Page images
PDF
EPUB

to shelter the shaddf men. Being Egyptians they don't mind how much sun they get on their bare backs and heads.1

There was a rush of kodakers for every five-decker shadaf. Nile villages and towns were also grateful subjects. I think the Nile is the most picturesque river in the world, because the whole of Egypt is, as it were, on its banks. This is almost literally true ; nine-tenths of the population of Egypt see the Nile every day. The whole of its banks, for a width varying from a few yards to a few miles, are studiously cultivated with the water raised from it by sakiya and shadaf. You pass an unending procession of green crops and grain crops, palm groves and acacia groves, villages and cities. I never saw the Nile without a human being in sight. As my Dutch-American friend said: “It looks as if it would have been empty long ago if those shadaf fellers weren't filling it up all the time."

Those villages and cities, I shall never forget them! They looked like an artist's creations for the embellishment of landscapes. I liked them best when they were ports with half a dozen tall gyassas tied to the bank, with their great yards hanging over the river like gigantic fishing-rods, and their ragged crews making processions to the shore and return processions along two narrow planks, taking on or putting off the cargo of water-kullas, or corn in striped bags, or baskets of earth-something, at any rate, which made them look like the Canephori of Phidias on the frieze of the Parthenon.

Egyptians must be recklessly extravagant about waterkullas, because you see myriads of them coming down the Nile, packed as high as villages, on the Nile merchantmen. When they no longer hold water they use them for building; in a mud house a row of broken water-bottles along the top under the roof is the easiest way of securing ventilation. A port is only a port because the town is important enough for vessels to stop there. It has no harbour, and no wharf unless it is patronised by Thomas Cook & Son, who moor

| There are a few wells worked on the shadif principle in Sicily. There is one, for example, at the Rotonda at Syracuse.

a barge, which serves for both wharf and storehouse. The community generally follows suit and moors another barge. In a river with a rise and fall like the Nile these are almost the only practicable wharfs.

The long slope from the port to the village, which stands just above flood level, is occupied by the inhabitants and their animals in various attitudes of graceful abandon--the goats probably by the water's edge, swarming together like newly born caterpillars, and the women descending by a well-worn track with kerosene tins on their heads to draw water for drinking from the goaty Nile.

Nile villages are built of mud, and, for getting architectural effects without expense, there is nothing like mud in a dry climate. An Egyptian village often looks like one of the little fortified towns of Albrecht Dürer, or Benozzo Gozzoli, especially the latter, because it usually has a grove for a background, though it replaces the pine-tree with the palm. It often has a curtain wall like a castle. It has as many towers as Nuremberg, though they are only garrisoned with pigeons, and largely built of misfit water-jars. The omdel's house has perhaps an arcade, and whitewash. The oddest items in the village's architecture are the huge mud fonts, six or seven feet high, the base being a yard high, and the bowl a yard high and a yard or two across. In these receptacles they keep their grain from the goats, and their children from the snakes and scorpions. The mosque, when you can see it, looks less like an implement of religion than they do. There is nothing to distinguish it but a poor little yellow lighthouse of a minaret. The cemeteries, which stretch away from the village into the desert, are generally more imposing than the dwellings of the living, especially if they are rich in the whitewashed mud-domes of saint and sheikh. The dogs stand on the walls when they are not doing their duty of freeing the village of garbage. You hear nothing but the droning of the village school. The villages in Upper Egypt are roofed with loose reeds. The village sakiya takes the place of the village pump, and the women gossip as they let the Nile gurgle into their pitchers.

The cities are not so ornamental. In the distance their minarets rising out of palm groves have a noble effect. Close to, they depend on the size and obviousness of their pigeon-towers. If its river-front is full of great pigeontowers a Nile city may look as like a mediæval city as the villages do. But if it is too civilised and prosperous for this, its river-front consists of little whitewashed terraces in the worst seaside style, and a few mpars--the bars where the Greek sells his infamous decoctions of fire-water to the undiscriminating and unorthodox native.

Twice at least between Cairo and Luxor, a distance of 450 miles, there is a bridge, though one of them is only a track laid above the Assyut Dam. It is lucky that they do not occur oftener: their traffic is entirely of natives, to whom an hour or two is absolutely nothing ; yet they are always shut when a steamer wants to get through.

Not that the people on the steamer seem to care; their general attitude is that of people, who will be on that steamer doing a placid round of baths, meals, and bed for the rest of their lives.

But tell these lotus-eaters that on the next morning, after breakfast, there will be donkeys on the river bank to take them to a temple so many miles away, and they are at once like the sick dog which heard its master say rats! They are most of them ready half an hour before the excursion is advertised to start, and, if the plank is down, have gone ashore and intrigued for the best donkeys, when they know the difference between a good donkey and a bad one. I did not. I used to leave it to the second dragoman, and take his if he made a bad choice

He never made a bad choice for himself. The donkey makes the tourist in Egypt. No one ever gives vent to his feelings completely till he is on the quarter-deck of the humorous Egyptian ass. Camels are incidents too occasional in the life of the tame tourist for them to count much.

But donkeys! You go ashore, and, if no one has been able to steal an unfair advantage, you find yourself confronted by two hundred asses, and their accomplices. Three or four donkey-boys drag at each tourist. The donkey displays a

for me.

reluctance to be mounted at all by jockeys of twelve, fourteen, and sixteen stone, without their saddles. A policeman comes along and rains blows with his cane on the faces of the donkey-boys, who take no notice of the interruption, being so intent on helping fat men on to brocaded saddles. The donkey-boy recognises that it is the man who gives the tips; his attentions to ladies are mere gallantry. The donkey-boy pays no homage to horsemen. He refused to believe that a smart captain in the Royal Horse Guards, and his wife, the toast of the shires, were capable of directing their own donkeys. He directed the donkeys, generally with jabs under the tail.

The costumes in which Cook's elect visit the temples and the tombs of the Pharaohs are remarkable for their variety, and many of them err on the side of super-appropriateness. It seems a pity that such splendour should be wasted on the desert air with only a donkey to support it. The prancing white Arab steed of the policeman who escorts the convoy, would be more in keeping, if the rider kept on; and most of them would keep on, for Cook's trips up the Nile cost a great deal of money, though they give such excellent value for it. The English people who go on them belong mostly to the class of the unemployed rich, who have country seats. The Americans are more mixed. All conditions of Americans, who have it, spend money freely on travel. If you see an Englishman in a particularly old tweed suit, instead of a neat riding-kit, he is probably a person of too much importance to care what he looks like. This is a complaint from which women of importance are less likely to suffer. Most Americans of British extraction dress the part. The freaks who fill the

One can live the Nile trip over again in the paintings of Mr. Thackeray : there are the “Sun-worshipers” lining the side of the ship towards the sunset, with the backs of their heads indicating the fixity of their stare at the marvellous golden light, which floods Egypt every day between tea and dinner. One can go through the ordeal with the donkey-boys in his “ Battle of the Nile"; one can see the stout dragoman in the gorgeous galabeah conducting a lot of tourists dressed with as much variety and originality as the students in Puccini's Bohême, between the monstrous piers of an Egyptian temple ; one can almost hear him make his little after-dinner speech in that gay floating restaurant, the saloon of one of Cook’s Nile steamers. Everything down to the smile on the servant's face is perfect.

souls of the donkey-boys with unholy joy are, generally, pace Pierre Loti, Germans or French. Few German travellers tempt brigands by their appearance.

The evolution of taste in average tourists as the voyage progresses is remarkable. Early on the trip they cannot all be persuaded to take the excursions. If it was not for the excitement of cantering on the headstrong Egyptian ass, not half of them would go to the tombs of Beni Hassan, which are rather like dimly painted basements, on the top of a sandhill, to the uneducated eye, though they suggest comparisons with the rock-tombs of the Etruscans and Ancient Greeks, to the archæologist. It is almost sufficient joy to exist on a luxurious floating hotel on the Nile. You don't really want any amusement except watching the comic water-life of the Egyptians, and their gambols in agriculture. There is something humorous to photograph almost every minute.

At Assyut, a little higher up, there are plenty of voyagers who have no wish to go farther than the bank; they would rather stay there and bargain for spangled shawls, which have lost their social significance, than visit the bazar and more basement tombs.

But at Denderah they fall surely under the magician's spell, which has caught a few of them in the tomb of Thi at Sakkara. The tomb of Thi, if they only knew it, stands as near the top of the scale of the Egyptian antiquity-fancier as Denderah falls near the bottom. But it is not so easy to be impressed, when you go to a tomb which looks as if it had been removed to a well-lighted museum, as when you stand for the first time in the dim, religious light of a great Egyptian temple, which has not even lost its roof. The brightly coloured and delicately chiselled sculptures of the agricultural possessions and sporting achievements of Thi rival the decorations of the tomb of Seti I. at Thebes, and his temple at Abydos; but they are on the walls of unimposing square rooms. At Denderah you get your first idea of the gigantic buildings of the Ancient Egyptians other than glorified milestones like the Pyramids.

The Egyptians of the Pharaonic age seem to have been

« PreviousContinue »