Page images
PDF
EPUB

Their eyes

the south. In front of it is a broad compound of desert sand, with rows of donkeys and camels at its entrance waiting to be hired by visitors. Outside the compound are the English church, and a rock crowned by a Roman fort converted into a luxurious villa. These stand on the edge of the most picturesque road in Egypt. Once upon a time its broad hollow was the bed of the Nile, down which the river flowed from Shellal ; now it is the great road up from the south, crowded with primitive-looking Arabs on camels and asses, silhouetted against a most incongruous background, for a row of telegraph posts runs down it, and a vast and ancient Arab cemetery spreads over it broadcast, of which I shall have more to say anon.

It is surprising how few visitors pay any attention to this vision of the Orient lying before their eyes whenever they issue from the hotel gates to visit the town. are all on the ground, where the gigantic caravanserai stands at the top of the granite terraces built by Nature down to the Nile, of the same red granite of Assuan, which was the favourite material of the Ancient Egyptians for their monuments. The peculiarity of these rocks and boulders is that they are as round and dark as hippopotami. Every advantage has been taken of natural features in laying out the terraces from the hotel to the water; even the little harbour is natural. Where the shore is level tennis-courts have been laid out, and a pretty tropical garden, in which poinsettias and daturas and parkinsonias and palms mingle with lilies and roses, behind a thick hedge of banana trees. In this garde large tropical birds like the crested curassow have been introduced, to give the effect of a natural Zoo; and the hoopooes and bee-eaters flash about all day. The hoopooe's note is like our cuckoo's, but the scents are heavy and unfamiliar.

The Cataract Hotel seems to exist for the sunset; the delightful loggia at the back of it, with its lofty columns and gay Arab embroideries, is a sort of temple of the sunset, for here people gather, after the riding and sailing and golfing of the day, to take a late tea and wait for the sunset. Sunset from that loggia is a thing never to be forgotten. The sun sets behind the island of Elephantine and the Nile. Was there ever a river so delightfully broken and varied ? On the right it narrows into a steep gorge, still faced with the masonry of the Roman quay round the Nileometer on that island of rick palm groves. Between the quay and the palm groves are crowds of Arabs in pale blue galabeahs, laying bare the city of the Pharaohs which Herodotus knew. In front the river widens into a lake full of black, rounded rocks, which look like amphibious monsters of the world before the flood. The rocks grow black and the mirror-like expanse of water turns to the grey of polished steel as the sun sinks, while the golden sands of the farther bank wax purple or brown. To the left the river narrows again and its waters are churned by the cataract.

The odd craft which ply on it lend an extraordinary charm. They shoot into view very suddenly as they emerge from the cataracts, and the apparition of the regular Assuan boat, which I have above compared to a Roman galley, takes us back to the days of Cleopatra. Her antique form, her picturesque lines, her brilliant colours, her oars falling in unison, her bellying square-sail all enchain the eye, and then, suddenly, she puts about with a shiver of her sail, and runs into the little port of the hotel.

As you sit in the loggia above the river, the black trading gyassas, with their snowy sails crossing each other like wings, look enormous, and their strange cargoes assume the oddest outlines. The strangest of all, perhaps, are the smaller boats which ply between Assuan and the island to fetch the labourers from the excavation. They always look worn out; they always look overladen with the black and white and blue figures.

Tea in the loggia of the hotel is like tea at Ranelagh or Hurlingham. People make parties for it. But what a transformation scene has taken place! Here the servants look as if they belong to the Arabian Nights with their long white gowns and scarlet tarbooshes, and the whole loggia is filled with the magic light of Egypt; and as you look over its balustrade you see spread out before you fantastic rocks, and tropical gardens, and the Nile flooded with gold from the sky.

Assuan and Luxor, which ought to be called Thebes, are far older cities than Cairo. I suppose there is no city in Egypt, except perhaps Medinet-Fayum, which has been a centre of population so continuously from the days of the Pharaohs. Alexandria is the merest parvenu compared to them, and Heliopolis and Memphis are no more. Syene, the classical Assuan, was never a large city like Thebes, but, standing at the foot of the last cataract, it has always been one of the principal ports of the Nile, and always been the frontier fortress of Egypt proper. You have only to look at its immense mediæval Arab cemetery to know of its importance in the forgotten centuries.

Assuan is at present in its infancy, in spite of its vast antiquity; I mean by this that it is only visited by comparatively few and comparatively wealthy people, who go to it as one of the world's most delightful winter cities. As a sightseeing place it is undeveloped. Until Mr. Weigall's book comes out there is no guide-book which treats it adequately. Half of its antiquities are not even mentioned. The resident English have not gone into the subject deeply; its dragomans are more than usually ignorant of the locality; if you ask them to take you to anything except the Nilometer, or the Dam, or Philæ, or the quarries, or Lord Grenfell's tombs, they stare at you.

The tombs, which Lord Grenfell, a former Sirdar of Egypt, had excavated, are called by the natives his tombs. Historically, as will be seen in the chapter on Elephantine, they are of the highest importance, and from the point of view of picturesqueness they are well worth the trouble entailed by visiting them, which is enhanced by the fact that you are always made to visit them at eight o'clock in the morning, when the sun shines right into them. You have to sail round Elephantine to get to them, because they are on the west shore, and they stand high up on a steep, sandy bluff. The reader will not thank me for describing them. They are in good preservation, rather like the tombs of the officials at Thebes, but have certain features of their own; they have paintings, and they have architectural decorations, and they still have the shoot, flanked by steps on each side, by which the sarcophagus was dragged up from the water's edge, called in Egypt a mummy-shoot or mummy-slide. There are other important tombs round the corner called, for a similar reason, Lady William Cecil's tombs, and a highly picturesque tomb of some unimportant Arab saint at the top of the bluff, which every one photographs, though there are many, to which it is not comparable, in the Arab cemetery.

On the west bank of the Nile, too, is the convent known as Amba-Sama'ân-St. Simeon (of the Column, I suppose). Nobody knows when it was built, but it was abandoned in the thirteenth century.

There is much to see here: fine fortress walls, a church with frescoes, many cells and monastic buildings. Some think that this was the Roman fortress which held the west bank. Considering its age, the monastery is in wonderful preservation. But Coptic buildings do not excite one's interest much with their architecture, which inherited the unambitious simplicity of the mud buildings of the Pharaohs, who put all their architecture into temples and tombs. The glory of the Coptic churches lies in their wonderfully carved and inlaid screens, their marble pulpits and basins, their mediæval paintings, their portals and baldachins.

The expedition to this convent is one of the favourites with Assuan visitors, many of whom take donkeys, though it is only half an hour's walk from the landing, and you soon get on the hard path. The shore is broken by little creeks. You hunt along, like Robinson Crusoe, till you discover one where you can land. You then find yourself at the foot of a hill, a toboggan slide of sand with a grain like pure gold. Little Arab boys are there before you, to turn somersaults down it from top to bottom for a small piastre. The visitors themselves are tempted to do all sorts of undignified things on that shoot of velvety sand, much more tempted, most of them, by this than they are by the convent. There is only one way to make the Philistine take an interest in ruins—to give him a meal in them.

Another favourite expedition is to take a donkey ride to Shellal to see the sun set over Philæ. This ride is full of interest for those who have eyes to see ; but most people notice nothing except the delightfulness of Assuan desert sand for a gallop, a general impression of the domes of Arab tombs, and perhaps a glance at the obelisk a Pharaoh began to cut and left undetached, and an Apis-bull sarcophagus, which the consignees forgot to take away.

I found this ride adorable. It nearly made me late for dinner, though I started off in the apoplectic heat immediately after lunch. A German scientist had promised to show me all the antiquities of this disused Nile Valley, but his donkey ran away with him the moment he got outside the hotel, and did not stop till it got to Shellal, six miles away. I wandered about the Arab cemetery taking photographs while the donkey-boys tried to catch him. The first thing I noticed was a heap, which contained thousands of what looked like bright yellow rock-melons, but which I recognised for the poisonous ground fruit I had seen growing on the edge of the desert on the way to Khartûm. “What are they there for ?" I asked the dragoman-"to make a patch of colour for artists?"

“Sir, they are there to kill butterflies." “What?" I exclaimed incredulously.

He explained that they were there to be sent to England to kill butterflies. I did not recollect butterflies being killed in England on a scale to need all this. But when he picked one up and cut it in half and gave it to me to smell, I recognised that this was the bitter-apple of commerce, with which good housewives make war upon moths,

What made them look more incongruous was that there were Turkish dogs cruising over them. They belonged to an old woman who lived in a tomb, the best-looking saint's tomb in the whole cemetery, set upon a hill, where it could not be hid. She was more like a witch than anything I ever saw; she was dressed in black, and sat beside a jar and some mysterious

P

« PreviousContinue »