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Assuan, the City of the Idle Wealthy
SSUAN is the city of the idle wealthy, and the
Egyptians and Swiss who live on them. It is also the city of the ideal winter, where those, whose lungs are wrecks, can lengthen their lives. It is also the city of artists, where Nature uses the most daring colours in her compositions. That is Assuan proper, the Syene of the Ancients, the southern key of Egypt; her bulwark against the savages, who are as the sands of the desert in number in Africa's fiery heart.
But behind this Assuan of the Pharaoh, the Cæsar, and the Ottoman Sultan, has grown up another Assuan, the city of the great dam, which is more wonderful in its might than any of the monuments of Ancient Egypt, the Bank where the waters of the Nile are deposited like gold, and drawn on as daily needs require. Doubtless, at no distant time the whole plage of the Nile, from Assuan city to its dam, will be covered with dwellings, when Egypt has learned that artificial prices are incompatible with permanent prosperity.
If you want to live at Assuan moderately, you must live like a Greek-a modern Greek; you must have your room, with very little service, in a modest establishment like the Hôtel de la Poste; and you must have your meals à la carte, taking only one or two dishes on the card, at a Greek restaurant. An artist friend of ours did it, and was comfortable as any one need be in a climate like Assuan, where eternal summer reigns, and you go away directly it gets too hot. For the rest, unless you go to the pension kept by the sister of Neufeldt, the prisoner of the Khalifa,
you had better go to the best hotel-the difference of price is not great enough between going to a middle-class hotel and going to the Cataract Hotel, which is one of the most delightful in the world. They are all on the make, as Americans call it, and you get the best value at the best. There is no reason why things should be at the price they are. The dearness of Egypt is based on the false price of building land, and the false price of native labour. If there were a succession of cholera years or of first-class earthquakes, prices would come down with a run; the section of Egypt, which depends on visitors for a living would starve, until it attracted the notice of the cheap clientèle, which makes the fortunes of Swiss and Italian hotel-keepers; and the prices would never go up again. The Egyptian and Berberine servant's standard of living does not justify such wages. And the prices of building land are just as ridiculous.
As it is, life at the best hotels costs you a pound or twentyfive shillings a day without extras, and the only extra, which is moderate, is afternoon tea, with biscuits instead of bread-andbutter. The exactions of donkey-boys, however, are not encouraged--this is the drop in the bucket.
Assuan, like most other Nile towns, is all front as far as visitors are concerned. The shops and the minor hotels and the two necessary public buildings—the post-office and the police-court-form a sort of plage on the east bank, from the port to the Turkish castle; for Assuan has a port which, before the rise of the Mahdi in the Sudan, had a trade of two millions sterling a year, and only half of its castle is a sham, put up for visitors to give them some shade in the public gardens. The railway-station is the shadiest garden in Assuan ; it has a delightful palm coppice. The Savoy Hotel does not count, because that is on the Island of Elephantine, and there is no bridge. The western bank contains nothing but sand and tombs and Coptic ruins. Egypt, which practically consists of the banks of a river and the banks of a canal, is yet the worst-off place for bridges in the whole civilised world. It has about one to every three hundred miles. I don't know what the Pharaohs were doing. I suppose the fact was that the Pharaohs were the undertakers of architecture, whose attention was entirely given to funeral arrangements; and bridges were no use for tombs of the very private nature, which they found necessary in consequence of the incorrigible thievery of the Egyptians for the last seven thousand years. Seriously, as the Island of Elephantine takes up most of the channel, Assuan would be a very easy place to build a bridge, and would double its population and its valuation by so doing. Floods do not present an insuperable obstacle, in an age which has witnessed the construction of the Great Dam.
The shops of Assuan are not varied. There are postcard sellers, who also sell and develop photographs, stock kodakfilms, and deal in ostrich feathers, and silver-gilt modern imitations of mummy jewellery. If you walked down the front you would think that nearly every shop belonged to the Eastman Company; you get so tired of the word kodak. Besides shops for postcards and kodaks, there are a chemist or two and a few Greek grocers, who are also tinkers and ironmongers. And of course there is an office of Thomas Cook & Son. Cook is a sort of consul for the whole world in an Egyptian city. In Egypt distances are reckoned from Cook's office instead of from the English church.
The shops do not really signify; the bazar which lies at the back of them is so much more entertaining. It was here that my artist friend used to buy the tins of condensed milk, which he carried open in his pocket to the Greek café, where he had his afternoon tea. You can buy any humble grocery or tinkery in the bazar. Natives are so fond of the kind of things that you buy in sixpenny-halfpenny shops that one half of the bazar is entirely given up to them; the prevalence of the portrait of the German Emperor on tin mugs and toilet powder-boxes indicates their origin. The native of Egypt has not got beyond the “present from Brighton” stage. A workbox with Muriel written on the lid in shells would enchant him. The other half of the bazar is fascinating. It is full of the most audacious frauds in the land of lies; of the most blatant rubbish, which the East manufactures for the West, or quite as often the West secretly manufactures for the East to sell to foreign tourists. The principal imports of Assuan from Birmingham are Abyssinian spears and maces and battle-axes. They are not so popular with tourists as the home-made weapons of the Berberinecrooked knives with orange handles and crocodile-skin cases, and that sort of thing. Great numbers of visitors are expected to buy stuffed crocodiles, which are really of no use to you anywhere, except in Egypt, where they are handy to deposit on the shoals of the Nile when you are taking kodaks. I don't see why the various companies of tourist steamers should not combine to decorate the shoals of the Nile in suitable localities, when the inundation begins to go down, something in the manner of a harvest festival. There are no stuffed hippopotami in the bazar, but there are enough hippopotamus-hide sticks to have used up hundreds of hippos.
Beads take the place of postcards in the Assuan bazar. If it is a low Nile for tourists they are not left on the vendors' hands—the natives of Nubia consume so many
of them. They are made chiefly in England or Germany; but there is this to be said for them : that they are made to suit the native taste, and have been thoroughly naturalised as an article of native apparel. The more preposterous they are the better the natives like them, and the better chance they have of being sold to tourists as a product of the Sudan. Beads as big as the corks used for fishing-nets, of bright yellow zigzagged with gilt, top the market ; but the dealers have them of all colours, made of opaque glass, which they always declare to be real stones, though they are quite beyond the capacity of Nature to produce. These are what they sell in the obvious shops; but in the humbler and more retired shops a woman can buy all sorts of delightful necklaces, made by natives for natives, at any price above a piastre or two. Small, cheap beads manufactured in England can be made to assume charming combinations, when they are strung in twins on fine thongs of gazelle hide. You can buy them in certain exquisite colours-dusk-blue, laurel-green, maise