Here to return to
ASSÛAN AND ELEPHANTINE.
THE green island of Elephantine, which is about a mile in length, lies opposite Assûan and divides the Nile in two channels. The Libyan and Arabian deserts – smooth amber sand-slopes on the one hand; rugged granite cliffs on the other – come down to the brink on either side. On the Libyan shore a sheik's’s tomb, on the Arabian shore a bold fragment of Moorish architecture with ruined arches open to the sky, crown two opposing heights, and keep watch over the gate of the cataract. Just under the Moorish ruin, and separated from the river by a slip of sandy beach, lies Assûan.
A few scattered houses, a line of blank wall, the top of a minaret, the dark mouths of one or two gloomy alleys, are all that one sees of the town from the mooring-place below. The black boulders close against the shore, some of which are superbly hieroglyphed, glisten in the sun like polished jet.1 The beach is crowded with bales of goods; with camels laden and unladen; with turbaned figures coming and going; with damaged cargo-boats lying up high and dry, and half heeled over in the sun. Others, moored close together, are taking in or discharging cargo. A little apart from these lie some three or four dahabeeyahs flying English, American, and Belgian flags. Another has cast anchor over the way at Elephantine. Small row-boats cross and recross, meanwhile, from shore to shore; dogs bark; camels snort and snarl; donkeys bray; and clamorous curiosity-dealers scream, chatter, hold their goods at arm’s length, battle and implore to come on board, and are only kept off the landing plank by means of two big sticks in the hands of two stalwart sailors.
Things offered for sale at Assûan are altogether new and strange. Here are no scarabæi, no funerary statuettes, no bronze or porcelain gods, no relics of a past civilisation; but, on the contrary, such objects as speak only of a rude and barbarous present – ostrich eggs and feathers, silver trinkets of rough Nubian workmanship, spears, bows, arrows, bucklers of rhinoceros-hide, ivory bracelets cut solid from the tusk, porcupine quills, baskets of stained and plaited reeds, gold nose-rings, and the like. One old woman has a Nubian lady’s dressing-case for sale – an uncouth, Fetish-like object with a cushion for its body, and a top-knot of black feathers. The cushion contains two Kohl-bottles, a bodkin, and a bone comb.
But the noisiest dealer of the lot is an impish boy blessed with the blackest skin and the shrillest voice ever brought together in one human being. His simple costume consists of a tattered shirt and a white cotton skull-cap; his stock-in-trade, of a greasy leather fringe tied to the end of a stick. Flying from window to window of the saloon on the side next the shore, scrambling up the bows of a neighbouring cargo-boat so as to attack us in the rear, thrusting his stick and fringe in our faces whichever way we turn, and pursuing us with eager cries of “Madame Nubia! Madame Nubia!” he skips, and screams, and grins like an ubiquitous goblin, and throws every competitor into the shade.
Having seen a similar fringe in the collection of a friend at home, I at once recognised in “Madame Nubia” one of those curious girdles which, with the addition of a necklace and a few bracelets, form the entire wardrobe of little girls south of the cataract. They vary in size according to the age of the wearer; the largest being about twelve inches in depth and twenty-five in length. A few are ornamented with beads and small shells; but these are parures de luxe. The ordinary article is cheaply and unpretentiously trimmed with castor-oil. That is to say, the girdle when new is well soaked in the oil, which softens and darkens the leather, besides adding a perfume dear to native nostrils.
For to the Nubian, who grows his own plants and bruises his own berries, this odour is delicious. He reckons castor-oil among his greatest luxuries. He eats it as we eat butter. His wives saturate their plaited locks in it. His little girls perfume their fringes with it. His boys anoint their bodies with it. His home, his breath, his garments, his food, are redolent of it. It pervades the very air in which he lives and has his being. Happy the European traveller who, while his lines are cast in Nubia, can train his degenerate nose to delight in the aroma of castor-oil!
The march of civilisation is driving these fringes out of fashion on the frontier. At Assûan, they are chiefly in demand among English and American visitors. Most people purchase a “Madame Nubia” for the entertainment of friends at home. L.-----, who is given to vanities in the way of dress, bought one so steeped in fragrance that it scented the Philæ for the rest of the voyage, and retains its odour to this day.
Almost before the mooring-rope was made fast, our Painter, arrayed in a gorgeous keffîyeh2 and armed with the indispensable visiting-cane, had sprung ashore and hastened to call upon the governor. A couple of hours later, the governor (having promised to send at once for the sheik of the cataract and to forward our going by all means in his power) returned the visit. He brought with him the Mudîr3 and Kadi4 of Assûan, each attended by his pipe-bearer.
We received our guests with due ceremony in the saloon. The great men placed themselves on one of the side-divans, and the painter opened the conversation by offering them champagne, claret, port, sherry, curaçoa, brandy, whisky, and Angostura bitters. Talhamy interpreted.
The governor laughed. He was a tall young man, graceful, lively, good-looking, and black as a crow. The Kadi and Mudîr, both elderly Arabs, yellow, wrinkled, and precise, looked shocked at the mere mention of these unholy liquors. Somebody then produced lemonade.
The governor turned briskly towards the speaker.
“Gazzoso?” he said, interrogatively.
To which Talhamy replied: “Aïwah (Yes), Gazzoso.”
Aerated lemonade and cigars were then brought. The governor watched the process of uncorking with a face of profound interest, and drank with the undisguised greediness of a schoolboy. Even the Kadi and Mudîr relaxed somewhat of the gravity of their demeanour. To men whose habitual drink consists of lime-water and sugar, bottled lemonade represents champagne mousseux of the choicest brand.
Then began the usual attempts at conversation; and only those who have tried small-talk by proxy know how hard it is to supply topics, suppress yawns, and keep up an animated expression of countenance, while the civilities on both sides are being interpreted by a dragoman.
We began, of course, with the temperature; for in Egypt, where it never rains and the sun is always shining, the thermometer takes the place of the weather as a useful platitude. Knowing that Assûan enjoys the hottest reputation of any town on the surface of the globe, we were agreeably surprised to find it no warmer than England in September. The governor accounted for this by saying that he had never known so cold a winter. We then asked the usual questions about the crops, the height of the river, and so forth; to all of which he replied with the ease and bonhomie of a man of the world. Nubia, he said, was healthy – the date-harvest had been abundant – the corn promised well – the Soudan was quiet and prosperous. Referring to the new postal arrangements, he congratulated us on being able to receive and post letters at the second cataract. He also remarked that the telegraphic wires were now in working order as far as Khartûm. We then asked how soon he expected the railway to reach Assûan; to which he replied – “In two years, at latest.”
At length our little stock of topics came to an end, and the entertainment flagged.
“What shall I say next?” asked the dragoman.
“Tell him we particularly wish to see the slave-market.”
The smile vanished from the governor’s face. The Mudîr set down a glass of fizzing lemonade, untasted. The Kadi all but dropped his cigar. If a shell had burst in the saloon, their consternation could scarcely have been greater.
The governor, looking very grave, was the first to speak.
“He says there is no slave-trade in Egypt, and no slave-market in Assûan,” interpreted Talhamy.
Now we had been told in Cairo, on excellent authority, that slaves were still bought and sold here, though less publicly than of old; and that of all the sights a traveller might see in Egypt, this was the most curious and pathetic.
“No slave-market!” we repeated, incredulously.
The governor, the Kadi, and the Mudîr shook their heads, and lifted up their voices, and said all together like a trio of Mandarins in a comic opera: –
“Là, là, là! Mafeesh bazaar – mafeesh bazaar!” (No, no, no! No bazaar – no bazaar!)
We endeavoured to explain that in making this inquiry we desired neither the gratification of an idle curiosity, nor the furtherance of any political views. Our only object was sketching. Understanding, therefore, that a private bazaar still existed in Assûan. . . .
This was too much for the judicial susceptibilities of the Kadi. He would not let Talhamy finish.
“There is nothing of the kind,” he interrupted, puckering his face into an expression of such virtuous horror as might become a reformed New Zealander on the subject of cannibalism. “It is unlawful – unlawful.”
An awkward silence followed. We felt we had committed an enormous blunder, and were disconcerted accordingly.
The governor saw, and with the best grace in the world took pity upon, our embarrassment. He rose, opened the piano, and asked for some music; whereupon the little lady played the liveliest thing she could remember, which happened to be a waltz by Verdi.
The governor, meanwhile, sat beside the piano, smiling and attentive. With all his politeness, however, he seemed to be looking for something – to be not altogether satisfied. There was even a shade of disappointment in the tone of his “Ketther-khayrik ketîr,” when the waltz finally exploded in a shower of arpeggios. What could it be? Was it that he wished for a song? Or would a pathetic air have pleased him better?
Not a bit of it. He was looking for what his quick eye presently detected – namely some printed music, which he seized triumphantly and placed before the player. What he wanted was “music played from a book.”
Being asked whether he preferred a lively or a plaintive melody, he replied that “he did not care, so long as it was difficult.”
Now it chanced that he had pitched upon a volume of Wagner; so the little lady took him at his word, and gave him a dose of “Tannhäuser.” Strange to say, he was delighted. He showed his teeth; he rolled his eyes; he uttered the long-drawn “Ah!” which in Egypt signifies applause. The more crabbed, the more far-fetched, the more unintelligible the movement, the better, apparently, he liked it.
I never think of Assûan but I remember that curious scene – our little lady at the piano; the black governor grinning in ecstasies close by; the Kadi in his magnificent shawl-turban; the Mudîr half-asleep; the air thick with tobacco smoke; and above all – dominant, tyrannous, overpowering – the crash and clang, the involved harmonies, and the multitudinous combinations of Tannhäuser.
The linked sweetness of an Oriental visit is generally drawn out to a length that sorely tries the patience and politeness of European hosts. A native gentleman, if he has any business to attend to, gets through his work before noon, and has nothing to do but smoke, chat, and doze away the remainder of the day. For time, which hangs heavily on his hands, he has absolutely no value. His main object in life is to consume it, if possible, less tediously. He pays a visit, therefore, with the deliberate intention of staying as long as possible. Our guests on the present occasion remained the best part of two hours; and the governor, who talked of going to England shortly, asked for all our names and addresses, that he might come and see us at home.
Leaving the cabin, he paused to look at our roses, which stood near the door. We told him they had been given to us by the Bey of Erment.
“Do they grow at Erment?” he asked, examining them with great curiosity. “How beautiful! Why will they not grow in Nubia?”
We suggested that the climate was probably too hot for them.
He stopped, inhaling their perfume. He looked puzzled.
“They are very sweet,” he said. “Are they roses?”
The question gave us a kind of shock. We could hardly believe we had reached a land where roses were unknown. Yet the governor, who had smoked a rose-water narghilé, and drunk rose-sherbet, and eaten conserve of roses all his days, recognised them by their perfume only. He had never been out of Assûan in his life; not even as far as Erment. And he had never seen a rose in bloom.
We had hoped to begin the passage of the cataract on the morning of the day following our arrival at the frontier; but some other dahabeeyah, it seemed, was in the act of fighting its way up to Philæ; and till that boat was through, neither the sheik nor his men would be ready for us. At eight o’clock in the morning of the next day but one, however, they promised to take us in hand. We were to pay £12 English for the double journey; that is to say, £9 down, and the remaining £3 on our return to Assûan.
Such was the treaty conducted between ourselves and the Sheykh of the Cataract at a solemn conclave over which the Governor, assisted by the Kadi and Mudîr, presided.
Having a clear day to spend at Assûan, we of course gave part thereof to Elephantine, which in the inscriptions is called Abu, or the Ivory Island. There may perhaps have been a depôt, or “treasure-city,” here for the precious things of the Upper Nile country; the gold of Nubia and the elephant-tusks of Kush.
It is a very beautiful island – rugged and lofty to the south; low and fertile to the north; with an exquisitely varied coast-line full of wooded creeks and miniature beaches, in which one might expect at any moment to meet Robinson Crusoe with his goat-skin umbrella, or man Friday bending under a load of faggots. They are all Fridays here, however; for Elephantine, being the first Nubian outpost, is peopled by Nubians only. It contains two Nubian villages, and the mounds of a very ancient city which was the capital of all Egypt under the Pharaohs of the sixth dynasty, between three and four thousand years before Christ. Two temples, one of which dated from the reign of Amenhotep III, were yet standing here some seventy years ago. They were seen by Belzoni in 1815, and had just been destroyed to build a palace and barracks when Champollion went up in 1829. A ruined gateway of the Ptolemaic period and a forlorn-looking sitting statue of Menephtah, the supposed Pharaoh of the Exodus, alone remain to identify the sites on which they stood.
Thick palm-groves and carefully-tilled patches of castor-oil and cotton plants, lentils, and durra, make green the heart of the island. The western shore is wooded to the water’s edge. One may walk here in the shade at hottest noon, listening to the murmur of the cataract and seeking for wild flowers – which, however, would seem to blossom nowhere save in the sweet Arabic name of Gezîret-el-Zahr, the Island of Flowers.
Upon the high ground at the southern extremity of the island, among rubbish heaps and bleached bones, and human skulls, and the sloughed skins of snakes, and piles of parti-coloured potsherds, we picked up several bits of inscribed terra-cotta – evidently fragments of broken vases. The writing was very faint, and in part obliterated. We could see that the characters were Greek; but not even our idle man was equal to making out a word of the sense. Believing them to be mere disconnected scraps to which it would be impossible to find the corresponding pieces – taking it for granted, also, that they were of comparatively modern date – we brought away some three or four as souvenirs of the place, and thought no more about them.
We little dreamed that Dr. Birch, in his cheerless official room at the British Museum so many thousand miles away, was at this very time occupied in deciphering a collection of similar fragments, nearly all of which had been brought from this same spot.5 Of the curious interest attaching to these illegible scrawls, of the importance they were shortly to acquire in the eyes of the learned, of the possible value of any chance additions to their number we knew, and could know, nothing. Six months later, we lamented our ignorance and our lost opportunities.
For the Egyptians, it seems, used potsherds instead of papyrus for short memoranda; and each of these fragments that we had picked up contained a record complete in itself. I fear we should have laughed if any one had suggested that they might be tax-gatherer’s receipts. Yet that is just what they were – receipts for government dues collected on the frontier during the period of Roman rule in Egypt. They were written in Greek, because the Romans deputed Greek scribes to perform the duties of this unpopular office; but the Greek is so corrupt and the penmanship so clownish that only a few eminent scholars can read them.
Not all the inscribed fragments found at Elephantine, however, were tax-receipts, or written in bad Greek. The British Museum contains several in the demotic, or current script of the people, and a few in the more learned hieratic or priestly hand. The former have not yet been translated. They are probably business memoranda and short private letters of Egyptians of the same period.
But how came these fragile documents to be preserved, when the city in which their writers lived, and the temples in which they worshipped, have disappeared and left scarce a trace behind? Who cast them down among the potsherds on this barren hillside? Are we to suppose that some kind of public record-office once occupied the site, and that the receipts here stored were duplicates of those given to the payers? Or is it not even more probable that this place was the Monte Testaccio of the ancient city, to which all broken pottery, written as well as unwritten, found its way sooner or later?
With the exception of a fine fragment of Roman quay nearly opposite Assûan, the ruined gateway of Alexander and the battered statue of Menephtah are the only objects of archæological interest in the island. But the charm of Elephantine is the everlasting charm of natural beauty – of rocks, of palm-woods, of quiet waters.
The streets of Assûan are just like the streets of every other mud town on the Nile. The bazaars reproduce the bazaars of Minieh and Siût. The environs are noisy with cafés and dancing girls, like the environs of Esneh and Luxor. Into the mosque, where some kind of service was going on, we peeped without entering. It looked cool, and clean, and spacious; the floor being covered with fine matting, and some scores of ostrich-eggs depending from the ceiling. In the bazaars we bought baskets and mats of Nubian manufacture, woven with the same reeds, dyed with the same colours, shaped after the same models, as those found in the tombs at Thebes. A certain oval basket with a vaulted cover, of which specimens are preserved in the British Museum, seems still to be the pattern most in demand at Assûan. The basket-makers have neither changed their fashion nor the buyers their taste since the days of Rameses the Great.
Here also, at a little cupboard of a shop near the Shoe Bazaar, we were tempted to spend a few pounds in ostrich feathers, which are conveyed to Assûan by traders from the Soudan. The merchant brought out a feather at a time, and seemed in no haste to sell. We also affected indifference. The haggling on both sides was tremendous. The bystanders, as usual, were profoundly interested, and commented on every word that passed. At last we carried away an armful of splendid plumes, most of which measured from two and a half to three feet in length. Some were pure white, others white tipped with brown. They had been neither cleaned nor curled, but were just as they came from the hands of the ostrich-hunters.
By far the most amusing sight in Assûan was the traders’ camp down near the landing-place. Here were Abyssinians like slender-legged baboons; wild-looking Bisharîyah and Ababdeh Arabs with flashing eyes and flowing hair; sturdy Nubians the colour of a Barbedienne bronze; and natives of all tribes and shades, from Kordofân and Sennâr, the deserts of Bahuda and the banks of the Blue and White Niles. Some were returning from Cairo; others were on their way thither. Some, having disembarked their merchandise at Mahatta (a village on the other side of the cataract), had come across the desert to re-embark it at Assûan. Others had just disembarked theirs at Assûan, in order to re-embark it at Mahatta. Meanwhile, they were living sub Jove; each entrenched in his own little redoubt of piled-up bales and packing-cases, like a spider in the centre of his web; each provided with his kettle and coffee-pot, and an old rug to sleep and pray upon. One sulky old Turk had fixed up a roof of matting, and furnished his den with a Kafas, or palm-wood couch; but he was a self-indulgent exception to the rule.
Some smiled, some scowled, when we passed through the camp. One offered us coffee. Another, more obliging than the rest, displayed the contents of his packages. Great bundles of lion and leopard skins, bales of cotton, sacks of henna-leaves, elephant-tusks swathed in canvas and matting, strewed the sandy bank. Of gum-arabic alone there must have been several hundred bales; each bale sewn up in a raw hide and tied with thongs of hippopotamus leather. Towards dusk, when the camp-fires were alight and the evening meal was in course of preparation, the scene became wonderfully picturesque. Lights gleamed; shadows deepened; strange figures stalked to and fro, or squatted in groups amid their merchandise. Some were baking flat cakes; others stirring soup, or roasting coffee. A hole scooped in the sand, a couple of stones to support the kettle, and a handful of dry sticks, served for kitchen-range and fuel. Meanwhile all the dogs in Assûan prowled round the camp, and a jargon of barbaric tongues came and went with the breeze that followed the sunset.
I must not forget to add that among this motley crowd we saw two brothers, natives of Khartûm. We met them first in the town, and afterwards in the camp. They wore voluminous white turbans, and flowing robes of some kind of creamy cashmere cloth. Their small proud heads and delicate aristocratic features were modelled on the purest Florentine type; their eyes were long and liquid; their complexions, free from any taint of Abyssinian blue or Nubian bronze, were intensely, lustrously, magnificently black. We agreed that we had never seen two such handsome men. They were like young and beautiful Dantes carved in ebony; Dantes unembittered by the world, unsicklied by the pale cast of thought, and glowing with the life of the warm South.
Having explored Elephantine and ransacked the bazaars, our party dispersed in various directions. Some gave the remainder of the day to letter-writing. The Painter, bent on sketching, started off in search of a jackal-haunted ruin up a wild ravine on the Libyan side of the river. The Writer and the Idle Man boldly mounted camels and rode out into the Arabian desert.
Now the camel-riding that is done in Assûan is of the most commonplace description, and bears to genuine desert travelling about the same relation that half-an-hour on the Mer de Glace bears to the passage of the Mortaretsch glacier or the ascent of Monte Rosa. The short cut from Assûan to Philæ, or at least the ride to the granite quarries, forms part of every dragoman’s programme, and figures as the crowning achievement of every Cook’s tourist. The Arabs themselves perform these little journeys much more pleasantly and expeditiously on donkeys. They take good care, in fact, never to scale the summit of a camel if they can help it. But for the impressionable traveller, the Assûan camel is de rigueur. In his interests are those snarling quadrupeds be-tasselled and be-rugged, taken from their regular work, and paraded up and down the landing-place. To transport cargoes disembarked above and below the Cataract is their vocation. Taken from this honest calling to perform in an absurd little drama got up especially for the entertainment of tourists, it is no wonder if the beasts are more than commonly ill-tempered. They know the whole proceeding to be essentially cockney, and they resent it accordingly.
The ride, nevertheless, has its advantages; not the least being that it enables one to realise the kind of work involved in any of the regular desert expeditions. At all events, it entitles one to claim acquaintance with the ship of the desert, and (bearing in mind the probable inferiority of the specimen) to form an ex pede judgment of his qualifications.
The camel has its virtues – so much at least must be admitted; but they do not lie upon the surface. My Buffon tells me, for instance, that he carries a fresh-water cistern in his stomach; which is meritorious. But the cistern ameliorates neither his gait nor his temper – which are abominable. Irreproachable as a beast of burden, he is open to many objections as a steed. It is unpleasant, in the first place, to ride an animal that not only objects to being ridden, but cherishes a strong personal antipathy to his rider. Such, however, is his amiable peculiarity. You know that he hates you, from the moment you first walk round him, wondering where and how to begin the ascent of his hump. He does not in fact, hesitate to tell you so in the roundest terms. He swears freely while you are taking your seat; snarls if you but move in the saddle; and stares you angrily in the face, if you attempt to turn his head in any direction save that which he himself prefers. Should you persevere, he tries to bite your feet. If biting your feet does not answer, he lies down.
Now the lying-down and getting-up of a camel are performances designed for the express purpose of inflicting grievous bodily harm upon his rider. Thrown twice forward and twice backward, punched in his “wind” and damaged in his spine, the luckless novice receives four distinct shocks, each more violent and unexpected than the last. For this “execrable hunchback” is fearfully and wonderfully made. He has a superfluous joint somewhere in his legs, and uses it to revenge himself upon mankind.
His paces, however, are more complicated than his joints and more trying than his temper. He has four:– a short walk, like the rolling of a small boat in a chopping sea; a long walk which dislocates every bone in your body; a trot that reduces you to imbecility; and a gallop that is sudden death. One tries in vain to imagine a crime for which the peine forte et dure of sixteen hours on camel-back would not be a full and sufficient expiation. It is a punishment to which one would not willingly be the means of condemning any human being – not even a reviewer.
They had been down on the bank for hire all day long – brown camels and white camels, shaggy camels and smooth camels; all with gay worsted tassels on their heads, and rugs flung over their high wooden saddles, by way of housings. The gentlemen of the Fostât had ridden away hours ago, cross-legged and serene; and we had witnessed their demeanor with mingled admiration and envy. Now, modestly conscious of our own daring, we prepared to do likewise. It was a solemn moment when, having chosen our beasts, we prepared to encounter the unknown perils of the desert. What wonder if the happy couple exchanged an affecting farewell at parting?
We mounted and rode away; two imps of darkness following at the heels of our camels, and Salame performing the part of bodyguard. Thus attended, we found ourselves pitched, swung, and rolled along at a pace that carried us rapidly up the slope, past a suburb full of cafés and grinning dancing girls, and out into the desert. Our way for the first half-mile or so lay among tombs. A great Mohammedan necropolis, part ancient, part modern, lies behind Assûan, and covers more ground than the town itself. Some scores of tiny mosques, each topped by its little cupola, and all more or less dilapidated, stand here amid a wilderness of scattered tombstones. Some are isolated; some grouped picturesquely together. Each covers, or is supposed to cover, the grave of a Moslem Santon; but some are mere commemorative chapels dedicated to saints and martyrs elsewhere buried. Of simple head-stones defaced, shattered, overturned, propped back to back on cairns of loose stones, or piled in broken and dishonoured heaps, there must be many hundreds. They are for the most part rounded at the top like ancient Egyptian stelæ, and bear elaborately carved inscriptions, some of which are in the Cufic character, and more than a thousand years old. Seen when the sun is bending westward and the shadows are lengthening, there is something curiously melancholy and picturesque about this city of the dead in the dead desert.
Leaving the tombs, we now strike off towards the left, bound for the obelisk in the quarry, which is the stock sight of the place. The horizon beyond Assûan is bounded on all sides by rocky heights, bold and picturesque in form, yet scarcely lofty enough to deserve the name of mountains. The sandy bottom under our camel’s feet is strewn with small pebbles, and tolerably firm. Clustered rocks of black and red granite profusely inscribed with hieroglyphed records crop up here and there, and serve as landmarks just where landmarks are needed. For nothing would be easier than to miss one’s way among these tawny slopes, and to go wandering off, like lost Israelites, into the desert.
Winding in and out among undulating hillocks and tracts of rolled boulders, we come at last to a little group of cliffs, at the foot of which our camels halt unbidden. Here we dismount, climb a short slope, and find the huge monolith at our feet.
Being cut horizontally, it lies half buried in drifted sand, with nothing to show that it is not wholly disengaged and ready for transport. Our books tell us, however, that the under-cutting has never been done, and that it is yet one with the granite bottom on which it seems to lie. Both ends are hidden; but one can pace some sixty feet of its yet visible surface. That surface bears the tool-marks of the workmen. A slanting groove pitted with wedge-holes indicates where it was intended to taper towards the top. Another shows where it was to be reduced at the side. Had it been finished, this would have been the largest obelisk in the world. The great obelisk of Queen Hatshepsu at Karnak, which, as its inscriptions record, came also from Assûan, stands ninety-two feet high, and measures eight feet square at the base; 6 but this which lies sleeping in the desert would have stood ninety-five feet in the shaft, and have measured over eleven feet square at the base. We can never know now why it was left here, nor guess with what royal name it should have been inscribed. Had the king said in his heart that he would set up a mightier obelisk than was ever yet seen by eyes of men, and did he die before the block could be extracted from the quarry? Or were the quarrymen driven from the desert, and the Pharaoh from his throne, by the hungry hordes of Ethiopia, or Syria, or the islands beyond the sea? The great stone may be older than Rameses the Great, or as modern as the last of the Romans; but to give it a date, or to divine its history, is impossible. Egyptology, which has solved the enigma of the Sphinx, is powerless here. The obelisk of the quarry holds its secret safe, and holds it for ever.
Ancient Egyptian quarrying is seen under its most striking aspect among extensive limestone or sandstone ranges, as at Turra and Silsilis; but the process by which the stone was extracted can nowhere be more distinctly traced than at Assûan. In some respects, indeed, the quarries here, though on a smaller scale than those lower down the river, are even more interesting. Nothing surprises one at Silsilis, for instance, more than the economy with which the sandstone has been cut from the heart of the mountain; but at Assûan, as the material was more precious, so does the economy seem to have been still greater. At Silsilis, the yellow cliffs have been sliced as neatly as the cheeses in a cheesemonger’s window. Smooth, upright walls alone mark the place where the work has been done; and the amount of débris is altogether insignificant. But at Assûan, when extracting granite for sculptural purposes, they attacked the form of the object required, and cut it out roughly to shape. The great obelisk is but one of the many cases in point. In the same group of rocks, or one very closely adjoining, we saw a rough-hewn column, erect and three-parts detached, as well as the semi-cylindrical hollow from which its fellow had been taken. One curious recess from which a quadrant-shaped mass had been cut away puzzled us immensely. In other places the blocks appeared to have been coffer-shaped. We sought in vain, however, for the broken sarcophagus mentioned in Murray.
But the drifted sands, we may be sure, hide more precious things than these. Inscriptions are probably as abundant here as in the breccia of Hamamat. The great obelisk must have had a fellow, if we only knew where to look for it. The obelisks of Queen Hatshepsu, and the sarcophagi of many famous Kings, might possibly be traced to their beds in these quarries. So might the casing stones of the Pyramid of Menkara, the massive slabs of the Temple of the Sphinx, and the walls of the sanctuary of Philip Aridæus at Karnak. Above all, the syenite Colossus of the Ramesseum and the monster Colossus of Tanis, 7 which was the largest detached statue in the world, must each have left its mighty matrix among the rocks close by. But these, like the song of the sirens or the alias of Achilles, though “not beyond all conjecture,” are among the things that will never now be discovered.
As regards the process of quarrying at Assûan, it seems that rectangular granite blocks were split off here, as the softer limestone and sandstone elsewhere, by means of wooden wedges. These were fitted to holes already cut for their reception; and, being saturated with water, split the hard rock by mere force of expansion. Every quarried mass hereabouts is marked with rows of these wedge-holes.
Passing by a tiny oasis where there were camels, and a well, and an idle water-wheel, and a patch of emerald-green barley, we next rode back nearly to the outskirts of Assûan, where, in a dismal hollow on the verge of the desert, may be seen a small, half-buried Temple of Ptolemaic times. Traces of colour are still visible on the winged globe under the cornice, and on some mutilated bas-reliefs at either side of the principal entrance. Seeing that the interior was choked with rubbish, we made no attempt to go inside; but rode away again without dismounting.
And now, there being still an hour of daylight, we signified our intention of making for the top of the nearest hill, in order to see the sun set. This, clearly, was an unheard-of innovation. The camel-boys stared, shook their heads, protested there was “mafeesh sikkeh” (no road), and evidently regarded us as lunatics. The camels planted their splay feet obstinately in the sand, tried to turn back, and, when obliged to yield to the force of circumstances, abused us all the way. Arrived at the top, we found ourselves looking down upon the island of Elephantine, with the Nile, the town, and the dahabeeyahs at our feet. A prolongation of the ridge on which we were now standing led, however, to another height crowned by a ruined tomb; and seemed to promise a view of the Cataract. Seeing us prepare to go on, the camel-boys broke into a furore of remonstrance, which, but for Salame’s big stick, would have ended in downright mutiny. Still we pushed forward, and still dissatisfied, insisted on attacking a third summit. The boys now trudged on in sullen despair. The sun was sinking; the way was steep and difficult; the night would soon come on. If the Howadji chose to break their necks, it concerned nobody but themselves; but if the camels broke theirs, who was to pay for them?
Such – expressed half in broken Arabic, half in gestures – were the sentiments of our youthful Nubians. Nor were the camels themselves less emphatic. They grinned; they sniffed; they snorted; they snarled; they disputed every foot of the way. As for mine (a gawky, supercilious beast with a bloodshot eye and a battered Roman nose), I never heard any dumb animal make use of so much bad language in my life.
The last hill was very steep and stony; but the view from the top was magnificent. We had now gained the highest point of the ridge which divides the valley of the Nile from the Arabian desert. The Cataract, widening away reach after reach and studded with innumerable rocky islets, looked more like a lake than a river. Of the Libyan desert we could see nothing beyond the opposite sand-slopes, gold-rimmed against the sunset. The Arabian desert, a boundless waste edged by a serrated line of purple peaks, extended eastward to the remotest horizon. We looked down upon it as on a raised map. The Moslem tombs, some five hundred feet below, showed like toys. To the right, in a wide valley opening away southwards, we recognised that ancient bed of the Nile which serves for the great highway between Egypt and Nubia. At the end of the vista, some very distant palms against a rocky background pointed the way to Philæ.
Meanwhile, the sun was fast sinking – the lights were crimsoning – the shadows were lengthening. All was silent; all was solitary. We listened, but could scarcely hear the murmur of the rapids. We looked in vain for the quarry of the obelisk. It was but one group of rocks among scores of others, and to distinguish it at this distance was impossible.
Presently, a group of three or four black figures mounted on little grey asses, came winding in and out among the tombs, and took the road to Philæ. To us they were moving specks; but our lynx-eyed camel-boys at once recognised the “Sheik el Shellàl” (sheik of the cataract) and his retinue. More dahabeeyahs had come in; and the worthy man, having spent all day in Assûan, visiting, palavering, bargaining, was now going home to Mahatta for the night. We watched the retreating riders for some minutes, till twilight stole up the ancient channel like a flood, and drowned them in warm shadows.
The afterglow had faded off the heights when we at length crossed the last ridge, descended the last hill-side, and regained the level from which we had started. Here once more we met the Fostât party. They had ridden to Philæ and back by the desert, and were apparently all the worse for wear. Seeing us, they urged their camels to a trot, and tried to look as if they liked it. The idle man and the writer wreathed their countenances in ghastly smiles, and did likewise. Not for worlds would they have admitted that they found the pace difficult. Such is the moral influence of the camel. He acts as a tonic; he promotes the Spartan virtues; and if not himself heroic, is at least the cause of heroism in others.
It was nearly dark when we reached Assûan. The cafés were all alight and astir. There were smoking and coffee-drinking going on outside; there were sounds of music and laughter within. A large private house on the opposite side of the road was being decorated, as if for some festive occasion. Flags were flying from the roof, and two men were busy putting up a gaily-painted inscription over the doorway. Asking, as was natural, if there was a marriage or a fantasia afoot, it was not a little startling to be told that these were signs of mourning, and that the master of the house had died during the interval that elapsed between our riding out and riding back again.
In Egypt, where the worship of
ancestry and the preservation of the body were once among the most sacred
duties of the living, they now make short work with their dead. He was to be
buried, they said, to-morrow morning, three hours after sunrise.
1 “At the Cataracts of the great rivers Orinoco, Nile, and Congo, the syenitic rocks are coated by a black substance, appearing as if they had been polished with plumbago. The layer is of extreme thinness; and on analysis by Berzelius it was found to consist of the oxides of manganese and iron. . . . The origin, however, of these coatings of metallic oxides, which seem as if cemented to the rocks, is not understood; and no reason, I believe, can be assigned for their thickness remaining the same.” – "Journal of Researches," by Charles Darwin, chap. i. p. 12, ed. 1845.
2 Keffîyeh: A square head-shawl, made of silk or woollen. European travellers wear them as puggarees.
3 Mudîr: Chief magistrate.
4 Kadi: Judge.
5 The results of Dr. Birch’s labours were given to the public in his “Guide to the First and Second Egyptian Rooms,” published by order of the Trustees of the British Museum in May 1874. Of the contents of case 99 in the Second Room, he says: “The use of potsherds for documents received a great extension at the time of the Roman Empire, when receipts for the taxes were given on these fragments by the collectors of revenue at Elephantine or Syene, on the frontier of Egypt. These receipts commenced in the reign of Vespasian, A.D. 77, and are found as late as M. Aurelius and L. Verus, A.D. 165. It appears from them that the capitation and trades tax, which was 16 drachms in A.D. 77, rose to 20 in A.D. 165, having steadily increased. The dues were paid in instalments called merismoi, at three periods of the year. The taxes were farmed out to publicans (misthotai), who appear from their names to have been Greeks. At Elephantine the taxes were received by tax-gatherers (prakteres), who seem to have been appointed as early as the Ptolemies. Their clerks were Egyptians, and they had a chest and treasure (phylax).” See p. 109, as above; also Birch’s "History of Ancient Pottery," chap. i. p. 45.
These barren memoranda are not the only literary curiosities found at Elephantine. Among the Egyptian manuscripts of the Louvre may be seen some fragments of the eighteenth book of the "Iliad," discovered in a tomb upon the island. How they came to be buried there no one knows. A lover of poetry would like to think, however, that some Greek or Roman officer, dying at his post upon this distant station, desired, perhaps, to have his Homer laid with him in his grave.
NOTE TO SECOND EDITION. – Other fragments of the "Iliad" have been found from time to time in various parts of Egypt; some (now in the Louvre) being scrawled, like the above-mentioned tax-receipts, on mere potsherds. The finest specimen ever found in Egypt or elsewhere, and the earliest, has however been discovered this year, 1888, by Mr. Flinders Petrie in the grave of a woman at Hawara, in the Fayûm.
6 These are the measurements given in Murray’s Handbook. The new English translation, however, of Mariette Bey’s "Itinéraire de la Haute Egypte" gives the obelisk of Hatshepsu 108 feet 10 inches in height. See "The Monuments of Upper Egypt," translated by Alphonse Mariette: London, 1877.
7 For an account of the discovery of this enormous statue and the measurements of its various parts, see "Tanis," Part I, by W. M. Flinders Petrie, chap. ii. pp. 22 et seq. published by the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1885. [Note to second edition.]