Here to return to
THEBES TO ASSÛAN.
HURRYING close upon the serenest of Egyptian sunsets came a night of storms. The wind got up about ten. By midnight the river was racing in great waves, and our dahabeeyah rolling at her moorings like a ship at sea. The sand, driving in furious gusts from the Libyan desert, dashed like hail against our cabin windows. Every moment we were either bumping against the bank, or being rammed by our own felucca. At length, a little before dawn, a huge slice of the bank gave way, thundering like an avalanche upon our decks; whereupon Reïs Hassan, being alarmed for the safety of the boat, hauled us up to a little sheltered nook a few hundred yards higher. Taking it altogether, we had not had such a lively night since leaving Benisouef.
The look-out next morning was dismal – the river running high in yeasty waves; the boats all huddled together under the shore; the western bank hidden in clouds of sand. To get under way was impossible, for the wind was dead against us; and to go anywhere by land was equally out of the question. Karnak in a sand-storm would have been grand to see; but one would have needed a diving helmet to preserve eyes and ears from destruction.
Towards afternoon, the fury of the wind so far subsided that we were able to cross the river and ride to Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum. As we achieved only a passing glimpse of these wonderful ruins, I will for the present say nothing about them. We came to know them so well hereafter that no mere first impression would be worth record.
A light but fitful breeze helped us on next day as far as Erment, the Ptolemaic Hermonthis, once the site of a goodly temple, now of an important sugar-factory. Here we moored for the night, and after dinner received a visit of ceremony from the Bey – a tall, slender, sharp-featured, bright-eyed man in European dress, remarkably dignified and well-bred – who came attended by his secretary, Kawass, and pipe-bearer. Now the Bey of Erment is a great personage in these parts. He is governor of the town as well as superintendent of the sugar-factory; holds a military command; has his palace and gardens close by, and his private steamer on the river; and is, like most high officials in Egypt, a Turk of distinction. The secretary, who was the Bey’s younger brother, wore a brown Inverness cape over a long white petticoat, and left his slippers at the saloon door. He sat all the time with his toes curiously doubled under, so that his feet looked like clenched fists in stockings. Both gentlemen wore tarbooshes, and carried visiting canes. The visiting cane, by the way, plays a conspicuous part in modern Egyptian life. It measures about two and a half feet in length, is tipped at both ends with gold or silver, and is supposed to add the last touch of elegance to the bearer.
We entertained our guests with coffee and lemonade, and, as well as we could, with conversation. The Bey, who spoke only Turkish and Arabic, gave a flourishing account of the sugar-works, and despatched his pipe-bearer for a bundle of fresh canes and some specimens of raw and candied sugars. He said he had an English foreman and several English workmen, and that for the English as a nation he had the highest admiration and regard; but that the Arabs “had no heads.” To our inquiries about the ruins, his replies were sufficiently discouraging. Of the large Temple every vestige had long since disappeared; while of the smaller one only a few columns and part of the walls were yet standing. They lay out beyond the town and a long way from the river. There was very little to see. It was all “sagheer” (small); “mooshtaïb” (bad); not worth the trouble of the walk. As for “anteekahs,” they were rarely found here, and when found were of slight value.
A scarab which he wore in a ring was then passed round and admired. It fell to our little lady’s turn to examine it last, and restore it to the owner. But the owner, with a bow and a deprecating gesture, would have none of it. The ring was a toy – a nothing – the lady’s – his no longer. She was obliged to accept it, however unwillingly. To decline would have been to offend. But it was the way in which the thing was done that made the charm of this little incident. The grace, the readiness, the courtesy, the lofty indifference of it, were alike admirable. Macready in his best days could have done it with as princely an air; but even he would probably have missed something of the Oriental reticence of the Bey of Erment.
He then invited us to go over the sugar-factory (which we declined on account of the lateness of the hour), and presently took his leave. About ten minutes after, came a whole posse of presents – three large bouquets of roses for the sittàt (ladies), two scarabei, a small funereal statuette in the rare green porcelain, and a live turkey. We in return sent a complicated English knife with all sorts of blades, and some pots of English jam.
The wind rose next morning with the sun, and by breakfast-time we had left Erment far behind. All that day the good breeze served us well. The river was alive with cargo-boats. The Philæ put on her best speed. The little Bagstones kept up gallantly. And the Fostat, a large iron dahabeeyah full of English gentlemen, kept us close company all the afternoon. We were all alike bound for Esneh, which is a large trading town, and lies twenty-six miles south of Erment.
Now, at Esneh the men were to bake again. Great, therefore was Reïs Hassan’s anxiety to get in first, secure the oven, and buy the flour before dusk. The Reïs of the Fostat and he of the Bagstones were equally anxious, and for the same reasons. Our men, meanwhile, were wild with excitement, watching every manœuvre of the other boats; hanging on to the shoghool like a swarm of bees; and obeying the word of command with unwonted alacrity. As we neared the goal, the race grew hotter. The honour of the boats was at stake, and the bread question was for the moment forgotten. Finally all three dahabeeyahs ran in abreast, and moored side by side in front of a row of little open cafés just outside the town.
Esneh (of which the old Egyptian civil name was Sni, and the Roman name Latopolis) stands high upon the mounds of the ancient city. It is a large place – as large, apparently, as Minieh, and like Minieh, it is the capital of a province. Here dragomans lay in provision of limes, charcoal, flour, and live stock, for the Nubian journey; and crews bake for the last time before their return to Egypt. For in Nubia food is scarce, and prices are high, and there are no public ovens.
It was about five o’clock on a market-day when we reached Esneh, and the market was not yet over. Going up through the usual labyrinth of windowless mud-alleys where the old men crouched, smoking, under every bit of sunny wall, and the children swarmed like flies, and the cry for bakhshîsh buzzed incessantly about our ears, we came to an open space in the upper part of the town, and found ourselves all at once in the midst of the market. Here were peasant folk selling farm-produce; stall-keepers displaying combs, looking-glasses, gaudy printed handkerchiefs and cheap bracelets of bone and coloured glass; camels lying at ease and snarling at every passer-by; patient donkeys; ownerless dogs; veiled women; blue and black robed men; and all the common sights and sounds of a native market. Here, too, we found Reïs Hassan bargaining for flour; Talhamy haggling with a charcoal-dealer; and the M. B.’s buying turkeys and geese for themselves and a huge store of tobacco for their crew. Most welcome sight of all, however, was a dingy chemist’s shop about the size of a sentry-box, over the door of which was suspended an Arabic inscription; while inside, robed all in black, sat a lean and grizzled Arab, from whom we bought a big bottle of rose water to make eye-lotion for L.-----’s ophthalmic patients.
Meanwhile there was a temple to be seen at Esneh; and this temple, as we had been told, was to be found close against the market-place. We looked round in vain, however, for any sign of pylon or portico. The chemist said it was “kureiyib,” which means “near by.” A camel-driver pointed to a dilapidated wooden gateway in a recess between two neighbouring houses. A small boy volunteered to lead the way. We were greatly puzzled. We had expected to see the temple towering above the surrounding houses, as at Luxor, and could by no means understand how any large building to which that gateway might give access, should not be visible from without.
The boy, however, ran and thumped upon the gate, and shouted “Abbas! Abbas!” Mehemet Ali, who was doing escort, added some thundering blows with his staff, and a little crowd gathered, but no Abbas came.
The bystanders, as usual, were liberal with their advice; recommending the boy to climb over, and the sailor to knock louder, and suggesting that Abbas the absent might possibly be found in a certain neighbouring café. At length I somewhat impatiently expressed my opinion that there was “Mafeesh Birbeh” (no temple at all); whereupon a dozen voices were raised to assure me that the Birbeh was no myth – that it was “kebîr” (big) – that it was “kwy-ees” (beautiful) – and that all the “Ingleez” came to see it.
In the midst of the clamour, however, and just as we are about to turn away in despair, the gate creaks open; the gentlemen of the Fostat troop out in puggeries and knickerbockers; and we are at last admitted.
This is what we see – a little yard surrounded by mud-walls; at the farther end of the yard a dilapidated doorway; beyond the doorway, a strange-looking, stupendous mass of yellow limestone masonry, long, and low, and level, and enormously massive. A few steps farther, and this proves to be the curved cornice of a mighty temple – a Temple neither ruined nor defaced, but buried to the chin in the accumulated rubbish of a score of centuries. This part is evidently the portico. We stand close under a row of huge capitals. The columns that support them are buried beneath our feet. The ponderous cornice juts out above our heads. From the level on which we stand to the top of that cornice may measure about twenty-five feet. A high mud-wall runs parallel to the whole width of the façade, leaving a passage of about twelve feet in breadth between the two. A low mud-parapet and a hand-rail reach from capital to capital. All beyond is vague, cavernous, mysterious – a great shadowy gulf, in the midst of which dim ghosts of many columns are darkly visible. From an opening between two of the capitals, a flight of brick steps leads down into a vast hall so far below the surface of the outer world, so gloomy, so awful, that it might be the portico of Hades.
Going down these steps we come to the original level of the temple. We tread the ancient pavement. We look up to the massive ceiling, recessed, and sculptured, and painted, like the ceiling at Denderah. We could almost believe, indeed, that we are again standing in the portico of Denderah. The number of columns is the same. The arrangement of the intercolumnar screen is the same. The general effect and the main features of the plan are the same. In some respects, however, Esneh is even more striking. The columns, though less massive than those of Denderah, are more elegant, and look loftier. Their shafts are covered with figures of gods, and emblems, and lines of hieroglyphed inscription, all cut in low relief. Their capitals, in place of the huge draped Hathor-heads of Denderah, are studied from natural forms – from the lotus-lily, the papyrus-blossom, the plumy date-palm. The wall-sculpture, however, is inferior to that at Denderah, and immeasurably inferior to the wall-sculpture at Karnak. The figures are of the meanest Ptolemaic type, and all of one size. The inscriptions, instead of being grouped wherever there happened to be space, and so producing the richest form of wall-decoration ever devised by man, are disposed in symmetrical columns, the effect of which, when compared with the florid style of Karnak, is as the methodical neatness of an engrossed deed to the splendid freedom of an illuminated manuscript.
The steps occupy the place of the great doorway. The jambs and part of the cornice, the intercolumnar screen, the shafts of the columns under whose capitals we came in, are all there, half-projecting from, and half-imbedded in the solid mound beyond. The light, however, comes in from so high up, and through so narrow a space, that one’s eyes need to become accustomed to the darkness before any of these details can be distinguished. Then, by degrees, forms of deities familiar and unfamiliar emerge from the gloom.
The Temple is dedicated to Knum or Kneph, the Soul of the World, whom we now see for the first time. He is ram-headed, and holds in his hand the “ankh,” or emblem of life.1 Another new acquaintance is Bes,2 the grotesque god of mirth and jollity.
Two singular little erections, built in between the columns to right and left of the steps, next attract our attention. They are like stone sentry-boxes. Each is in itself complete, with roof, sculptured cornice, doorway, and, if I remember rightly, a small square window in the side. The inscriptions upon two similar structures in the portico at Edfû show that the right-hand closet contained the sacred books belonging to the Temple, while in the closet to the left of the main entrance the king underwent the ceremony of purification. It may therefore be taken for granted that these at Esneh were erected for the same purposes.
And now we look round for the next hall – and look in vain. The doorway which should lead to it is walled up. The portico was excavated by Mohammed Ali in 1842; not in any spirit of antiquarian zeal, but in order to provide a safe underground magazine for gunpowder. Up to that time, as may be seen by one of the illustrations to Wilkinson’s "Thebes and General View of Egypt," the interior was choked to within a few feet of the capitals of the columns, and used as a cotton-store. Of the rest of the building, nothing is known; nothing is visible. It is as large, probably, as Denderah or Edfû, and in as perfect preservation. So, at least, says local tradition; but not even local tradition can point to what extent it underlies the foundations of the modern houses that swarm about its roof. An inscription first observed by Champollion states that the sanctuary was built by Thothmes III. Is that antique sanctuary still there? Has the temple grown step by step under the hands of successive Kings, as at Luxor? Or has it been re-edified ab ovo, as at Denderah? These are “puzzling questions,” only to be resolved by the demolition of a quarter of the town. Meanwhile, what treasures of sculptured history, what pictured chambers, what buried bronzes and statues may here wait the pick of the excavator!
All next day, while the men were baking, the writer sat in a corner of the outer passage, and sketched the portico of the temple. The sun rose upon the one horizon and set upon the other before that drawing was finished; yet for scarcely more than one hour did it light up the front of the temple. At about half-past nine A.M. it first caught the stone fillet at the angle. Then, one by one, each massy capital became outlined with a thin streak of gold. As this streak widened, the cornice took fire, and presently the whole stood out in light against the sky. Slowly then, but quite perceptibly, the sun travelled across the narrow space overhead; the shadows became vertical; the light changed sides; and by ten o’clock there was shade for the remainder of the day. Towards noon, however, the sun being then at its highest and the air transfused with light, the inner columns, swallowed up till now in darkness, became illumined with a wonderful reflected light, and glowed from out the gloom like pillars of fire.
Never go on shore without an escort is one of the rules of Nile life, and Salame has by this time become my exclusive property. He is a native of Assûan, young, active, intelligent, full of fun, hot-tempered withal, and as thorough a gentleman as I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. For a sample of his good breeding, take this day at Esneh – a day which he might have idled away in the bazaars and cafés, and which it must have been dull work to spend cooped up between a mud-wall and an outlandish Birbeh, built by the Djinns who reigned before Adam. Yet Salame betrays no discontent. Curled up in a shady corner, he watches me like a dog; is ready with an umbrella as soon as the sun comes round; and replenishes a water-bottle or holds a colour-box as deftly as though he had been to the manner born. At one o’clock arrives my luncheon, enshrined in a pagoda of plates. Being too busy to leave off work, however, I put the pagoda aside, and despatch Salame to the market, to buy himself some dinner; for which purpose, wishing to do the thing handsomely, I present him with the magnificent sum of two silver piastres, or about fivepence English. With this he contrives to purchase three or four cakes of flabby native bread, a black-looking rissole of chopped meat and vegetables, and about a pint of dried dates.
Knowing this to be a better dinner than my friend gets every day, knowing also that our sailors habitually eat at noon, I am surprised to see him leave these dainties untasted. In vain I say “Bismillah” (in the name of god); pressing him to eat in vocabulary phrases eked out with expressive pantomime. He laughs, shakes his head, and, asking permission to smoke a cigarette, protests he is not hungry. Thus three more hours go by. Accustomed to long fasting and absorbed in my sketch, I forget all about the pagoda; and it is past four o’clock when I at length set to work to repair tissue at the briefest possible cost of time and daylight. And now the faithful Salame falls to with an energy that causes the cakes, the rissole, the dates, to vanish as if by magic. Of what remains from my luncheon he also disposes in a trice. Never, unless in a pantomime, have I seen mortal man display so prodigious an appetite.
I made Talhamy scold him, by and by, for this piece of voluntary starvation.
“By my Prophet!” said he, “am I a pig or a dog, that I should eat when the Sitt was fasting?”
It was at Esneh, by the way, that that hitherto undiscovered curiousity, an ancient Egyptian coin, was offered to me for sale. The finder was digging for nitre, and turned it up at an immense depth below the mounds on the outskirts of the town. He volunteered to show the precise spot, and told his artless tale with childlike simplicity. Unfortunately, however, for the authenticity of this remarkable relic, it bore, together with the familiar profile of George IV, a superscription of its modest value, which was precisely one farthing. On another occasion, when we were making our long stay at Luxor, a coloured glass button of honest Birmingham make was brought to the boat by a fellâh who swore that he had himself found it upon a mummy in the Tombs of the Queens at Kûrnet Murraee. The same man came to my tent one day when I was sketching, bringing with him a string of more than doubtful scarabs – all veritable “anteekahs,” of course, and all backed up with undeniable pedigrees.
“La, la (no, no), – bring me no more anteekahs,” I said, gravely. “They are old and worn out, and cost much money. Have you no imitation scarabs, new and serviceable, that one might wear without the fear of breaking them?”
“These are imitations, O sitt!” was the ready answer.
“But you told me a moment ago they were genuine anteekahs.”
“That was because I thought the sitt wanted to buy anteekahs,” he said, quite shamelessly.
“See now,” I said, “if you are capable of selling me new things for old, how can I be sure that you would not sell me old things for new?”
To this he replied by declaring that he had made the scarabs himself. Then, fearing I should not believe him, he pulled a scrap of coarse paper from his bosom, borrowed one of my pencils, and drew an asp, an ibis, and some other common hieroglyphic forms, with tolerable dexterity.
“Now you believe?” he asked, triumphantly.
“I see that you can make birds and snakes,” I replied; “but that neither proves that you can cut scarabs, nor that these scarabs are new.”
“Nay, sitt,” he protested, “I made them with these hands. I made them but the other day. By Allah! they cannot be newer.”
Here Talhamy interposed.
“In that case,” he said, “they are too new, and will crack before a month is over. The sitt would do better to buy some that are well seasoned.”
Our honest Fellâh touched his brow and breast.
“Now in strict truth, O Dragoman!” he said, with an air of the most engaging candour, “these scarabs were made at the time of the inundation. They are new; but not too new. They are thoroughly seasoned. If they crack, you shall denounce me to the governor, and I will eat stick for them!”
Now it has always seemed to me that the most curious feature in this little scene was the extraordinary simplicity of the Arab. With all his cunning, with all his disposition to cheat, he suffered himself to be turned inside-out as unsuspiciously as a baby. It never occurred to him that his untruthfulness was being put to the test, or that he was committing himself more and more deeply with every word he uttered. The fact is, however, that the Fellâh is half a savage. Notwithstanding his mendacity – (and it must be owned that he is the most brilliant liar under heaven) – he remains a singularly transparent piece of humanity, easily amused, easily deceived, easily angered, easily pacified. He steals a little, cheats a little, lies a great deal; but on the other hand he is patient, hospitable, affectionate, trustful. He suspects no malice, and bears none. He commits no great crimes. He is incapable of revenge. In short, his good points outnumber his bad ones; and what man or nation need hope for a much better character?
To generalise in this way may seem like presumption on the part of a passing stranger; yet it is more excusable as regards Egypt than it would be of any other equally accessible country. In Europe, and indeed in most parts of the East, one sees too little of the people to be able to form an opinion about them; but it is not so on the Nile. Cut off from hotels, from railways, from Europeanised cities, you are brought into continual intercourse with natives. The sick who come to you for medicines, the country gentlemen and government officials who visit you on board your boat and entertain you on shore, your guides, your donkey-boys, the very dealers who live by cheating you, furnish endless studies of character, and teach you more of Egyptian life than all the books of Nile-travel that ever were written.
Then your crew, part Arab, part Nubian, are a little world in themselves. One man was born a slave, and will carry the dealer’s brand-marks to his grave. Another has two children in Miss Whateley’s school at Cairo. A third is just married, and has left his young wife sick at home. She may be dead by the time he gets back, and he will hear no news of her meanwhile. So with them all. Each has his simple story – a story in which the local oppressor, the dreaded conscription, and the still more dreaded corvée, form the leading incidents. The poor fellows are ready enough to pour out their hopes, their wrongs, their sorrows. Through sympathy with these, one comes to know the men; and through the men, the nation. For the life of the Beled repeats itself with but little variation wherever the Nile flows and the Khedive rules. The characters are the same; the incidents are the same. It is only the mise en scène which varies.
And thus it comes to pass that the mere traveller who spends but half-a-year on the Nile may, if he takes an interest in Egypt and the Egyptians, learn more of both in that short time than would be possible in a country less singularly narrowed in all ways – politically, socially, geographically.
And this reminds me that the traveller on the Nile really sees the whole land of Egypt. Going from point to point in other countries, one follows a thin line of road, railway, or river, leaving wide tracts unexplored on either side; but there are few places in Middle or Upper Egypt, and none at all in Nubia, where one may not, from any moderate height, survey the entire face of the country from desert to desert. It is well to do this frequently. It helps one, as nothing else can help one, to an understanding of the wonderful mountain waste through which the Nile has been scooping its way for uncounted cycles. And it enables one to realise what a mere slip of alluvial deposit is this famous land which is “the gift of the river.”
A dull grey morning, a faint and fitful breeze, carried us slowly on our way from Esneh to Edfû. The new bread – a heavy boat-load when brought on board – lay in a huge heap at the end of the upper deck. It took four men one whole day to cut it up. Their incessant gabble drove us nearly distracted.
“Uskût, Khaleefeh! Uskût, Ali!” (Silence, Khaleefeh! Silence, Ali!) Talhamy would say from time to time. “You are not on your own deck. The Howadji can neither read nor write for the clatter of your tongues.”
And then, for about a minute and a half, they would be quiet.
But you could as easily keep a monkey from chattering as an Arab. Our men talked incessantly; and their talk was always about money. Listen to them when we might, such words as “Khámsa gurûsh” (five piastres), “nûs riyâl” (half-a-dollar), “ethneen shilling” (two shillings), were perpetually coming to the surface. We never could understand how it was that money, which played so small a part in their lives, should play so large a part in their conversation.
It was about midday when we passed El Kab, the ancient Eileithyias. A rocky valley narrowing inland; a sheik’s tomb on the mountain-ridge above; a few clumps of date-palms; some remains of what looked like a long crude-brick wall running at right angles to the river; and an isolated mass of hollowed limestone rock left standing apparently in the midst of an exhausted quarry, were all we saw of El Kab as the dahabeeyah glided by.
And now, as the languid afternoon wears on, the propylons of Edfû loom out of the misty distance. We have been looking for them long enough before they come in sight – calculating every mile of the way; every minute of the daylight. The breeze, such as it was, has dropped now. The river stretches away before us, smooth and oily as a pond. Nine of the men are tracking. Will they pull us to Edfû in time to see the Temple before nightfall?
Reïs Hassan looks doubtful; but takes refuge as usual in “Inshallah!” (God willing). Talhamy talks of landing a sailor to run forward and order donkeys. Meanwhile the Philæ creeps lazily on; the sun declines unseen behind a filmy veil; and those two shadowy towers, rising higher and ever higher on the horizon, look grey, and ghostly, and far distant still.
Suddenly the trackers stop, look back, shout to those on board, and begin drawing the boat to shore. Reïs Hassan points joyously to a white streak breaking across the smooth surface of the river about half-a-mile behind. The Fostât’s sailors are already swarming aloft – the Bagstones’ trackers are making for home – our own men are preparing to fling in the rope and jump on board as the Philæ nears the bank.
For the capricious wind, that always springs up when we don’t want it, is coming!
And now the Fostât, being hindmost, flings out her big sail and catches the first puff; the Bagstones’ turn comes next; the Philæ shakes her wings free, and shoots ahead; and in fewer minutes than it takes to tell, we are all three scudding along before a glorious breeze.
The great towers that showed so far away half-an-hour ago are now close at hand. There are palm-woods about their feet, and clustered huts, from the midst of which they tower up against the murky sky magnificently. Soon they are passed and left behind, and the grey twilight takes them, and we see no more. Then night comes on, cold and starless; yet not too dark for going as fast as wind and canvas will carry us.
And now, with that irrepressible instinct of rivalry that flesh – especially flesh on the Nile – is heir to, we quickly turn our good going into a trial of speed. It is no longer a mere business-like devotion to the matter in hand. It is a contest for glory. It is the Philæ against the Fostât, and the Bagstones against both. In plain English, it is a race. The two leading dahabeeyahs are pretty equally matched. The Philæ is larger than the Fostât; but the Fostât has a bigger mainsail. On the other hand, the Fostât is an iron boat; whereas the Philæ, being wooden-built, is easier to pole off a sandbank, and lighter in hand. The Bagstones carries a capital mainsail, and can go as fast as either upon occasion. Meanwhile, the race is one of perpetually varying fortunes. Now the Fostât shoots ahead; now the Philæ. We pass and re-pass; take the wind out of one another’s sails; economise every curve; hoist every stitch of canvas; and, having identified ourselves with our boats, are as eager to win as if a great prize depended on it. Under these circumstances, to dine is difficult – to go to bed superfluous – to sleep impossible. As to mooring for the night, it is not to be thought of for a moment. Having begun the contest, we can no more help going than the wind can help blowing; and our crew are as keen about winning as ourselves.
As night advances, the wind continues to rise, and our excitement with it. Still the boats chase each other along the dark river, scattering spray from their bows and flinging out broad foam-tracks behind them. Their cabin-windows, all alight within, cast flickering flames upon the waves below. The coloured lanterns at their mast-heads, orange, purple, and crimson, burn through the dusk like jewels. Presently the mist blows off; the sky clears; the stars come out; the wind howls; the casements rattle; the tiller scroops; the sailors shout, and race, and bang the ropes about overhead; while we, sitting up in our narrow berths, spend half the night watching from our respective windows.
In this way some hours go by. Then, about three in the morning, with a shock, a recoil, a yell, and a scuffle, we all three rush headlong upon a sandbank! The men fly to the rigging, and furl the flapping sail. Some seize punting poles. Others, looking like full-grown imps of darkness, leap overboard and set their shoulders to the work. A strophe and antistrophe of grunts are kept up between those on deck and those in the water. Finally, after some ten minutes’ frantic struggle, the Philæ slips off, leaving the other two aground in the middle of the river.
Towards morning, the noisy night having worn itself away, we all fall asleep – only to be roused again by Talmany’s voice at seven, proclaiming aloud that the Bagstones and Fostât are once more close upon our heels; that Silsilis and Kom Ombo are passed and left behind; that we have already put forty-six miles between ourselves and Edfû; and that the good wind is still blowing.
We are now within fifteen miles of Assûan. The Nile is narrow here, and the character of the scenery has quite changed. Our view is bounded on the Arabian side by a near range of black granitic mountains; while on the Libyan side lies a chain of lofty sand-hills, each curiously capped by a crown of dark boulders. On both banks the river is thickly fringed with palms.
Meanwhile the race goes on. Last night it was sport; to-day it is earnest. Last night we raced for glory; to-day we race for a stake.
“A guinée for Reïs Hassan, if we get first to Assûan!”
Reïs Hassan’s eyes glisten. No need to call up the dragoman to interpret between us. The look, the tone, are as intelligible to him as the choicest Arabic; and the magical word ‘guinée’ stands for a sovereign now, as it stood for one pound one in the days of Nelson and Abercrombie. He touches his head and breast; casts a backward glance at the pursuing dahabeeyahs, a forward glance in the direction of Assûan; kicks off his shoes; ties a handkerchief about his waist; and stations himself at the top of the steps leading to the upper deck. By the light in his eye and the set look about his mouth, Reïs Hassan means winning.
Now to be first in Assûan means to be first on the governor’s list, and first up the cataract. And as the passage of the cataract is some two or three days’ work, this little question of priority is by no means unimportant. Not for five times the promised ‘guinée’ would we have the Fostât slip in first, and so be kept waiting our turn on the wrong side of the frontier.
And now, as the sun rises higher, so the race waxes hotter. At breakfast time, we were fifteen miles from Assûan. Now the fifteen miles have gone down to ten; and when we reach yonder headland, they will have dwindled to seven. It is plain to see, however, that as the distance decreases between ourselves and Assûan, so also it decreases between ourselves and the Fostât. Reïs Hassan knows it. I see him measuring the space by his eye. I see the frown settling on his brow. He is calculating how much the Fostât gains in every quarter of an hour, and how many quarters we are yet distant from the goal. For no Arab sailor counts by miles. He counts by time, and by the reaches in the river; and these may be taken at a rough average of three miles each. When, therefore, our captain, in reply to an oft-repeated question, says we have yet two bends to make, we know that we are about six miles from our destination.
Six miles – and the Fostât creeping closer every minute! Just now we were all talking eagerly; but as the end draws near, even the sailors are silent. Reïs Hassan stands motionless at his post, on the lookout for shallows. The words “Shamàl – Yemîn” (left – right), delivered in a short, sharp tone, are the only sounds he utters. The steersman, all eye and ear, obeys him like his hand. The sailors squat in their places, quiet and alert as cats.
And now it is no longer six miles but five – no longer five, but four. The Fostât, thanks to her bigger sail, has well-nigh overtaken us; and the Bagstones is not more than a hundred yards behind the Fostât. On we go, however, past palm-woods of nobler growth than any we have yet seen; past forlorn homeward-bound dahabeeyahs lying-to against the wind; past native boats, and river-side huts, and clouds of driving sand; till the corner is turned, and the last reach gained, and the minarets of Assûan are seen as through a shifting fog in the distance. The ruined tower crowning yonder promontory stands over against the town; and those black specks midway in the bed of the river are the first outlying rocks of the Cataract. The channel there is hemmed in between reefs and sandbanks, and to steer it is difficult in even the calmest weather. Still our canvas strains to the wind, and the Philæ rushes on full-tilt, like a racer at the hurdles.
Every eye now is turned upon Reïs Hassan; and Reïs Hassan stands rigid, like a man of stone. The rocks are close ahead – so close that we can see the breakers pouring over them, and the swirling eddies between. Our way lies through an opening between the boulders. Beyond that opening, the channel turns off sharply to the left. It is a point at which everything will depend on the shifting of the sail. If done too soon, we miss the mark; if too late, we strike upon the rocks.
Suddenly our captain flings up his hand, takes the stairs at a bound, and flies to the prow. The sailors spring to their feet, gathering some round the shoghool, and some round the end of the yard. The Fostât is up beside us. The moment for winning or losing is come.
And now, for a couple of breathless seconds, the two dahabeeyahs plunge onward side by side, making for that narrow passage which is only wide enough for one. Then the iron boat, shaving the sandbank to get a wider berth, shifts her sail first, and shifts it clumsily, breaking or letting go her shoghool. We see the sail flap, and the rope fly, and all hands rushing to retrieve it.
In that moment Reïs Hassan gives the word. The Philæ bounds forward – takes the channel from under the very bows of the Fostât – changes her sail without a hitch – and dips right away down the deep water, leaving her rival hard and fast among the shallows.
The rest of the way is short and open. In less than five minutes we have taken in our sail, paid Reïs Hassan his well-earned guinée, and found a snug corner to moor in. And so ends our memorable race of nearly sixty-eight miles from Edfû to Assûan_____________________________
1 Knum was one of the primordial gods of the Egyptian cosmogony; the divine potter; he who fashioned man from the clay, and breathed into him the breath of life. He is sometimes represented in the act of fashioning the first man, or that mysterious egg from which not only man but the universe proceeded, by means of the ordinary potter’s wheel. Sometimes also he is depicted, in his boat, moving upon the face of the waters at the dawn of creation. About the time of the twentieth dynasty Knum became identified with Ra. He also was identified wth Amen, and was worshipped in the Great Oasis in the Greek period as Amen-Knum. He is likewise known as “The Soul of the Gods,” and in this character, as well as in his solar character, he is represented with the head of a ram, or in the form of a ram. Another of his titles is “The Maker of Gods and Men.” Knum was also one of the gods of the cataract, and chief of the Triad worshipped at Elephantine. An inscription at Philæ styles him “Maker of all that is, Creator of all beings, First existent, the Father of Fathers, the Mother of Mothers.”
2 Bes. “La culta de Bes parait étre une importation Asiatique. Quelquefois le dieu est armé d’une épée qu’il brandit au-dessus de sa tête; dans ce rôle, il semble le dieu des combats. Plus souvent c’est le dieu de la danse, de la musique, des plaisirs.” – Mariette Bey.