Here to return to
BEDRESHAYN TO MINIEH.
IT is the rule of the Nile to hurry up the river as fast as possible, leaving the ruins to be seen as the boat comes back with the current; but this, like many another canon, is by no means of universal application. The traveller who starts late in the season has, indeed, no other course open to him. He must press on with speed to the end of his journey, if he would get back again at low Nile without being irretrievably stuck on a sand-bank till the next inundation floats him off again. But for those who desire not only to see the monuments, but to follow, however superficially, the course of Egyptian history as it is handed down through Egyptian art, it is above all things necessary to start early and to see many things by the way.
For the history of ancient Egypt goes against the stream. The earliest monuments lie between Cairo and Siout, while the latest temples to the old gods are chiefly found in Nubia. Those travellers, therefore, who hurry blindly forward with or without a wind, now sailing, now tracking, now punting, passing this place by night, and that by day, and never resting till they have gained the farthest point of their journey, begin at the wrong end and see all their sights in precisely inverse order. Memphis and Sakkârah and the tombs of Beni Hassan should undoubtedly be visited on the way up. So should El Kâb and Tell el Amarna, and the oldest parts of Karnak and Luxor. It is not necessary to delay long at any of these places. They may be seen cursorily on the way up, and be more carefully studied on the way down; but they should be seen as they come, no matter at what trifling cost of present delay, and despite any amount of ignorant opposition. For in this way only is it possible to trace the progression and retrogression of the arts from the pyramid-builders to the Cæsars; or to understand at the time, and on the spot, in what order that vast and august procession of dynasties swept across the stage of history.
For ourselves, as will presently be seen, it happened that we could carry only a part of this programme into effect; but that part, happily was the most important. We never ceased to congratulate ourselves on having made acquaintance with the pyramids of Ghîzeh and Sakkârah before seeing the tombs of the kings at Thebes; and I feel that it is impossible to overestimate the advantage of studying the sculptures of the tomb of Ti before one’s taste is brought into contact with the debased style of Denderah and Esneh. We began the great book, in short, as it always should be begun – at its first page; thereby acquiring just that necessary insight without which many an after-chapter must have lost more than half its interest.
If I seem to insist upon this point, it is because things contrary to custom need a certain amount of insistance, and are sure to be met by opposition. No dragoman, for example, could be made to understand the importance of historical sequence in a matter of this kind; especially in the case of a contract trip. To him, Khufu, Rameses, and the Ptolemies are one. As for the monuments, they are all ancient Egyptian, and one is just as odd and unintelligible as another. He cannot quite understand why travellers come so far and spend so much money to look at them; but he sets it down to a habit of harmless curiousity – by which he profits.
The truth is, however, that the mere sight-seeing of the Nile demands some little reading and organising, if only to be enjoyed. We cannot all be profoundly learned; but we can at least do our best to understand what we see – to get rid of obstacles – to put the right thing in the right place. For the land of Egypt is, as I have said, a great book – not very easy reading, perhaps, under any circumstances; but at all events quite difficult enough already without the added puzzlement of being read backwards.
And now our next point along the river, as well as our next link in the chain of early monuments, was Beni Hassan, with its famous rock-cut tombs of the twelfth dynasty; and Beni Hassan was still more than a hundred and forty-five miles distant. We ought to have gone on again directly – to have weighed anchor and made a few miles that very evening on returning to the boats; but we insisted on a second day in the same place. This, too, with the favourable wind still blowing. It was against all rule and precedent. The captain shook his head, the dragoman remonstrated, in vain.
“You will come to learn the value of a wind, when you have been longer on the Nile,” said the latter, with that air of melancholy resignation which he always assumed when not allowed to have his own way. He was an indolent good-tempered man, spoke English fairly well, and was perfectly manageable; but that air of resignation came to be aggravating in time.
The M. B.’s being of the same mind, however, we had our second day, and spent it at Memphis. We ought to have crossed over to Turra, and have seen the great quarries from which the casing-stones of the pyramids came, and all the finer limestone with which the temples and palaces of Memphis were built. But the whole mountain-side seemed as if glowing at a white heat on the opposite side of the river, and we said we would put off Turra till our return. So we went our own way; and Alfred shot pigeons; and the writer sketched Mitrâhîneh, and the palms, and the sacred lake of Mena; and the rest grubbed among the mounds for treasure, finding many curious fragments of glass and pottery, and part of an engraved bronze Apis; and we had a green, tranquil, lovely day, barren of incident, but very pleasant to remember.
The good wind continued to blow all that night; but fell at sunrise, precisely when we were about to start. The river now stretched away before us, smooth as glass, and there was nothing for it, said Reïs Hassan, but tracking. We had heard of tracking often enough since coming to Egypt, but without having any definite idea of the process. Coming on deck, however, before breakfast, we found nine of our poor fellows harnessed to a rope like barge-horses, towing the huge boat against the current. Seven of the M. B.’s crew, similarly harnessed, followed at a few yards’ distance. The two ropes met and crossed and dipped into the water together. Already our last night’s mooring-place was out of sight, and the pyramid of Ouenephes stood up amid its lesser brethren on the edge of the desert, as if bidding us goodbye. But the sight of the trackers jarred, somehow, with the placid beauty of the picture. We got used to it, as one gets used to everything, in time; but it looked like slaves’ work, and shocked our English notions disagreeably.
That morning, still tracking, we pass the pyramids of Dahshûr. A dilapidated brick pyramid standing in the midst of them looks like an aiguille of black rock thrusting itself up through the limestone bed of the desert. Palms line the bank and intercept the view; but we catch flitting glimpses here and there, looking out especially for that dome-like pyramid which we observed the other day from Sakkârah. Seen in the full sunlight, it looks larger and whiter, and more than ever like the roof of the old Palais de Justice far away in Paris.
Thus the morning passes. We sit on deck writing letters; reading; watching the sunny river-side pictures that glide by at a foot’s pace and are so long in sight. Palm-groves, sand-banks, patches of fuzzy-headed dura1 and fields of some yellow-flowering herb, succeed each other. A boy plods along the bank, leading a camel. They go slowly; but they soon leave us behind. A native boat meets us, floating down side-wise with the current. A girl comes to the water’s edge with a great empty jar on her head, and waits to fill it till the trackers have gone by. The pigeon-towers of a mud-village peep above a clump of lebbek trees, a quarter of a smile inland. Here a solitary brown man, with only a felt skull-cap on his head and a slip of scanty tunic fastened about his loins, works a shâdûf,2 stooping and rising, stooping and rising, with the regularity of a pendulum. It is the same machine which we shall see by and by depicted in the tombs at Thebes; and the man is so evidently an ancient Egyptian, that we find ourselves wondering how he escaped being mummified four or five thousand years ago.
By and by, a little breeze springs up. The men drop the rope and jump on board – the big sail is set – the breeze freshens – and away we go again, as merrily as the day we left Cairo. Towards sunset we see a strange object, like a giant obelisk broken off half-way, standing up on the western bank against an orange-gold sky. This is the pyramid of Meydûm, commonly called the false pyramid. It looks quite near the bank; but this is an effect of powerful light and shadow, for it lies back at least four miles from the river. That night, having sailed on till past nine o’clock, we moor about a mile from Beni Suêf, and learn with some surprise that a man must be despatched to the governor of the town for guards. Not that anything ever happened to anybody at Beni Suêf, says Talhamy; but that the place is supposed not to have a first-rate reputation. If we have guards, we at all events make the governor responsible for our safety and the safety of our possessions. So the guards are sent for; and being posted on the bank, snore loudly all night long, just outside our windows.
Meanwhile the wind shifts round to the south, and next morning it blows full in our faces. The men, however, track up to Beni Suêf to a point where the buildings come down to the water’s edge and the towing-path ceases; and there we lay-to for awhile among a fleet of filthy native boats, close to the landing-place.
The approach to Beni Suêf is rather pretty. The khedive has an Italian-looking villa here, which peeps up white and dazzling from the midst of a thickly-wooded park. The town lies back a little from the river. A few coffee-houses and a kind of promenade face the landing-place; and a mosque built to the verge of the bank stands out picturesquely against the bend of the river.
And now it is our object to turn that corner, so as to get into a better position for starting when the wind drops. The current here runs deep and strong, so that we have both wind and water dead against us. Half our men clamber round the corner like cats, carrying the rope with them; the rest keep the dahabeeyah off the bank with punting poles. The rope strains – a pole breaks – we struggle forward a few feet, and can get no farther. Then the men rest awhile; try again; and are again defeated. So the fight goes on. The promenade and the windows of the mosque become gradually crowded with lookers-on. Some three or four cloaked and bearded men have chairs brought, and sit gravely smoking their chibouques on the bank above, enjoying the entertainment. Meanwhile the water-carriers come and go, filling their goat-skins at the landing-place; donkeys and camels are brought down to drink; girls in dark blue gowns and coarse black veils come with huge water-jars laid sidewise upon their heads, and, having filled and replaced them upright, walk away with stately steps, as if each ponderous vessel were a crown.
So the day passes. Driven back again and again, but still resolute, our sailors, by dint of sheer doggedness, get us round the bad corner at last. The Bagstones follows suit a little later; and we both moor about a quarter of a mile above the town. Then follows a night of adventures. Again our guards sleep profoundly; but the bad characters of Beni Suêf are very wide awake. One gentleman, actuated no doubt by the friendliest motives, pays a midnight visit to the Bagstones; but being detected, chased, and fired at, escapes by jumping overboard. Our turn comes about two hours later, when the writer, happening to be awake, hears a man swim softly round the Philæ. To strike a light and frighten everybody into sudden activity is the work of a moment. The whole boat is instantly in an uproar. Lanterns are lighted on deck; a patrol of sailors is set; Talhamy loads his gun; and the thief slips away in the dark, like a fish.
The guards, of course, slept sweetly through it all. Honest fellows! They were paid a shilling a night to do it, and they had nothing on their minds.
Having lodged a formal complaint next morning against the inhabitants of the town, we received a visit from a sallow personage clad in a long black robe and a voluminous white turban. This was the chief of the guards. He smoked a great many pipes; drank numerous cups of coffee; listened to all we had to say; looked wise; and finally suggested that the number of our guards should be doubled.
I ventured to object that if they slept unanimously, forty would not be of much more use than four. Whereupon he rose, drew himself to his full height, touched his beard, and said with a magnificent melodramatic air:– “If they sleep, they shall be bastinadoed till they die!”
And now our good luck seemed to have deserted us. For three days and nights the adverse wind continued to blow with such force that the men could not even track against it. Moored under that dreary bank, we saw our ten days’ start melting away, and could only make the best of our misfortunes. Happily the long island close by, and the banks on both sides of the river, were populous with sand-grouse; so Alfred went out daily with his faithful George and his unerring gun, and brought home game in abundance, while we took long walks, sketched boats and camels, and chaffered with native women for silver torques and bracelets. These torques (in Arabic Tók) are tubular but massive, penannular, about as thick as one’s little finger, and finished with a hook at one end and a twisted loop at the other. The girls would sometimes put their veils aside and make a show of bargaining; but more frequently, after standing for a moment with great wondering black velvety eyes staring shyly into ours, they would take fright like a troop of startled deer, and vanish with shrill cries, half of laughter, half of terror.
At Beni Suêf we encountered our first sand-storm. It came down the river about noon, showing like a yellow fog on the horizon, and rolling rapidly before the wind. It tore the river into angry waves, and blotted out the landscape as it came. The distant hills disappeared first; then the palms beyond the island; then the boats close by. Another second, and the air was full of sand. The whole surface of the plain seemed in motion. The banks rippled. The yellow dust poured down through every rift and cleft in hundreds of tiny cataracts. But it was a sight not to be looked upon with impunity. Hair, eyes, mouth, ears, were instantly filled, and we were driven to take refuge in the saloon. Here, although every window and door had been shut before the storm came, the sand found its way in clouds. Books, papers, carpets, were covered with it; and it settled again as fast as it was cleared away. This lasted just one hour, and was followed by a burst of heavy rain; after which the sky cleared and we had a lovely afternoon. From this time forth, we saw no more rain in Egypt.
At length, on the morning of the fourth day after our first appearance at Beni Suêf and the seventh since leaving Cairo, the wind veered round again to the north, and we once more got under way. It was delightful to see the big sail again towering up overhead, and to hear the swish of the water under the cabin windows; but we were still one hundred and nine miles from Rhoda, and we knew that nothing but an extraordinary run of luck could possibly get us there by the twenty-third of the month, with time to see Beni Hassan on the way. Meanwhile, however, we make fair progress, mooring at sunset when the wind falls, about three miles north of Bibbeh. Next day, by help of the same light breeze which again springs up a little after dawn, we go at a good pace between flat banks fringed here and there with palms, and studded with villages more or less picturesque. There is not much to see, and yet one never wants for amusement. Now we pass an island of sand-bank covered with snow-white paddy-birds, which rise tumultuously at our approach. Next comes Bibbeh perched high along the edge of the precipitous bank, its odd-looking Coptic convent roofed all over with little mud domes, like a cluster of earth-bubbles. By and by we pass a deserted sugar-factory, with shattered windows and a huge, gaunt, blackened chimney, worth of Birmingham or Sheffield. And now we catch a glimpse of the railway, and hear the last scream of a departing engine. At night, we moor within sight of the factory chimneys and hydraulic tubes of Magagha, and next day get on nearly to Golosanèh, which is the last station-town before Minieh.
It is now only too clear that we must give up all thought of pushing on to Beni Hassan before the rest of the party shall come on board. We have reached the evening of our ninth day; we are still forty-eight miles from Rhoda; and another adverse wind might again delay us indefinitely on the way. All risks taken into account, we decide to put off our meeting till the twenty-fourth, and transfer the appointment to Minieh; thus giving ourselves time to track all the way in case of need. So an Arabic telegram is concocted, and our fleetest runner starts off with it to Golosanèh before the office closes for the night.
The breeze, however, does not fail, but comes back next morning with the dawn. Having passed Golosanèh, we come to a wide reach in the river, at which point we are honoured by a visit from a Moslem santon of peculiar sanctity, named “Holy Sheik Cotton.” Now Holy Sheik Cotton, who is a well-fed, healthy-looking young man of about thirty, makes his first appearance swimming, with his garments twisted into a huge turban on the top of his head, and only his chin above water. Having made his toilet in the small boat, he presents himself on deck, and receives an enthusiastic welcome. Reïs Hassan hugs him – the pilot kisses him – the sailors come up one by one, bringing little tributes of tobacco and piastres which he accepts with the air of a Pope receiving Peter’s pence. All dripping as he is, and smiling like an affable Triton, he next proceeds to touch the tiller, the ropes, and the ends of the yards, “in order,” says Talhamy, “to make them holy;” and then, with some kind of final charm or muttered incantation, he plunges into the river again, and swims off to repeat the same performance on board the Bagstones.
From this moment the prosperity of our voyage is assured. The captain goes about with a smile on his stern face, and the crew look as happy as if we had given them a guinea. For nothing can go wrong with a dahabeeyah that has been “made holy” by Holy Sheik Cotton. We are certain now to have favourable winds – to pass the Cataract without accident – to come back in health and safety, as we set out. But what, it may be asked, has Holy Sheik Cotton done to make his blessing so efficacious? He gets money in plenty; he fasts no oftener than other Mohammedans; he has two wives; he never does a stroke of work; and he looks the picture of sleek prosperity. Yet he is a saint of the first water; and when he dies, miracles will be performed at his tomb, and his eldest son will succeed him in the business.
We had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a good many saints in the course of our Eastern travels; but I do not know that we ever found they had done anything to merit the position. One very horrible old man named Sheik Saleem has, it is true, been sitting on a dirt heap near Farshût, unclothed, unwashed, unshaven, for the last half-century or more, never even lifting his hand to his mouth to feed himself; but Sheik Cotton had gone to no such pious lengths, and was not even dirty.
We are by this time drawing towards a range of yellow cliffs that have long been visible on the horizon, and which figure in the maps as Gebel et Tâyr. The Arabian desert has been closing up on the eastern bank for some time past, and now rolls on in undulating drifts to the water’s edge. Yellow boulders crop out here and there above the mounded sand, which looks as if it might cover many a forgotten temple. Presently the clay bank is gone, and a low barrier of limestone rock, black and shiny next the water-line, has taken its place. And now, a long way ahead, where the river bends and the level cliffs lead on into the far distance, a little brown speck is pointed out as the Convent of the Pulley. Perched on the brink of the precipice, it looks no bigger than an ant-heap. We had heard much of the fine view to be seen from the platform on which this Convent is built, and it had originally entered into our programme as a place to be visited on the way. But Minieh has to be gained now at all costs; so this project has to be abandoned with a sigh.
And now the rocky barrier rises higher, quarried here and there in dazzling gaps of snow-white cuttings. And now the convent shows clearer; and the cliffs become loftier; and the bend in the river is reached; and a long perspective of flat-topped precipice stretches away into the dim distance.
It is a day of saints and swimmers. As the dahabeeyah approaches, a brown poll is seen bobbing up and down in the water a few hundred yards ahead. Then one, two, three bronze figures dash down a steep ravine below the convent walls, and plunge into the river – a shrill chorus of voices, growing momentarily more audible, is borne upon the wind – and in a few minutes the boat is beset by a shoal of mendicant monks vociferating with all their might “Ana Christian ya Hawadji! – Ana Christian ya Hawadji!” (I am a Christian, oh traveller!) As these are only Coptic monks and not Moslem santons, the sailors, half in rough play, half in earnest, drive them off with punting poles; and only one shivering, streaming object, wrapped in a borrowed blanket, is allowed to come on board. He is a fine shapely man, aged about forty, with splendid eyes and teeth, a well-formed head, a skin the colour of a copper beech-leaf, and a face expressive of such ignorance, timidity, and half-savage watchfulness as makes one’s heart ache.
And this is a Copt; a descendant of the true Egyptian stock; one of those whose remote ancestors exchanged the worship of the old gods for Christianity under the rule of Theodosius some fifteen hundred years ago, and whose blood is supposed to be purer of Mohammedan intermixture than any in Egypt. Remembering these things, it is impossible to look at him without a feeling of profound interest. It may be only fancy, yet I think I see in him a different type to that of the Arab – a something, however slight, which recalls the sculptured figures in the tomb of Ti.
But while we are thinking about his magnificent pedigree, our poor Copt’s teeth are chattering piteously. So we give him a shilling or two for the sake of all he represents in the history of the world; and with these, and the donation of an empty bottle, he swims away contented, crying again and again:– “Ketther-kháyrak Sitt´t! Ketther-kháyrak keteer!” (“Thank you, ladies! thank you much!”)
And now the convent with its clustered domes is passed and left behind. The rock here is of the same rich tawny hue as at Turra, and the horizontal strata of which it is composed have evidently been deposited by water. That the Nile must at some remote time have flowed here in an immensely higher level seems also probable; for the whole face of the range is honeycombed and water-worn for miles in succession. Seeing how these fantastic forms – arched, and clustered, and pendent – resemble the recessed ornamentation of Saracenic buildings, I could not help wondering whether some early Arab architect might not once upon a time have taken a hint from some such rocks as these.
Thus the day wanes, and the level cliffs keep with us all the way – now breaking into little lateral valleys and culs-de-sac in which nestle clusters of tiny huts and green patches of lupin; now plunging sheer down into the river; now receding inland and leaving space for a belt of cultivated soil and a fringe of feathery palms. By and by comes the sunset, when every cast shadow in the recesses of the cliffs turns to pure violet; and the face of the rock glows with a ruddier gold; and the palms on the western bank stand up in solid bronze against a crimson horizon. Then the sun dips, and instantly the whole range of cliffs turns to a dead, greenish grey, while the sky above and behind them is as suddenly suffused with pink. When this effect has lasted for something like eight minutes, a vast arch of deep blue shade, about as large in diameter as a rainbow, creeps slowly up the eastern horizon, and remains distinctly visible as long as the pink flush against which it is defined yet lingers in the sky. Finally the flush fades out; the blue becomes uniform; the stars begin to show; and only a broad glow in the west marks which way the sun went down. About a quarter of an hour later comes the after-glow, when for a few minutes the sky is filled with a soft, magical light, and the twilight gloom lies warm upon the landscape. When this goes, it is night; but still one long beam of light streams up in the tracks of the sun, and remains visible for more than two hours after the darkness has closed in.
Such is the sunset we see this evening as we approach Minieh; and such is the sunset we are destined to see with scarcely a shade of difference at the same hour and under precisely the same conditions for many a month to come. It is very beautiful, very tranquil, full of wonderful light and most subtle gradations of tone, and attended by certain phenomena of which I shall have more to say presently; but it lacks the variety and gorgeousness of our northern skies. Nor, given the dry atmosphere of Egypt, can it be otherwise. Those who go up the Nile expecting, as I did, to see magnificent Turneresque pageants of purple, and flame-colour, and gold, will be disappointed as I was. For your Turneresque pageant cannot be achieved without such accessories of cloud and vapour as in Nubia are wholly unknown, and in Egypt are of the rarest occurence. Once, and only once, in the course of an unusually protracted sojourn on the river, had we the good fortune to witness a grand display of the kind; and then we had been nearly three months in the dahabeeyah.
Meanwhile, however, we never weary of these stainless skies, but find in them, evening after evening, fresh depths of beauty and repose. As for that strange transfer of colour from the mountains to the sky, we had repeatedly observed it while travelling in the Dolomites the year before, and had always found it take place, as now, at the moment of the sun’s first disappearance. But what of this mighty after-shadow, climbing half the heavens and bringing night with it? Can it be the rising shadow of the world projected on the one horizon as the sun sinks on the other? I leave the problem for wiser travellers to solve. We have not science enough amongst us to account for it.
That same evening, just as the twilight came on, we saw another wonder – the new moon on the first night of her first quarter; a perfect orb, dusky, distinct, and outlined all round with a thread of light no thicker than a hair. Nothing could be more brilliant than this tiny rim of flashing silver; while every detail of the softly glowing globe within its compass was clearly visible. Tycho with its vast crater showed like a volcano on a raised map; and near the edge of the moon’s surface, where the light and shadow met, keen sparkles of mountain-summits catching the light and relieved against the dusk, were to be seen by the naked eye. Two or three evenings later, however, when the silver ring was changed to a broad crescent, the unilluminated part was as it were extinguished, and could no longer be discerned even by help of a glass.
The wind having failed as usual at sunset, the crew set to work with a will and punted the rest of the way, so bringing us to Minieh about nine that night. Next morning we found ourselves moored close under the khedive’s summer palace – so close that one could have tossed a pebble against the lattice windows of his Highness’s hareem. A fat gate-keeper sat outside in the sun, smoking his morning chibouque and gossiping with the passers-by. A narrow promenade scantily planted with sycamore figs ran between the palace and the river. A steamer or two, and a crowd of native boats, lay moored under the bank; and yonder, at the farther end of the promenade, a minaret and a cluster of whitewashed houses showed which way one must turn in going to the town.
It chanced to be market-day; so we saw Minieh under its best aspect, than which nothing could well be more squalid, dreary, and depressing. It was like a town dropped unexpectedly into the midst of a ploughed field; the streets being mere trodden lanes of mud dust, and the houses a succession of windowless mud prisons with their backs to the thoroughfare. The Bazaar, which consists of two or three lanes a little wider than the rest, is roofed over here and there with rotting palm-rafters and bits of tattered matting; while the market is held in a space of waste ground outside the town. The former, with its little cupboard-like shops in which the merchants sit cross-legged like shabby old idols in shabby old shrines – the ill-furnished shelves – the familiar Manchester goods – the gaudy native stuffs – the old red saddles and faded rugs hanging up for sale – the smart Greek stores where Bass’s ale, claret, curaçoa, Cyprus, Vermouth, cheese, pickles, sardines, Worcester sauce, blacking, biscuits, preserved meats, candles, cigars, matches, sugar, salt, stationery, fireworks, jams, and patent medicines can all be bought at one fell swoop – the native cook’s shop exhaling savoury perfumes of Kebabs and lentil soup, and presided over by an Abyssinian Soyer blacker than the blackest historical personage ever was painted – the surging, elbowing, clamorous crowd – the donkeys, the camels, the street-cries, the chatter, the dust, the flies, the fleas, and the dogs, all put us in mind of the poorer quarters of Cairo. In the market, it is even worse. Here are hundreds of country folk sitting on the ground behind their baskets of fruits and vegetables. Some have eggs, butter, and buffalo-cream for sale, while others sell sugar-canes, limes, cabbages, tobacco, barley, dried lentils, split beans, maize, wheat, and dura. The women go to and fro with bouquets of live poultry. The chickens scream; the sellers rave; the buyers bargain at the top of their voices; the dust flies in clouds; the sun pours down floods of light and heat; you can scarcely hear yourself speak; and the crowd is as dense as that other crowd which at this very moment, on this very Christmas Eve, is circulating among the alleys of Leadenhall Market.
The things were very cheap. A hundred eggs cost about fourteen-pence in English money; chickens sold for fivepence each; pigeons from twopence to twopence-halfpenny; and fine live geese for two shillings a head. The turkeys, however, which were large and excellent, were priced as high as three-and-sixpence; being about half as much as one pays in Middle and Upper Egypt for a lamb. A good sheep may be bought for sixteen shillings or a pound. The M. B.’s, who had no dragoman and did their own marketing, were very busy here, laying in store of fresh provision, bargaining fluently in Arabic, and escorted by a bodyguard of sailors.
A solitary dôm palm, the northernmost of its race and the first specimen one meets with on the Nile, grows in a garden adjoining this market-place; but we could scarcely see it for the blinding dust. Now a dôm palm is just the sort of tree that De Wint should have painted – odd, angular, with long forked stems, each of which terminates in a shock-headed crown of stiff finger-like fronds shading heavy clusters of big shiny nuts about the size of Jerusalem artichokes. It is, I suppose, the only nut in the world of which one throws away the kernel and eats the shell; but the kernel is as hard as marble, while the shell is fibrous, and tastes like stale ginger-bread. The dôm palm must bifurcate, for bifurcation is the law of its being; but I could never discover whether there was any fixed limit to the number of stems into which it might subdivide. At the same time, I do not remember to have seen any with less than two heads or more than six.
Coming back through the town, we were accosted by a withered one-eyed hag like a re-animated mummy, who offered to tell us our fortunes. Before her lay a dirty rag of handkerchief full of shells, pebbles, and chips of broken glass and pottery. Squatting toad-like under a sunny bit of wall, the lower part of her face closely veiled, her skinny arms covered with blue and green glass bracelets and her fingers with misshapen silver rings, she hung over these treasures; shook, mixed, and interrogated them with all the fervour of divination; and delivered a string of the prophecies usually forthcoming on these occasions.
“You have a friend far away, and your friend is thinking of you. There is good fortune in store for you; and money is coming to you; and pleasant news on the way. You will soon receive letters in which there will be something to vex you, but more to make you glad. Within thirty days you will unexpectedly meet one whom you dearly love,” etc. etc. etc.
It was just the old familiar story retold in Arabic, without even such variations as might have been expected from the lips of an old fellâha born and bred in a provincial town of Middle Egypt.
It may be that opthalmia especially prevailed in this part of the country, or that being brought unexpectedly into the midst of a large crowd, one observed the people more narrowly, but I certainly never saw so many one-eyed human beings as that morning at Minieh. There must have been present in the streets and market-place from ten to twelve thousand natives of all ages, and I believe it is not exaggeration to say that at least every twentieth person, down to little toddling children of three and four years of age, was blind of an eye. Not being a particularly well-favoured race, this defect added the last touch of repulsiveness to faces already sullen, ignorant, and unfriendly. A more unprepossessing population I would never wish to see – the men half stealthy, half insolent; the women bold and fierce; the children filthy, sickly, stunted, and stolid. Nothing in provincial Egypt is so painful to witness as the neglected condition of very young children. Those belonging to even the better class are for the most part shabbily clothed and of more than doubtful cleanliness; while the offspring of the very poor are simply encrusted with dirt and sores, and swarming with vermin. It is at first hard to believe that the parents of these unfortunate babies err, not from cruelty, but through sheer ignorance and superstition. Yet so it is; and the time when these people can be brought to comprehend the most elementary principles of sanitary reform is yet far distant. To wash young children is injurious to health; therefore the mothers suffer them to fall into a state of personal uncleanliness which is alone enough to engender disease. To brush away the flies that beset their eyes is impious; hence opthalmia and various kinds of blindness. I have seen infants lying in their mothers’ arms with six or eight flies in each eye. I have seen the little helpless hands put down reprovingly, if they approached the seat of annoyance. I have seen children of four and five years old with a large fleshy lump growing out where the pupil had been destroyed. Taking these things into account, the wonder is, after all, not that three children should die in Egypt out of every five – not that each twentieth person in certain districts should be blind, or partially blind; but that so many as forty per cent of the whole infant population should actually live to grow up, and that ninety-five per cent should enjoy the blessing of sight. For my own part, I had not been many weeks on the Nile before I began systematically to avoid going about the native towns whenever it was practicable to do so. That I may so have lost an opportunity of now and then seeing more of the street-life of the people is very probable; but such outside glimpses are of little real value, and I at all events escaped the sight of much poverty, sickness, and squalor. The condition of the inhabitants is not worse, perhaps, in an Egyptian Beled3 than in many an Irish village; but the condition of the children is so distressing that one would willingly go any number of miles out of the way rather than witness their suffering without the power to alleviate it.4
If the population in and about Minieh are personally unattractive, their appearance at all events matches their reputation, which is as bad as that of their neighbors. Of the manners and customs of Beni Suêf we had already some experience; while public opinion charges Minieh, Rhoda, and most of the towns and villages north of Siût, with the like marauding propensities. As for the villages at the foot of Beni Hassan, they have been mere dens of thieves for many generations; and though razed to the ground some years ago by way of punishment, are now rebuilt, and in as bad odour as ever. It is necessary, therefore, in all this part of the river, not only to hire guards at night, but, when the boat is moored, to keep a sharp look-out against thieves by day. In Upper Egypt it is very different. There the natives are good-looking, good-natured, gentle, and kindly; and though clever enough at manufacturing and selling modern antiquities, are not otherwise dishonest.
That same evening – (it was Christmas Eve) – nearly two hours earlier than their train was supposed to be due, the rest of our party arrived at Minieh.________________________
1 Sorghum vulgare.
2 The shâdûf has been so well described by the Rev. F. B. Zincke, that I cannot do better than quote him verbatim:– “Mechanically, the shadoof is an application of the lever. In no machine which the wit of man, aided by the accumulation of science, has since invented, is the result produced so great in proportion to the degree of power employed. The lever of the shadoof is a long stout pole poised on a prop. The pole is at right angles to the river. A large lump of clay from the spot is appended to the inland end. To the river end is suspended a goat-skin bucket. This is the whole apparatus. The man who is working it stands on the edge of the river. Before him is a hole full of water fed from the passing stream. When working the machine, he takes hold of the cord by which the empty bucket is suspended, and bending down, by the mere weight of his shoulders dips it in the water. His effort to rise gives the bucket full of water an upward cant, which, with the aid of the equipoising lump of clay at the other end of the pole, lifts it to a trough into which, as it tilts on one side, it empties its contents. What he has done has raised the water six or seven feet above the level of the river. But if the river has subsided twelve or fourteen feet, it will require another shadoof to be worked in the trough into which the water of the first has been brought. If the river has sunk still more, a third will be required before it can be lifted to the top of the bank, so as to enable it to flow off to the fields that require irrigation.” – "Egypt of the Pharoahs and the Khedive," p. 445 et seq.
3 Beled – village.
4 Miss Whately, whose evidence on this subject is peculiarly valuable, states that the majority of native children die off at, or under, two years of age ("Among the Huts," p. 29); while M. About, who enjoyed unusual opportunities of inquiring into facts connected with the population and resources of the country, says that the nation loses three children out of every five. “L’ignorance publique, l’oubli des premiers éléments d’hygiène, la mauvaise alimentation, l’absence presque totale des soins médicaux, tarissent la nation dans sa source. Un peuple qui perd régulièrement trois enfants sur cinq ne saurait croître sans miracle.” – "Le Fellah," p. 165.