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Assyut and Abydos
HE tourist is generally disappointed with Assyut. It
is so difficult for him to see it advantageously ; yet the capital of Upper Egypt is a noble city with many striking beauties. The disappointment is largely due to expecting too much.
Assyut, as the voyager approaches it from the north, comes into view an hour or two before it is reached, owing to the doubling of the river. A dozen white minarets rise from the rich groves which embosom it and make a wall of green against the sky. He expects a city as picturesque as Rosetta. One of the chief handbooks encourages him in his error because it says that “the bazars of Assyut are so Oriental.”
The handbook is right in saying that. But it omits to point out that a bazar can be too Oriental to possess much interest for the tourist. The Oriental has no desire for the stage properties which thrill the soul of the traveller. He does not collect curios, but he has a burning desire for shoddy imitations of Englishmen's boots and hosiery; he sometimes even goes as far as cheap clocks; and celluloid finery he loves almost as much as shoddy socks and handkerchiefs; the contents of a sixpenny-halfpenny Edgware Road bazar would enchant an Arab. The bazar of Assyut is a faint reflection of their glories mixed up with a few muzzle-loading Bedâwin guns and kohl bottles.
To the foreigner the Assyut bazar offers nothing but fly switches and hippopotamus hide and ebony walking-sticks; and these are mostly in the road down to the river, where pharmacies flourish under names of Chinese extravagance.
The real charms of Assyut are its aspect from without, and its native life within. It may have a good mosque or two and some stately Arab mansions. I did not see any, but I did not sist this great town of sixty-five thousand inhabitants with any thoroughness. The only mosque I was shown over was a small affair with a passable minaret and a quaint sundial. But the native inns and restaurants were unusually interesting, for they were purely Arab. And I found other phases of native life to interest me at the end of the bazar. Colour was served by the tall sheaves of green and purple sugar-cane stacked against the walls of the houses.
But Assyut is seen at its best from the Hill of the Tombs, when the Nile flood spreads up to its walls and transforms it into a lake-bound mediæval city, with its groves and minarets reflected in the placid waters. And nowhere in all Egypt can so many miles of young green be seen in the spring.
Those hills contain the tombs of more than one ancient necropolis, for Assyut was the City of the Wolf. The best of them are like the tombs of Beni Hassan inside, but few are good, because destruction overtook the city before they were finished. In one of them John the Hermit was living when the eunuch of the Emperor Theodosius came to consult him as an oracle. He had built himself into the tomb, but appeared at an opening to admiring multitudes all Saturday and Sunday. The austere hermit prophesied a bloody but a certain victory for the Emperor, which was fulfilled by the great battle of Aquileja. There was quite a nest of hermits on this hill, which was at a convenient distance from a large city. Between it and Assyut is the beautiful Arab cemetery, the finest in all Egypt. It looks as large as the city itself; it has domes and battlements innumerable, all dazzling white, and has a wall and streets.
I imagine that Assyut must have been altered greatly in the last few years—not only by the birth of the English quarter (which has risen with beautiful gardens along the river bank) to take care of the barrage, but in the decline of its bazars. Travellers who visited it not very long ago speak of its having many covered streets, and shops almost as good
as those of the Cairo bazars, making a great display of rich stuffs, and the red-and-black pottery of Assyut, and so on. I did not see one. The only articles we saw which any European would think of buying were brought down to the open-air stalls on the river bank.
The approach to Assyut by river is decidedly imposing. When the Nile is full it is very wide, and the barrage is huge and superb. It looks like a cross between a bridge and the Falls of Niagara. It is nearly 3,000 feet long and 41 feet high, and has a road over 180 feet wide on the top of it, just below the junction of the Nile with the great Ibrahimiya Canal. It was built to fill the canal and is passed by a splendid lock, like the lock at the Saoult Ste. Marie between the great lakes in Canada. Even after the immense Assuan dam the grandeur of the engineering here strikes every one who beholds it. Wherever you see a well-kept garden in Egypt you know that it belongs to an Englishman. I knew that these sleek, semi-tropical gardens, which we saw as we steamed up to the wharf, with a procession of dahabeahs moored below them, must belong to the engineers in charge of the dam, before the dragoman tendered the information. It is a mile or more from these villas to the city proper, and that part of Assyut is in the making.
There is a rice-field for example, which is not sanitary, and we came upon fellahin ploughing inundation lands before we got to the bazar, the city of minarets, which we had seen miles down the stream. There was a tramway but no tram ; there was a hotel, of which only the garden was open; there was a chemist's shop which called itself, the “Confidence Pharmacy and Drug-store,” which pleased me almost as much as the announcement on the window next door, “Victor Talking Machines" --seemingly the most unnecessary invention in the world. There was a shop close by which also pleased me very much: it had four tiers of easy chairs hanging upside down on its walls. If I had not been in a hurry I should have gone in and priced several of the largest to see if the man would have taken them down with a boathook, as drapers in the suburbs hook down made-up ties for