When so much of geographical Egypt consists of desert, it would be interesting if I were to tell you something about it before closing this little book. Probably the first question my readers would ask would be, "What use is it?" Why does Nature create such vast wastes of land and rock which can be of little or no use to anybody?
We cannot always follow the intentions of Nature, or see what may ultimately result, but so far as the desert is concerned we know of at least one useful purpose it serves, and that is the making of climate.
Edinburgh and Moscow are in precisely the same latitudes, yet the one is equable in temperature while the other endures the rigours of an arctic winter. The South of Iceland also suffers less from cold than do the great central plains of Europe. And why? Simply because their different climates are the result of special conditions or influences of Nature, and what the Gulf Stream does for the British Isles the deserts of Africa effect not only for Egypt, but for the whole of Southern Europe, whose genial climate is mainly caused by the warm air generated on these sun-baked barren lands.
Now let us see what the desert is like in appearance. It is a very common impression that the desert is simply a flat expanse of sand, colourless and unbroken; in reality it is quite different, being full of variations, which give it much the same diversity of interest as the ocean.
The colour of the sand varies infinitely, according to its situation. Thus the desert which surrounds Assuan, which is composed of decimated granite and Nile silt, is generally grey; in Nubia the sand is formed of powdered sandstone of a curiously golden tint, while the desert of Suez, which abuts on Cairo and the Delta provinces, is generally white in tone, due to the admixture of limestone dust of which it is largely composed. The great Sahara also is no monotonous stretch of sand, but is to a great extent covered by wild herbs of many kinds, which often entirely screen the sand from view, and give it the appearance of a prairie.
Nor is the desert always flat, for its huge undulations suggest ocean billows petrified into stillness, while rocky hills and earthquake-riven valleys give it a fantastic variety which is wildly picturesque.
Though generally barren, the desert supports growths of many kinds; wild hyssop, thorns, the succulent ice-plant, and a great variety of other shrubs. Flowers also abound, and though they are usually small, I have counted as many as twenty varieties in an area of as many feet, and in some of the deep "wadis," as the mountain valleys are called, wild plants grow in such profusion as to give them the appearance of rock gardens.
In aspect the desert varies very much, according to the time of day or changing effect of light.
At dawn a curious mauve tint suffuses it, and the sun rises sharp and clear above the horizon, which also stands out crisply against the sky, so pure is the air. Presently, as the sun slowly rises higher in the sky, every shrub or stone or little inequality of surface is tipped with gold and throws long blue shadows across the sand. At midday a fierce glare envelops it, obliterating detail and colour, while by moonlight it is a fairyland of silver, solemn, still, and mysterious. Each phase has its special beauty, which interests the traveller and robs his journey of monotony.
Scattered over the surface of the sand are innumerable pebbles of all sizes and colours — onyx, cornelian, agate, and many more, as well as sea fossils and other petrifactions which boys would love to collect. And it is also curious to notice that the rocks which crop up in all directions become sunburnt, and limestone, naturally of a dazzling white, often assumes a variety of tints under the influence of the powerful sun, as may be seen in the foreground of my picture of the pyramids.
Animal life also exists in profusion; every tuft of scrub supports a variety of insects upon which the hunting spider and desert lizard feed; the tracks of giant beetles or timid jerboa scour the sand in all directions, and many wild-birds make these wastes their home. Prowling wolves and foxes hunt the tiny gazelle, while the rocky hills, in which the wild goats make their home, also give shelter to the hyenas and jackals, which haunt the caravan routes to feast upon the dying animals which fall abandoned to their fate.
The life of the desert is not confined to the beasts, however, for many Bedawīn tribes roam about them in search of water or fodder for their animals, and of all the Eastern races I have met none are more interesting than these desert nomads.
The wandering life of the Bedawīn makes it difficult for anyone to become acquainted with them, while their reputation for lawlessness is such that travellers on desert routes usually endeavour to avoid them. In several parts of the desert near Egypt, however, important families of them have settled so as to be near the farm-lands granted to them by Ismail Pasha many years ago (nominally in return for military services, but in reality to keep them quiet), and I have often visited their camps at Beni Ayoub and Tel Bedawi, to find them courteous, hospitable, and in the best sense of the word, gentlemen.
These camps are large, and the long lines of tents, pitched with military precision, shelter probably more than 1,000 people, for though the head sheykh may build a lodge of stone in which to entertain his guests, the Arab is a gipsy who loves his tent.
The tents, which are often very large, are formed of heavy cloths of goats'-hair woven in stripes of different colours, and supported by a large number of poles; long tassels hang from the seams, and other cloths are often attached to them so as to divide the tent into different apartments. Clean sand forms the floor, on which at nightfall a rug or carpet is spread to form a bed. Round the walls are the gay saddle-bags and trappings of the camels and horses, as well as many boxes ornamented with tinsel and painting, which contain the wardrobes and other possessions of the inmates. At the tent-door, stuck upright in the ground, is the long spear of its occupant, and the large earthen pot which serves as fireplace, while in some shady corner a row of zīrs contain their supply of drinking water. Turkeys and fowl give a homely look to the premises, where perhaps a gentle-eyed gazelle is playmate to the rough-haired dogs few Bedawīn are without. Round about the tents children are playing, while their mothers are working at the hand-loom, or preparing the simple evening meal.
In character the Bedawīn are dignified and reserved, and have a great contempt for the noisiness so characteristic of the Egyptians, but, like them, are passionately fond of their wives and children, and so highly prize the various articles of saddlery or apparel made by their hands that no money would buy them.
The men are tall, with strong aquiline features and keen eyes, which look very piercing beneath the "cufia,"10 which is wrapped around their heads; their clothing is loose and flowing, a black "arbiyeh" being worn over the "khaftan," or inner robe, of white or coloured stripes, and their boots are of soft leather. Though the traditional spear is still retained, all are armed with some firearm — ancient flint-locks of great length, or more commonly nowadays with a modern rifle, and many of the sheykhs wear a long, curved sword of beautiful workmanship, which is slung across their shoulders by a silken cord. All have strong, deep voices, and impress you with the idea that these are manly and courageous fellows, and upright according to their lights.
The women also are clothed in loose draperies, the outer one of some rough material, which conceals others of daintier fabric and colour. Handsome in feature, with glossy blue-black hair, their dark gipsy faces also wear that look of sturdy independence which so becomes the men.
It may naturally be asked, "How do these people occupy their time?" First of all, they have large flocks, which must be fed and watered, and they are thus compelled to wander from well to well, or from one oasis to another, and they are also great breeders of horses, which must be carefully looked after, and from time to time taken to some far away fair for sale. Food and water also have often to be brought long distances to their camps by the camel-men, while the women are occupied with their domestic duties and their weaving.
Naturally the Bedawīn are expert horsemen, and are very fond of equestrian sports. Some of their fancy riding is very clever, and great rivalry exists among them, particularly in their "jerīd," or javelin, play, when frequently several hundreds of mounted men are engaged in a mêlée, which, though only intended to be a friendly contest, often results in serious injury or death to many.
The Arab is very fond of his horse, which he himself has bred and trained from a colt, and his affection is amply returned by his steed. They are beautiful animals, strong and fleet-footed, but often savage with anyone but their master.
Sport enters largely into the life of the Bedawīn, and many tribes train falcons, with which they hunt gazelles, and in the Lybian desert the "cheetah," or hunting leopard, is tamed and used for the same purpose, and in this way the monotony of many a long desert march is relieved.
When on a journey smaller tents than those which I have described are used, all the heavy baggage being loaded on to camels, upon which the women and children also ride. Camels have often been called the "ships of the desert," and they are certainly the most useful of all animals for such travelling, for their broad pads prevent their feet from sinking into the soft sand, and not only do they carry enormous loads, but are able for days together to go without food or water. When Abraham sent his servant to seek a wife for Isaac, it was on camels that he travelled, and shaded, no doubt, by her canopy of shawls, it was on camel-back that Rebekah returned with him to the tent of his master. So to-day we may often meet a similar party on their journey, the women seated beneath the "mahmal," as the canopy is called, while the food and water for the journey is slung from the saddles of the camels ridden by the armed men who form their escort.
Camels are of two kinds — the heavily-built beast, such as we see in Egypt, and which is used for baggage purposes, and the "hagīn," or dromedary, used solely for riding. Lest any of my readers should fall into the common error of supposing that the dromedary has two humps, let me say that the only difference between it and the ordinary camel is that it is smaller and better bred, just as our racehorses differ from draught animals, and must not be confounded with the Bactrian or two-humped camel of Asia. These hagīn are very fleet, and often cover great distances, and I have known one to travel as much as 100 miles between sunset and sunrise!
On a journey the pace of a caravan is that of its slowest beast, and very arduous such journeys often are, for there is no shade, and the dust raised by the caravan envelops the slowly moving travellers, while the fierce sun is reflected from the rocks, which often become too hot to touch. On the other hand, the nights are often bitterly cold, for the sand is too loose to retain any of its heat, while the salt with which the desert is strongly impregnated has a chilling effect on the air. Most trying of all, however, are the hot desert winds, which often last for days together, drying up the water in the skins, while the distressed travellers are half suffocated by the dust and flying sand which cut the skin like knives. Little wonder, therefore, if these hardy desert tribes are taciturn and reserved, for they see nature in its stern moods, and know little of that ease of life which may be experienced among the green crops and pastures of the Delta.
It must not be supposed that the Bedawīn are morose, for beneath their outward severity lies a great power for sympathy and affection. The love of the Arab for his horse is proverbial, and his kindness to all dumb animals is remarkable.
Like the Egyptian, family affection holds him strongly, and he has a keen appreciation of poetry and music. Hospitality is to him a law, and the guest is always treated with honour; it is pleasant also to see the respect with which the Bedawīn regard their women, and the harmony which exists between the members or a tribe. Their government is patriarchal, each tribe being ruled by its sheykh, the "father of his children," who administers their code of honour or justice, and whose decision is always implicitly obeyed. Here, again, we have another Biblical parallel, for, like his brother Mohammedan in Egypt, the life of the desert Arab, no less than the dwellers on the "black soil," still preserves many of those poetical customs and characteristics which render the history of Abraham so attractive, and although these pages have only been able to give a partial picture of Egypt and its people, perhaps enough has been said to induce my readers to learn more about them, as well as to enable them a little more fully to realize how very real, and how very human, are the romantic stories of the Old Testament.
10 A square shawl of white or coloured silk.