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THE NILE — I
I have already told you how the land of Egypt was first formed by the river which is still its source of life; but before saying anything about the many monuments on its banks or the floating life it carries, I want you to look at the map with me for a moment, and see what we can learn of the character of the river itself.
The Nile is one of the world's great rivers, and is about 3,400 miles long. As you will see, it has its source in the overflow from Lake Victoria Nyanza, when it flows in a generally northern direction for many hundreds of miles, receiving several tributaries, such as the River Sobat and the Bahr-el-Ghazal, whose waters, combining with the Bahr-el-Abiad, or White Nile, as it is called, maintain the steady constant flow of the river.
Eventually it is joined by the Bahr-el-Azrak, or Blue Nile, which rises among the mountains of Abyssinia and enters the White Nile at Khartūm.
During a great part of the year this branch is dry, but filled by the melting snow and torrential rains of early spring, the Blue Nile becomes a surging torrent, and pours its muddy water, laden with alluvial soil and forest débris, into the main river, causing it to rise far above its ordinary level, and so bringing about that annual overflow which in Egypt takes the place of rain.
It is certain that the ancient Egyptians knew nothing as to the source of their great water-supply,4 their knowledge being limited to the combined river which begins at Khartūm, and for 1,750 miles flows uninterruptedly, and, with the exception of the River Atbara, without further tributaries until it reaches the sea; and it is curious to think that for every one of these 1,750 miles the Nile is a slowly diminishing stream, water-wheels, steam-pumps, and huge arterial canals distributing its water in all directions over the land. The large number of dams and regulators constructed within recent years still further aid this distribution of the Nile water, and it is a remarkable and almost incredible fact that with the closing of the latest barrage at Damietta, the Nile will be so completely controlled that of all the flow of water which pours so magnificently through the cataracts not a drop will reach the sea!
One can easily understand the reverence with which the ancients regarded their mysterious river, which, rising no one knew where, year by year continued its majestic flow, and by its regular inundations brought wealth to the country, and it is no wonder that the rising of its waters should have been the signal for a series of religious and festal ceremonies, and led the earlier inhabitants of Egypt to worship the river as a god. Some of these festivals still continue, and it is only a very few years since the annual sacrifice of a young girl to the Nile in flood was prohibited by the Khedive.
Though regular in its period of inundation, which begins in June, its height varies from year to year; 40 to 45 feet constitutes a good Nile — anything less than this implies a shortage of water and more or less scanty crops; while should the Nile rise higher than 45 feet the result is often disastrous, embankments being swept away, gardens devastated, while numbers of houses and little hamlets built on the river-banks are undermined and destroyed.
The whole river as known to the ancients was navigable, and formed the great trade route by which gold from Sheba, ivory, gum, ebony, and many other commodities were brought into the country. The armies of Pharaoh were carried by it on many warlike expeditions, and by its means the Roman legions penetrated to the limits of the then known world.
Hippopotamus and crocodile were numerous, and afforded sport for the nobles, and though steamboats and increased traffic have driven these away, on many a temple wall are pictured incidents of the chase, as well as records of their wars.
It is natural, therefore, that on the banks of their mighty waterway the Egyptians should have erected their greatest monuments, and the progress of the Roman armies may still be traced by the ruins of their fortified towns and castles, which, from many a rocky islet or crag, command the river.
In another chapter I will tell you more about the monuments; at present I wish to describe the Nile as it appears to-day.
Our first view of the river is obtained as we cross the Kasr-en-Nil bridge at Cairo to join one of the many steamers by which visitors make the Nile trip, and one's first impression is one of great beauty, especially in the early morning. On the East Bank the old houses of Būlak rise from the water's edge, and continue in a series of old houses and palaces to the southern end of Rhoda Island, whose tall palms and cypress-trees rise above the silvery mist which still hangs upon the water. On the west the high mud-banks are crowned with palms and lebbek-trees as far as one can see. Below the bridge, their white sails gleaming in the early sun, hundreds of Nile boats are waiting in readiness for the time appointed for its opening. On both banks steady streams of people pass to and fro to fill their water-skins or jars, while children paddle in the stream or make mud-pies upon the bank as they will do all the world over.
The water is very muddy and very smooth, and reflects every object to perfection; for these early mornings are almost invariably still, and the water is unruffled by the north wind, which, with curious regularity, springs up before midday.
I have already spoken of the high lateen sail of the Nile boats, a form of sail which, though beautiful, has not been devised for pictorial purposes. In every country and in every sea peculiarities of build and rig are displayed in native vessels. This is not the result of whim or chance, but has been evolved as the result of long experience of local requirements and conditions, and in every case I think it may be taken that the native boat is the one most suited to the conditions under which it is employed. So on the Nile these lofty sails are designed to overtop the high banks and buildings, and so catch the breeze which would otherwise be intercepted. The build of the boats also is peculiar; they are very wide and flat bottomed, and the rudders are unusually large, so as to enable them to turn quickly in the narrow channels, which are often tortuous. The bow rises in a splendid curve high out of the water, and throws the spray clear of its low body, for the Egyptian loads his boat very heavily, and I have often seen them so deep in the water that a little wall of mud has been added to the gunwale so as to keep out the waves.
These native boats are of several kinds, from the small "felucca," or open boat used for ferry or pleasure purposes, to the large "giassa," or cargo boat of the river. Some of these are very large, carrying two or three enormous sails, while their cargoes of coal or goods of various kinds are often as much as 150 tons; yet they sail fast, and with a good breeze there are few steamers on the river which could beat them.
The navigation of the Nile is often difficult, especially when the river is falling, for each year it alters its course and new sand-banks are formed, and it is not always easy to decide which is the right channel to steer for. The watermen, however, are very expert, and can usually determine their course by the nature of the ripple on the water, which varies according to its depth. Frequently, however, from accidents of light or other causes, it is not possible to gauge the river in this way, so every boat is provided with long sounding-poles called "midra," by means of which men stationed at either side of the bow feel their way through the difficult channels, calling out the depths of water as they go. In spite of these precautions, however, steamers and sailing boats alike often stick fast upon some bank which has, perhaps, been formed in a few hours by a sudden shift of the wind or slight diversion of the current, caused by the tumbling in of a portion of the bank a little higher up-stream. Many of these boats travel long distances, bringing cargoes of coal, cement, machinery, cotton goods, and hardware from the coast for distribution in the provinces of Upper Egypt, and on their return voyage are laden with sugar-cane or corn, and many other articles of produce and native manufacture. As night falls, they usually moor alongside the bank, when fires are lit, and the crews prepare their simple evening meal. The supply of food, it may be noticed, is usually kept in a bag, which is slung from the rigging, or a short post where all can see it and no one be able to take advantage of another by feeding surreptitiously.
It is often a pretty sight when several of these boats are moored together, when, their day's work over, their crews will gather round the fires, and to the accompaniment of tambourine or drum sing songs or recite stories until it is time to sleep. No sleeping accommodation is provided, and all the hardy boatman does is to wrap his cloak about his head and lie among whatever portion of the cargo is least hard and offers most protection from the wind.
The Nile banks themselves are interesting. In colour and texture rather like chocolate, they are cut into terraces by the different levels of the water, while the lapping of the waves is perpetually undermining them, so that huge slabs of the rich alluvial mud are continually falling away into the river. Each of these terraces, as it emerges from the receding water, is planted with beans or melons by the thrifty farmer, while the sand-banks forming in the river will presently also be under cultivation, the natives claiming them while still covered with water, their claims being staked by Indian-corn stalks or palm-branches.
Like the canal banks in the Delta, the Nile banks form the great highway for Upper Egypt, and at all times of the day one may see the people and their animals silhouetted against the sky as they pass to and fro between their villages. In the neighbourhood of large towns, or such villages as hold a weekly market, the banks are very animated, and for many miles are thronged with people from the surrounding district, some walking, others riding on camels, donkeys, or buffaloes, pressing towards the market to enjoy the show, or sell the many articles of produce with which they are laden.
At the water's edge herds of buffaloes wallow in the river, tended by a little boy who stares stolidly at your steamer as it passes or, in great excitement, chases your vessel and vainly cries for "backshish."5 At frequent intervals are the water-wheels and "shadūfs," which raise the water to the level of the fields, and these are such important adjuncts of the farm that I must describe them. The "shadūf" is one of the oldest and one of the simplest methods of raising water in existence. A long pole is balanced on a short beam supported by two columns of mud, about 4 or 5 feet high, erected at the end of the water channel to be supplied; 6 feet or more below it is the pool or basin cut in the river-bank, and which is kept supplied with water by a little channel from the river. One end of the pole is weighted by a big lump of mud; from the other a leather bucket is suspended by means of a rope of straw, or a second and lighter pole. In order to raise the water, the shadūf worker, bending his weight upon the rope, lowers the bucket into the basin below, which, when filled, is easily raised by the balancing weight, and is emptied into the channel above. As the river falls the basin can no longer be fed by the river, so a second "shadūf" is erected in order to keep the first supplied, and in low Nile it is quite a common sight to see four of these "shadūfs," one above the other, employed in raising the water from the river-level to the high bank above. This work is, perhaps, the most arduous of any farm labour, and the workers are almost entirely naked as they toil in the sun, while a screen of cornstalks is often placed to protect them from the cold north wind. The water-wheels, or "sakia," as they are called, are of two kinds, and both ingenious. Each consists of a large wheel placed horizontally, which is turned by one or more bullocks; the spokes of this wheel project as cogs, so as to turn another wheel placed below it at right angles. When used in the fields, the rim of this second wheel is hollow and divided into segments, each with a mouth or opening. As the wheel revolves its lower rim is submerged in the well, filling its segments with water, which, as they reach the top, empty their contents sideways into a trough, which carries the water to the little "genena," or watercourse, which supplies the fields. Those used on the river-bank, however, are too far from the water for such a wheel to be of use, so in place of the hollow rim the second wheel also has cogs, on which revolves an endless chain of rope to which earthen pots are attached, and whose length may be altered to suit the varying levels of the river. Some of these "sakias" are very pretty, as they are nearly always shaded by trees of some kind as a protection to the oxen who work them.
One of the prettiest incidents of all, however, is the village watering-place, where morning and evening the women and children of the town congregate to fill their water-pots, wash their clothing or utensils, and enjoy a chat. It is pretty to watch them as they come and go; often desperately poor, they wear their ragged, dust-soiled clothing with a queenly grace, for their lifelong habit of carrying burdens upon their heads, and their freedom from confining garments, have given them a carriage which women in this country might well envy. Though generally dark-skinned and toil-worn, many of the younger women are beautiful, while all have shapely and delicately-formed limbs, and eyes and teeth of great beauty. At the water's edge the children are engaged in scrubbing cooking-pots and other utensils, while their elders are employed in washing their clothing or domestic linen, when, after perhaps enjoying a bathe themselves, their water-pots are filled, and, struggling up the steep bank, they disappear towards the village. These water-pots, by the way, are two-handled, and pretty in shape, and are always slightly conical at the base, so that they are able to stand on the shelving river-banks without falling, and for the same
reason are nearly always carried slightly sideways on the head. It is pretty to see the wonderful sense of balance these girls display in carrying their water-pots, which they seldom touch with their hand, and it is surprising also what great weights even young girls are able to support, for a "balass" filled with water is often a load too heavy for her to raise to her head without the assistance of another. Like all the poor, they are always obliging to each other, and I recently witnessed a pathetic sight at one of these village watering-places, when an old woman, too infirm to carry her "balass" herself, was with difficulty struggling down the bank and leading a blind man, who bore her burden for her.
4 Many of the ancients believed the First Cataract to be its source
5 "A gift."