Here to return to
MINIEH TO SIÛT.
IT is Christmas Day. The M. B.’s are coming to dinner; the cooks are up to their eyes in entrées; the crew are treated to a sheep in honour of the occasion; the new-comers are unpacking; and we are all gradually settling down into our respective places. Now, the new-comers consist of four persons: a painter, a happy couple, and a maid. The painter has already been up the Nile three times, and brings a fund of experience into the council. He knows all about sandbanks, and winds, and mooring-places; is acquainted with most of the native governors and consuls along the river; and is great on the subject of what to eat, drink, and avoid. The stern-cabin is given to him for a studio, and contains frames, canvases, drawing-paper, and easels enough to start a provincial school of art. He is going to paint a big picture at Aboo-Simbel. The happy couple, it is unnecessary to say, are on their wedding tour. In point of fact, they have not yet been married a month. The bridegroom is what the world chooses to call an idle man; that is to say, he has scholarship, delicate health, and leisure. The bride, for convenience, shall be called the little lady. Of people who are struggling through that helpless phase of human life called the honeymoon, it is not fair to say more than that they are both young enough to make the situation interesting.
Meanwhile the deck must be cleared of the new luggage that has come on board, and the day passes in a confusion of unpacking, arranging, and putting away. Such running to and fro as there is down below; such turning-out of boxes and knocking-up of temporary shelves; such talking, and laughing, and hammering! Nor is the bustle confined to downstairs. Talhamy and the waiters are just as busy above, adorning the upper deck with palm-branches and hanging the boat all round with rows of coloured lanterns. Once can hardly believe, however, that it is Christmas Day – that there are fires blazing at home in every room; that the church-field, perhaps, is white with snow; and that the familiar bells are ringing merrily across the frosty air. Here at midday it is already too hot on deck without the awning, and when we moor towards sunset near a river-side village in a grove of palms, the cooler air of evening is delicious.
There is novelty in even such a commonplace matter as dining out, on the Nile. You go and return in your felucca, as if it were a carriage; and your entertainers summon you by firing a dinner-gun, instead of sounding a gong. Wise people who respect the feelings of their cooks fire a dressing-gun as well; for watches soon differ in a hopeless way for want of the church-clock to set them by, and it is always possible that host and guest may be an hour or two apart in their reckoning.
The customary guns having therefore been fired, and the party assembled, we sat down to one of cook Bedawee’s prodigious banquets. Not, however, till the plum-pudding, blazing demoniacally, appeared upon the scene, did any of us succeed in believing that it was really Christmas Day.
Nothing could be prettier or gayer than the spectacle that awaited us when we rose from table. A hundred and fifty coloured lanterns outlined the boat from end to end, sparkled up the masts, and cast broken reflections in the moving current. The upper-deck, hung with flags and partly closed in with awnings, looked like a bower of palms. The stars and the crescent moon shone overhead. Dim outlines of trees and headlands, and a vague perspective of gleaming river, were visible in the distance; while a light gleamed now and then in the direction of the village, or a dusky figure flitted along the bank.
Meanwhile, there was a sound of revelry by night; for our sailors had invited the Bagstones’ crew to unlimited coffee and tobacco, and had quite a large party on the lower deck. They drummed, they sang, they danced, they dressed up, improvised a comic scene, and kept their audience in a roar. Reïs Hassan did the honours. George, Talhamy, and the maids sat apart at the second table and sipped their coffee genteelly. We looked on and applauded. At ten o’clock a pan of magnesium powder was burned, and our Fantasia ended with a blaze of light, like a pantomime.
In Egypt, by the way, any entertainment which is enlivened by music, dancing, or fireworks is called a Fantasia.
And now, sometimes sailing, sometimes tracking, sometimes punting, we go on day by day, making what speed we can. Things do not, of course, always fall out exactly as one would have them. The wind too often fails when we most need it, and gets up when there is something to be seen on shore. Thus, after a whole morning of tracking, we reach Beni Hassan at the moment when a good breeze has suddenly filled our sails for the first time in forty-eight hours; and so, yielding to counsels which we afterwards deplored, we pass on with many a longing look at the terraced doorways pierced along the cliffs. At Rhoda, in the same way, we touch for only a few minutes to post and inquire for letters, and put off till our return the inland excursion to Dayr el Nakhl, where is to be seen the famous painting of the Colossus on the Sledge. But sights deferred are fated sometimes to remain unseen, as we found by and by to our exceeding loss and regret.
Meanwhile, the skies are always cloudless, the days warm, the evenings exquisite. We of course live very much in the open air. When there is no wind, we land and take long walks by the river-side. When on board, we sketch, write letters, read Champollion, Bunsen, and Sir Gardner Wilkinson; and work hard at Egyptian dynasties. The sparrows and water-wagtails perch familiarly on the awnings and hop about the deck; the cocks and hens chatter, the geese cackle, the turkeys gobble in their coops close by; and our sacrificial sheep, leading a solitary life in the felucca, comes baaing in the rear. Sometimes we have as many as a hundred chickens on board (to say nothing of pigeons and rabbits) and two or even three sheep in the felucca. The poultry yard is railed off, however, at the extreme end of the stern, so that the creatures are well away from the drawing-room; and when we moor at a suitable place, they are let out for a few hours to peck about the banks and enjoy their liberty. L.----- and the little lady feed these hapless prisoners with breakfast-scraps every morning, to the profound amusement of the steersman, who, unable to conceive any other motive, imagines they are fatting them for table.
Such is our Noah’s Ark life, pleasant, peaceful, and patriarchal. Even on days when there is little to see and nothing to do, it is never dull. Trifling incidents which have for us the excitement of novelty are continually occurring. Other dahabeeyahs, their flags and occupants, are a constant source of interest. Meeting at mooring-places for the night, we now and then exchange visits. Passing each other by day, we dip ensigns, fire salutes, and punctiliously observe the laws of maritime etiquette. Sometimes a Cook’s Excursion-steamer hurries by, crowded with tourists; or a government tug towing three or four great barges closely packed with wretched-looking, half-naked fellâheen bound for forced labor on some new railway or canal. Occasionally we pass a dahabeeyah sticking fast upon a sandback; and sometimes we stick on one ourselves. Then the men fly to their punting poles, or jump into the river like water-dogs, and, grunting in melancholy cadence, shove the boat off with their shoulders.
The birds, too, are new, and we are always looking out for them. Perhaps we see a top-heavy pelican balancing his huge yellow bill over the edge of the stream, and fishing for his dinner – or a flight of wild geese trailing across the sky towards sunset – or a select society of vultures perched all in a row upon a ledge of rock, and solemn as the bench of bishops. Then there are the herons who stand on one leg and doze in the sun; the strutting hoopoes with their legendary top-knots; the blue and green bee-eaters hovering over the uncut dura. The pied kingfisher, black and white like a magpie, sits fearlessly under the bank and never stirs, though the tow-rope swings close above his head and the dahabeeyah glides within a few feet of the shore. The paddy-birds whiten the sandbanks by hundreds, and rise in a cloud at our approach. The sacred hawk, circling overhead, utters the same sweet, piercing, melancholy note that the Pharaohs listened to of old.
The scenery is for the most part of the ordinary Nile pattern; and for many a mile we see the same things over and over again:– the level bank shelving down steeply to the river; the strip of cultivated soil, green with maize or tawny with dura; the frequent mud-village and palm-grove; the deserted sugar-factory with its ungainly chimney and shattered windows; the water-wheel slowly revolving with its necklace of pots; the shâdûf worked by two brown athletes; the file of laden camels; the desert, all sand-hills and sand-plains, with its background of mountains; the long reach, and the gleaming sail ahead. Sometimes, however, as at Kom Ahmar, we skirt the ancient brick mounds of some forgotten city, with fragments of arched foundations, and even of walls and doorways, reaching down to the water’s edge; or, sailing close under ranges of huge perpendicular cliffs, as at Gebel Abufayda, startle the cormorants from their haunts, and peer as we pass into the dim recesses of many a rock-cut tomb excavated just above the level of the inundation.
This Gebel Abufayda has a bad name for sudden winds; especially at the beginning and end of the range, where the Nile bends abruptly and the valley opens out at right angles to the river. It is fine to see Reïs Hassan, as we approach one of the worst of these bad bits – a point where two steep ravines divided by a bold headland command the passage like a pair of grim cannon, and rake it with blasts from the North-Eastern desert. Here the current, flowing deep and strong, is met by the wind and runs high in crested waves. Our little captain, kicking off his shoes, himself springs up the rigging and there stands silent and watchful. The sailors, ready to shift our mainsail at the word of command, cling some to the shoghool1 and some to the end of the yard; the boat tears on before the wind; the great bluff looms up darker and nearer. Then comes a breathless moment. Then a sharp, sudden word from the little man in the main rigging; a yell and a whoop from the sailors; a slow, heavy lurch of the flapping sail; and the corner is turned in safety.
The cliffs here are very fine; much loftier and less uniform than at Gebel et Tayr; rent into strange forms, as of sphinxes, cheesewrings, towers, and bastions; honeycombed with long ranges of rock-cut tombs; and undermined by water-washed caverns in which lurk a few lingering crocodiles. If at Gebel et Tayr the rock is worn into semblances of Arabesque ornamentation, here it looks as if inscribed all over with mysterious records in characters not unlike the Hebrew. Records they are, too, of prehistoric days – chronicles of his own deeds carved by the great god Nile himself, the Hapimu of ancient time – but the language in which they are written has never been spoken by man.
As for the rock-cut tombs of Gebel Abufayda, they must number many hundreds. For nearly twelve miles, the range runs parallel to the river, and throughout that distance the face of the cliffs is pierced with innumerable doorways. Some are small and square, twenty or thirty together, like rows of portholes. Others are isolated. Some are cut so high up that they must have been approached from above; others again come close upon the level of the river. Some of the doorways are faced to represent jambs and architraves; some, excavated laterally, appear to consist of a series of chambers, and are lit from without by small windows cut in the rock. One is approached by a flight of rough steps leading up from the water’s edge; and another, hewn high in the face of the cliff, just within the mouth of a little ravine, shows a simple but imposing façade supported by four detached pillars. No modern travellers seem to visit these tombs; while those of the old school, as Wilkinson, Champollion, etc., dismiss them with a few observations. Yet, with the single exception of the mountains behind Thebes, there is not, I believe, any one spot in Egypt which contains such a multitude of sepulchral excavations. Many look, indeed, as if they might belong to the same interesting and early epoch as those of Beni Hassan.
I may here mention that about half-way, or rather less than half-way, along the whole length of the range, I observed two large hieroglyphed stelæ incised upon the face of a projecting mass of boldly rounded cliff at a height of perhaps a hundred and fifty feet above the river. These stelæ, apparently royal ovals, and sculptured as usual side by side, may have measured from twelve to fifteen feet in height; but in the absence of any near object by which to scale them, I could form but a rough guess as to their actual dimensions. The boat was just then going so fast, that to sketch or take notes of the hieroglyphs was impossible. Before I could adjust my glass they were already in the rear; and by the time I had called the rest of the party together, they were no longer distinguishable.
Coming back several months later, I looked for them again, but without success; for the intense midday sun was then pouring full upon the rocks, to the absolute obliteration of everything like shallow detail. While watching vainly, however, for the stelæ, I was compensated by the unexpected sight of a colossal bas-relief high up on the northward face of a cliff standing, so to say, at the corner of one of those little recesses or culs-de-sac which here and there break the uniformity of the range. The sculptural relief of this large subject was apparently very low; but, owing to the angle at which it met the light, one figure, which could not have measured less than eighteen or twenty feet in height, was distinctly visible. I immediately drew L.-----’s attention to the spot; and she not only discerned the figure without the help of a glass, but believed like myself that she could see traces of a second.
As neither the stelæ nor the bas-relief would seem to have been observed by previous travellers, I may add for the guidance of others that the round and tower-like rock upon which the former are sculptured lies about a mile to the southward of the sheik’s tomb and palm-tree (a strikingly picturesque bit which no one can fail to notice), and a little beyond some very large excavations near the water’s edge; while the bas-relief is to be found at a short distance below the Coptic convent and cemetery.
Having for nearly twelve miles skirted the base of Gebel Abufayda – by far the finest panoramic stretch of rock scenery on this side of the second cataract – the Nile takes an abrupt bend to the eastward, and thence flows through many miles of cultivated flat. On coming to this sudden elbow, the wind which had hitherto been carrying us along at a pace but little inferior to that of a steamer, now struck us full on the beam, and drove the boat to shore with such violence that all the steersman could do was just to run the Philæ’s nose into the bank, and steer clear of some ten or twelve native cangias that had been driven in before us. The Bagstones rushed in next; and presently a large iron-built dahabeeyah, having come gallantly along under the cliffs with all sail set, was seen to make a vain struggle at the fatal corner, and then plunge headlong at the bank, like King Agib’s ship upon the Loadstone Mountain.
Imprisoned here all the afternoon, we exchanged visits of condolence with our neighbours in misfortune; had our ears nearly cut to pieces by the driving sand; and failed signally in the endeavour to take a walk on shore. Still the fury of the storm went on increasing. The wind howled; the river raced in turbid waves; the sand drove in clouds; and the face of the sky was darkened as if by a London fog. Meanwhile, one boat after another was hurried to shore, and before night-fall we numbered a fleet of some twenty odd craft, native and foreign.
It took the united strength of both crews all next day to warp the Philæ and Bagstones across the river by means of a rope and an anchor; an expedient that deserves special mention, not for its amazing novelty or ingenuity, but because our men declared it to be inpracticable. Their fathers, they said, had never done it. Their fathers’ fathers had never done it. Therefore, it was impossible. Being impossible, why should they attempt it?
They did attempt it, however, and, much to their astonishment, they succeeded.
It was, I think, towards the afternoon of this second day, when strolling by the margin of the river, that we first made the acquaintance of that renowned insect, the Egyptian beetle. He was a very fine specimen of his race, nearly half an inch long in the back, as black and shiny as a scarab cut in jet, and busily engaged in the preparation of a large rissole of mud, which he presently began laboriously propelling up the bank. We stood and watched him for some time, half in admiration, half in pity. His rissole was at least four times bigger than himself, and to roll it up that steep incline to a point beyond the level of next summer’s inundation was a labour of Hercules for so small a creature. One longed to play the part of the Deus ex machina, and carry it up the bank for him; but that would have been a dénouement beyond his power of appreciation.
We all know the old story of how this beetle lays its eggs by the river’s brink; encloses them in a ball of moist clay; rolls the ball to a safe place on the edge of the desert; buries it in the sand; and when his time comes, dies content, having provided for the safety of his successors. Hence his mythic fame; hence all the quaint symbolism that by degrees attached itself to his little person, and ended by investing him with a special sacredness which has often been mistaken for actual worship. Standing by thus, watching the movements of the creature, its untiring energy, its extraordinary muscular strength, its business-like devotion to the matter in hand, one sees how subtle a lesson the old Egyptian moralists had presented to them for contemplation, and with how fine a combination of wisdom and poetry they regarded this little black scarab not only as an emblem of the creative and preserving power, but perhaps also of the immortality of the soul. As a type, no insect has ever had so much greatness thrust upon him. He became a hieroglyph, and stood for a word signifying both to be and to transform. His portrait was multiplied a million-fold; sculptured over the portals of temples; fitted to the shoulders of a god; engraved on gems; moulded in pottery; painted on sarcophagi and the walls of tombs; worn by the living and buried with the dead.
Every traveller on the Nile brings away a handful of the smaller scarabs, genuine or otherwise. Some may not particularly care to possess them; yet none can help buying them, if only because other people do so, or to get rid of a troublesome dealer, or to give to friends at home. I doubt, however, if even the most enthusiastic scarab-fanciers really feel in all its force the symbolism attaching to these little gems, or appreciate the exquisite naturalness of their execution, till they have seen the living beetle at its work.
In Nubia, where the strip of cultivable land is generally but a few feet in breadth, the scarab’s task is comparatively light, and the breed multiplies freely. But in Egypt he has often a wide plain to traverse with his burden, and is therefore scarce in proportion to the difficulty with which he maintains the struggle for existence. The scarab race in Egypt would seem indeed to have diminished very considerably since the days of the Pharaohs, and the time is not perhaps far distant when the naturalist will look in vain for specimens on this side of the first cataract. As far as my own experience goes, I can only say that I saw scores of these beetles during the Nubian part of the journey; but that to the best of my recollection this was the only occasion upon which I observed one in Egypt.
The Nile makes four or five more great bends between Gebel Abufayda and Siût; passing Manfalût by the way, which town lies some distance back from the shore. All things taken into consideration – the fitful wind that came and went continually; the tremendous zigzags of the river; the dead calm which befell us when only eight miles from Siût; and the long day of tracking that followed, with the town in sight the whole way – we thought ourselves fortunate to get in by the evening of the third day after the storm. These last eight miles are, however, for open, placid beauty, as lovely in their way as anything north of Thebes. The valley is here very wide and fertile; the town, with its multitudinous minarets, appears first on one side and then on the other, according to the windings of the river; the distant pinky mountains look almost as transparent as the air or the sunshine; while the banks unfold an endless succession of charming little subjects, every one of which looks as if it asked to be sketched as we pass. A shâdûf and a clump of palms – a triad of shaggy black buffaloes, up to their shoulders in the river, and dozing as they stand – a wide-spreading sycamore fig, in the shade of which lie a man and camel asleep – a fallen palm uprooted by the last inundation, with its fibrous roots yet clinging to the bank and its crest in the water – a group of sheiks’ tombs with glistening white cupolas relieved against a background of dark foliage – an old disused water-wheel lying up sidewise against the bank like a huge teetotum, and garlanded with wild tendrils of a gourd – such are a few out of many bits by the way, which, if they offer nothing very new, at all events present the old material under fresh aspects, and in combination with a distance of such ethereal light and shade, and such opalescent tenderness of tone, that it looks more like an air-drawn mirage than a piece of the world we live in.
Like a mirage, too, that fairy town of Siût seemed always to hover at the same unattainable distance, and after hours of tracking to be no nearer than at first. Sometimes, indeed, following the long reaches of the river, we appeared to be leaving it behind; and although, as I have said, we had eight miles of hard work to get to it, I doubt whether it was ever more than three miles distant as the bird flies. It was late in the afternoon, however, when we turned the last corner; and the sun was already setting when the boat reached the village of Hamra, which is the mooring-place for Siût – Siût itself, with clustered cupolas and arrowy minarets, lying back in the plain, at the foot of a great mountain pierced with tombs.
Now, it was in the bond that our crew were to be allowed twenty-four hours for making and baking bread at Siût, Esneh, and Assuân. No sooner, therefore, was the dahabeeyah moored than Reïs Hassan and the steersman started away at full speed on two little donkeys, to buy flour; while Mehemet Ali, one of our most active and intelligent sailors, rushed off to hire the oven. For here, as at Esneh and Assuân, there are large flour-stores and public bakehouses for the use of sailors on the river, who make and bake their bread in large lots; cut it into slices; dry it in the sun; and preserve it in the form of rusks for months together. Thus prepared, it takes the place of ship-biscuit; and it is so far superior to ship-biscuit that it neither moulds nor breeds the maggot, but remains good and wholesome to the last crumb.
Siût, frequently written Asyoot, is the capital of Middle Egypt, and has the best bazaars of any town up the Nile. Its red and black pottery is famous throughout the country; and its pipe-bowls (supposed to be the best in the East), being largely exported to Cairo, find their way not only to all parts of the Levant, but to every Algerine and Japanese shop in London and Paris. No lover of peasant pottery will yet have forgotten the Egyptian stalls in the Ceramic Gallery of the International Exhibition of 1871. All those quaint red vases and lustrous black tazzas, all those exquisite little coffee services, those crocodile paper-weights, those barrel-shaped and bird-shaped bottles, came from Siût. There is a whole street of such pottery here in the town. Your dahabeeyah is scarcely made fast before a dealer comes on board and ranges his brittle wares along the deck. Others display their goods upon the bank. But the best things are only to be had in the bazaars; and not even in Cairo is it possible to find Siût ware so choice in color, form, and design as that which the two or three best dealers bring out, wrapped in soft paper, when a European customer appears in the market.
Besides the street of pottery, there is a street of red shoes; another of native and foreign stuffs; and the usual run of saddlers’ shops, kebab-stalls, and Greek stores for the sale of everything in heaven or earth from third-rate cognac to patent wax vestas. The houses are of plastered mud or sun-dried bricks, as at Minieh. The thoroughfares are dusty, narrow, unpaved and crowded, as at Minieh. The people are one-eyed, dirty, and unfragrant, as at Minieh. The children’s eyes are full of flies and their heads are covered with sores, as at Minieh. In short, it is Minieh over again on a larger scale; differing only in respect of its inhabitants, who, instead of being sullen, thievish, and unfriendly, are too familiar to be pleasant, and the most unappeasable beggars out of Ireland. So our mirage turns to sordid reality, and Siût, which from afar off looked like the capital of Dreamland, resolves itself into a big mud town as ugly and ordinary as its fellows. Even the minarets, so elegant from a distance, betray for the most part but rough masonry and clumsy ornamentation when closely looked into.
A lofty embanked road planted with fine sycamore-figs leads from Hamra to Siût; and another embanked road leads from Siût to the mountain of tombs. Of the ancient Egyptian city no vestige remains, the modern town being built upon the mounds of the earlier settlement; but the City of the Dead – so much of it, at least, as was excavated in the living rock – survives, as at Memphis, to commemorate the departed splendor of the place.
We took donkeys next day to the edge of the desert, and went up to the sepulchres on foot. The mountain, which looked a delicate salmon pink when seen from afar, now showed bleached and arid and streaked with ochreous yellow. Layer above layer, in beds of strongly marked stratification, it towered overhead; tier above tier, the tombs yawned, open-mouthed, along the face of the precipice. I picked up a fragment of the rock, and found it light, porous, and full of little cells, like pumice. The slopes were strewn with such stones, as well as with fragments of mummy, shreds of mummy-cloth, and human bones all whitening and withering in the sun.
The first tomb we came to was the so-called Stabl Antar – a magnificent but cruelly mutilated excavation, consisting of a grand entrance, a vaulted corridor, a great hall, two side-chambers, and a sanctuary. The ceiling of the corridor, now smoke-blackened and defaced, has been richly decorated with intricate patterns in light green, white, and buff, upon a ground of dark bluish-green stucco. The wall to the right on entering is covered with a long hieroglyphic inscription. In the sanctuary, vague traces of seated figures, male and female, with lotus blossoms in their hands, are dimly visible. Two colossal warriors incised in outline upon the levelled rock – the one very perfect, the other hacked almost out of recognition – stand on each side of the huge portal. A circular hole in the threshold marks the spot where the great door once worked upon its pivot; and a deep pit, now partially filled in with rubbish, leads from the centre of the hall to some long-rifled vault deep down in the heart of the mountain. Wilful destruction has been at work on every side. The wall-sculptures are chipped and defaced – the massive pillars that once supported the superincumbent rock have been quarried away – the interior is heaped high with débris. Enough is left, however, to attest the antique stateliness of the tomb; and the hieroglyphic inscription remains almost intact to tell its age and history.
This inscription (erroneously entered in Murray’s Guide as uncopied, but interpreted by Brugsch, who published extracts from it as far back as 1862) shows the excavation to have been made for one Hepoukefa, or Haptefa, nomarch of the Lycopolite Nome, and chief priest of the jackal god of Siût.2 It is also famous among scientific students for certain passages which contain important information regarding the intercalary days of the Egyptian kalendar.3 We observed that the full-length figures on the jambs of the doorway appeared to have been incised, filled in with stucco, and then coloured. The stucco had for the most part fallen out, though enough remained to show the style of the work.4
From this tomb to the next we crept by way of a passage, tunnelled in the mountain, and emerged into a spacious, quadrangular grotto, even more dilapidated than the first. It had been originally supported by square pillars left standing in the substance of the rock; but, like the pillars in the tomb of Hepoukefa, they had been hewn away in the middle and looked like stalactite columns in process of formation. For the rest, two half-filled pits, a broken sarcophagus, and a few painted hieroglyphs upon a space of stuccoed wall, were all that remained.
One would have liked to see the sepulchre in which Ampère, the brilliant and eager disciple of Champollion, deciphered the ancient name of Siût; but since he does not specify the cartouche by which it could be identified, one might wander about the mountain for a week without being able to find it. Having first described the Stabl Antar, he says:– “In another grotto I found twice over the name of the city written in hieroglyphic characters, Çi-ou-t. This name forms part of an inscription which also contains an ancient royal cartouche; so proving that the present name of the city dates back to Pharaonic times.”5
Here, then, we trace a double process of preservation. This town, which in the ancient Egyptian was written Ssout, became Lycopolis under the Greeks; continued to be called Lycopolis throughout the period of Roman rule in Egypt; reverted to its old historic name under the Copts of the middle ages, who wrote it Siôout; and survives in the Asyoot of the Arab fellâh. Nor is this by any means a solitary instance. Khemmis in the same way became Panopolis, reverted to the Coptic Chmin, and to this day as Ekhmîm perpetuates the legend of its first foundation. As with these fragments of the old tongue, so with the race. Subdued again and again by invading hordes; intermixed for centuries together with Phœnician, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Arab blood, it fuses these heterogeneous elements in one common mould, reverts persistently to the early type, and remains Egyptian to the last. So strange is the tyranny of natural forces. The sun and soil of Egypt demand one special breed of men, and will tolerate no other. Foreign residents cannot rear children in the country. In the isthmus of Suez, which is considered the healthiest part of Egypt, an alien population of twenty thousand persons failed in the course of ten years to rear one infant born upon the soil. Children of an alien father and an Egyptian mother will die off in the same way in early infancy, unless brought up in simple native fashion. And it is affirmed of the descendants of mixed marriages, that after the third generation the foreign blood seems to be eliminated, while the traits of the race are restored in their original purity.
These are but a few instances of the startling conservatism of Egypt, – a conservatism which interested me particularly, and to which I shall frequently have occasion to return.
Each Nome, or province, of ancient Egypt had its sacred animal; and Siût was called Lycopolis by the Greeks6 because the wolf (now almost extinct in the land) was there held in the same kind of reverence as the cat at Bubastis, the crocodile at Ombos, and the lion at Leontopolis. Mummy-wolves are, or used to be, found in the smaller tombs about the mountain, as well as mummy jackals; Anubis, the jackal-headed god, being the presiding deity of the district. A mummied jackal from this place, curiously wrapped in striped bandages, is to be seen in the First Egyptian Room at the British Museum.
But the view from the mountain above Siût is finer than its tombs and more ancient than its mummies. Seen from within the great doorway of the second grotto, it looks like a framed picture. For the foreground, we have a dazzling slope of limestone débris; in the middle distance, a wide plain clothed with the delicious tender green of very young corn; farther away yet, the cupolas and minarets of Siût rising from the midst of a belt of palm-groves; beyond these again, the molten gold of the great river glittering away, coil after coil, into the far distance; and all along the horizon, the everlasting boundary of the desert. Large pools of placid water left by the last inundation lie here and there, like lakes amid the green. A group of brown men are wading yonder with their nets. A funeral comes along the embanked road – the bier carried at a rapid pace on men’s shoulders, and covered with a red shawl; the women taking up handfuls of dust and scattering it upon their heads as they walk. We can see the dust flying, and hear their shrill wail borne upon the breathless air. The cemetery towards which they are going lies round to the left, at the foot of the mountain – a wilderness of little white cupolas, with here and there a tree. Broad spaces of shade sleep under the spreading sycamores by the road-side; a hawk circles overhead; and Siût, bathed in the splendour of the morning sun, looks as fairy-like as ever.
Lepsius is reported to have said that the view from this hill-side was the finest in Egypt. But Egypt is a long country, and questions of precedence are delicate matters to deal with. It is, however, a very beautiful view; though most travellers who know the scenery about Thebes and the approach to Assûan would hesitate, I should fancy, to give the preference to a landscape from which the nearer mountains are excluded by the position of the spectator.
The tombs here, as in many other parts of Egypt, are said to have been largely appropriated by early Christian anchorites during the reigns of the later Roman emperors; and to these recluses may perhaps be ascribed the legend that makes Lycopolis the abode of Joseph and Mary during the years of their sojourn in Egypt. It is, of course, but a legend, and wholly improbable. If the holy family ever journeyed into Egypt at all, which certain Biblical critics now hold to be doubtful, they probably rested from their wanderings at some town not very far from the eastern border – as Tanis, or Pithom, or Bubastis. Siût would, at all events, lie at least 250 miles to the southward of any point to which they might reasonably be supposed to have penetrated.
Still, one would like to believe a story that laid the scene of our Lord’s childhood in the midst of this beautiful and glowing Egyptian pastoral. With what profound and touching interest it would invest the place! With what different eyes we should look down upon a landscape which must have been dear and familiar to Him in all its details, and which, from the nature of the ground, must have remained almost unchanged from His day to ours! The mountain with its tombs, the green corn-flats, the Nile and the desert, looked then as they look now. It is only the Moslem minarets that are new. It is only the pylons and sanctuaries of the ancient worship that have passed away.____________________________
1 Arabic – shoghool: a rope by which the mainsail is regulated.
2 The known inscriptions in the tomb of Haptefa have recently been recopied, and another long inscription, not previously transcribed, has been copied and translated, by Mr. F. Llewellyn Griffith, acting for the Egypt Exploration Fund. Mr. Griffith has for the first time fixed the date of this famous tomb, which was made during the reign of Usertesen I, of the twelfth dynasty. [Note to second edition.]
3 See "Recueil des Monuments Egyptiens", Brugsch. Part I. Planche xi. Published 1862.
4 Some famous tombs of very early date, enriched with the same kind of inlaid decoration, are to be seen at Meydûm, near the base of the Meydûm pyramid.
5 "Voyage en Egypte et en Nubie," by J. J. Ampère. The cartouche may perhaps be that of Rakameri, mentioned by Brugsch: "Histoire d’Egypte," chap. vi., first edition.
6 The Greeks translated the sacred names of Egyptian places; the Copts adopted the civil names.