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LETTERS FROM THE EAST. NO. vI.
Having hired a cangia for the voyage to Upper Egypt, we left Boulac on a beautiful evening in August. This vessel had very good accommodations—a low room on the deck with several windows, and a smaller one adjoining for my servant; but we preferred in general to take our meals under a canopy without. The crew consisted of seven Arab sailors, and their reis, or captain. For the first two or three days the shores and interior wore a more barren aspect than below Cairo, but the river became gradually wider. On the third day we came to Benesuef: at this town were barracks, with a number of Albanian troops, and it possessed a tolerable bazaar. As we advanced, our progress became increasingly delightful. The vessel generally stopped every morning and evening at some village or hamlet, or where the aspect of the country promised an agreeable walk, when we went on shore to purchase milk or fruit, and vary the scene a little. In oriental climates a traveller possesses the invaluable advantage of being enabled to calculate with certainty on his progress; the sun by day, and the moon by night, will always light him brilliantly on his way; and he has little disappointment to anticipate from rains, and fogs, and clouds ; the atmosphere being almost always pure, the most distant objects can be distinctly seen. One evening, having walked some distance to an Arab village, in a grove of palms, we seated ourselves on the trunk of a tree as the daylight faded, when the Turkish commandant came up and politely invited us to take coffee with him. He conducted us to the top of a verdant bank, where a carpet was quickly spread at the door of his dwelling, sherbet was brought, and the time passed away very agreeably. He pressed us to dine with him the next day in the Eastern style, but this would have occasioned too long a delay. What was rather singular, this officer would not suffer his servant to accept any present; but, seeing us resolved to depart, he accompanied us good part of the way on board, and then took a kind and obliging leave. The scenery along the river now grew more rich and varied, and on the next evening it had an aspect of singular beauty: as the sun set with unusual splendour, its glowing rays were thrown through some long lines of palm trees, close to the water's edge, and rested long on a ridge of grey naked precipices on the opposite shore; at the foot of these rocks was a border of trees, and verdure of the liveliest green, with some spots of cultivation, amidst which might be seen a lonely Egyptian passing along.
We next came to the town of Miniet, not so large as Benesuef; a Turk, of a respectable appearance, requested a passage as far as Siout, which we gave him. Late in the evening the cangia came to near the house of Mr. Brine. This gentleman is a native of Devonshire, has its broad provincial dialect, and manages a sugar-manufactory for the Pacha; he is very hospitable, and the English traveller is sure to meet a cordial reception at his house, which has an aspect half Egyptian, half English; the garden is laid out very prettily in the latter style. Next morning early we took coffee, and then proceeded to visit the premises, where between one and two hundred Arabs are constantly employed at very low wages; but Mr. B. declared it was often impossible to make these Africans work without blows, though he greatly disliked having recourse to violent measures. Indulgence and kindness towards these people do indeed appear quite misplaced: they are certain to abuse them; and so rooted in the mind of almost every African is the love of ease and indolence, that they would rather subsist on the merest necessaries of life, than procure comforts by greater activity. We sat down to an early and profuse dinner at Mr. B's. and had the pleasure of partaking of what was rather rare on the banks of the Nile, a bottle of Champagne; and on returning on board we found two goats and a quantity of fowls sent as a present. This gentleman lives here on the fat of the land, and is absolute sovereign over all around him; but the uncertainty of earthly joys seemed to be felt in Egypt as at home, for on our return two months afterwards from Nubia, Mr. B. was dead, his there amie, an Italian lady, was cast on the stream without a protector, the assistants and servants were turned off, and the whole establishment put under Turkish management.
Leaving Radamouni, we arrived next day at Monfalut, an ancient town from the appearance of the wall that encircled it; here was a very good bazaar, and, as usual, a number of Albanian troops. These men, remarkable for their fine and healthy appearance in their own country, seem to languish beneath this sultry climate, and become sallow and faded. Here we had an opportunity of witnessing the celebrated dance of the Almek girls, who abound in the towns in Upper Egypt, and are devoted to this profession from childhood by their parents, and dress in a gaudy and fantastic manner. They wear long rows of gold coins on each side of the head, which are attached to the tresses of their hair by means of a hole bored in the middle of the coin. They are often beautifully formed, but their features are in general plain, and a young woman of five-and-twenty always appears forty. They danced, five or six in number, to the sound of the tambour and guitar, and their gestures were as voluptuous as can possibly be conceived; for in the manner and variety of these the whole skill of the dance appeared to consist: altogether it was a very disgusting exhibition.
Siout, the capital of the province, lying a few miles inland, we hired asses next day in order to visit it. Its appearance at a small distance was very pleasing, the branches of the Nile flowing close to it, and just beyond the rocky range of Libyan hills.
We next came to Girge, a good Egyptian town, of the same sad and gloomy aspect as all the rest: the dwellings of the poor, dark and wretched; those of the better sort, like fortresses, with small and close windows of woodwork, and walls of a dirty brick colour ; and the streets, if narrow passages can be so called, always unpaved. A Greek doctor came on board here, and introduced himself, as he wanted a passage for a short distance. He had come from Ibrahim the young Pacha's army at Sennaar, to procure a supply of spirits and some other articles, and was now about to return. He was a true Greek, of a' round supple form, and keen and cunning dark eyes, that could expressall things to all men; and though the scorching deserts of'Sennaar' were not quite so sightly a home as his own Attica, he seemed very' much at ease, and willing to take things as they came: he was quite a man of the world, and of very courteous manners. How he could satisfy his Christian conscience to remain with an army of infidels, whose only employment at Sennaar was to* drive out and butcber the harmless inhabitants, is not easy Co understand; but a Hakim, or Frank doctor, is held in peculiar honour by the faithful, whom it is very easy for him to remove to Paradise at any time; for medicine in any form or way, they are always ready to gulp down, though in perfect health. The Greek accompanied me to visit some of the mosques in the town. It was the first day of the second bairam, and all the Turks and Egyptians were taking each other by the hand in the streets, and, having' mutually kissed the cheek as brethren in the faith, they placed the right' hand on the breast with an air of the utmost kindness and pleasure— and expressed their joy at the arrival of this happy day. It was a universal holiday: the Arabs, like boys released from school, formed in large groups in the open spaces, and danced and sang with all their might. We next visited the Coptic convent, a lofty and gloomy building of brick, with only one father in it. He was a man about forty, of a mild and handsome countenance, and, amiable manners, and appeared sincerely pious; be was unmarried, and no being but himself residing in this large and silent convent, his life must have been rather lone and desolate. He had a little garden of plants on the terraced roof of his house, the care of which seemed to be his chief delight, and he was supported by the contributions of his people, who were about three hundred in number. Had the Prophet forbidden his ministers to marry, he would have lacked imauns, santons, and dervishes, and might have propagated his faith by fire and sword, but never by the word of man, for uot the certainty of Paradise would ever induce a believer to live a life of celibacy.
The banks of the Nile on the opposite shore were here formed of precipices of immense height, which descended almost perpendicularly into the water. The next day, our companion, the Greek doctor, left us, and proceeded to Furshout; and in the evening we reached the town of Kcneh, where excellent limes and melons were in abundance. The price of provisions in this country is extremely low—eggs twenty for a penny, a fowl for three-pence, and bread and vegetables cost a mere trifle. The thermometer was here at 93 in the shade, but in a few days it rose to 100. At this town we met with an amusing Turkish barber. This class of men are more respectable in the East than with us, which may partly account for their frequent introduction among the characters in the Arabian Nights. He was a clever man, and seemed to know the world well; his features were handsome, and, besides being well-dressed, he wore a formidable pair of pistols in his sash. He belonged to a peculiar order of dervishes, who allowed their hair to grow. Outwardly he looked as shorn as the rest of the faithful, but on taking off his turban, his long and luxuriant raven tresses fell on his shoulders and breast: he seemed to sneer at many parts of his Prophet's revelations, and said he believed that people of all religions would have an equal chance of going to Heaven. This sceptical dervish was a jovial fellow, and loved an inspiring glass, even with giaours; he wore several dashing rings, and took snuff with all the grace of a Frenchman. On our return from Upper Egypt some time afterwards, the cangia had not long touched the shore, when we saw the portly figure of our friend the dervisfc advancing over the sand ; he carried a handsome walking stick, and hailed our arrival very cordially.
We set out in the afternoon to visit the Temple of Tentyra, about Iwo miles from the opposite shore; it is situated at the end of a very fine plain on which is here and there scattered a lonely group of palms. This beautiful temple is in a higher state of preservation than almost any other in Egypt: it is the first a traveller visits, and its extreme grandeur and elegance excite surprise and admiration beyond what is felt amidst any other ruin. The portico consists of eighteen pillars, the capitals of which, with the head ef Isis carved on each square, have a very noble and majestic effect. This kind of capital is seen only in one small temple besides, and appears to have been peculiar to the Egyptian architecture. The walls and ceiling are covered with hieroglyphics in bas-relief, emblematic of historical subjects, or agricultural pursuits, with figures bearing the fruits of the earth, and implements of husbandry, mingled with various grotesque figures of the human form, and the heads of all sorts of animals.
The hieroglyphics on the ceiling are painted with various colours, which still partially remain; the signs of the zodiac are here the prevailing ornament. You pass from this into an inner apartment, supported by rows of pillars, and at the end of this is the door of the sanctuary, over which is the device seen in every temple—of outspread wings, or plumes, and rays of light descending, as of the glory of Divinity. Having lighted a torch, you pass from the sanctuary through several chambers and passages of the interior of the temple; the walls covered with hieroglyphics of the most exquisite workmanship, half the human size, and cut two or three inches in prominence from the walls. But the body of the temple is partly buried in the earth. In the grand portico a great deal of rubbish remains, the lower part of many of the pillars being covered, probably, to the depth of several yards. It was a glorious site for a temple: the wide plain in front, which is now covered with a rank and luxuriant verdure; close behind the eternal barriers of the Libyan mountains; the Nile a mile and a half on the right; and the boundless desert on the left. The traveller in this country is often struck with the magnificence of the situations the Egyptians chose for their temples. Near the temple is a small building of a pyramidal form, which appears to have been a place of burial: you stoop to enter the low and narrow door, and the light is admitted through a small rude dome at top; many corpses must have rested here, for it still retained a death-like smell. About a hundred yards to the left of the great temple are the remains of a smaller one: the figures cut in the walls here exceed those of the former; the foliage of the capitals, being carved with exquisite beauty; but the human figure that most frequently met the eye, was one of the objects probably of Egyptian worship,—a kind of Bacchus, or Priapus, and not of the most delicate kind.
The inundation of the Nile had this year fallen much below its usual limits; most anxiously did the poor Egyptians watch the rise of the waters inch after inch, till they came to a full stand. Twenty-five years ago a similar event happened to a greater extent than the present, which was productive of great distress, owing to the scarcity of the crops. They fear for their harvests now, and the peasants labour with daily and nightly toil to make amends for the deficient overflow, by raising the water by every possible device, to pour it on their lands. As we advance higher into the country, the surface of the stream is often several inches below the level of the shore. This evening a groupof Arab boys came to the river-side, and kept up a sort of singing in chorus for some time, which was more melodious than most of their efforts of this kind; then a man mounted on horseback, and dressed fantastically to personate a fool, advanced, attended by a number of Arabs on foot, whom he diverted by a variety of ludicrous gestures. This procession paraded about for some time, with much shouting and clapping of hands; and was, we understood, an ancient custom, to propitiate the waters of the Nile, that they might rise to their usual level.
We left Keneh with a fair breeze about nine o'clock at night, and were becalmed the greatest part of next day near a pleasant village, luxuriantly shaded. In the middle of most of the villages there are generally one or more large spreading trees, mostly sycamores, which afford a shade sufficient for a number of people; beneath these the Arabs love to sit, passing their hours indolently away with conversation, and the everlasting pipe. The soil beneath is often nothing but a mass of thick dust or light earth, without any verdure; here they sit and recline with great content, when a little exertion of watering might procure a green and verdant couch. The patriarchs of the village, with their long beards, were all enjoying themselves in the shade of some beautiful trees at the river's side. There was not a breath of wind, and the heat was too powerful for our Arab sailors to walk on the beach, and pull the cangia along by a rope, which is the common practice in a calm. We resolved, however, to go and see what is supposed to be the site of Coptos, where some widely-scattered ruins are still to be seen; and having hired a boat, we crossed over, as it was a few miles walk from the opposite shore. Amidst large and confused heaps of rubbish, are some remains of walls, a few feet high, and fragments of pillars of fine granite. On our return, we passed through a village on the declivity of a hill, and stepped into its large mosque. The hour of evening prayers was just begun; and the peasants of the neighbourhood, many of them fine-looking men, others venerable with age, were gathering fast to their devotions. The corridor was supported by lofty pillars, among which were two or three fine ones of granite, which they had actually taken in pieces from the ruins of Coptos to support their house of faith. In a small building adjoining were several small reservoirs of water, cool and shaded, where the believers were carefully and devoutly washing their feet before they entered the mosque. In this climate their manner of worshipping has often a very impressive as well as picturesque effect. Just after sun-set, when the last and loveliest hues are cast over the silent Egyptian scenery, or more often when the moon has spread her brilliant light on the river and shore, the Turks and Arabs come to the water's edge, and, heedless of the traveller beside them, spread their cloak on the bank, and turning their face to Mecca, and alternately kneeling and standing, are for some time entirely absorbed in their devotions, heedless of every object around, and apparently actuated by a deep and solemn sense of the duty they are engaged in.
At the village of Koft a funeral passed by as we stood near the mosque; the burial-ground was on the side of a hill, shaded by palms, and commanded an extensive view of the surrounding country. The tombs were all of one form, low, a few feet in length, and plastered white. There was no outcry on this occasion, or funeral wail, as it was a child who had died; when an Arab had partly covered the corpse, e»ch of the relatives pushed the. earth gently with his hands into the