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We soon came up to them and mounted. The black Nubian camel-contractor on his camel rode behind us like a Rotten Row groom. He had the same important look on his face. I rode an ass.
I have tried camels for the sensation, but they are useless beasts to one who likes writing while he rides, and slipping off to photograph whenever he sees a subject. And in Egypt donkey-riding is classical. There is only the one way of slipping off a camel, and then your camera might not be right for taking pictures, whereas the Egyptian ass is most sympathetic to a person who constantly leaves it to its own inclinations. It never tries to run away without a load on its back--it knows so many ways of killing time.
I used to jump off my donkey, and leave it, when I wanted to take a picture or examine something. The donkey never minded. Sometimes the donkey-boy came up and held it. Very often he, too, was busy somewhere else, when he found how well the donkey and I understood each other. I must say I like riding on a donkey across the desert. A camel sounds better, but it feels worse, and wants attending to, whereas the donkey lets you take an unreasonable interest in your surroundings.
This was the most deserted place I ever rode in, and it was very good going, for the wind had blown most of the sand off the clay into beautiful drifts like golden snow. We saw but one wild animal, and that was a white lizard, but the donkey-boy pointed out the spoor of two gazelles, which gave us the right feeling. Then our donkeys seemed to be kicking money : it was of course false ring. But when I looked down, the money consisted of worked and half-worked Aints—this district has Aint mines worked by the ancients, and we were seeing them because the wind had driven off the sand. If I had known more about them I should have made the donkey-boy carry a lot home. He would have known what to do; perhaps he would have pulled his shirt off and turned it into a bag.
Presently the going changed from hard to worse. We had reached a stretch where the ground had its vestment of glorious golden sand, and the donkeys began to sink by inches at every step. They were disgusted. It was really quite interesting to watch a donkey on the desert prospecting for the finty and clayey places.
At this moment my meditations told me that there were two or three things I had made up my mind not to be. One of them was not to be the boy who runs behind the donkey in the desert, and yet it was such a lovely sandworld, with glorious golden drifts, which had edges that looked as sharp as razors, though it is mathematically impossible for sand to pile itself up at above a certain gradient. I was quite sorry when we came to a well-marked square like a Roman camp, and could see the square brown walls of the Der, and another Roman building to the left quite close to us.
As we drew near the der we came upon various traces of Roman settlement: the most conspicuous was a charming little ruin of a church. It was only built of mud bricks, but its broken arches and windows made delicious angles, and it rose high. The buildings round it seem mostly tombs and cisterns. They were all of the same homely material. One of them was ambitious enough to have a name—Ain Lebekha. It had three rooms and an arched roof, and its doors and windows had once been arched, and it had been lined with stucco painted tastefully.
Another building close by had its parapeted roof quite perfect, and a ramp leading up to it in the thickness of the wall. The reason of this settlement was obvious to the Pasha when he first came to the oasis, for there was a stagnant pool of water near the der, the first which caravans struck after leaving the Nile. This was worth a powerful fortification like Ed-der, with twelve towers and walls, which are still ten feet thick and thirty feet high ; it is nearly two hundred feet square, and there is a protected walk all round the top of its walls, approached by a rather elaborate staircase. The bricks on one side are baked, perhaps because the wind was more destructive on that face. At a little distance off this der bears a striking resemblance to the Roman castles in England of the Richborough and Pevensey type, though its towers make it rather more imposing.
The group of doum palms in the centre has been proved to mark the locality of the castle well. When I was there a party of the American well-sinkers, who had gained their experience in the oil-fields, and are now in the service of the Western Oasis Company, were there. They meant to clear the well out if possible, and if not, to put an Artesian bore down it. About forty thousand pounds have been spent to little purpose in sinking new wells, whereas the Pasha's theory of reopening Roman wells has invariably been successful. The interior arrangements of the court have disappeared. They may have been built of some perishable material, like the houses of Syracuse, of which not a trace is left except the foundations. There are a few buildings inside, but these are modern, erected for the convenience of the workmen.
The machinery that was needed for the oasis before the railway was running had to be taken down the blasted road on men's backs.
We were very glad of the shelter of the workmen's rooms, though they were built of corrugated iron, which is not a non-conductor of heat. It was something to be out of the sun of the desert on one of the hottest days I ever remember. Under A.'s commands, Mohammed and the men who belonged to the beasts improvised seats and tables for us out of cases and camel-saddles, and the stone finials which had done duty in some Persian building, and ought to be taken away down to the Museum of Cairo. Though everything we ate and drank, and the implements for a meal, had to be carried on donkey-back across so many miles of desert, we had an excellent lunch-we had even coffee after it. The one thing in which Mohammed showed bad generalship, especially for a party consisting mostly of ladies, was in his preference for beer over soda-water, and the beer was nearly as hot as the coffee, though he did put it in a pail of water. Beerbottles for this sort of job ought to have felt packed round them.
If the felt is kept moist the bottle keeps cool, no