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THE NILE — II
The Nile varies considerably in width, from a quarter of a mile, as in the deep channel before Cairo, to two miles or more higher up, where the wide space between its high banks, filled to the brim during high Nile, has almost the appearance of a sea; but as the river falls it is studded with islands, many of them of considerable extent, and often under permanent cultivation. The navigable channel is close under one bank or other, though the shallow water which covers the shoals gives the river the appearance of being considerably larger than it really is. In character the scenery is generally placid, and the smooth water, shimmering under the warm sun which edges the sand-banks with a gleaming line of silver, is hardly broken by a ripple. I always think the river prettiest when the Nile is low and the sand-banks appear. In the shallows pelicans, ibis, heron, and stork are fishing together without interfering with each other, while large flights of wild-duck rise splashing from the stream. Eagles soar aloft, or, with the vultures, alight upon a sand-bank to dispute the possession of some carcass with the jackals and the foxes. Water wag-tails flit along the shore, or in the most friendly manner board your steamer to feed on the crumbs from your tea-table, while large numbers of gay-plumaged king-fishers dart in and out from their nests tunnelled far into the precipitous face of the river-bank.
On either side are the eternal hills, beautiful under any effect of light.
It is astonishing how infinitely varied the Nile scenery is according to the time of day. In the early morning, mists often hang upon the water, and the air is bitterly cold, for these sandy wastes which abut upon the Nile retain little heat by night. Above the cool green of the banks the high hills rise mysteriously purple against the sunrise, or catch the first gleam of gold on their rugged bluffs.
As the sun mounts higher a delicate pink tinge suffuses all, and the hanging mists are dispersed by the growing heat to form little flecks of white which float in the deep blue of the sky above you. Meanwhile the life of the river and the fields has recommenced, and the banks again become animated, and innumerable Nile boats dot the surface of the stream.
At midday the landscape is enveloped in a white heat, while the bluffs and buttresses of the rocks cast deep purple shadows on the sweeping sand-drifts which lie against their base. It is a drowsy effect of silver and grey, when Nature seems asleep and man and beast alike are inclined to slumber.
Towards evening, glorified by the warm lights, how rich in colour the scenery becomes! The western banks, crowned by dense masses of foliage, whose green appears almost black against the sunset, are reflected in the water below, its dark surface broken by an occasional ripple and little masses of foam which have drifted down from the cataract hundreds of miles away. Beyond the belt of trees the minarets of some distant village are clear cut against the sky, for the air is so pure that distance seems to be annihilated. Looking east, the bold cliffs face the full glory of the sunset, and display a wonderful transformation of colour, as the white or biscuit-coloured rocks reflect the slowly changing colour of the light. They gradually become enveloped in a ruddy glow, in which the shadows of projections appear an aerial blue, and seem to melt imperceptibly into the glowing sky above them. Gradually a pearly shadow creeps along the base of the cliffs or covers the whole range, and one would suppose that the glory of the sunset was past. In about a quarter of an hour, however, commences the most beautiful transformation of all, and one which I think is peculiar to the Nile Valley, for a second glow, more beautiful and more ethereal than the first, overspreads the hills, which shine like things translucent against the purple earth-shadow which slowly mounts in the eastern sky. The sails of the boats on the river meanwhile have taken on a tint like old ivory, while perhaps a full moon appears above the hill-tops, and in twisting bars of silver is reflected in the gently moving water at your feet.
The Nile is not always in so gentle a mood as this, however, for on most days a strong north wind disturbs the water, and changes the placid river into one of sparkling animation. The strong wind, meeting the current of the stream, breaks the water into waves which are foam-flecked and dash against the muddy cliffs and sand-banks, while the quickly sailing boats bend to the wind, and from their bluff and brightly-painted bows toss the sprays high into the air, or turn the water from their sides in a creamy cataract. The sky also is flecked with rounded little wind-clouds, whose undersides are alternately grey or orange as they pass over the cultivated land or desert rock, whose colour they partially reflect. The colour of the water also becomes very varied, for the turn of each wave reflects something of the blue sky above, and the sun shines orange through the muddy water as it curls, while further variety of tint is given by the passing cloud-shadows and the intense blueness of the smoother patches which lie upon the partially covered sand-spits. This always forms a gay scene, for the river is crowded with vessels which sail quickly, and take every advantage of the favourable wind. Sometimes the north wind becomes dangerous in its energy, and wrecks are not infrequent, while from the south-west, at certain periods of the year, comes the hot "khamsīn" wind, which, lashing the water into fury, and filling the air with dust, renders navigation almost impossible.
Some of the cargoes carried by these Nile boats are worth describing, and large numbers are employed in carrying "tibbin" from the farms to the larger towns. "Tibbin" is the chopped straw upon which horses and cattle in the towns are mainly fed, and it is loaded on to the boats in a huge pyramidical pile carried upon planks which considerably overhang the boat's sides. The steersman is placed upon the top of this stack, and is enabled to guide his vessel by a long pole lashed to the tiller, and it is curious to notice that the "tibbin," though finely chopped, does not appear to blow away.
In a somewhat similar manner the immense quantity of balass and other water-pots, which are manufactured at Girgeh, Sohag, and other places on the Upper Nile, are transported down-stream. In this case, however, large beams of wood are laid across the boats, which are often loaded in couples lashed together, and from which are slung nets upon which the water-pots are piled to the height of 10 or 12 feet, and one may often meet long processions of these boats slowly drifting down stream to Assiut or Cairo.
Another frequent cargo is sugar-cane, perhaps the greatest industry of the upper river, and at Manfalut, Rhoda, Magaga, and many other places large sugar factories have sprung into existence of late years. The trade is a very profitable one for Egypt, but, unfortunately, their tall chimneys and ugly factories, which are always built close to the Nile bank, are doing much to spoil the beauties of the river, and, worst of all, noisy little steam tugs and huge iron barges are yearly becoming more numerous.
Though, as we have seen, crocodiles have long ago left the Lower Nile, the river abounds in fish, and from the terraces of its banks one may constantly see fishermen throwing their hand-nets, while in the shallows and backwaters of the river, drag-nets are frequently employed. I recently watched the operation, which I will describe. Beginning at the lower end of the reach, seven men were employed in working the net, three at either end to haul it, while another, wading in the middle, supported it at the centre. Meanwhile two of their party had run far up the banks, one on either side, and then, entering the water, slowly descended towards the nets, shouting and beating the water with sticks, thus driving the fish towards the nets. Usually the fish so caught are small, or of only moderate size, though I have frequently seen exposed for sale in the markets fish weighing upwards of 300 pounds and 6 feet or more in length.
The Nile Valley is comparatively wide for a considerable distance above Cairo, and while the hills which fringe the Lybian desert are generally in view in the distance, those on the eastern side gradually close in upon the river as we ascend, and in many places, such as Gibel Kasr-es-Saad, or "the castle of the hunter," Feshun, or Gibel Abou Fedr, rise almost perpendicularly from the river to the height of 1,000 feet or more, and although considerable areas of cultivated land are to be found at intervals on the eastern side, practically all the agricultural land of Upper Egypt lies on the western bank of the river.
The rock of which the hills are formed is limestone, and it is a very dazzling sight as you pass some of these precipitous cliffs in the brilliant sunshine, especially where the quarrymen are working and the sunburnt outside has been removed, exposing the pure whiteness of the stone.
Along the narrow bank of shingle at the foot of the cliffs flocks of dark-coated sheep and goats wander in search of such scant herbage as may be found along the water's edge, and many native boats lie along the banks loading the stone extracted by the quarrymen, who look like flies on the face of the rock high above you. Enormous quantities of stone are required for the building of the various dams and locks on the river, as well as for the making of embankments and "spurs." These "spurs" are little embankments which project into the river at a slight angle pointing down-stream, and are made in order to turn the direction of the current towards the middle of the river, and so protect the banks from the scour of the water; for each year a portion of the banks is lost, and in many places large numbers of palm-trees and dwellings are swept away, for the native seems incapable of learning how unwise it is to build at the water's edge. Sometimes whole fields are washed away by the flood, and the soil, carried down-stream, forms a new island, or is perhaps deposited on the opposite side of the river many miles below. When this occurs, the new land so formed is held to be the property of the farmer or landowner who has suffered loss.
These changes of the river-banks are often rapid. One year vessels may discharge their passengers or cargoes upon the bank whereon some town or village is built, and which the following year may be separated from the river by fields many acres in extent; and each year in going up the Nile one may notice striking changes in this way.
As the Nile winds in its course the rocky hills on either side alternately approach close to the river, revealing a succession of rock-hewn tombs or ancient monasteries, or recede far into the distance, half hidden in the vegetation of the arable land; but, speaking generally, the river flows principally on the eastern side of the valley, while all the large towns, such as Wasta, Minyeh, Assiut, or Girgeh are built upon the western bank, where the largest area of fertility is situated.
As we ascend the river the vegetation slowly changes; cotton and wheat, so freely grown in the Delta, give place to sugar-cane and Indian corn, and the feathery foliage of the sunt and mimosa trees is more in evidence than the more richly clad lebbek or sycamore.
In many places are fields of the large-leaved castor-oil plants, whose crimson flower contrasts with the delicately tinted blossoms of the poppies which, for the sake of their opium, are grown upon the shelving banks. The dôm palm also is a new growth, and denotes our approach to tropical regions, while the type and costume of the people have undergone a change, for they are darker and broader in feature than the people of Lower Egypt, and the prevailing colour of their clothing is a dark brown, the natural colour of their sheep, from whose wool their heavy homespun cloth is made.
The limestone hills which have been our companions since leaving Cairo also disappear, and a little way above Luxor low hills of sandstone closely confine the river in a very narrow channel. This is the Gibel Silsileh, which from the earliest times has supplied the stone of which the temples are built. These celebrated quarries produce the finest stone in the country, and have always been worked in the most scientific and methodical manner, deep cuttings following the veins of good stone which only was extracted, while the river front has remained practically untouched — a contrast to the modern method of quarrying, where the most striking bluffs upon the Nile are being recklessly blown away, causing an enormous waste of material as well as seriously affecting the beauty of the scenery.