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He had coffee to follow, and we felt that we had fared surprisingly well.
Finally, he escorted us to our bedrooms and offered to let down the mosquito-curtains, which, he assured us, were unnecessary in the oasis. We determined to take him at his word, and soon were lying in our cribs to sleep or think.
Long as the day had been, I could not help thinking. I was lying in a rest-house of the Great Oasis. Of our surroundings, since we had arrived after dark, I knew nothing except the low kitchen hut across that stretch of sand. Of the room I was in, by the candle-light I could make out nothing but its loftiness and extensiveness. But opposite my bed was a large open window, and through that I could see the stars of Egypt clustered and coruscating like the Shah of Persia's diamonds. And through that came flooding the cool, sweet desert air with the night sounds of Africa, the barking of dogs and the cries of wild beasts accentuated by the stillness of men. I could not help lying and thinking. While we had come up so easily in the inside of a single day, the last tourists who came here had ridden on camels for several days across that pitiless desert, under that pitiless sun.
But now the Great Oasis of the Libyan desert was in full touch with civilisation (it even had a long-distance telephone across the desert), and soon Thomas Cook & Son's parties would be following in our footsteps with great advantage to all concerned.
Living on the Karnak fringe of Luxor had accustomed me to the barking of the dogs. I was soon asleep, only to be awakened at dawn by the angry roars of an animal. I rose and looked out of the window on that side. It was not a lion ; there are none. There in the desert courtyard lay five or six camels, one in the gorgeous caparisons of a Bedâwin chief. Camels always vent their ill-humour on the world.
From this side I could see nothing but desert and the kitchen, and a glimpse of the headquarters buildings farther on, and the foreglow of the rising sun on the western mountains.
But from the other side what a view there was ! The desert we had traversed was mountainous, culminating in the noble truncated cone of Jebel Ghenneima. Yellow light was flooding up from behind these mountains like water from a fountain. The mountains stood out black against it; but between us and them was a long broad line of pale green, broken up by trees, and a long broad line of yellow, where already, although it was only April, picturesque natives were preparing to cut the bearded wheat of Egypt.
I stole out on the terrace in my pyjamas; the ladies had closed their shutters against the rising sun. The rest-house proved to be quite a handsome building on a long terrace raised a few feet from the ground. It had a large bay in the centre, the eastern end of the dining-hall. It was built of mud, like most other buildings in Egypt. Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return might have been suggested by the dissolution of a Pharaonic city. The rest-house was delightfully cool, because they had had the sense to build it of the local material-mud. Five men made the bricks, and, as fast as they were made, three others built them up. The walls were very thick and covered with a pleasing brown cement. The floor was mud, with an extra quantity of straw in it. The ceilings, the windows, the doors, and the lattices were made of fragrant pine without paint or varnish. The windows were very cheerful, long and low, like weavers' windows. The whole house was built in a month, and the rooms had camp beds and furniture which met with general approval; the mirrors had not yet arrived. One most popular addition might be made at a small cost. The sunk wooden baths used by the Japanese would cost very little, and could be filled with the neighbouring spring of 85° Fahrenheit. The Duke of Connaught is reported to have said that he thought those baths were the most delightful things in Japan-a very large order.
The Marvels of the Great Oasis
E had arranged the night before to devote our first
day to the underground village of Kharga, and the monuments round it. The Pasha, wishing to make things as easy as possible for ladies, gave orders that the train, which had brought us from the base, should take us on from headquarters to the rail-head near the village of Kharga. He sent the camels and donkeys on ahead; he ordered them to be selected with great care. Our route at first lay between clay-hummocks, which look like cheap pyramids, and sometimes contain pottery or copper-stains from coins and spearheads. It is round them or round some similar obstruction that the desert sand dunes collect-there is, as I have said, never a dune without an obstruction. There are only eight inches of sand lying on the clay here, and the wind sometimes sweeps it bare. We began to wonder when we should see the proper stage properties of an oasis. Our idea of an oasis, derived from illustrated Bibles, was a beautiful little lake of water, surrounded by palm groves, with camels and appropriately dressed travellers stooping down to drink. So far we had seen nothing but desert, and crops grown on irrigated land like you see anywhere in the Nile Valley. In this, I suppose, lies the value of the property ; the water tapped by Artesian wells takes the place of the Nile inundation in making land cultivable. Soon we began to see Roman buildings on the rises, the Temple of Nadura on one side and the Monastery of Kasrain Mustafa Kashef on the other. And then suddenly we burst upon splendid palm groves with noble Roman ruins, and the tents of the
American expedition in front. This was Kharga, properly so-called. Soon rising from the palms we could see the broken pylon of Darius's temple. The train stopped short to enable us to see the Roman necropolis, called by the natives, El-Baguat. It is simply wonderful, the most beautiful Roman necropolis I have ever seen. It is a photographer's paradise ; there are streets of tombs-there are two hundred or more of them, all with Moorish-looking arched fronts. They are built of unburnt brick, and were evidently once covered with plaster, for the builders' contrivances to hold the plaster to the brick are still left. As Mr. Beadnell says, it looks more like a deserted city than a graveyard—the tombs present such a high degree of architectural decoration. The larger ones, ornamented with columns, pilasters, and arches, are thought to have served as chapels. The smaller ones are rectangular, roofed with a dome, and provided with niches in each of the sides, except that which is occupied by the doorway. In the centre of the floor, under the dome, there is generally a short, square shaft, from which lateral chambers probably open. These tombs are at present being excavated by a mission of archæologists for one of the great American universities, who, however, are more concerned with hunting for papyri than with laying bare the architectural beauties of the place. It would be well for them to remember this theory of Mr. Beadnell's, which is certainly borne out by the third- or fourth-century tombs at Girgenti in Sicily, where a family would start using a bottle-shaped subterranean cistern for a tomb, and, as their requirements increased, drove galleries off it into the rock in every direction. The interiors are plastered and whitewashed, and many of them have paintings in the rude style, with which the house of a hadji, who has been to Mecca, is decorated in modern Cairo. They are also covered with Arab scrawls.
A far-reaching question is opened up by the constant use of the Egyptian ankh, the sign of life, instead of the cross. Was it introduced merely to gratify converts from the old religion, which may have lingered long in such an isolated place as the oasis, or does the cross owe a great deal of its modern significance to the fact that it is an adaptation of the Egyptian ankh, to serve as an emblem of the crucifixion? Generally in a case like this both things are true. The symbol is adopted for more than one reason, and the borderline becomes indefinite.
The most famous tomb in the Necropolis is that known as the Adam-and-Eve tomb, which has frescoes round its dome, and four figures on round shields at the angles below. It has the usual flat lunettes, with an arched niche in each, occupying its sides. When I saw it, it was half sanded up. There are also considerable traces of frescoing in the tomb they call The Cathedral, which has a nave and aisles and a sort of transept at the end like a friars' church, with a kaleidoscopically painted cupola over the centre. The American mission is searching the graves chiefly for papyri of the Scriptures, and of the lost Epistles of early saints. For as this necropolis dates probably from the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., and may be assumed to contain the tombs of Nestorian notables who followed their bishop Nestorius into exile here in A.D. 434, and their descendants, the chance of finding valuable Christian papyri is unusually good.
The excavations have established one thing at any rate : that the mummifying of the dead lasted well on into Christian times, for a large number of mummies have been disinterred by this mission; and there are mummy cloths lying about everywhere. These mummies have no cases : they were simply embalmed and wrapped in cloths and laid in the mummy pits of the arched tombs, or in horizontal graves opening to the sky, about three feet deep, like the graves of the poor Greeks of ancient Sicily. The American archæologists, when they had opened the grave and rifled it of papyri and any other objects of interest, stuck the mummy back into it anyhow. It gave the oddest effect to see the mummies lying with their eyeless faces looking at the sky, or left with their heads out of their graves, as if they were sitting up. In one of the more important tombs,