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IN the days when Memphis was great, her dead
I were buried in the verges of the western desert, which lay close at hand. Nor did the uses of this enormous cemetery cease when the capital shifted to other and more distant cities; for remnants relating to almost every period of Egyptian history have been found in those unstable sands, from before the First Dynasty down to the period of foreign domination. In a word, the desert bluffs overhanging the vast and vanished city of Memphis, all the way from the environs of that ancient capital to the distant northern pyramids, formed a mighty cemetery that was in constant use for at least two thousand years — and it would not be safe to say how much longer. The interval between our own times and the date of the famous mausoleum of the bulls at Sakkâra, may well be shorter than the interval between the construction of the Serapeum and the erection of Zoser's Step Pyramid. This desolate burying-place was continuously used from the time of Menes to the time of Cambyses the Persian, not only for the interment of human bodies, but for the burial of all sorts of birds and animals that were deemed worthy of sepulture.
It is fortunate that Sakkâra, with its wealth of interesting tombs, lies so close to Cairo as to be within easy reach of such as have not time for the long voyage up the Nile. One who has seen Cairo, the Ghizeh pyramids, the Sakkâra tombs, and the fallen colossi of Rameses in the plain below has seen very nearly the best of ancient Egypt. He will have seen the earliest of the mastaba tombs, the oldest and greatest of the pyramids, the best as well as almost the earliest Egyptian art, the remnants of the later days of Rameses, and the still later Serapeum, which was built to receive the bodies of the sacred bulls. The grand works of the Eighteenth Dynasty at Karnak will be foregone— but he will miss little that is more ancient and little that is more impressive.
There be triple ways to take in going to Sakkâra. First and most obvious, as well as easiest, is the railway to Bedreschein, from which point donkeys may be hired to cover the remaining six or seven miles that lie between the river and the desert. The second way is to wait and go with Cook, or one of the other agencies, whose Nile steamers call at Bedreschein on their way up the river. And the third, at once the most difficult and most satisfactory, since it gives a fair taste of desert travel, is to go to Sakkâra from the Mena House either on donkeys or camels. For those possessed of abundant time, a love of the desert and ability to enjoy a long as well as somewhat fatiguing ride, the last is far and away the best. But it should be added, in some haste, that there is advantage to be derived in returning to Cairo by rail ; for otherwise the colossi of Rameses, which now form the sole surviving remnants of ancient Memphis in the palm-covered valley below, would be entirely missed.
On our own first visit to Sakkâra we went by rail. Prosaic as this method may sound, it had a charm of its own, due to the heavy morning mists which lay along the Nile and the adjacent meadows, from out of which towered the feathery tops of palms and the lofty yards of the feluccas moored beside the bank. It was as yet hardly full dawn, but when the sun finally peered over the brim of the eastern cliffs he touched treetops and masts with a tinge of mellow
beauty and gradually burned away the low-lying masses of the river fog.
Nevertheless it was still misty when we alighted at Bedreschein and took the road to Sakkâra across the fields. Trains of camels loomed out of the fog and strode silently by, threading their way among the groves of palms that lay outside the tiny village, covering the ground that had once teemed with the city's population. The country opened out in smiling meadows clothed in living green, through the midst of which ran lofty earthen dikes for confining the waters of the autumn floods and affording communication between the scattered villages of the region.
We were four that morning — the ladies riding ahead on donkeys and the Hakkim and I walking briskly behind. Our road lay along the top of a broad dike— for most of the outlying highways of Egypt are of that nature and are seldom practicable for wheels. As the mist cleared we could descry other dikes, — or “gisr," as they are called, — along the tops of which strode isolated groups of asses and camels bound toward the little town. Close at hand men strove with a huge net in the waters of a pool, but apparently without any miraculous draft. Indeed, the Hakkim averred that if they had caught so much as a single fish it would have been a miracle in that unpromising and isolated puddle so far from
the Nile. As for the deep basins on either hand between the ridges of the gisr, they were deserted and covered with a mantle of growing grain.
For a time nothing appeared in the way of ruins. The palm grove lay thick between us and our goal, and we should have passed over the site of ancient Memphis without being aware had it not been for the
laborers digging earth and loading it upon camels .by the wayside. It was apparent that they sought the salt-impregnated soil of the ancient town— soil undisturbed for centuries and largely composed of pulverized remains of an early civilization, old potsherds ground to powder and the like, which might serve to salt and fertilize the land. But of the city once so great we saw absolutely nothing, not even a wall of crumbling brick. Thus completely passes earthly glory in the land of Egypt. Durability is not to be expected of cities built chiefly of Nile mud, and even now the houses made of it occasionally crumble, “all at once and nothing first,” like Dr. Holmes's famous chaise, never to be repaired. For the custom is to build anew on top of the fallen ruin — and as this process is likely to be repeated ad infinitum, it is small wonder that in the lapse of many hundred years the old cities are hard to find, and that even the huge stones of Dendera and Karnak have had to be dug out of a great accumulation of débris.