« PreviousContinue »
Cairo Museum came from here, and one can see all sorts of mysterious chambers and receptacles brought to light if one can stand the dust under the Assuan sun, and evade the vigilance of the French who, unlike the English excavators, maintain a jealous secrecy, if they are only digging up the mummy of a cat. Elephantine has other antiquities, which have always been exposed—the well of Herodotus, the Nilometer, and the Roman quay. The first is almost forgotten; even the Frenchmen in charge of the excavations had never heard of it; but the head of them politely interpreted my requirements to one of his Arabs, who knew all about it. It is of great width but no great depth, and has a staircase winding round its inside to the bottom. It was this well, which led to the mistake of the Ptolemaic astronomers in declaring Assuan to be right on the line of the tropic, for during the summer solstice the rays of the sun were thought to fall vertically to its bottom. “It was," says Wilkinson, "on the knowledge that the sun cast no shadow at Assuan, combined with the measurement of the sun-shadows at Alexandria on the longest day, and the distance between the two places, that Eratosthenes (276-196 B.C.) based his calculations for the measurement of the earth.” Herodotus saw it, and it was rediscovered by Mr. Howard Carter.
The Nilometer is a closed-in staircase on the bank of the Nile near the Roman quay. It acts again now, since it was cleared out by Mahmud Bey in 1870; it has fifty-two steps in six flights, and some handsome Greek inscriptions, besides the marks dividing it into seventeen cubits. The humorous feature about Nilometers is that hardly any two of them reckon in the same cubit. It is not nearly so beautiful as the Nilometer on Roda Island.
The Roman quay looks as if it ought to have an elevator running up and down its front; it seems to have been prepared for it. As a quay it is not beautiful, and has no conveniences, but it is interesting as having preserved some fine sculptured stones from the buildings of the Pharaohs. Elephantine is spoilt, not only by the dust of excavation, but by the presence of a very English-looking villa at a critical place. The Savoy Hotel, at the other end of the island, has an exterior almost as inappropriate, climatically and architecturally, as the Cataract Hotel : the one makes Assuan look as if it contained the county asylum, and the other makes Elephantine look as if it contained the county hospital. Perhaps this is appropriate : the Savoy is a sort of hospital for visitors who need quiet as well as climate; it lacks the contagious gaiety which makes the Cataract Hotel the most famous and popular in Upper Egypt. But the directors have carried out the tradition of Elephantine by creating a garden round the Savoy which will one day be one of the sights of Egypt. It is laid out in terraces to adapt itself to the Nile floods. Its splendid groups of palms cast a pleasant shade in the heat of an Assuan day; it has a long hedge of oleanders, like those which make Lake Como crimson in August, hanging over the chocolate flood of the Nile, and splendid chrysanthemums which, to quote the Arab gardener, have to be drowned every day to keep them alive. One of its chief charms is the blending of the homely jasmine, which makes such luxuriant arbours here, with the golden-plumed parkinsonia and crimson poinsettia of the tropics.
Between the Savoy Hotel and the disembowelled city of the Pharaohs are two Nubian villages embosomed in splendid palm groves; the inhabitants are in an interesting state of savagery; they do not wash away their picturesqueness ; they are fond of painting their houses with designs in colour as well as whitewash. The women do not veil themselves; they stalk about in trailing rags of black, generally with their largest saucepan, or something equally unsuitable, on their heads. They are sometimes pretty and sometimes satanically ugly-never ordinary. They are brave and hardy. I thought I should like to try one of the false figs which look like the best green figs, and grow on sycamores. When I had cut it open I found it was full of maggots and insects. I was going to throw it away, when a Nubian woman made signs that she would like it. She ate one half and gave the other half to her baby. I suppose that the flies and maggots did not survive it. I think that Nubians must have their share of phagocytes without eating patent chocolate.
The island of Elephantine looks better from a distance; its inhabitants evidently admire the excavations very much --their villages look as if they had been excavated, they are so full of dust-heaps decorated with broken glass and jawbones and tomato-tins. The filthy Elephantinites do not look so bad when they are cultivating their corn patches ; then they might pass for Japanese in their rice fields. Here, too, the ground is cut up into little squares by the channels which irrigate it. I did not notice if the irrigation is turned on and off by that time-honoured expedient of primitive man -kicking a turf.
The best way to see Elephantine is to sail round it; then its shoals of golden sand, its wild elephants of rock, its Bordighera wealth of ancient palms, its shady lebbeks, its picturesque sakiyas, and the gay tropical vegetation of the terraces of the Savoy give you the impression of an island Eden. And as you go up-stream the golden sands of the west bank make a glorious contrast to the rare blue of the sky, and the brown Nile, as you fly before the north wind of Africa. And as you go down-stream, making splendid runs across the wind, you see the Turkish castle crowning the granite rocks, and the long white town, with its palm groves rising above its roofs, and its avenue of lebbeks, and its Roman ruins jutting out into the stream on one of the noblest reaches of the Nile.
The boatmen are studies ; some are as simple as monkeys and have the boats of savages; others look like ready-made supers for Beerbohm Tree, and go about in the theatrical copies of Roman galleys described above.
Mr. Weigall in his delightful book, “ Travels in the Upper Egyptian Deserts," has much to tell us about Elephantine and its lords. To them the territory south of Wady Halfa was long “the Land of the Ghosts': the perilous borders of the world, and the misty ocean into which no
man had penetrated, were there to be encountered. To the inhabitants of the brilliant little metropolis the peoples of the upper river appeared to be a hazy folk; and the farther south their land the more mysterious were their surroundings and the ghostlier their ways. The negroes who came to the market no doubt told stories then, as they did in later times, of the great stature and the marvellous longevity of those distant races; and though but a couple of hundred miles of winding river separated the Egyptian frontier from that of the land of Aam, that distance sufficed to twist the thoughts of the market-gossiper from the mortal to the immortal."
As Egyptians became better educated and less superstitious, which was about 2500 B.C., Herkhuf, the lord of Elephantine, made four expeditions to the south, by a road behind the hills along the west bank of the river. Mr. Weigall recently discovered the paved causeway along which Herkhuf's army marched forty-four centuries ago. On his fourth expedition Herkhuf managed to obtain one of the dwarfs or pigmies who inhabited a region of the land of ghosts. He at once informed the boy-king, Pepi II., and in reply he received what Mr. Weigall thinks may be the oldest example of a letter in the world. He gives a translation of it.
“I have noted," writes the King, “the matter of your letter which you have sent to me, in order that I might know that you have returned in safety from Aam, with the army which was with you. ... You say in your letter that you have brought a dancing pigmy of the god from the Land of the Ghosts, like the pigmy which the Treasurer Baurded brought from the Land of Pount in the time of Asesa. You say to my majesty, ‘Never before has one like him been brought by any one who has visited Aam!... Come northward, therefore to the court immediately, and bring this pigmy with you, which you must bring living, prosperous, and healthy from the Land of the Ghosts, to dance for the King, and to rejoice and gladden the heart of the King. When he goes down with you into the vessel, appoint trustworthy people to be beside him at either side of the vessel : take care that he does not fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint trustworthy people who
shall sleep beside him in his cabin ; and make an inspection ten times each night. My majesty desires to see this pigmy more than the gifts of Sinai and of Pount. If you arrive at court, the pigmy being with you, alive, prosperous, and healthy, my majesty will do for you a greater thing than that which was done for the Treasurer Baurded in the time of Asesa, according to the heart's desire of my majesty to see this pigmy.
Orders have been sent to the chief of the New Towns to arrange that food shall be taken from every store-city, and every temple [on the road) without stinting.'"
Mr. Weigall pictures the excited boy awaiting the arrival of this wonder from the south, and the long caravan winding its way over the western hills from Aam to Elephantine, where Herkhuf and his prize would take ship to Memphis.
Under the nineteenth dynasty, says Mr. Weigall, “ Elephantine had become a city of considerable wealth and importance. Splendid temples rose amidst the houses and the trees, and fortified walls around the south end of the island frowned down upon the swift river. Priests, soldiers, and nobles walked the streets amongst the throng of the townspeople, or sailed to and fro over the broken waters. At the foot of the western hills, the bay from which the Nubian highway ran must have often been the scene of the busy loading and unloading of pack-donkeys; and at this time there may have been a masonry landing-stage at the river's edge to terminate worthily the paved causeway."
He writes very picturesquely about another prince of Elephantine, Sabna, whose father had been murdered by the savage negroes to the south, and who went with a few soldiers and a hundred baggage-donkeys bearing presents of honey, oil, ointment, and fine linen, by which he purchased safety and the body of his father, which he brought back and buried in one of the most remarkable of the Grenfell tombs on the western bank. He himself was interred in the next tomb: both tombs have many pictures. The tomb of Herkhuf is here also. It is from the inscriptions on these