Here to return to
THE CATARACT AND THE DESERT.
AT Assûan, one bids good-bye to Egypt and enters Nubia through the gates of the cataract – which is, in truth, no cataract, but a succession of rapids extending over two-thirds of the distance between Elephantine and Philæ. The Nile – diverted from its original course by some unrecorded catastrophe, the nature of which has given rise to much scientific conjecture – here spreads itself over a rocky basin bounded by sand-slopes on the one side, and by granite cliffs on the other. Studded with numberless islets, divided into numberless channels, foaming over sunken rocks, eddying among water-worn boulders, now shallow, now deep, now loitering, now hurrying, here sleeping in the ribbed hollow of a tiny sand-drift, there circling above the vortex of a hidden whirlpool, the river, whether looked upon from the deck of the dahabeeyah or the heights along the shore, is seen everywhere to be fighting its way through a labyrinth, the paths of which have never been mapped or sounded.
These paths are everywhere difficult and everywhere dangerous; and to that labyrinth the Shellalee, or cataract-Arab, alone possesses the key. At the time of the inundation, when all but the highest rocks are under water, and navigation is as easy here as elsewhere, the Shelladee’s occupation is gone. But as the floods subside and travellers begin to reappear, his work commences. To haul dahabeeyahs up those treacherous rapids by sheer stress of rope and muscle; to steer skilfully down again through channels bristling with rocks and boiling with foam, becomes now, for some five months of the year, his principal industry. It is hard work; but he gets well paid for it, and his profits are always on the increase. From forty to fifty dahabeeyahs are annually taken up between November and March; and every year brings a larger influx of travellers. Meanwhile, accidents rarely happen; prices tend continually upwards; and the cataract-Arabs make a little fortune by their singular monopoly.1
The scenery of the first cataract is like nothing else in the world – except the scenery of the second. It is altogether new, and strange, and beautiful. It is incomprehensible that travellers should have written of it in general with so little admiration. They seem to have been impressed by the wildness of the waters, by the quaint forms of the rocks, by the desolation and grandeur of the landscape as a whole; but scarcely at all by its beauty – which is paramount.
The Nile here widens to a lake. Of the islands, which it would hardly be an exaggeration to describe as some hundreds in number, no two are alike. Some are piled up like the rocks at the Land’s End in Cornwall, block upon block, column upon column, tower upon tower, as if reared by the hand of man. Some are green with grass; some golden with slopes of drifted sand; some planted with rows of blossoming lupins, purple and white. Others again are mere cairns of loose blocks, with here and there a perilously balanced top-boulder. On one, a singular upright monolith, like a menhir, stands conspicuous, as if placed there to commemorate a date, or to point the way to Philæ. Another mass rises out of the water squared and buttressed, in the likeness of a fort. A third, humped and shining like the wet body of some amphibious beast, lifts what seems to be a horned head above the surface of the rapids. All these blocks and boulders and fantastic rocks are granite; some red, some purple, some black. Their forms are rounded by the friction of ages. Those nearest the brink reflect the sky like mirrors of burnished steel. Royal ovals and hieroglyphed inscriptions, fresh as of yesterday’s cutting, start out here and there from those glittering surfaces with startling distinctness. A few of the larger islands are crowned with clumps of palms; and one, the loveliest of any, is completely embowered in gum-trees and acacias, dôm and date palms, and feathery tamarisks, all festooned together under a hanging canopy of yellow-blossomed creepers.
On a brilliant Sunday morning, with a favourable wind, we entered on this fairy archipelago. Sailing steadily against the current, we glided away from Assûan, left Elephantine behind, and found ourselves at once in the midst of the islands. From this moment every turn of the tiller disclosed a fresh point of view, and we sat on deck, spectators of a moving panorama. The diversity of subjects was endless. The combinations of form and colour, of light and shadow, of foreground and distance, were continually changing. A boat or a few figures alone were wanting to complete the picturesqueness of the scene; but in all those channels, and among all those islands, we saw no sign of any living creature.
Meanwhile the sheik of the cataract – a flat-faced, fishy-eyed old Nubian, with his head tied up in a dingy yellow silk handkerchief – sat apart in solitary grandeur at the stern, smoking a long chibouque. Behind him squatted some five or six dusky strangers; and a new steersman, black as a negro, had charge of the helm. This new steersman was our pilot for Nubia. From Assûan to Wady Halfeh, and back again to Assûan, he alone was now held responsible for the safety of the dahabeeyah and all on board.
At length a general stir among the crew warned us of the near neighborhood of the first rapid. Straight ahead, as if ranged along the dyke of a weir, a chain of small islets barred the way; while the current, divided into three or four headlong torrents, came rushing down the slope, and reunited at the bottom in one tumultuous race.
That we should ever get the Philæ up that hill of moving water seemed at first sight impossible. Still our steersman held on his course, making for the widest channel. Still the Sheykh smoked imperturbably. Presently, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he delivered the one word – “Roóhh!” (Forward!)
Instantly, evoked by his nod, the rocks swarmed with natives. Hidden till now in all sorts of unseen corners, they sprang out shouting, gesticulating, laden with coils of rope, leaping into the thick of the rapids, splashing like water-dogs, bobbing like corks, and making as much show of energy as if they were going to haul us up Niagara. The thing was evidently a coup de théatre, like the apparition of Clan Alpine’s warriors in the Donna del Lago – with bakhshîsh in the background.
The scene that followed was curious enough. Two ropes were carried from the dahabeeyah to the nearest island, and there made fast to the rocks. Two ropes from the island were also brought on board the dahabeeyah. A double file of men on deck, and another double file on shore, then ranged themselves along the ropes; the Sheykh gave the signal; and, to a wild chanting accompaniment and a movement like a barbaric Sir Roger de Coverley dance, a system of double hauling began, by means of which the huge boat slowly and steadily ascended. We may have been a quarter of an hour going up the incline; though it seemed much longer. Meanwhile, as they warmed to their work, the men chanted louder and pulled harder, till the boat went in at last with a rush, and swung over into a pool of comparatively smooth water.
Having moored here for an hour’s rest, we next repeated the performance against a still stronger current a little higher up. This time, however, a rope broke. Down went the haulers, like a row of cards suddenly tipped over – round swung the Philæ, receiving the whole rush of the current on her beam! Luckily for us, the other rope held fast against the strain. Had it also broken, we must have been wrecked then and there ignominiously.
Our Nubian auxiliaries struck work after this. Fate, they said, was adverse; so they went home, leaving us moored for the night in the pool at the top of the first rapid. The Sheykh promised, however, that his people should begin work next morning at dawn, and get us through before sunset. Next morning came, however, and not a man appeared upon the scene. At about mid-day they began dropping in, a few at a time; hung about in a languid, lazy way for a couple of hours or so; moved us into a better position for attacking the next rapid; and then melted away mysteriously by twos and threes among the rocks, and were no more seen.
We now felt that our time and money were being recklessly squandered, and we resolved to bear it no longer. Our painter therefore undertook to remonstrate with the sheik, and to convince him of the error of his ways. The sheik listened; smoked; shook his head; replied that in the cataract, as elsewhere, there were lucky and unlucky days, days when men felt inclined to work, and days when they felt disinclined. To-day, as it happened, they felt disinclined. Being reminded that it was unreasonable to keep us three days going up five miles of river, and that there was a governor at Assûan to whom we should appeal to-morrow unless the work went on in earnest, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and muttered something about “destiny.”
Now the painter, being of a practical turn, had compiled for himself a little vocabulary of choice Arabic maledictions, which he carried in his note-book for reference when needed. Having no faith in its possible usefulness, we were amused by the industry with which he was constantly adding to this collection. We looked upon it, in fact, as a harmless pleasantry – just as we looked upon his pocket-revolver, which was never loaded; or his brand-new fowling-piece, which he was never known to fire.
But the sheik of the cataract had gone too far. The fatuity of that smile would have exasperated the meekest of men; and our painter was not the meekest of men. So he whipped out his pocket-book, ran his finger down the line, and delivered an appropriate quotation. His accent may not have been faultless; but there could be no mistake as to the energy of his style or the vigour of his language. The effect of both was instantaneous. The sheik sprang to his feet as if he had been shot – turned pale with rage under his black skin – vowed the Philæ might stay where she was till doomsday, for aught that he or his men would do to help her a foot farther – bounded into his own rickety sandal and rowed away, leaving us to our fate.
We stood aghast. It was all over with us. We should never see Abou Simbel now – never write our names on the Book of Aboosîr, nor slake our thirst at the waters of the second cataract. What was to be done? Must the sheik be defied, or propitiated? Should we appeal to the governor, or should we immolate the painter? The majority were for immolating the painter.
We went to bed that night, despairing; but lo! next morning at sunrise appeared the sheik of the cataract, all smiles, all activity, with no end of ropes and a force of two hundred men. We were his dearest friends now. The painter was his brother. He had called out the ban and arrière ban of the cataract in our service. There was nothing, in short, that he would not do to oblige us.
The dragoman vowed that he had never seen Nubians work as those Nubians worked that day. They fell to like giants, tugging away from morn till dewy eve, and never giving over till they brought us round the last corner, and up the last rapid. The sun had set, the afterglow had faded, the twilight was closing in, when our dahabeeyah slipped at last into level water, and the two hundred, with a parting shout, dispersed to their several villages.
We were never known to make light of the painter’s repertory of select abuse after this. If that note-book of his had been the drowned book of Prospero, or the magical papyrus of Thoth fished up anew from the bottom of the Nile, we could not have regarded it with a respect more nearly bordering upon awe.
Though there exists no boundary line to mark where Egypt ends and Nubia begins, the nationality of the races dwelling on either side of that invisible barrier is as sharply defined as though an ocean divided them. Among the Shellalee, or cataract villagers, one comes suddenly into the midst of a people that have apparently nothing in common with the population of Egypt. They belong to a lower ethnological type, and they speak a language derived from purely African sources. Contrasting with our Arab sailors the sulky-looking, half-naked, muscular savages who thronged about the Philæ during her passage up the cataract, one could not but perceive that they are to this day as distinct and inferior a people as when their Egyptian conquerors, massing together in one contemptuous epithet all nations south of the frontier, were wont to speak of them as “the vile race of Kush.” Time has done little to change them since those early days. Some Arabic words have crept into their vocabulary. Some modern luxuries – as tobacco, coffee, soap, and gunpowder – have come to be included in the brief catalogue of their daily wants. But in most other respects they are living to this day as they lived in the time of the Pharaohs; cultivating lentils and durra, brewing barley beer, plaiting mats and baskets of stained reeds, tracing rude patterns upon bowls of gourd-rind, flinging the javelin, hurling the boomerang, fashioning bucklers of crocodile-skin and bracelets of ivory, and supplying Egypt with henna. The dexterity with which, sitting as if in a wager boat, they balance themselves on a palm-log, and paddle to and fro about the river, is really surprising. This barbaric substitute for a boat is probably more ancient than the pyramids.
Having witnessed the passage of the first few rapids, we were glad to escape from the dahabeeyah, and spend our time sketching here and there on the borders of the desert, and among the villages and islands round about. In all Egypt and Nubia there is no scenery richer in picturesque bits than the scenery of the cataract. An artist might pass a winter there, and not exhaust the pictorial wealth of those five miles which divide Assûan from Philæ. Of tortuous creeks shut in by rocks fantastically piled – of sand-slopes golden to the water’s edge – of placid pools low-lying in the midst of lupin-fields and tracts of tender barley – of creaking sakkiehs, half hidden among palms and dropping water as they turn – of mud dwellings, here clustered together in hollows, there perched separately on heights among the rocks, and perpetuating to this day the form and slope of Egyptian pylons – of rude boats drawn up in sheltered coves, or going to pieces high and dry upon the sands – of water-washed boulders of crimson, and black, and purple granite, on which the wild fowl cluster at mid-day and the fisher spreads his nets to dry at sunset – of camels, and caravans, and camps on shore – of cargo-boats and cangias on the river – of wild figures of half-naked athletes – of dusky women decked with barbaric ornaments, unveiled, swift-gliding, trailing long robes of deepest gentian blue – of ancient crones, and little naked children like live bronzes – of these, and a hundred other subjects, in infinite variety and combination, there is literally no end. It is all so picturesque, indeed, so biblical, so poetical, that one is almost in danger of forgetting that the places are something more than beautiful backgrounds, and that the people are not merely appropriate figures placed there for the delight of sketchers, but are made of living flesh and blood, and moved by hopes, and fears, and sorrows, like our own.
Mahatta – green with sycamores and tufted palms; nestled in the hollow of a little bay; half-islanded in the rear by an arm of backwater, curved and glittering like the blade of a Turkish scimetar – is by far the most beautifully situated village on the Nile. It is the residence of the principal sheik, and, if one may say so, is the capital of the cataract. The houses lie some way back from the river. The bay is thronged with native boats of all sizes and colours. Men and camels, women and children, donkeys, dogs, merchandise, and temporary huts put together with poles and matting, crowd the sandy shore. It is Assûan over again; but on a larger scale. The shipping is tenfold more numerous. The traders’ camp is in itself a village. The beach is half a mile in length, and a quarter of a mile in the slope down to the river. Mahatta is, in fact, the twin port to Assûan. It lies, not precisely at the other extremity of the great valley between Assûan and Philæ, but at the nearest accessible point above the cataract. It is here that the Soudan traders disembark their goods for re-embarkation at Assûan. Such rickety, barbaric-looking craft as these Nubian cangias we had not yet seen on the river. They looked as old and obsolete as the Ark. Some had curious carved verandahs outside the cabin-entrance. Others were tilted up at the stern like Chinese junks. Most of them had been slavers in the palmy days of Defterdar Bey; plying then as now between Wady Halfeh and Mahatta; discharging their human cargoes at this point for re-shipment at Assûan; and rarely passing the cataract, even at the time of inundation. If their wicked old timbers could have spoken, they might have told us many a black and bloody tale.
Going up through the village and the palm-gardens, and turning off in a north-easterly direction towards the desert, one presently comes out about midway of that valley to which I have made allusion more than once already. No one, however unskilled in physical geography, could look from end to end of that huge furrow and not see that it was once a river-bed. We know not for how many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of years the Nile may have held on its course within those original bounds. Neither can we tell when it deserted them. It is, however, quite certain that the river flowed that way within historic times; this is to say, in the days of Amenemhat III (circa B.C. 2800). So much is held to be proven by certain inscriptions2 which record the maximum height of the inundation at Semneh during various years of that king’s reign. The Nile then rose in Ethiopia to a level some 27 feet in excess of the highest point to which it is ever known to attain at the present day. I am not aware what relation the height of this ancient bed bears to the levels recorded at Semneh, or to those now annually self-registered upon the furrowed banks of Philæ; but one sees at a glance, without aid of measurements or hydrographic science, that if the river were to come down again next summer in a mighty “bore,” the crest of which rose 27 feet above the highest ground now fertilised by the annual overflow, it would at once refill its long-deserted bed, and convert Assûan into an island.
Granted, then, that the Nile flowed through the desert in the time of Amenemhat III, there must at some later period have come a day when it suddenly ran dry. This catastrophe is supposed to have taken place about the time of the expulsion of the Hyksos (circa B.C. 1703), when a great disruption of the rocky barrier at Silsilis is thought to have taken place; so draining Nubia, which till now had played the part of a vast reservoir, and dispersing the pent-up floods over the plains of Southern Egypt. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the Nile was by this catastrophe turned aside in order to be precipitated in the direction of the cataract. One arm of the river must always have taken the present lower and deeper course; while the other must of necessity have run low – perhaps very nearly dry – as the inundation subsided every spring.
There remains no monumental record of this event; but the facts speak for themselves. The great channel is there. The old Nile-mud is there – buried for the most part in sand, but still visible on many a rocky shelf and plateau between Assûan and Philæ. There are even places where the surface of the mass is seen to be scooped out, as if by the sudden rush of the departing waters. Since that time, the tides of war and commerce have flowed in their place. Every conquering Thothmes and Rameses bound for the land of Kush, led his armies that way. Sabacon, at the head of his Ethiopian hordes, took that short cut to the throne of all the Pharaohs. The French under Desaix, pursuing the Memlooks after the battle of the Pyramids, swept down that pass to Philæ. Meanwhile the whole trade of the Soudan, however interrupted at times by the ebb and flow of war, has also set that way. We never crossed those five miles of desert without encountering a train or two of baggage-camels laden either with European goods for the far south, or with Oriental treasures for the North.
I shall not soon forget an Abyssinian caravan which we met one day just coming out from Mahatta. It consisted of seventy camels laden with elephant tusks. The tusks, which were about fourteen feet in length, were packed in half-dozens and sewn up in buffalo hides. Each camel was slung with two loads, one at either side of the hump. There must have been about eight hundred and forty tusks in all. Beside each shambling beast strode a bare-footed Nubian. Following these, on the back of a gigantic camel, came a hunting leopard in a wooden cage, and a wild cat in a basket. Last of all marched a coal-black Abyssinian nearly seven feet in height, magnificently shawled and turbaned, with a huge scimetar dangling by his side, and in his belt a pair of enormous inlaid seventeenth-century pistols, such as would have become the holsters of Prince Rupert. This elaborate warrior represented the guard of the caravan. The hunting leopard and the wild cat were for Prince Hassan, the third son of the Viceroy. The ivory was for exportation. Anything more picturesque than this procession, with the dust driving before it in clouds, and the children following it out of the village, it would be difficult to conceive. One longed for Gerôme to paint it on the spot.
The rocks on either side of the ancient river-bed are profusely hieroglyphed. These inscriptions, together with others found in the adjacent quarries, range over a period of between three and four thousand years, beginning with the early reigns of the Ancient Empire, and ending with the Ptolemies and Cæsars. Some are mere autographs. Others run to a considerable length. Many are headed with figures of gods and worshippers. These, however, are for the most part mere graffiti, ill drawn and carelessly sculptured. The records they illustrate are chiefly votive. The passer-by adores the gods of the cataract; implores their protection; registers his name, and states the object of his journey. The votaries are of various ranks, periods, and nationalities; but the formula in most instances is pretty much the same. Now it is a citizen of Thebes performing the pilgrimage to Philæ; or a general at the head of his troops returning from a foray to Ethiopia; or a tributary Prince doing homage to Rameses the Great, and associating his suzerain with the divinities of the place. Occasionally we come upon a royal cartouche and a pompous catalogue of titles, setting forth how the Pharaoh himself, the Golden Hawk, the Son of Ra, the Mighty, the Invincible, the godlike, passed that way.
It is curious to see how royalty, so many thousand years ago, set the fashion in names, just as it does to this day. Nine-tenths of the ancient travellers who left their signatures upon these rocks were called Rameses or Thothmes or Usertasen. Others, still more ambitious, took the names of gods. Ampèsre, who hunted diligently for inscriptions both here and among the islands, found the autographs of no end of merely mortal Amens and Hathors.3
Our three days’ detention in the cataract was followed by a fourth of glassy calm. There being no breath of air to fill our sails and no footing for the trackers, we could now get along only by dint of hard punting; so that it was past mid-day before the Philæ lay moored at last in the shadow of the holy island to which she owed her name.___________________
1 The increase of steamer traffic has considerably altered the conditions of Nile travelling since this was written, and fewer dahabeeyahs are consequently employed. By those who can afford it, and who really desire to get the utmost pleasure, instruction, and interest from the trip, the dahabeeyah will, however, always be preferred. [Note to second edition.]
2 “The most important discovery which we have made here, and which I shall only mention briefly, is a series of short rock-inscriptions, which mark the highest rises of the Nile during a series of years under the government of Amenemhat III and of his immediate successors. . . . They prove that the river, above four thousand years ago, rose more than twenty-four feet higher than now, and thereby must have produced totally different conditions in the inundation and in the whole surface of the ground, both above and below this spot.” – Lepsius’s Letters from Egypt, etc., Letter xxvi.
“The highest rise of the Nile in each year at Semneh was registered by a mark indicating the year of the king’s reign, cut in granite, either on one of the blocks forming the foundation of the fortress, or on the cliff, and particularly on the east or right bank, as best adapted for the purpose. Of these markings eighteen still remain, thirteen of them having been made in the reign of Mœris (Amenemhat III) and five in the time of his next two successors. . . . We have here presented to us the remarkable facts that the highest of the records now legible, viz. that of the thirtieth year of the reign of Amenemhat, according to exact measurements which I made, is 8.17 metres (26 feet 8 inches) higher than the highest level to which the Nile rises in years of the greatest floods; and, further, that the lowest mark, which is on the east bank and indicated the fifteenth year of the same king, is still 4.14 metres (13 feet 6 1/2 inches); and the single mark on the west bank indicating the ninth year, is 2.77 metres (9 feet) above the highest level.” – Lepsius’s Letter to Professor Ehrenberg. See Appendix to the above.
3 For copies and translations of a large number of the graffiti of Assûan, see Lepsius’s "Denkmäler;" also, for the most recent and the fullest collection of the rock-cut inscriptions of Assûan and its neighbourhood, including the hitherto uncopied insciptions of the Saba Rigaleh Valley, of Elephantine, of the rocks above Silsileh, etc. etc., see Mr. W. M. Flinders Petrie’s latest volume, entitled "A Season’s Work in Egypt, 1887," published by Field and Tuer, 1888. [Note to second edition.]