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THE NILE — III
After a river journey of 583 miles from Cairo, Assuan is reached — limit of Egypt proper and the beginning of an entirely new phase of Nile scenery. Cultivation in any large sense has been left behind, and we are now in Nubia, a land of rock and sand, sparsely inhabited, and, excepting in very small patches along the water's edge, producing no crops.
FIRST CATARACT FROM ELEPHANTINE ISLAND.
Built at the northern end of what is called the first cataract, Assuan is perhaps the most interesting and prettily-situated town in Upper Egypt. Facing the green island of Elephantine and the golden sand-drifts which cover the low range of hills across the river, Assuan stretches along the river-bank, its white buildings partly screened by the avenue of palms and lebbek-trees which shade its principal street, while to the north are dense groves of date-palms, past which the Nile sweeps in a splendid curve and is lost to sight among the hills. Behind, beyond its open-air markets and the picturesque camp of the Besharīn, the desert stretches unbroken to the shores of the Red Sea.
The bazaars of Assuan are extremely picturesque, and are covered almost throughout their length; the lanes which constitute them are narrow and winding, forming enticing vistas whose distances are emphasized by the occasional glints of sunlight which break in upon their generally subdued light. In the shops are exposed for sale all those various goods and commodities which native life demands; but visitors are mostly attracted by the stalls of the curio sellers, who display a strange medley of coloured beads and baskets, rich embroideries, stuffed animals, and large quantities of arms and armour, so-called trophies of the wars in the Sūdan. Though most of these relics are spurious, genuine helmets and coats of mail of old Persian and Saracenic times may occasionally be found, while large numbers of spears and swords are undoubtedly of Dervish manufacture.
For most Englishmen Assuan has also a tragic interest in its association with the expedition for the relief of General Gordon, and the subsequent Mahdist wars, when regiment after regiment of British soldiers passed through her streets on their way towards those burning deserts from which so many of them were destined never to return. Those were exciting, if anxious, days for Assuan, and many visitors will remember how, some years ago, the presence of Dervish horsemen in its immediate vicinity rendered it unsafe for them to venture outside the town. Those days are happily over, and there is now little use for the Egyptian forts which to the south and east guarded the little frontier town.
From a ruined Roman fort which crowns a low hill at the south end of the town we have our first view of the cataract, and the sudden change in the character of the scenery is remarkable.
In place of the broad fields and mountains to which we have been accustomed, the river here flows in a basin formed by low, precipitous hills, and is broken by innumerable rocky islets on different levels, which form the series of rapids and little cascades which give the cataract its name. These little islets are formed by a collection of boulders of red granite filled in with silt, and have a very strange effect, for the boulders are rounded by the action of the water, which, combined with the effect of the hot sun, has caused the red stone to become coated with a hard skin, black and smooth to touch, just as though they had been blackheaded.
Many of the islets are simply rocks of curious shapes which jut out of the water; others are large enough to be partially cultivated, and their little patches of green are peculiarly vivid in contrast with the rock and sand which form their setting.
The scenery is wildly fantastic, for while the rocks which form the western bank are almost entirely covered by the golden sand-drifts which pour over them, smooth as satin, to the water's edge, those on the east are sun-baked and forbidding, a huge agglomeration of boulders piled one upon the other and partially covered by shingle, which crackle under foot like clinkers; between are the islands, many crowned by a hut or pigeon-cote, and with their greenery often perfectly reflected in the rapidly flowing water.
Though navigation here is difficult, and a strong breeze is necessary to enable vessels to ascend the river, boat sailing is a popular feature of European life in Assuan, a special kind of sailing-boat being kept for visitors, who organize regattas and enjoy many a pleasant picnic beneath the shade of the dôm palms or mimosa-trees which grow among the rocks.
In the old days the great excursion from Assuan was by water to the "Great Gate," as the principal rapid was called, often a difficult matter to accomplish. To-day the great dam has replaced it as the object of a sail.
This is the greatest engineering work of the kind ever constructed, and spans the Nile Valley at the head of the cataract basin. It is a mile and a quarter in length, and the river, which is raised in level about 66 feet, pours through a great number of sluice-gates which are opened or shut according to the season of the year and the necessities of irrigation or navigation.
Behind, the steep valley is filled, and forms a huge lake extending eighty miles to the south, and many pretty villages have been submerged, while of the date-groves which surrounded them the crests of the higher trees alone appear above water. The green island of Philæ also is engulfed, and of the beautiful temple of Isis built upon it only the upper portion is visible.
Below the dam activity of many kinds characterizes the Nile, as does the sound of rushing water the Cataract basin. Above, silence reigns, for the huge volume of stored water lies inert between its rugged banks.
One's first thought is one of sadness, for everywhere the tree-tops, often barely showing above water, seem to mourn the little villages and graveyards which lie below, and as yet no fresh verdure has appeared to give the banks the life and beauty they formerly had.
As at the cataract, here also the hills are simply jumbled heaps of granite boulders, fantastically piled one upon the other, barren and naked, and without any vegetable growth to soften their forbidding wildness.
On many rocky islands are the ruined mud buildings of the Romans, and more than one village, once populous, lies deserted and abandoned upon some promontory which is now surrounded by the flood.
Though a general sense of mournfulness pervades it, the scenery has much variety and beauty, nor have all the villages been destroyed; many had already been built far above the present water-level, while others have sprung up to take the place of those submerged. These again present new features to the traveller, for, unlike many we have seen below the cataract, these Nubian dwellings are well built, the mud walls being neatly smoothed and often painted. The roofs are peculiar, being in the form of well-constructed semicircular arches, all of mud, and in many cases the tops of the outside walls are adorned by a kind of balustrade of open brickwork.
Half hidden among the rocks the native house has often the appearance of some temple pylon, and seems to fit the landscape in a peculiar way, for no form of building harmonizes so well with the Egyptian scenery as the temple. Whether or not the native unconsciously copies the ancient structure I cannot say, but anyone visiting Egypt must often be struck by the resemblance, particularly when, as is often the case, the little house is surmounted by pigeon-cotes, which in form are so like the temple towers.
Like their homes, the inhabitants of Nubia also differ from those of Egypt proper, for they are Berbers and more of the Arab type, handsome, and with regular features and ruddy in complexion, while many of the small children, who, excepting for a few strings of beads, run about naked, are extremely beautiful. There is one curious fact about these villages which no one could fail to notice, for while there are always plenty of women and children to be seen, there are no men, and though practically there is no cultivation, food appears to be abundant!
The reason is that these people are so nice in character and generally so trustworthy, that the men are all employed in Cairo and elsewhere as domestic servants, or "syces,"6 and though they themselves may not see their homes for years, their wages are good, and so they are able to send food and clothing in plenty to their families.
As we ascend the river and approach the limit of the stored water, the banks again become fertile, for here the water is simply maintained at flood-level, and has not had the same disastrous effect as lower down the valley. Here the scenery is very striking; bold rocks jut out from the beautiful golden sand-drifts which often pour into the river itself, or in sharp contrast terminate in the brilliant line of green which fringes the banks. All around, their ruggedness softened in the warm light, are the curious, conical mountains of Nubia, and on the eastern side large groves of palms, green fields, and water-wheels make up as pretty a scene as any in Egypt; presently, no doubt, cultivation will again appear on the barren margins of the lake above the dam and restore to it the touch of beauty it formerly had.
It is intended still further to raise the dam, and the higher level of water then maintained will not only entirely submerge Philæ, but practically all the villages now existing on its banks, as well as partially inundating many interesting temples of Roman origin. It seems a pity that so beautiful a temple as Philæ should be lost, and one feels sorry that the villages and palm-groves of Nubia should be destroyed, but necessity knows no law, and each year water is required in greater quantities, as the area of cultivation below extends, while the villagers are amply compensated by the Government for their loss.
It is interesting to stand upon the dam and see the pent-up water pour through the sluices to form huge domes of hissing water which toss their sprays high into the air, and whose roar may be heard many miles away, while on the rocky islands down-stream numbers of natives are watching the rushing stream, ready to dive in and secure the numbers of fish of various sizes which are drawn through the sluice-gates and are stunned or killed under the great pressure of water.
There are many other interests in Assuan, which is a delightful place to visit. The desert rides, the ancient quarries where the temple obelisks were hewn, the camp of the beautiful Besharīn, and the weirdly pictorial Cufic cemetery which winds so far along the barren valley in which the river once flowed — each have their attraction, which varies with the changing light, while many a happy hour may be spent in watching the many coloured lizards which play among the rocks, the curious mantis and twig-insects, and other strange specimens of insect life which abound here; while, should you weary of sight-seeing and the glare of light, quietude and repose may be found among the fruit-laden fig-trees of Kitchener's Island, or in the shady gardens of Elephantine.
Such in brief is the Nile from Cairo to the first cataract, though a great deal more might be written on this subject. The various towns and villages passed are often very pretty, and some are of great age, and surrounded by very interesting remains. Then there is the enjoyment of the many excursions on donkey-back to visit some tomb or temple, the amusement of bargaining for trophies or curios at the various landing-places, and a host of other interests which go to make the trip up the Nile one of the most fascinating possible, and which prevent any weariness of mind in the passenger. But to write fully about all these things is beyond the scope of this small book, though some day, perhaps, many of my readers may have the opportunity of seeing it all for themselves, and so fill in the spaces my short narrative must necessarily leave.