Page images
PDF
EPUB

about them was that the telegraph wire took a leap hundreds of yards across the Nile so as to be out of flood reach.

In less than half an hour we saw the great dam towering in the distance, like a colossal railway viaduct, except for the masts and rainbow yards behind it. Just before the first lock, the water began to boil and toss our heavy, powerful launch about. Outside the lock the water was as rough and full of waves as the rapids in Japan.

Nubian villages have grown up at its side. From the outside, the locks look like Thames locks, though so high. But inside we had a very different company. There were four Assuan gyassas, with their antique-looking prows and meshrebiya'd poops, red, white, and green, blue or red masts, and gay awnings. The lock took just upon five minutes to fill.

Outside there was broken water for all the six miles between Assuan and the dam. At all sorts of points the water cascaded between islands, and often seemed to be going up stream. The series of locks looked like a grim fortress; the great black sluice-gates looked like the entrances of Egyptian tombs. Below the dam there was a fierce sea half a mile wide, broken by black elephant rocks and ribs of yellow sand. On the banks, here and there, the inevitable castor-oil shrub and Dead Sea fruit were growing, and a string of great Nile boats was waiting to enter,

CHAPTER XXXV

Elephantine

E

[ocr errors]

LEPHANTINE, the Egyptian Abu, the Island of

Elephants, is supposed to derive its name from the ivory trade in Pharaonic times. Its name is a Greek translation from the Egyptian; but it is as reasonable to suppose that it was named after its rocks which, especially where they are half submerged, look like elephants. The Arabs have given it just such another nickname—the Oleander Leaffrom its shape.' Here stood the first Syene, the Suenet or Sunt of the Egyptians, the Tower of Syene of the Prophet Ezekiel, and the Syene of Herodotus. It is a tribute to the strength and importance of Assuan that, at some early date, the city life was transfered from the island to the 'Swanu or Market on the Mainland. The city of Elephantine, called the Place of the Cataract to distinguish it-whose excavation the fashionable visitors to that city consider the blot upon Assuan-is of great antiquity. Stones of the sixth and even of the fifth dynasty are found in it, including a fine one of the reign of King Pepi I., who is said to have reigned a hundred years-a Pharaoh could do a good deal of building in that time. Only that length of time ago there were two temples standing on Elephantine-one very interesting and perfect, built by Amen-hetep III. Both were destroyed by a Turkish governor who needed stone to build a palace; but the French excavators, who have turned half the green island into a dust-heap, have found an immense number of traces of the Pharaonic town-stone temples, as well as the crude brick walls, which were the scenes of the domesticities of five thousand years ago. The splendid gilt rams of the

Cairo Museum came from here, and one can see all sorts of mysterious chambers and receptacles brought to light if one can stand the dust under the Assuan sun, and evade the vigilance of the French who, unlike the English excavators, maintain a jealous secrecy, if they are only digging up the mummy of a cat. Elephantine has other antiquities, which have always been exposed--the well of Herodotus, the Nilometer, and the Roman quay. The first is almost forgotten; even the Frenchmen in charge of the excavations had never heard of it; but the head of them politely interpreted my requirements to one of his Arabs, who knew all about it. It is of great width but no great depth, and has a staircase winding round its inside to the bottom. It was this well, which led to the mistake of the Ptolemaic astronomers in declaring Assuan to be right on the line of the tropic, for during the summer solstice the rays of the sun were thought to fall vertically to its bottom. “It was," says Wilkinson, “on the knowledge that the sun cast no shadow at Assuan, combined with the measurement of the sun-shadows at Alexandria on the longest day, and the distance between the two places, that Eratosthenes (276-196 B.C.) based his calculations for the measurement of the earth.” Herodotus saw it, and it was rediscovered by Mr. Howard Carter.

The Nilometer is a closed-in staircase on the bank of the Nile near the Roman quay. It acts again now, since it was cleared out by Mahmud Bey in 1870; it has fifty-two steps in six flights, and some handsome Greek inscriptions, besides the marks dividing it into seventeen cubits. The humorous feature about Nilometers is that hardly any two of them reckon in the same cubit. It is not nearly so beautiful as the Nilometer on Roda Island.

The Roman quay looks as if it ought to have an elevator running up and down its front; it seems to have been prepared for it. As a quay it is not beautiful, and has no conveniences, but it is interesting as having preserved some fine sculptured stones from the buildings of the Pharaohs. Elephantine is spoilt, not only by the dust of excavation, but

by the presence of a very English-looking villa at a critical place. The Savoy Hotel, at the other end of the island, has an exterior almost as inappropriate, climatically and architecturally, as the Cataract Hotel : the one makes Assuan look as if it contained the county asylum, and the other makes Elephantine look as if it contained the county hospital. Perhaps this is appropriate : the Savoy is a sort of hospital for visitors who need quiet as well as climate ; it lacks the contagious gaiety which makes the Cataract Hotel the most famous and popular in Upper Egypt. But the directors have carried out the tradition of Elephantine by creating a garden round the Savoy which will one day be one of the sights of Egypt. It is laid out in terraces to adapt itself to the Nile floods. Its splendid groups of palms cast a pleasant shade in the heat of an Assuan day; it has a long hedge of oleanders, like those which make Lake Como crimson in August, hanging over the chocolate flood of the Nile, and splendid chrysanthemums which, to quote the Arab gardener, have to be drowned every day to keep them alive. One of its chief charms is the blending of the homely jasmine, which makes such luxuriant arbours here, with the golden-plumed parkinsonia and crimson poinsettia of the tropics.

Between the Savoy Hotel and the disembowelled city of the Pharaohs are two Nubian villages embosomed in splendid palm groves; the inhabitants are in an interesting state of savagery; they do not wash away their picturesqueness ; they are fond of painting their houses with designs in colour as well as whitewash. The women do not veil themselves ; they stalk about in trailing rags of black, generally with their largest saucepan, or something equally unsuitable, on their heads. They are sometimes pretty and sometimes satanically ugly-never ordinary. They are brave and hardy. I thought I should like to try one of the false figs which look like the best green figs, and grow on sycamores. When I had cut it open I found it was full of maggots and insects. I was going to throw it away, when a Nubian woman made signs that she would like it. She ate one half and gave the

other half to her baby. I suppose that the flies and maggots did not survive it. I think that Nubians must have their share of phagocytes without eating patent chocolate.

The island of Elephantine looks better from a distance ; its inhabitants evidently admire the excavations very much -their villages look as if they had been excavated, they are so full of dust-heaps decorated with broken glass and jawbones and tomato-tins. The filthy Elephantinites do not look so bad when they are cultivating their corn patches ; then they might pass for Japanese in their rice fields. Here,

, too, the ground is cut up into little squares by the channels which irrigate it. I did not notice if the irrigation is turned on and off by that time-honoured expedient of primitive man - kicking a turf.

The best way to see Elephantine is to sail round it; then its shoals of golden sand, its wild elephants of rock, its Bordighera wealth of ancient palms, its shady lebbeks, its picturesque sakiyas, and the gay tropical vegetation of the terraces of the Savoy give you the impression of an island Eden. And as you go up-stream the golden sands of the west bank make a glorious contrast to the rare blue of the sky, and the brown Nile, as you fly before the north wind of Africa. And as you go down-stream, making splendid runs across the wind, you see the Turkish castle crowning the granite rocks, and the long white town, with its palm groves rising above its roofs, and its avenue of lebbeks, and its Roman ruins jutting out into the stream on one of the noblest reaches of the Nile.

The boatmen are studies ; some are as simple as monkeys and have the boats of savages; others look like ready-made supers for Beerbohm Tree, and go about in the theatrical copies of Roman galleys described above.

Mr. Weigall in his delightful book, "Travels in the Upper Egyptian Deserts,” has much to tell us about Elephantine and its lords. To them the territory south of Wady Halfa was long “the Land of the Ghosts': the perilous borders of the world, and the misty ocean into which no man had penetrated, were there to be encountered. To the inhabitants

« PreviousContinue »