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CHAPTER I. SOWAHEEN IN EGYPT COWAHEEN — the word, by the way, is Arabic N and plural — is the opprobrious term by which tourists are designated in the land of Egypt. I suspect I have taken liberties in the matter of its spelling, but that is the constitutional right, apparently, of all such as write of things Egyptian. Therefore it seems to require no apology. But the fact may serve to call attention at the outset to the great and first difficulty that greets one on the threshold of a work like this,
- namely, that of deciding upon any definite system of transliterating Egyptian names and other needful terms; and also to the second difficulty, which is like unto it, — that of adhering to the system once it has been adopted.
A most casual examination of a very few of the existing books, whether historical or archæological, will suffice to reveal the hopelessness of the case. What to one Egyptologist is “Cheops,” to another is “Khufu.” What one prefers to spell “Hatasu" appeals to another in the more imposing form of “Hatshepsowet.” Who shall decide between “Assouan,” “Assuan," and "Aswan"? How determine which is the more desirable, “ Amenophis,” or “Amenhôtep"? These be but a few of the perplexing instances wherein rival scholars differ in their transcriptions from an ancient language, essentially obscure at best, and possessed of syllabic signs and symbols rather than individual letters. The results are chaotic, and the writer is tempted to consult his own preferences regardless alike of logic and of what others, whether experts or laymen, are going to think of it. The most one may demand in fairness of any author is that at least he stick manfully to one spelling of a given word after once committing himself thereto, – a thing, alas, which many a learned Egyptologist contemptuously refuses to do.
For the purposes of this book, therefore, I propose to adopt whatever spellings of names may seem most convenient to the needs of other “sowaheen" visiting Egypt for the first time in the same case with myself; to wit, unlearned in the archæology of the land, untutored in the minutiæ of its history, and fairly uncritical of orthography so long as the names employed serve to convey a definite idea of an undoubted personage, place, or period. With which prefatory statement, let me turn for a moment to such introductory remarks on Egyptian travel as may seem likely to be useful to the individual “sowâh.”
The vast majority of people who visit Egypt do so, I suppose, because of the intense historic interest of the country and because of the overmastering antiquity of its surviving monuments and mummies. Competent authority now awards to Egypt the honor of being the source and origin of our modern civilization, preferring its claim thereto above the claims of the valley of the Euphrates. A minority go there for serious study of ancient customs and ancient art. Still others seek the valley of the Nile for the purpose of escaping the rigors of a Northern winter or with the design of recovering health which the inclemency of other climates has impaired. All of which brings us by easy stages to a word on the climate of Egypt and to a word of caution as well which may not be amiss.
The impression prevails, and no doubt justly, that Egypt is a notable health resort. Nevertheless it will be well, before we proceed too enthusiastically to embrace the delights of a winter on the Nile, to realize that Egypt is prone to exact the full penalty of the imprudent. Mild her winters certainly are. Her spring is the most delightful season imaginable. Even the heat of her summer is compensated by the luxury of cool and restful nights. But the fact remains that, however healthful her climate, one is not freed from the necessity of due care; and that the alternations between the heat of high noon and the chill of early evening possess their full share of dangers for the unwary. A climate that calls for tennis flannels at midday and a fur-lined wrap in the evening is often delightful, but one must respect its demands in the way of clothing and conduct. Properly used, Egypt is capable of bearing length of days in her right hand. Imprudently trifled with, she is as inexorable as New England herself. And the greatest danger of the Egyptian climate is, I am convinced, to those robust souls whose bodily vigor and boasted indifference to variations of temperature elsewhere lead them into carelessness in Cairo, or on the upper river.
It is common to refer to the climate of Egypt as rainless, and to all intents and purposes that is true. Like all generalizations, however, it is dangerous. It may rain as hard in Cairo as in any other city of the earth. Showers are not unknown in the interior and sometimes come up with startling suddenness. But it is still true that rain is very infrequent; and as far as concerns the upper Nile it is fair to say that almost every day may be depended upon to be fine, save for the occasional intervention of the “khamasin," or desert wind, which commonly brings not rain, but clouds of dust and sand. The sand-storm is not the least interesting phenomenon of the country. It may come from either desert — the Libyan, to the southwest, or the Arabian, to the east. In either case it is sure to be a hot wind, and the air is certain to be thick with the flying dust. On the edge of the desert the particles cut like fine snow, and facing the khamasin is anything but a delight. A genuinely hot one produces a curious dryness — so intense that the ink in one's pen is dried before it can be put to paper.
The word “khamasin” — and here again one is choosing one of several spellings and is inserting an initial “k” which has almost no vocal sound at all - means simply “fifty.” Mohammedans claim that it is so called because it blows most fiercely during “the Christian fast," or Lent, which they apparently conceive to be about fifty days long. But it is quite capable of blowing at other seasons, and its name may be set down to the fact that it is most to be dreaded in March, at which season it seems to be most oppressive as well as most persistent. The first