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The Egyptian State Railways
T°Egyptian State railways
OURISTS do not make half enough use of the
North of Assuan you can go anywhere by them just as easily as you can by the Nile, though you cannot take your hotel with you as you do on Cook's steamers. The trains between Cairo and Assuan are extremely comfortable if you go by the wagonlits, for you get the best sleeping-cars in the world; and English wagon-lit passengers are treated with great respect by Egyptian officials. The humbler officials, like porters, are polite to every one—it is the Egyptian's nature to be polite. It is also his nature, however much you overpay him in bakshish, to look at it reproachfully and say that it is not enough. To which, from an Englishman, he expects the rejoinder of “Get out." Second class is not so comfortable, because Egyptians, other than fellahin, use it themselves, and collectively they smell, apart from their habit of bringing merchandise into the carriage. An Egyptian, who might be taking up several dozen large water-jars would give the guard a little tip to be allowed to take them in the carriage with him instead of paying for them in the luggage van. Until English officials took over the administration of the railways, Egyptians used to tip the guard to let them travel without a ticket.
The traveller who has merely travelled from Cairo to one of the ports, and Cairo to Assuan, by train-de-luxe, and that mostly at night, has not seen the humours of Egyptian railways. For this he should make the day journey from Cairo to Damietta, which takes him through the Delta, the
richest and wickedest part of Egypt. It was the Khedive who told me that the better-off a district is the more crime there will be.
Tanta, the chief town of the Delta, is noted for its turbulence. It is not always safe for Europeans to go there during the annual pilgrimage.
We went to Damietta late in the spring of 1907. We started from Cairo in complete comfort. We had not a wagon-lit-there are no wagon-lits to Damietta—but an excellent first-class apartment, obsequiously dusted, all to ourselves. In Egypt when you have chosen your railway carriage a deputy-porter steps in with the inevitable ostrichfeather broom, and removes the dust, which settles on the seats like snow. We bought our Egyptian Gazette and our Egyptian Morning News and the latest English paper, and settled down to read till we had shaken clear of Cairo, with its pashas' gardens in the maw of the jerrybuilder, looking very Sicilian with their prickly pears and artichokes if it had not been for the palm-groves.
When we came to real villages with manure stacked on their roofs and sakiyas groaning under the shade of lebbektrees, we looked up from our papers. Egypt was there in full force, consisting mostly of camels and donkeys, with a few buffaloes and others. The stooping fellahin in their long blue gowns, in the distance, looked more like mummybeads than ever. They stoop over their work as much as the Japanese. I wonder they don't learn to work standing on their heads: their eyes and arms would be so much nearer to the ground.
There were many trains of camels led by men on asses. Camels are not as wise as they look. Two camels of the Coldstream Guards, which had eaten too much berseem, quietly burst all over the barrack-yard and died. Most of the camels here were laden with crates for oranges. They and the donkeys were returning from their early morning jobs on a never-ending track, which ran straight through bright, bright patches of mustard, green, green berseem, and brown Nile earth in the wake of Virgilian ploughs. The cemeteries really are the best part of the scenery here. If our cemeteries at home were like these, one could understand the lugubrious love which our lower classes entertain for them. Here in the Delta of the Nile you only need a mosque with a minaret, and a few saints' tombs with whitewashed domes, built of mud, to make a picture. When the tombs are built of burnt bricks, as they sometimes are in the Delta, they do not look half so nice as when they are built of mud. Sometimes the domes about here are as conical as a cypress.
Arab writing is a wonderful and beautiful thing. It can make the name of a railway station as impressive as a prayer. Ben-ha looks simple--almost ridiculous when written up in bald English, but in Arabic it looks like a blessing.
Ben-ha is an important town, just the place to give a new arrival an idea of the humours of an Egyptian railway station, with its flocks of natives sitting on the ground, its screamers selling mandarins and cakes, its women in face veils, its effendis in tarbooshes and fearful English clothes, but clean and correct collars; its poorer and nobler-looking men in Eastern robes and turbans; and a few flamboyant ladies, belonging to the lower orders of nations like Levantines, in fussy European garments, with little girls in unabashed flannel night-dresses-mostly magenta-Levantine children always run about in Aannel night-dresses—they look like galabeahs. An Egyptian station is an admirable place for photographing. There is always somebody doing something absolutely idiotic for a foreground. I should always give up my ticket to any one who asked me, if he had a tarboosh on. It has the look of a uniform about it. The personnel of the Egyptian railways often wear no other uniform. One came along at Benha and tapped the window with a pencil, to draw my attention to the fact that he would like to see my ticket. He returned it with an elaborate flourish, and a smile like the advertisement of Bovril in Trafalgar Square, which illuminates the night with running glimpses of the alphabet.
The broad green flats of the Delta are something like the flats round Venice; the minarets of the mosques suggest the campanili, but the fellahin are much more attractive figures in the landscape, and make brilliant flashes of colour. I once saw a man bicycling on the deep sand of a donkey-path in the middle of camels and blacked-robed women with pitchers on their heads. Perhaps he was cycling from Cairo to Alexandria--it has been done, though no one has yet succeeded in motoring it in a roadless place like Egypt.
The Virgilian plough was in full force as we passed, sometimes extra picturesque from being driven by the beautifully hideous Egyptian buffalo, uncommonly like one of the prehistoric animals by the lake at the Crystal Palace, which impressed me so much in my childhood, that I did not care for any real animals except the elephant and the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus. The Virgilian plough, which is of wood, with a steel tooth, is still used in the highly farmed Delta, because the steel plough, unless the soil is very well “ washed,” brings up the salt-which is always present in that brackish province -to the surface, while the Virgilian, or perhaps I should say the Pharaonic plough, only gives the earth a scratch and a promise.
Egypt is saved from many railway disasters by its unsuitability for railway tunnels. As its railways always run along the Nile or across the desert, engineering difficulties are few. Rails have been laid at the rate of three miles a day, when Lord Kitchener was impatient to meet the Mahdi.
Presently we came to a very large town with very dirty streets. It was surrounded with birkets-pools of stagnant water, which at the same time served for liquid dustheaps, and had Bedâwin camping round them.
There was an enormous mosque in the background, so we knew that it must be Tanta, and that this must be the celebrated Pilgrims' mosque. The pilgrimage is in honour of a native of Fez, in Morocco-the Seyyid Ahmed el-Bedâwi. He was so struck with Tanta when passing through it with his family, on his way to Mecca, that on his return he established himself here and lived here till he died. The Nile may have seemed a very blessed sight to a native of Morocco, who had come across the Sahara from home, and across the Arabian deserts from Mecca. Tanta is, in a way, the capital of the garden of Egypt.
Seyyid Ahmed el-Bedâwi is supposed to have succeeded to the attributes of Shu, the Egyptian Hercules. He is appealed to by all who are in need of strength to stand a sudden calamity, such as a storm or an accident. Mr. Hall says that to avert them, people call out “Ya Seyyid, ya Bedâwi”; and the song of “Gad el-Yûsara," "He brought back the captives," records the might and prowess of this hero. In the second call to prayer, chanted by the muezzin an hour before daybreak, he is invoked under the name of Abû Farrâg, Shêkh of the Arabs, and coupled with El-Hasan and El-Husên, and "all the favourites of God."
There used to be fairs held in his honour three times a year at Tanta, each of which lasted a week or more, and even now the pilgrimage assumes vast dimensions. As many as 200,000 people have attended it. Pleasure and business play quite as great a part in it as religion, except in the matter of fanaticism against Christians.
At Tanta the reposefulness of our journey was rudely interrupted. The English of the guard was equal to telling us that we had to change, but not equal to answering any of our questions, nor could we find an English-speaking station official. But we found what was even more efficacious, a big-wig in the National Bank of Egypt, whom we had met inspecting his branch at Khartům. He volunteered to see us into our train, which was right at the other side of the station.
We had just comfortably ensconced ourselves in an empty compartment, when the guard came along, and asked us to get out and go into an adjoining compartment, half full of smoking Levantines, because an Egyptian had come with his family and wished our compartment to be turned into a harem compartment for his wives, and a ridiculous child in the worst style of Levantine splendour with anklets clasped round high yellow boots. An officious policeman interfered,