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A Thousand Miles Up The Nile
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OUR last weeks on the Nile went by like one long, lazy summer’s day. Events now were few. We had out-stayed all our fellow-travellers. Even the faithful Bagstones had long since vanished northwards; and the Philæ was the last dahabeeyah of the year. Of the great sights of the river, we had only Abydus and Beni Hassan left to see; while for minor excursions, daily walks, and explorations by the way, we had little energy left. For the thermometer was rising higher and the Nile was falling lower every day; and we should have been more than mortal, if we had not felt the languid influences of the glowing Egyptian Spring.

The natives call it spring; but to our northern fancy it is spring, summer, and autumn in one. Of the splendour of the skies, of the lavish bounty of the soil at this season, only those who have lingered late in the land can form any conception. There is a breadth of repose now about the landscape which it has never worn before. The winter green of the palms is fading fast. The harvests are ripening; the pigeons are pairing; the time of the singing of birds is come. There is just enough south wind most days to keep the boat straight, and the sails from flapping. The heat is great; yet it is a heat which, up to a certain point, one can enjoy. The men ply their oars by night; and sleep under their benches, or croon old songs and tell stories among themselves, by day. But for the thin canopy of smoke that hangs over the villages, one would fancy now that those clusters of mud-huts were all deserted. Not a human being is to be seen on the banks when the sun is high. The buffaloes stand up to their necks in the shallows. The donkeys huddle together wherever there is shade. The very dogs have given up barking, and lie asleep under the walls.

The whole face of the country, and even of the Nile, is wonderfully changed since we first passed this way. The land, then newly squared off like a gigantic chess-board and intersected by thousands of little channels, is now one sea of yellowing grain. The river is become a labyrinth of sand-banks, some large, some small; some just beginning to thrust their heads above water; others so long that they divide the river for a mile or more at a stretch. Reïs Hassan spends half his life at the prow, polling for shallows; and when we thread our way down one of these sandy straits, it is for all the world like a bit of the Suez Canal. The banks, too, are twice as steep as they were when we went up. The lentil patches, which then blossomed on the slopes next the water’s edge, now lie far back on the top of a steep brown ridge, at the foot of which stretches a moist flat planted wth water-melons. Each melon-plant is protected from the sun by a tiny gable-roof of palm-thatch.

Meanwhile, the river being low and the banks high, we unfortunates benefit scarcely at all by the faint breezes that now and then ruffle the barley. Day by day, the thermometer (which hangs in the coolest corner of the saloon) creeps up higher and higher, working its way by degrees to above 99°; but never succeeding in getting up quite to 100°. We, however, living in semi-darkness, with closed jalousies, and wet sails hung round the sides of the dahabeeyah, and wet towels hung up in our cabins, find 99° quite warm enough to be pleasant. The upper deck is of course well deluged several times a day; but even so, it is difficult to keep the timbers from starting. Meanwhile L.----- and the idle man devote their leisure to killing flies, keeping the towels wet, and sprinkling the floors.

Our progress all this time is of the slowest. The men cannot row by day; and at night the sandbanks so hedge us in with dangers, that the only possible way by which we can make a few miles between sunset and sunrise is by sheer hard punting. Now and then we come to a clear channel, and sometimes we get an hour or two of sweet south breeze; but these flashes of good luck are few and far between.

In such wise, and in such a temperature, we found ourselves becalmed one morning within six miles of Denderah. Not even L.----- could be induced to take a six-mile donkey-ride that day in the sun. The Writer, however, ordered out her sketching-tent and paid a last visit to the temple; which, seen among the ripening splendour of miles of barley, looked gloomier, and grander, and more solitary than ever.

Two or three days later, we came within reach of Abydus. Our proper course would have been to push on to Bellianeh, which is one of the recognised starting-points for Abydus. But an unlucky sandbank barred the way; so we moored instead at Samata, a village about two miles nearer to the southward. Here our dragoman requisitioned the inhabitants for donkeys. As it happened, the harvest had begun in the neighbourhood and all the beasts of burden were at work, so that it was near midday before we succeeded in getting together the three or four wretched little brutes with which we finally started. Not one of these steeds had ever before carried a rider. We had a frightful time with them. My donkey bolted about every five minutes. L.-----’s snarled like a camel and showed its teeth like a dog. The idle Man’s, bent on flattening its rider, lay down and rolled at short intervals. In this exciting fashion, we somehow or another accomplished the seven miles that separate Samata from Abydus.

Skirting some palm-groves and crossing the dry bed of a canal, we came out upon a vast plain, level as a lake, islanded here and there with villages, and presenting one undulating surface of bearded corn. This plain – the plain of ancient Thinis – runs parallel with the Nile, like the plain of Thebes, and is bounded to the westward by a range of flat-topped mountains. The distance between the river and the mountains, however, is here much greater than at Thebes, being full six miles; while to north and south the view ends only with the horizon.

Our way lies at first by a bridle-track through the thick of the barley; then falls into the Bellianeh road – a raised causeway embanked some twenty feet above the plain. Along this road, the country folk are coming and going. In the cleared spaces where the maize has been cut, little encampments of straw huts have sprung up. Yonder, steering their way by unseen paths, go strings of camels; their gawky necks and humped backs undulating above the surface of the corn, like galleys with fantastic prows upon a sea of rippling green. The pigeons fly in great clouds from village to village. The larks are singing and circling madly in the clear depths overhead. The bee-eaters flash like live emeralds across our path. The hoopoes strut by the wayside. At rather more than half-way across the plain, we come into the midst of the harvest. Here the brown reapers, barelegged and naked to the waist, are at work with their sickles, just as they are pictured in the tomb of Tih. The women and children follow, gleaning, at the heels of those who bind the sheaves. The sheik in his black robe and scarlet slippers rides to and fro upon his ass, like Boaz among his people. As the sheaves are bound up, the camels carry them homeward. A camel-load is fourteen sheaves; seven to each side of the hump. A little farther, and the oxen, yoked two and two, are ploughing up the stubble. In a day or two, the land will be sown with millet, indigo, or cotton, to be gathered in once more before the coming of the inundation.

Meanwhile, as the plain lengthens behind us and the distance grows less between ourselves and the mountains, we see a line of huge irregular mounds reaching for apparently a couple of miles or more along the foot of the cliffs. From afar off, the mounds look as if crowned by majestic ruins; but as we draw nearer, these outlines resolve themselves into the village of Arabát-el-Madfûneh, which stands upon part of the mounds of Abydus. And now we come to the end of the cultivated plain – that strange line of demarcation where the inundation stops and the desert begins. Of actual desert, however, there is here but a narrow strip, forming a first step, as it were, above the alluvial plain. Next comes the artificial platform, about a quarter of a mile in depth, on which stands the modern village; and next again, towering up sheer and steep, the great wall of limestone precipice. The village is extensive, and the houses, built in a rustic Arabesque, tell of a well-to-do population. Arched gateways ornamented with black, white, and red bricks, windows of turned lattice-work, and pigeon-towers in courses of pots and bricks, give a singular picturesqueness to the place; while the slope down to the desert is covered with shrubberies and palms. Below these hanging gardens, on the edge of the desert, lies the cut corn in piles of sheaves. Here the camels are lying down to be unladen. Yonder the oxen are already treading out the grain, or chopping the straw by means of a curious sledge-like machine set with revolving rows of circular knives.1 Meanwhile, fluttering from heap to heap, settling on the sheaves, feeding unmolested in the very midst of the threshing floors, strutting all over the margin of the desert, trailing their wings, ruffling their plumes, cooing, curtseying, kissing, courting, filling the air with sweet sounds and setting the whole lovely idyll to a pastoral symphony of their own composing, are thousands and tens of thousands of pigeons.2

Now our path turns aside and we thread our way among the houses, noticing here a sculptured block built into a mud wall – yonder, beside a dried up well, a broken alabaster sarcophagus – farther on, a granite column still erect, in the midst of a palm-garden. And now, the village being left behind, we find ourselves at the foot of a great hill of newly excavated rubbish, from the top of which we presently look down into a kind of crater, and see the great temple of Abydus at our feet.

It was now nearly three o’clock; so, having seen what we could in the time, and having before us a long ride through a strange country, we left again at six. I will not presume to describe the temples of Abydus – one of which is so ruined as to be almost unintelligible, and the other so singularly planned and so obscure in its general purport, as to be a standing puzzle to archæologists – after a short visit of three hours. Enough if I sketch briefly what I saw but cursorily.

Buried as it is, Abydus,3 even under its mounds, is a place of profound historical interest. At a time so remote that it precedes all written record of Egyptian story, there existed a little way to the northward of this site a city called Teni.4 We know not to what aboriginal community of prehistoric Egypt this city belonged; but here, presumedly, the men of Kem5 built their first temple, evolved their first notions of art, and groped their way to an alphabet which in its origin was probably a mere picture-writing, like the picture-writing of Mexico. Hence, too, came a man named Mena, whose cartouche from immemorial time has stood first in the long list of Egyptian Pharaohs. Of Mena,6 a shadowy figure hovering on the border-land of history and tradition, we know only that he was the first primitive chieftain who took the title of king of Upper and Lower Egypt, and that he went northward and founded Memphis. Not, however, till after some centuries was the seat of government removed to the new city. Teni – the supposed burial-place of Osiris – then lost its political importance; but continued to be for long ages the Holy City of Egypt.

In the meanwhile, Abydus had sprung up close to Teni. Abydus, however, though an important city, was never the capital of Egypt. The seat of power shifted strangely with different dynasties, being established now in the Delta, now at Thebes, now at Elephantine; but having once departed from the site which, by reason of its central position and the unbounded fertility of its neighbourhood, was above all others best fitted to play this great part in the history of the country, it never again returned to the point from which it had started. That point, however, was unquestionably the centre from which the great Egyptian people departed upon its wonderful career. Here was the nursery of its strength. Hence it derived its proud title to an unmixed autochthonous descent. For no greater proof of the native origin of the race can be adduced than the position which their first city occupies upon the map of Egypt. That any tribe of colonists should have made straight for the heart of the country and there have established themselves in the midst of barbarous and probably hostile aborigines, is evidently out of the question. It is, on the other hand, equally clear that if Egypt had been colonised from Asia or Ethiopia, the strangers would on the one hand have founded their earliest settlement in the neighbourhood of the Isthmus; or on the other, have halted first among the then well-watered plains of Nubia.7 But the Egyptians started from the fertile heart of their own mother country, and began by being great at home.

Abydus and Teni, planted on the same platform of desert, were probably united at one time by a straggling suburb inhabited by the embalmers and other tradesfolk concerned in the business of death and burial. A chain of mounds, excavated only where the temples were situated, now stands to us for the famous city of Abydus. An ancient crude-brick enclosure and an artificial tumulus mark the site of Teni. The temples and the tumulus, divided by the now exhausted necropolis, are about as distant from one another as Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum.

There must have been many older temples at Abydus than these which we now see, one of which was built by Seti I, and the other by Rameses II. Or possibly, as in so many instances, the more ancient buildings were pulled down and rebuilt. Be this as it may, the temple of Seti, as regards its sculptured decorations, is one of the most beautiful of Egyptian ruins; and as regards its plan, is one of the most singular. A row of square limestone piers, which must once have supported an architrave, are now all that remains of the façade. Immediately behind these comes a portico of twenty-four columns leading by seven entrances to a hall of thirty-six columns. This hall again opens into seven parallel sanctuaries, behind which lie another hall of columns and a number of small chambers. Adjoining this block, however, and leading from it by doorways at the southern end of the great hall, come several more halls and chambers connected by corridors, and conducting apparently to more chambers not yet excavated. All these piers, columns, halls, and passages, and all the seven sanctuaries,8 are most delicately sculptured and brilliantly coloured.

There is so far a family resemblance between temples of the same style and period, that after a little experience one can generally guess before crossing the threshold of a fresh building, what one is likely to see in the way of sculptures within. But almost every subject in the temple of Seti at Abydus is new and strange. All the gods of the Egyptian pantheon seem to have been worshipped here, and to have had each his separate shrine. The walls are covered with paintings of these shrines and their occupants; while before each the king is represented performing some act of adoration. A huge blue frog, a greyhound, a double-headed goose, a human-bodied creature with a Nilometer for its head,9 and many more than I can now remember, are thus depicted. The royal offerings, too, though incense and necklaces and pectoral ornaments abound, are for the most part of a kind that we have not seen before. In one place the king presents to Isis a column with four capitals, having on the top capital a globe and two asps surmounted by a pair of ostrich feathers.

The centre sanctuary of the seven appears to be dedicated to Khem, who seems to be here, as in the great temple of Seti at Karnak, the presiding divinity. In this principal sanctuary, which is resplendent with colour and in marvellous preservation, we especially observed a portrait of Rameses II10 in the act of opening the door of a shrine by means of a golden key formed like a human hand and arm. The lock seems to consist of a number of bolts of unequal length, each of which is pushed back in turn by means of the forefinger of the little hand. This, doubtless, gives a correct representation of the kind of locks in use at that time.

It was in a corridor opening out from the great hall in this temple that Mariette discovered that precious sculpture known as the  new tablet of Abydus. In this tableau, Seti I and Rameses II are seen, the one offering incense, the other reciting a hymn of praise, to the manes of seventy-six Pharaohs,11 beginning with Mena, and ending with Seti himself. To our great disappointment – though one cannot but acquiesce in the necessity for precaution – we found the entrance to this corridor closed and mounded up. A ragged old Arab who haunts the temple in the character of custode, told us that the tablet could now only be seen by special permission.

We seemed to have been here about half an hour when the guide came to warn us of approaching evening. We had yet the site and the great tumulus of Teni to see; the tumulus being distant about twenty minutes’ ride. The guide shook his head; but we insisted on going. The afternoon had darkened over; and for the first time in many months a gathering canopy of cloud shut out the glory of sunset. We, however, mounted our donkeys and rode northwards. With better beasts we might perhaps have gained our end; as it was, seeing that it grew darker every moment, we presently gave in, and instead of trying to push on farther, contented ourselves with climbing a high mound which commanded the view towards Teni.

The clouds by this time were fast closing round, and waves of shadows were creeping over the plain. To our left rose the near mountain-barrier, dusk and lowering; to our right stretched the misty corn-flats; at our feet, all hillocks and open graves, lay the desolate necropolis. Beyond the palms that fringed the edge of the desert – beyond a dark streak that marked the site of Teni – rose, purple in shadow against the twilight, a steep and solitary hill. This hill, called by the natives Kom-es-Sultan, or the Mound of the King, was the tumulus we so desired to see. Viewed from a distance and by so uncertain a light, it looked exactly like a volcanic cone of perhaps a couple of hundred feet in height. It is however wholly artificial, and consists of a mass of graves heaped one above another in historic strata; each layer, as it were, the record of an era; the whole, a kind of human coral reef built up from age to age with the ashes of generations.

For some years past, the Egyptian government had been gradually excavating this extraordinary mound. The lower it was opened, the more ancient were its contents. So steadily retrogressive, indeed, were the interments, that it seemed as if the spade of the digger might possibly strike tombs of the First Dynasty, and so restore to light relics of men who lived in the age of Mena. “According to Plutarch,” wrote Mariette,12 “wealthy Egyptians came from all parts of Egypt to be buried at Abydus, in order that their bones might rest near Osiris. Very probably the tombs of Kom-es-Sultan belong to those personages mentioned by Plutarch. Nor is this the only interest attaching to the mound of Kom-es-Sultan. The famous tomb of Osiris cannot be far distant; and certain indications lead us to think that it is excavated in precisely that foundation of rock which serves as the nucleus of this mound. Thus the persons buried in Kom-es-Sultan lay as near as possible to the divine tomb. The works now in progress at this point have therefore a twofold interest. They may yield tombs yet more and more ancient – tombs even of the First Dynasty; and some day or another they may discover to us the hitherto unknown and hidden entrance to the tomb of the god.”13

I bitterly regretted at the time that I could not at least ride to the foot of Kom-es-Sultan; but I think now that I prefer to remember it as I saw it from afar off, clothed with mystery, in the gloom of that dusky evening.

There was a heavy silence in the air, and a melancholy as of the burden of ages. The tumbled hillocks looked like a ghastly sea, and beyond the verge of the desert it was already night. Presently, from among the grave-pits, there crept towards us a slowly-moving cloud. As it drew nearer – soft, filmy, shifting, unreal – it proved to be the dust raised by an immense flock of sheep. On they came, a brown compact mass, their shepherd showing dimly now and then, through openings in the cloud. The last pale gleam from above caught them for a moment ere they melted, ghost-like, into the murky plain. Then we went down ourselves, and threaded the track between the mounds and the valley. Palms and houses loomed vaguely out of the dusk; and a caravan of camels, stalking by with swift and noiseless footfall, looked like shadows projected on a background of mist. As the night deepened the air became stifling. There were no stars, and we could scarcely see a yard before us. Crawling slowly along the steep causeway, we felt, but could distinguish nothing of the plain stretching away on either side. Meanwhile the frogs croaked furiously, ,and our donkeys stumbled at every step. When at length we drew near Samata, it was close upon ten o’clock and Reïs Hassan had just started with men and torches to meet us.

Next morning early we once again passed Girgeh, with its ruined mosque and still unfallen column; and about noonday moored at a place called Ayserat, where we paid a visit to a native gentleman, one Ahmed Abû Ratab Aga, to whom we carried letters of introduction. Ratab Aga owns large estates in this province; is great in horse-flesh; and lives in patriarchal fashion surrounded by a numerous clan of kinsfolk and dependants. His residence at Ayserat consists of a cluster of three or four large houses, a score or so of pigeon-towers, an extensive garden, stabling, exercising-ground, and a large courtyard; the whole enclosed by a wall of circuit, and entered by a fine Arabesque gateway. He received us in a loggia of lattice-work overlooking the courtyard, and had three of his finest horses – a grey, a bay, and a chestnut – brought out for us to admire. They were just such horses as Velasquez loved to paint – thick in the neck, small in the head, solid in the barrel, with wavy manes, and long silky tails set high and standing off straight in true Arab fashion. We doubted, however, that they were altogether pur sang. They looked wonderfully picturesque with their gold-embroidered saddlecloths, peaked saddles covered with crimson, green, and blue velvet, long shovel-stirrups and tasselled head-gear. The Aga’s brother and nephews put them through their paces. They knelt to be mounted; lay down and died at the word of command; dashed from perfect immobility into a furious gallop; and when at fullest speed, stopped short, flung themselves back upon their haunches, and stood like horses of stone. We were told that our host had a hundred such standing in his stables. Pipes, coffee, and an endless succession of different kinds of sherbets went round all the time our visit lasted; and in the course of conversation, we learned that not only the wages of agricultural labourers, but even part of the taxes to the Khedive, are here paid in corn.

Before leaving, L.-----, the little lady, and the writer were conducted to the hareem, and introduced to the ladies of the establishment. We found them in a separate building with a separate courtyard, living after the usual dreary way of Eastern women, with apparently no kind of occupation and not even a garden to walk in. The Aga’s principal wife (I believe he had but two) was a beautiful woman, with auburn hair, soft brown eyes, and a lovely complexion. She received us on the threshold, led us into a saloon surrounded by a divan, and with some pride showed us her five children. The eldest was a graceful girl of thirteen; the youngest, a little fellow of four. Mother and daughter were dressed alike in black robes embroidered with silver, pink velvet slippers on bare feet, silver bracelets and anklets, and full pink Turkish trowsers. They wore their hair cut straight across the brow, plaited in long tails behind, and dressed with coins and pendants; while from the back of the head there hung a veil of thin black gauze, also embroidered with silver. Another lady, whom we took for the second wife, and who was extremely plain, had still richer and more massive ornaments, but seemed to hold an inferior position in the hareem. There were perhaps a dozen women and girls in all, two of whom were black.

One of the little boys had been ill all his short life, and looked as if he could not last many more months. The poor mother implored us to prescribe for him. It was in vain to tell her that we knew nothing of the nature of his disease and had no skill to cure it. She still entreated, and would take no refusal; so in pity we sent her some harmless medicines.

We had little opportunity of observing domestic life in Egypt. L.----- visited some of the vice-regal hareems at Cairo, and brought away on each occasion the same impression of dreariness. A little embroidery, a few musical toys of Geneva manufacture, a daily drive on the Shubra road, pipes, cigarettes, sweetmeats, jewellery, and gossip, fill up the aimless days of most Egyptian ladies of rank. There are, however, some who take an active interest in politics; and in Cairo and Alexandria the opera-boxes of the khedive and the great pashas are nightly occupied by ladies. But it is not by the daily life of the wives of princes and nobles, but by the life of the lesser gentry and upper middle-class, that a domestic system should be judged. These ladies of Ayserat had no London-built brougham, no Shubra road, no opera. They were absolutely without mental resources; and they were even without the means of taking air and exercise. One could see that time hung heavy on their hands, and that they took but a feeble interest in the things around them. The hareem stairs were dirty; the rooms were untidy; the general aspect of the place was slatternly and neglected. As for the inmates, though all good-nature and gentleness, their faces bore the expression of people who are habitually bored. At Luxor, L.----- and the writer paid a visit to the wife of an intelligent and gentlemanly Arab, son of the late governor of that place. This was a middle-class hareem. The couple were young, and not rich. They occupied a small house, which commanded no view and had no garden. Their little courtyard was given up to the poultry; their tiny terrace above was less than twelve feet square; and they were surrounded on all sides by houses. Yet in this stifling prison the young wife lived, apparently contented, from year’s end to year’s end. She literally never went out. As a child, she had no doubt enjoyed some kind of liberty; but as a marriageable girl, and as a bride, she was as much a prisoner as a bird in a cage. Born and bred in Luxor, she had never seen Karnak; yet Karnak is only two miles distant. We asked her if she would like to go there with us; but she laughed and shook her head. She was incapable even of curiosity.

It seemed to us that the wives of the Fellahîn were in truth the happiest women in Egypt. They work hard and are bitterly poor; but they have the free use of their limbs, and they at least know the fresh air, the sunshine, and the open fields.

When we left Ayserat, there still lay 335 miles between us and Cairo. From this time, the navigation of the Nile became every day more difficult. The dahabeeyah, too, got heated through and through, so that not even sluicing and swabbing availed to keep down the temperature. At night when we went to our sleeping-cabins, the timbers alongside of our berths were as hot to the hand as a screen in front of a great fire. Our crew, though to the manner born, suffered even more than ourselves; and L.----- at this time had generally a case of sunstroke on her hands. One by one, we passed the places we had seen on our way up – Siût, Manfalût, Gebel Abufayda, Roda, Minieh. After all, we did not see Beni Hassan. The day we reached that part of the river, a furious sandstorm was raging; such a storm that even the writer was daunted. Three days later, we took the rail at Bibbeh and went on to Cairo, leaving the Philæ to follow as fast as wind and weather might permit.

We were so wedded by this time to dahabeeyah-life, that we felt lost at first in the big rooms at Shepheard’s Hotel, and altogether bewildered in the crowded streets. Yet here was Cairo, more picturesque, more beautiful than ever. Here were the same merchants squatting on the same carpets and smoking the same pipes, in the Tunis bazaar; here was the same old cake-seller still ensconced in the same doorway in the Muski; here were the same jewellers selling bracelets in the Khan-Khalîli; the same money-changers sitting behind their little tables at the corners of the streets; the same veiled ladies riding on donkeys and driving in carriages; the same hurrying funerals, and noisy weddings; the same odd cries, and motley costumes, and unaccustomed trades. Nothing was changed. We soon dropped back into the old life of sight-seeing and shopping – buying rugs and silks, and silver ornaments, and old embroideries, and Turkish slippers, and all sorts of antique and pretty trifles; going from Mohammedan mosques to rare old Coptic churches; dropping in for an hour or two most afternoons at the Boulak Museum; and generally ending the day’s work with a drive on the Shubra road, or a stroll round the Esbekiyeh Gardens.

The Môlid-en-Nebi, or Festival of the Birth of the Prophet, was being held at this time in a tract of waste ground on the road to Old Cairo. Here, in some twenty or thirty large open tents ranged in a circle, there were readings of the Koran and meetings of dervishes going on by day and night, without intermission, for nearly a fortnight. After dark, when the tents were all ablaze with lighted chandeliers, and the dervishes were howling and leaping, and fireworks were being let off from an illuminated platform in the middle of the area, the scene was extraordinary. All Cairo used to be there, on foot or in carriages, between eight o’clock and midnight every evening; the veiled ladies of the Khedive’s hareem in their miniature broughams being foremost among the spectators.

The Môlid-en-Nebi ends with the performance of the Dóseh, when the sheik of the Saädîyeh Dervishes rides over a road of prostrate fanatics. L.----- and the writer witnessed this sight from the tent of the governor of Cairo. Drunk with opium, fasting, and praying, rolling their heads, and foaming at the mouth, some hundreds of wretched creatures lay down in the road packed as close as paving stones, and were walked and ridden over before our eyes. The standard-bearers came first; then a priest reading the Koran aloud; then the sheik on his white Arab, supported on either side by barefooted priests. The beautiful horse trod with evident reluctance, and as lightly and swiftly as possible, on the human causeway under his hoofs. The Mohammedans aver that no one is injured, or even bruised, 14 on this holy occasion; but I saw some men carried away in convulsions, who looked as if they would never walk again. 15

It is difficult to say but a few inadequate words of a place about which an instructive volume might be written; yet to pass the Boulak Museum in silence is impossible. This famous collection is due, in the first instance, to the liberality of the late Khedive and the labours of Mariette. With the exception of Mehemet Ali, who excavated the Temple of Denderah, no previous Viceroy of Egypt had ever interested himself in the archæology of the country. Those who cared for such rubbish as encumbered the soil or lay hidden beneath the sands of the desert, were free to take it; and no favour was more frequently asked, or more readily granted, than permission to dig for “anteekahs.” Hence the Egyptian wealth of our museums. Hence the numerous private collections dispersed throughout Europe. Ismail Pasha, however, put an end to that wholesale pillage; and, for the first time since ever “mummy was sold for balsam,” or for bric-à-brac, it became illegal to export antiquities. Thus, for the first time, Egypt began to possess a national collection.

Youngest of great museums, the Boulak collection is the wealthiest in the world in portrait-statues of private individuals, in funerary tablets, in amulets, and in personal relics of the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley. It is necessarily less rich in such colossal statues as fill the great galleries of the British Museum, the Turin Museum, and the Louvre. These, being above ground and comparatively few in number, were for the most part seized upon long since, and transported to Europe. The Boulak statues are the product of the tombs. The famous wooden “sheik” about which so much has been written,16 the magnificent diorite statue of Khafra (Chephren), the builder of the second pyramid, the two marvellous sitting statues of Prince Ra-hotep and Princess Nefer-t, are all portraits; and, like their tombs, were executed during the lifetime of the persons represented. Crossing the threshold of the great vestibule,17 one is surrounded by a host of these extraordinary figures, erect, coloured, clothed, all but in motion. It is like entering the crowded anteroom of a royal palace in the time of the ancient empire.

The greater number of the Boulak portrait-statues are sculptured in what is called the hieratic attitude; that is, with the left arm down and pressed close to the body, the left hand holding a roll of papyrus, the right leg advanced, and the right hand raised, as grasping the walking staff. It occurred to me that there might be a deeper significance than at first sight appears in this conventional attitude, and that it perhaps suggests the moment of resurrection, when the deceased, holding fast by his copy of the Book of the Dead, walks forth from his tomb into the light of life eternal.

Of all the statues here – one may say, indeed, of all known Egyptian statues – those of Prince Ra-hotep and Princess Nefer-t are the most wonderful. They are probably the oldest portrait-statues in the world.18 They come from a tomb of the third dynasty, and are contemporary with Snefru, a king who reigned before the time of Khufu and Khafra. That is to say, these people who sit before us side by side, coloured to the life, fresh and glowing as the day when they gave the artist his last sitting, lived at a time when the great pyramids of Ghizeh were not yet built, and at a date which is variously calculated as from about 6300 to 4000 years before the present day. The princess wears her hair precisely as it is still worn in Nubia, and her necklace of cabochon drops is of a pattern much favoured by the modern Ghawâzi. The eyes of both statues are inserted. The eyeball, which is set in an eyelid of bronze, is made of opaque white quartz, with an iris of rock-crystal enclosing a pupil of some kind of brilliant metal. This treatment – of which there are one or two other instances extant – gives to the eyes a look of intelligence that is almost appalling. There is a play of light within the orb, and apparently a living moisture upon the surface, which has never been approached by the most skilfully made glass eyes of modern manufacture.19

Of the jewels of Queen Aah-hotep, of the superb series of engraved scarabæi, of the rings, amulets, and toilette ornaments, of the vases in bronze, silver, alabaster, and porcelain, of the libation-tables, the woven stuffs, the terra-cottas, the artists’ models, the lamps, the silver boats, the weapons, the papyri, the thousand-and-one curious personal relics and articles of domestic use which are brought together within these walls, I have no space to tell. Except the collection of Pompeian relics in Naples, there is nothing elsewhere to compare with the collection at Boulak; and the villas of Pompeii have yielded no such gems and jewels as the tombs of ancient Egypt. It is not too much to say that if these dead and mummied people could come back to earth, the priest would here find all the gods of his Pantheon; the king his sceptre; the queen her crown-jewels; the scribe his palette; the soldier his arms; the workman his tools; the barber his razors; the husbandman his hoe; the housewife her broom; the child his toys; the beauty her combs and kohl bottles and mirrors. The furniture of the house is here, as well as the furniture of the tomb. Here, too, is the broken sistrum buried with the dead in token of the grief of the living.

Waiting the construction of a more suitable edifice, the present building gives temporary shelter to the collection. In the meanwhile, if there was nothing else to tempt the traveller to Cairo, the Boulak Museum would alone be worth the journey from Europe.

The first excursion one makes on returning to Cairo, the last one makes before leaving, is to Ghîzeh. It is impossible to get tired of the pyramids. Here L.----- and the writer spent their last day with the happy couple.

We left Cairo early, and met all the market-folk coming in from the country – donkeys and carts laden with green stuff, and veiled women with towers of baskets on their heads. The Khedive’s new palace was swarming already with masons, and files of camels were bringing limestone blocks for the builders. Next comes the open corn-plain, part yellow, part green – the long straight road bordered with acacias – beyond all, the desert-platform, and the pyramids, half in light, half in greenish-grey shadow, against the horizon. I never could understand why it is that the second pyramid, though it is smaller and farther off, looks from this point of view bigger than the first. Farther on, the brown Fellahîn, knee-deep in purple blossom, are cutting the clover. The camels carry it away. The goats and buffaloes feed in the clearings. Then comes the half-way tomb nestled in greenery, where men and horses stay to drink; and soon we are skirting a great backwater which reflects the pyramids like a mirror. Villages, shâdûfs, herds and flocks, tracts of palms, corn-flats, and spaces of rich, dark fallow, now succeed each other; and then once more comes the sandy slope, and the cavernous ridge of ancient yellow rock, and the Great Pyramid with its shadow-side towards us, darkening the light of day.

Neither L.----- nor the writer went inside the great pyramid. The idle man did so this day, and L.-----’s maid on another occasion; and both reported of the place as so stifling within, so foul underfoot, and so fatiguing, that, somehow, we each time put it off, and ended by missing it. The ascent is extremely easy. Rugged and huge as are the blocks, there is scarcely one upon which it is not possible to find a half-way rest for the toe of one’s boot, so as to divide the distance. With the help of three Arabs, nothing can well be less fatiguing. As for the men, they are helpful and courteous, and as clever as possible; and coax one on from block to block in all the languages of Europe.

“Pazienza, Signora! Allez doucement – all serene! We half-way now – dem halben-weg, Fräulein. Ne vous pressez-pas, Mademoiselle. Chi va sano, va lontano. Six step more, and ecco la cima!”

“You should add the other half of the proverb, amici,” said I. “Chi va forte, va alla morte.”

My Arabs had never heard this before, and were delighted with it. They repeated it again and again, and committed it to memory with great satisfaction. I asked them why they did not cut steps in the blocks, so as to make the ascent easier for ladies. The answer was ready and honest.

“No, no, Mademoiselle! Arab very stupid to do that. If Arab makes good steps, howadji goes up alone. No more want Arab man to help him up, and Arab man earn no more dollars!”

They offered to sing “Yankee Doodle” when we reached the top; then, finding we were English, shouted “God save the Queen!” and told us that the Prince of Wales had given £40 to the pyramid Arabs when he came here with the Princess two years before; which, however, we took the liberty to doubt.

The space on the top of the great pyramid is said to be 30 feet square. It is not, as I had expected, a level platform. Some blocks of the next tier remain, and two or three of the tier next above that; so making pleasant seats and shady corners. What struck us most on reaching the top, was the startling nearness, to all appearance, of the second pyramid. It seemed to rise up beside us like a mountain; yet so close, that I fancied I could almost touch it by putting out my hand. Every detail of the surface, every crack and parti-coloured stain in the shining stucco that yet clings about the apex, was distinctly visible.

The view from this place is immense. The country is so flat, the atmosphere so clear, the standpoint so isolated, that one really sees more and sees farther than from many a mountain summit of ten or twelve thousand feet. The ground lies, as it were, immediately under one; and the great Necropolis is seen as in a ground-plan. The effect must, I imagine, be exactly like the effect of a landscape seen from a balloon. Without ascending the Pyramid, it is certainly not possible to form a clear notion of the way in which this great burial-field is laid out. We see from this point how each royal pyramid is surrounded by its quadrangle of lesser tombs, some in the form of small pyramids, others partly rock-cut, partly built of massive slabs, like the roofing-stones of the Temples. We see how Khufu and Khafra and Menkara lay, each under his mountain of stone, with his family and his nobles around him. We see the great causeways which moved Herodotus to such wonder, and along which the giant stones were brought. Recognising how clearly the place is a great cemetery, one marvels at the ingenious theories which turn the pyramids into astronomical observatories, and abstruse standards of measurement. They are the grandest graves 20 in all the world – and they are nothing more.

A little way to the southward, from the midst of a sandy hollow, rises the head of the sphinx. Older than the pyramids, older than history, the monster lies couchant like a watch-dog, looking ever to the east, as if for some dawn that has not yet risen.21 A depression in the sand close by marks the site of that strange monument miscalled the temple of the sphinx.22 Farther away to the west on the highest slope of this part of the desert platform, stands the pyramid of Menkara (Mycerinus). It has lost but five feet of its original height, and from this distance it looks quite perfect.

Such – set in a waste of desert – are the main objects, and the nearest objects, on which our eyes first rest. As a whole, the view is more long than wide, being bounded to the westward by the Libyan range, and to the eastward by the Mokattam hills. At the foot of those yellow hills, divided from us by the cultivated plain across which we have just driven, lies Cairo, all glittering domes half seen through a sunlit haze. Overlooking the fairy city stands the mosque of the Citadel, its mast-like minarets piercing the clearer atmosphere. Far to the northward, traversing reach after reach of shadowy palm-groves, the eye loses itself in the dim and fertile distances of the Delta. To the west and south, all is desert. It begins here at our feet – a rolling wilderness of valleys and slopes and rivers and seas of sand, broken here and there by abrupt ridges of rock, and mounds of ruined masonry, and open graves. A silver line skirts the edge of this dead world, and vanishes southward in the sun-mist that shimmers on the farthest horizon. To the left of that silver line we see the quarried cliffs of Turra, marble-white; opposite Turra, the plumy palms of Memphis. On the desert platform above, clear though faint, the pyramids of Abusîr and Sakkârah, and Dahshûr. Every stage of the Pyramid of Ouenephes, banded in light and shade, is plain to see. So is the dome-like summit of the great pyramid of Dahshûr. Even the brick ruin beside it which we took for a black rock as we went up the river, and which looks like a black rock still, is perfectly visible. Farthest of them all, showing pale and sharp amid the palpitating blaze of noon, stands, like an unfinished tower of Babel, the pyramid of Meydûm. It is in this direction that our eyes turn oftenest – to the measureless desert in its mystery of light and silence; to the Nile where it gleams out again and again, till it melts at last into that faint far distance beyond which lie Thebes, and Philæ, and Abou Simbel.


1 This machine is called the Nóreg.

2 The number of pigeons kept by the Egyptian fellahîn is incredible. Mr. Zincke says on this subject that “the number of domestic pigeons in Egypt must be several times as great as the population,” and suggests that if the people kept pigs, they would keep less pigeons. But it is not as food chiefly that the pigeons are encouraged. They are bred and let live in such ruinous numbers for the sake of the manure they deposit on the land. M. About has forcibly demonstrated the error of this calculation. He shows that the pigeons do thirty million francs’ worth of damage to the crops in excess of any benefit they may confer upon the soil.

3 The Arabic name of the modern village, Arabát-el-Madfûneh, means literally Arabat the Buried.

4 Teni, or more probably Tini, called by the Greeks This or Thinis. It was the capital of the Eighth Nome. “Quoique nous ayons très-peu de chose à rapporter sur l’histoire de la ville de Teni qui à la basse époque sous la domination romaine, n’était connue que par ses teinturiers en pourpre, elle doit avoir joui d’une très grande renommée chez les anciens Egyptiens. Encore au temps du XIXeme dynastie les plus hauts fonctionnaires de sang royal étaient distingués par le titre de ‘Princes de Teni.’“ – "Hist. d’Egypte." Brugsch, vol. i. chap. v. p. 29; Leipzig, 1874

NOTE TO SECOND EDITION. – “Des monuments trouvés il y a deux ans, me portent a croire que Thini était située assez loin à l’Est au village actuel de Aoulad-Yahia.” Letter of Prof. G. Maspero to the author, April 1878.

5 The ancient name of Egypt was Kem, Khem, or Kam, signifying Black, or the Black Land; in allusion to the colour of the soil.

6 “Mena, tel que nous le presente la tradition, est le type le plus complet du monarque égyptien. Il est à la fois constructeur et législateur: il fonde le grande temple de Phtah à Memphis et régle le culte des dieux. Il est guerrier, et conduit les expéditions hors de ses frontières.” – "Hist. Ancienne des Peuples de l’Orient." G. Maspero. Chap. ii. p. 55: Paris, 1876.

“N’oublions pas qu’avant Ménès l’Egypte était divisée en petits royaumes indépendants que Ménès réunit le premier sous un sceptre unique. Il n’est pas impossible que des monuments de cette antique période de l’histoire Egyptienne subsistent encore.” – "Itinéraire de la Haute Egypte." A. Mariette Bey. Avant Propos, p. 40. Alexandrie, 1872.

7 See opening address of Professor R. Owen, C.B., etc. etc., "Report of Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Orientalists, Ethnological Section:" London, 1874. Also a paper on “The Ethnology of Egypt,” by the same, published in the "Journal of the Anthropological Institute," vol. iv. No. 1, p. 246: Lond. 1874.

8 M. Mariette, in his great work on the excavations at Abydus, observes that these seven vaulted sanctuaries resemble sarcophagi of the form most commonly in use; namely, oblong boxes with vaulted lids. Two sarcophagi of this shape are shown in cut 496 of Sir G. Wilkinson’s second volume (see figures 1 and 6), "A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians," vol. ii. chap. x.; Lond. 1871. Of the uses and purport of the temple, he also says – “What do we know of the idée mère that presided at its construction? What was done in it? Is it consecrated to a single divinity, who would be Osiris; or to seven gods, who would be the Seven gods of the seven vaulted chambers; or to the nine divinities enumerated in the lists of deities dispersed in various parts of the temple? . . . One leaves the temple in despair, not at being unable to make out its secret from the inscriptions, but on finding that its secret has been kept for itself alone, and not trusted to the inscriptions.” – "Description des Fouilles d’Abydus." Mariette Bey. Paris, 1869.

“Les sept chambres voûtées du grand temple d’Abydos sont relatifs aux cérémonies que le roi devait y célébrer successivement. Le roi se présentait au côté droit de la porte, parcourait la salle dans tout son pourtour et sortait par le côté gauche. Des statues étaient disposées dans la chambre. Le roi ouvrait la porte ou naos où elles étaient enfermées. Dès que la statue apparaissait à ses yeux il lui offrait l’encens, il enlevait le vêtement qui la couvrait, il lui imposait les mains, il la parfumait, il la recouvrait de son vêtement,” etc. etc. – Mariette Bey. "Itinéraire de la Haute Egypte:" Avant Propos, p. 62. Alex. 1872.

There is at the upper end of each of these seven sanctuaries a singular kind of false door, or recess, conceived in a style of ornament more Indian than Egyptian, the cutting being curiously square, deep, and massive, the surface of the relief-work flattened, and the whole evidently intended to produce its effect by depths of shadow in the incised portions rather than by sculpturesque relief. These recesses, or imitation doors, may have been designed to serve as backgrounds to statues, but are not deep enough for niches. There is a precisely similar recess sculptured on one of the walls of the westernmost chamber in the Temple of Gournah.

9 These are all representations of minor gods commonly figured in the funereal papyri, but very rarely seen in the Temple sculptures. The frog goddess, for instance, is Hek, and symbolises eternity. She is a very ancient divinity, traces of her being found in monuments of the fifth dynasty. The goose-headed god is Seb, another very old god. The object called the Nilometer was a religious emblem signifying stability, and probably stands in this connection as only a deified symbol.

10 Rameses II is here shown with the side-lock of youth. This Temple, founded by Seti I, was carried on through the time when Rameses the prince was associated with his father upon the throne, and was completed by Rameses the King, after the death of Seti I. The building is strictly coeval in date and parallel in style with the Temple of Gournah and the Speos of Bayt-el-Welly.

11 These seventy-six Pharaohs (represented by their cartouches) were probably either princes born of families originally from Abydus, or were sovereigns who had acquired a special title to veneration at this place on account of monuments or pious foundations presented by them to the holy city. A similar tablet, erected apparently on the same principles though not altogether to the same kings, was placed by Thothmes III in a side chamber of the Great Temple at Karnak, and is now in the Louvre.

The great value of the present monument consists in its chronological arrangement. It is also of the most beautiful execution, and in perfect preservation. “Comme perfection de gravure, comme conservation, comme étendue, il est peu de monuments qui la depassent.” See "La Nouvelle Table d’Abydos," par A. Mariette Bey: "Révue Arch. vol. vii. Nouvelle Série," p. 98. This volume of the Review also contains an engraving in outline of the Tablet.

12 See "Itinéraire de la Haute Egypte:" A. Mariette Bey: p. 147 Alex. 1872.

13 "Ibid." p. 148, The hope here expressed was, however, not fulfilled; tombs of the fourth or fifth dynasties being, I believe, the earliest discovered. [Note to second edition.]

14”It is said that these persons, as well as the Sheykh, make use of certain words (that is, repeat prayers and invocations) on the day preceding this performance, to enable them to endure without injury the tread of the horse, and that some not thus prepared, having ventured to lie down to be ridden over, have, on more than one occasion, been either killed or severely injured. The performance is considered as a miracle vouchsafed through supernatural power, and which has been granted to every successive Sheykh of the Saädeeyeh.” See Lane’s "Modern Egyptians," chap. xxiv. p. 453. Lond. 1860.

15 This barbarous rite has been abolished by the present khedive [Note to second edition.]

16 See "Egypt of the Pharaohs and the Khedive," J. B. Zincke, chap. ix: p. 72. Lond. 1873. Also "La Sculpture Egyptienne," par E. Soldi, p. 57. Paris, 1876. Also "The Ethnology of Egypt," by Professor Owen, C.B. "Journal of Anthropological Institute," vol. iv. 1874, p. 227. The name of this personage was Ra-em-ka.

17 It is in the great vestibule that we find the statue of Ti. See chap. iv. p. 59.

18 There is no evidence to show that the statues of Sepa and Nesa in the Louvre are older than the fourth dynasty.

19 “Enfin nous signalerons l’importance des statues de Meydoum au point de vue ethnographique. Si la race Egyptienne était à cette époque celle dont les deux statues nous offrent le type, il faut convenir qu’elle ne ressemblait en rien à la race qui habitait le nord de l’Egypte quelques années seulement après Snefrou.” – "Cat. du Musée de Boulaq." A. Mariette Bey. p. 277; Paris, 1872.

Of the heads of these two statues Professor Owen remarks that “the brain-case of the male is a full oval, the parietal bosses feebly indicated; in vertical contour the fronto-parietal part is little elevated, rather flattened than convex; the frontal sinuses are slightly indicated; the forehead is fairly developed but not prominent. The lips are fuller than in the majority of Europeans; but the mouth is not prognathic. . . . The features of the female conform in type to those of the male, but show more delicacy and finish. . . . The statue of the female is coloured of a lighter tint than that of the male, indicating the effects of better clothing and less exposure to the sun. And here it may be remarked that the racial character of complexion is significantly manifested by such evidences of the degree of tint due to individual exposure. . . . The primitive race-tint of the Egyptians is perhaps more truly indicated by the colour of the princess in these painted portrait-statues than by that of her more scantily clad husband or male relative.” – "The Ethnology of Egypt," by Sir Richard Owen, K.C.B. "Journal of Anthropological Institute," vol. iv. Lond. 1874; p. 225 et seq.

20 The word pyramid, for which so many derivations have been suggested, is shown in the geometrical papyrus of the British Museum to be distinctly Egyptian, and is written Per-em-us.

21 “On sait par une stèle du musée de Boulaq, que le grand Sphinx est antérior au Rois Chéops de la IV Dynastie.” "Dic. d’Arch. Egyptienne: Article Sphinx." P. Pierre. Paris, 1875.

[It was the opinion of Mariette, and is the opinion of Professor Maspero, that the sphinx dates from the inconceivably remote period of the Horshesu, or “followers of Horus”; that is to say, from those prehistoric times when Egypt was ruled by a number of petty chieftains, before Mena welded the ancient principalities into a united kingdom. Those principalities then became the Nomes, or Provinces, of historic times, and the former local chieftains became semi-independent feudatories, such as we find surviving with undiminished authority and importance during the twelfth dynasty. – Note to second edition.]

A long-disputed question as to the meaning of the sphinx has of late been finally solved. The sphinx is shown by M. J. de Rougé, according to an inscription at Edfu, to represent a transformation of Horus, who in order to vanquish Set (Typhon) took the shape of a human-headed lion. It was under this form that Horus was adored in the Nome Leontopolites. In the above-mentioned Stela of Boulak, known as the stone of Cheops, the great sphinx is especially designated as the sphinx of Hor-em-Khou, or Horus-on-the-Horizon. This is evidently in reference to the orientation of the figure. It has often been asked why the sphinx is turned to the east. I presume the answer would be, Because Horus, avenger of Osiris, looks to the east, awaiting the return of his father from the lower world. As Horus was supposed to have reigned over Egypt, every Pharaoh took the title of Living Horus, Golden Hawk, etc. etc. Hence the features of the reigning king were always given to the sphinx form when architecturally employed, as at Karnak, Wady Sabooah, Tanis, etc. etc.

22It is certainly not a temple. It may be a mastaba, or votive chapel. It looks most like a tomb. It is entirely built of plain and highly-polished monoliths of alabaster and red granite, laid square and simply, like a sort of costly and magnificent Stonehenge; and it consists of a forecourt, a hall of pillars, three principal chambers, some smaller chambers, a secret recess, and a well. The chambers contain horizontal niches which it is difficult to suppose could have been intended for anything but the reception of mummies, and at the bottom of the well were found three statues of king Khafra (Chephren); one of which is the famous diorite portrait-statue of the Boulak Museum. In an interesting article contributed to the "Révue Arch." (vol. xxvi. Paris, 1873), M. du Barry-Merval has shown, as it seems, quite clearly, that the temple of the sphinx is in fact a dependency of the second pyramid. It is possible that the niches may have been designed for the queen and family of Khafra, whose own mummy would of course be buried in his pyramid.

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