-fields fills the air, and the hum of wild bees is heard above the other sounds of the fields. Palm groves lift their feathery plumes towards the sky, and mulberry-trees and dark-toned tamarisks shade the water-wheels, which, with incessant groanings, are continually turned by blindfolded bullocks. Villages and little farmsteads are frequent, and everywhere are the people, men, women, and children, working on the land which so richly rewards their labour.
The soil is very rich, and, given an ample water-supply, produces two or three crops a year, while the whole surface is so completely under cultivation that there is no room left for grass or wild flowers to grow. Many crops are raised besides those I have already mentioned, such as maize, barley, rice, and flax, and in the neighbourhood of towns and villages radishes, cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes are plentifully grown. Formerly wheat was Egypt's principal crop, but since its introduction by Mohammed Ali in A.D. 1820, cotton has taken first place amongst its products, and is of so fine a quality that it is the dearest in the world, and is used almost entirely for mixing with silk or the manufacture of sateen. Cotton, however, is very exhausting to the soil, and where it is grown the land must have its intervals of rest.
No sooner is one crop gathered than yokes of oxen, drawing strangely shaped wooden ploughs, prepare the land for another; and the newly turned soil looks black against the vivid clover fields, in which tethered cattle graze; while large flocks of sheep of many colours, in which brown predominates, follow the ploughs and feed upon the stubble, for the native is as economical as he is industrious.
Peopled by a race of born farmers, and in soil and climate provided by Nature with all that could be desired for crop-raising, only rain is lacking to bring the fields to fruition, and from the earliest times a great system of irrigation has existed in Egypt. It is curious to see in many directions the white lateen sails of boats which appear to be sailing over the fields. In reality they are sailing on the canals which intersect the country in all directions, and by means of thousands of water-wheels and pumps supply the land with water. Though the Nile overflows its banks, its inundation does not cover the whole land; so great arterial canals which are filled at high Nile have been constructed throughout the country. From these, smaller canals branch right and left, carrying the water to the furthest corners of the land, while such boundary marks as exist to separate different estates or farms usually take the form of a watercourse.
These canal banks form the highways of the country, and are thronged by travellers and laden camels, while large flocks of sheep and goats are herded along their sloping sides. Every here and there are little enclosures, spread with clean straw or mats, and surrounded by a fence of cornstalks or low walls of mud. These are the holy places where in the intervals of work the devout Moslem may say his prayers; and, often bowered by shady trees, a whitewashed dome marks the burial-place of some saint or village notable.
The scenery of the delta, though flat, is luxuriant; for Mohammed Ali not only introduced cotton into Egypt, but compelled the people to plant trees, so that the landscape is varied by large groves of date-palms, and the sycamores and other trees which surround the villages and give shade to the paths and canal banks. It is a pastoral land, luxuriantly green; and how beautiful it is as the night falls, and the last of the sunset lingers in the dew-laden air, wreathed with the smoke of many fires; and, as the stars one by one appear in the darkening sky, and the labour of the field ceases, the lowing cattle wend their slow ways toward the villages and the bull-frogs in their thousands raise their evensong. No scenery in the world has, to my mind, such mellow and serene beauty as these farm-lands of Lower Egypt, and in a later chapter I will tell you more about them, and of the simple people whose life is spent in the fields.
1 In the "Battle of the Nile."