« PreviousContinue »
under broad sheds, where Bisharin primitives squat on the ground between grain of all the colours of the rainbow in sharp-pointed heaps. Sometimes you meet desert Bisharin wandering in here, men who have never seen a kodak. This is a relief. Fuzzy-wuzzy enjoys being photographed so much that he is rather a nuisance to the kodaker. At this end of the bazar there is a fascinating admixture of saints' tombs, khans or native inns, and sweetmeat sellers, who make their candy into a pole striped like a barber's and sometimes ten feet high. Between this and the river is the port of Assuan, with a swarm of big gyassas, generally laden with water-jars, tied to the bank, nose on; and enormous heaps of grain on the shore. Down below the port, on the way to Komombo, is one of the best reaches of the Nile for sailing. Assuan is quite a yachting place, and away at the back of the bazar are the golf-links. Golf at Assuan presents a novelty. It is nothing in Egypt to have golf-links in the desert, left practically in a state of Nature, except for the greens of stamped clay. But at Assuan, though it has a nice club-house, the golf-club submits to a fresh inroad of barbarism. The day I went there a man came to caddie wearing a big sword a most formidable-looking savage, but an experienced caddie.
Assuan is great on sport. Besides golf (presided over by a fine Scottish player, brother of an amateur champion) and sailing, it has a great deal of tennis on very excellent courts, and splendid sand all round it for riding. There was no polo going on when I was there, but a polo course could be made whenever it was wanted, by clearing away the stones on a sufficient area of the desert. Polo is played on sand at Omdurman.
Mr. Thackeray is inimitable, a Juvenal of the brush in his satires of Assuan. In his “Beauty and the Beasts” he gives us a pretty, fair young Englishwoman, charmingly neat, with a fat dragoman and a donkey as lean as a towel-horse, on a stretch of unmistakable sand. In his “ Dandy Tourist " we have a back view of the lean, aristocratic, hunting Englishman in a beautifully cut white riding kit relieved by the
brown pipe-stems of his top boots and the brown ox-horns of his curled moustache. He confronts the sandy compound of the Cataract Hotel, bounded by the mosque-like English church. And the little boy who dusts the sand off your boots with the ostrich-feather broom every time you come in, on his left, the dragoman on his right, and the flying donkeyboy before him, are all lost in admiration of his stately pose. The “Gollywogs” shows extreme tourists surrounded by little fuzzy-wuzzy Bisharins. “Philæ” shows Pharaoh's Bed, looking like a tour de force of the scene-painter, as it rises from the water, and the theatrical-looking felookah in which you are rowed there. “A Sidelight” shows the port of Assuan, stretches of sand and heaps of grain, with a forest of felookah masts in the background, and half a dozen arguing natives and a couple of kids in the foreground. While, “Should Women Ride Astride?" with the pinky desert and Arab cemetery in the background, proves conclusively that, no matter how ungracefully their skirts are bunched in the process, they do not look really worse than a fat dragoman in balloon breeches. You could not get the sidelights of Assuan better than you have them in this book.
Assuan is a sort of Egyptian Cannes; people do not go there for sight-seeing, they go there because they need the climate, or to enjoy British summer sports and society.
For this it is difficult to imagine a more ideal place. It never rains at Assuan; one gets such days in the depth of winter there as one never gets in the height of summer here ; the scenery is lovely and unique, and the Cataract Hotel is one of the pleasantest in the world. It stands on the banks of the Nile, between the Turkish castle and the hill, where soldiers have been barracked since the time of the Romans, because it commands the river approach from
" Was Juvenal, when he was exiled to command a cohort of legionaries by the First Cataract of the Nile, and expressed his indignation in fierce attacks upon bis own soldiers and the Egyptians, in his Fifteenth Satire, stationed here or on the island ? If his fort occupied the site of the Turkish castle at the back of the Cataract Hotel, it is a pity that his ghost cannot communicate its reflections on the extravagances of twentieth-century Society to a trustworthy Julia for publication.
the south. In front of it is a broad compound of desert sand, with rows of donkeys and camels at its entrance waiting to be hired by visitors. Outside the compound are the English church, and a rock crowned by a Roman fort converted into a luxurious villa. These stand on the edge of the most picturesque road in Egypt. Once upon a time its broad hollow was the bed of the Nile, down which the river flowed from Shellal ; now it is the great road up from the south, crowded with primitive-looking Arabs on camels and asses, silhouetted against a most incongruous background, for a row of telegraph posts runs down it, and a vast and ancient Arab cemetery spreads over it broadcast, of which I shall have more to say anon.
It is surprising how few visitors pay any attention to this vision of the Orient lying before their eyes whenever they issue from the hotel gates to visit the town. are all on the ground, where the gigantic caravanserai stands at the top of the granite terraces built by Nature down to the Nile, of the same red granite of Assuan, which was the favourite material of the Ancient Egyptians for their monuments. The peculiarity of these rocks and boulders is that they are as round and dark as hippopotami. Every advantage has been taken of natural features in laying out the terraces from the hotel to the water; even the little harbour is natural. Where the shore is level tennis-courts have been laid out, and a pretty tropical garden, in which poinsettias and daturas and parkinsonias and palms mingle with lilies and roses, behind a thick hedge of banana trees. In this garde large tropical birds like the crested curassow have been introduced, to give the effect of a natural Zoo; and the hoopooes and bee-eaters flash about all day. The hoopooe's note is like our cuckoo's, but the scents are heavy and unfamiliar.
The Cataract Hotel seems to exist for the sunset; the delightful loggia at the back of it, with its lofty columns and gay Arab embroideries, is a sort of temple of the sunset, for here people gather, after the riding and sailing and golfing of the day, to take a late tea and wait for the sun
set. Sunset from that loggia is a thing never to be forgotten. The sun sets behind the island of Elephantine and the Nile. Was there ever a river so delightfully broken and varied ? On the right it narrows into a steep gorge, still faced with the masonry of the Roman quay round the Nileometer on that island of rick palm groves. Between the quay and the palm groves are crowds of Arabs in pale blue galabeahs, laying bare the city of the Pharaohs which Herodotus knew. In front the river widens into a lake full of black, rounded rocks, which look like amphibious monsters of the world before the flood. The rocks grow black and the mirror-like expanse of water turns to the grey of polished steel as the sun sinks, while the golden sands of the farther bank wax purple or brown. To the left the river narrows again and its waters are churned by the cataract.
The odd craft which ply on it lend an extraordinary charm. They shoot into view very suddenly as they emerge from the cataracts, and the apparition of the regular Assuan boat, which I have above compared to a Roman galley, takes us back to the days of Cleopatra. Her antique form, her picturesque lines, her brilliant colours, her oars falling in unison, her bellying square-sail all enchain the eye, and then, suddenly, she puts about with a shiver of her sail, and runs into the little port of the hotel.
As you sit in the loggia above the river, the black trading gyassas, with their snowy sails crossing each other like wings, look enormous, and their strange cargoes assume the oddest outlines. The strangest of all, perhaps, are the smaller boats which ply between Assuan and the island to fetch the labourers from the excavation. They always look worn out; they always look overladen with the black and white and blue figures.
Tea in the loggia of the hotel is like tea at Ranelagh or Hurlingham. People make parties for it. But what a transformation scene has taken place! Here the servants look as if they belong to the Arabian Nights with their long white gowns and scarlet tarbooshes, and the whole loggia is filled with the magic light of Egypt; and as you look over its
balustrade you see spread out before you fantastic rocks, and tropical gardens, and the Nile flooded with gold from the sky.
Assuan and Luxor, which ought to be called Thebes, are far older cities than Cairo. I suppose there is no city in Egypt, except perhaps Medinet-Fayum, which has been a centre of population so continuously from the days of the Pharaohs. Alexandria is the merest parvenu compared to them, and Heliopolis and Memphis are no more. Syene, the classical Assuan, was never a large city like Thebes, but, standing at the foot of the last cataract, it has always been one of the principal ports of the Nile, and always been the frontier fortress of Egypt proper. You have only to look at its immense mediæval Arab cemetery to know of its importance in the forgotten centuries.
Assuan is at present in its infancy, in spite of its vast antiquity; I mean by this that it is only visited by comparatively few and comparatively wealthy people, who go to it as one of the world's most delightful winter cities. As a sightseeing place it is undeveloped. Until Mr. Weigall's book comes out there is no guide-book which treats it adequately. Half of its antiquities are not even mentioned. The resident English have not gone into the subject deeply ; its dragomans are more than usually ignorant of the locality; if you ask them to take you to anything except the Nilometer, or the Dam, or Philæ, or the quarries, or Lord Grenfell's tombs, they stare at you.
The tombs, which Lord Grenfell, a former Sirdar of Egypt, had excavated, are called by the natives his tombs. Historically, as will be seen in the chapter on Elephantine, they are of the highest importance, and from the point of view of picturesqueness they are well worth the trouble entailed by visiting them, which is enhanced by the fact that you are always made to visit them at eight o'clock in the morning, when the sun shines right into them. You have to sail round Elephantine to get to them, because they are on the west shore, and they stand high up on a steep, sandy bluff. The reader will not thank me for describing them. They are