Page images

A FELLAH FAMILY IN THE FAYUM. This is probably the way in which Joseph and Mary and the Chiid Jesus went down into Egypt.

(p. 238

[graphic][merged small][merged small]

At first glance the site of the hotel appeared an extraordinary one, for it was right in the middle of a swamp at the edge of the lake. Egyptian lakes are always surrounded by swamps, for they are usually either advancing or receding according to the inundation. The actual ground upon which the hotel stands is dry, but it is surrounded by reeds, which look as if a hippopotamus or wild elephant might burst out of them at any moment-delightful to the Cockney in quest of wild life on easy terms. The fishing-boats drawn up on the side of the lake seem to have been copied in design from the Tombs of the Kings; they are so large, so clumsy, and draw so much water that they seem quite unfit for navigating marshes until you understand the ways of the Egyptian fisherman, who only uses a boat when it is too deep for him to be his own boat. You often see him in the water when he is casting his nets. Quite large boats can be handled easily in shallow water when the crew, instead of being inside them are outside them, pushing or tugging Even the crews of Cook's tourist steamers take to the water on the slightest provocation.

Every one who sees this hotel, called the Karun, is delighted with it. The lake from here looks as picturesque as Lago di Garda from Sirmione. The hotel is built of canvas—the gay awnings of the Arab tentmaker. It stands on a stretch of gravel, with patches of gay flowers at its edges, and a thick fringe of reeds twelve feet high all round; and sometimes in winter it must be all upstairs, for the basement, built of more substantial materials, is probably under water in flood-time. The upstairs, divided into the drawing- and dining-rooms, is simply a tent of rich Arab stuffs and awnings covered with parodies of ancient Egyptian life. I should like to shoot the whole lot of tentmakers for the vulgarity with which they caricature the scenes painted in the Tombs of Memphis and Thebes, playing down to the ignorant tourist's sense of humour. It would be far better if they took their designs from Mr. Thackeray's inimitable “Light Side of Egypt”-it would be more Egyptian and more amusing. The sleeping arrangements of this hotel are very pleasant for

those in need of a thorough change after the artificialities of Cairo; the bedrooms are two huts and as many reed-thatched sleeping-tents as happened to be required. As the diningrooms and drawing-rooms are also canvas, one combines the pleasures of camping out with the comforts of a fair hotel. The food here was good enough, though not so plentiful as in the city; the waiting was far better. It was obvious that the profitable business of the combined hotels was out at the lake and not at Medinet Fayum.

This place gave me a great idea of Central Africa-its reeds were like trees. A huge and extraordinary kingfisher sat on one of them; the tents had kraal roofs; the landing was a hole in the reeds, where for once there was a sharp division between mud and water. A boat like a Roman galley, manned by three blacks in white shirts, glided up beside us. I felt that I ought to be Sir Herbert Tree in the clothes of Mark Antony. We stepped on board not knowing that we should have to fight our way yard by yard through a tamarisk swamp to the lake. We started off rowing. The waiter (who was the cook as well) chose to accompany us: he was a splendid oar, but after we had gone a few strokes, the heavy galley grounded, and rowing gave way to poling. A few yards farther poling became ineffectual. It seemed odd that the hotel boatman did not know how to get to the lake without pioneering through a swamp. But I suppose the inundation was higher last time they were out with a pleasure party. The crew at once took to the water in Egyptian fashion. One man who had no running-drawers borrowed the Captain's turban to make a waistcloth, when he jumped overboard. I was struck by the sense of decency and the cleverness with which this man contrived to take off his shirt without wetting it, and put on this alfresco apron under the lee of the boat, without any of us noticing what he was doing. I could not help thinking how lucky it was that there are no crocodiles now in Moeris, the Lake of Crocodiles ; surely jumping overboard could not have been part of the boatman's duty in ancient Egypt. The same man smokes cigarettes all the


time he rows. The rais, as they call an Arab skipper, explained that if we had only come a little later we should have got to the lake in splendid style, as they were making a channel for the Khedive. Then we noticed the men who were making the channel. They were so covered with mud that they were hardly distinguishable as human beings till you looked very hard. Their method of working was to stoop down with their heads under water or otherwise, according to depth, detaching a great piece of mud, weighing it may be, half a hundredweight, with their hands. When they had got possession of this morceau they staggered with it to the bank. The mud which came out of the water became the embankment. There are mud walls in Egypt, which have lasted three and four thousand years, built not much more elaborately than this. The effect of this tamarisk swamp was rather like a bog on a Scotch moor with the pink flowers of the tamarisk to replace the heather. The mud at the bottom of the channels between the “mosses looked appalling, but was in reality far less dangerous than a Scotch, let alone an Irish, bog. Egyptian mud is very firm. Half the monuments of Egypt are built of mud.

At last we got into the open lake and hoisted our sail, of the old galley shape. It was very welcome : when the thermometer is over a hundred in the shade even the shadow of a sail has its value. It was such an oily, sleepy lake ; it gave us the very picture of a tropical morning. And now that we were out in the open, where a wise bird can calculate the range of a gun, the snipe and the kingfishers of the tamarisk swamp give way to pelicans, those very monumental birds! The lake, as our boatmen tugged lustily across it in the fierce heat, was green in the sun and silver in the shade ; where it was shallow enough there were men wading in it dragging fishing-nets. The vainness of setting a snare in the sight of the quarry does not seem to apply to the Egyptian fish.

As our sail was no use except for shade, we had no time to land and visit the dead Roman city, which lies about two miles back in the desert-a Pompeii more perfect than the

« PreviousContinue »