"Chapter XIV: Korosko to Abou Simbel." by Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892)
Publication: Edwards, Amelia B. A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. London: George Routledge and Sons, Limited, 1891. pp. 244-261.
IT so happened that we arrived at Korosko on the eve of El-'Id el-Kebîr, or the anniversary of the Sacrifice of Abraham ; when, according to the Moslem version, Ishmael was the intended victim, and a ram the substituted offereing. Now El-'Id el Kebîr, being one of the great Feasts of the Mohammedan Kalendar, is a day of gifts and good wishes. The rich visit their friends and distribute meat to the poor ; and every true believer goes to the mosque to say his prayers in the morning. So, instead of starting as usual at sunrise, we treated our sailors to a sheep, and waited till past noon, that they might make holiday.
They began the day by trooping off to the village mosque in all the glory of new blue blouses, spotless turbans, and scarlet leather slippers ; then loitered about till dinner-time, when the said sheep, stewed with lentils and garlic, brought the festivities to an end. It was a thin and ancient beast, and must have been horibbly tough ; but an epicure might have envied the child-like enjoyment with which our honest fellows squatted, cross-legged and happy, round the smoking cauldron ; chattering, laughing, feasting ; dipping their fingers in the common mess ; washing the whole down with long draughts of Nile water ; and finishing off with a hubble-bubble passed from lip to lip, and a mouthful of muddy coffee. By a little after midday they had put off their finery, harnessed themselves to the tow-rope, and set to work to haul us through the rocky shoals which here impede the current.
From Korosko to Derr, the actual distance is about eleven miles and a half ; but what with obstructions in the bed of the river, and what with a wind that would have been favourable but for another great bend which the Nile takes towards the east, those eleven miles and a half cost us the best part of two days' hard tracking.
Landing from time to time when the boat was close in shore, we found the order of planting everywhere the same, lupins and lentils on the slope against the water-line ; an uninterrupted grove of palms on the edge of the bank ; in the space beyond, fields of cotton and young corn ; and then the desert. The arable soil was divided off, as usual, by hundreds of water channels ; and seemed to be excellently farmed as well as abundantly irrigated. Not a weed was to be seen ; not an inch of soil appeared to be wasted. In odd corners where there was room for nothing else, cucumbers and vegetable-marrows flourished and bore fruit. Nowhere had we seen castor-berries so large, cotton-pods so full, or palms so lofty.
Here also, for the first time in Egypt, we observed among the bushes a few hoopoes and other small birds; and on a sand-slope down by the river, a group of wild-ducks. We – that is to say, one of the M. B.'s and the Writer – had wandered off that way in search of crocodiles. The two dahabeeyahs, each with its file of trackers, were slowly labouring up against the current about a mile away. All was intensely hot, and intensely silent. We had walked far, and had seen no crocodile. What we should have done if we had met one, I am not prepared to say. Perhaps we should have run away. At all events, we were just about to turn back when we caught sight of the ducks sunning themselves, half-asleep, on the brink of a tiny pool about an eighth of a mile away.
Creeping cautiously under the bank, we contrived to get within a few yards of them. There were four – a drake, a duck, and two young ones – exquisitely feathered, and as small as teal. The parent-birds could scarcely have measured more than eight inches from head to tail. All alike had chestnut coloured heads with a narrow buff stripe down the middle, like a parting ; maroon backs ; wing-feathers maroon and grey; and tails tipped with buff. They were so pretty, and the little family party was so complete, that the Writer could not help secretly rejoicing that Alfred and his gun were safe on board the Bagstones.
High above the Libyan bank on the sloping verge of the desert, stands, half-drowned in sand, the little Temple of Amada. Seeing it from the opposite side while duck-hunting in the morning, I had taken it for one of the many stone shelters erected by Mohammed Ali for the accommodation of cattle levied annually in the Sûdan. It proved, however, to be a temple, small but massive ; built with squared blocks of sandstone ; and dating back to the very old times of the Usurtesens and Thothmes. It consists of a portico, a transverse atrium, and three small chambers. The pillars of the portico are mere square piers. The rooms are small and low. The roof, constructed of oblong blocks, is flat from end to end. As an architectural structure it is in fact but a few degrees removed from Stonehenge.
A shed without, this little temple is, however, a cameo within. Nowhere, save in the tomb of Ti, had we seen bas-reliefs so delicately modelled, so rich in colour. Here, as elsewhere, the walls are covered with groups of Kings and Gods and hieroglyphic texts. The figures are slender and animated. The head-dresses, jewellery, and patterned robes are elaborately drawn and painted. Every head looks like a portrait ; every hieroglyphic form is a study in miniature.
Apart from its exquisite finish, the wall-sculpture of Amada has, however, nothing in common with the wall-sculpture of the Ancient Empire. It belongs to the period of Egyptian Renaissance ; and, though inferior in power and naturalness to the work of the elder school, it marks just that moment of special development when the art of modelling in low relief had touched the highest level to which it ever again attained. That highest level belongs to the reigns of Thothmes the Second and Thothmes the Third ; just as the perfect era in architecture belongs to the reigns of Seti the First and Rameses the Second. It is for this reason that Amada is so precious. It registers an epoch in the history of the art, and gives us the best of that epoch in the hour of its zenith. The sculptor is here seen to be working within bounds already proscribed ; yet within those bounds he still enjoys a certain liberty. His art, though largely conventionalised, is not yet stereotyped. His sense of beauty still finds expression. There is, in short, a grace and sweetness about the bas-relief designs of Amada for which one looks in vain to the storied walls of Karnak.
The chambers are half-choked with sand, and we had to crawl into the sanctuary upon our hands and knees. A long inscription at the upper end records how Amenhotep the Second, returning from his first campaign against the Ruten, slew seven kings with his own hand ; six of whom were gibbeted upon the ramparts of Thebes, while the body of the seventh was sent to Ethiopia by water and suspended on the outer wall of the city of Napata,1 "in order that the negroes might behold the victories of the Pharaoh in all the lands of the world."
In the darkest corner of the atrium we observed a curious tableau representing the King embraced by a Goddess. He holds a short straight sword in his right hand, and the crux ansata in his left. On his head he wears the khepersh, or war-helmet ; a kind of blue mitre studded with gold stars and ornamented with the royal asp. The Goddess clasps him lovingly about the neck, and bends her lips to his. The artist has given her the yellow complexion conventionally ascribed to women ; but her saucy mouth and nez retroussé are distinctly European. Dressed in the fashion of the nineteenth century, she might have served Leech as a model for his Girl of the Period.
The sand has drifted so high at the back of the Temple, that one steps upon the roof as upon a terrace only just raised above the level of the desert. Soon that level will be equal ; and if nothing is done to rescue it within the next generation or two, the whole building will become engulfed, and its very site be forgotten.
The view from the roof, looking back towards Korosko and forward towards Derr, is one of the finest – perhaps quite the finest – in Nubia. The Nile curves grandly through the foreground. The palm-woods of Derr are green in the distance. The mountain region which we have just traversed ranges, a vast crescent of multitudinous peaks, round two-thirds of the horizon. Ridge beyond ridge, chain beyond chain, flushing crimson in light and deepening through every tint of amethyst and purple in shadow, those innumerable summits fade into tenderest blue upon the horizon. As the sun sets, they seem to glow ; to become incandescent ; to be touched with flame – as in the old time when every crater was a fount of fire.
Struggling next morning through a maze of sand-banks, we reached Derr soon after breakfast. This town – the Nubian capital – lies a little lower than the level of the bank, so that only a few mud walls are visible from the river. Having learned by this time that a capital town is but a bigger village, containing perhaps a mosque and a market-place, we were not disappointed by the unimposing aspect of the Nubian metropolis.
Great, however, was our surprise when, instead of the usual clamorous crowd screaming, pushing, scrambling, and bothering for bakhshîsh, we found the landing-place deserted. Two or three native boats lay up under the bank, empty. There was literally not a soul in sight. L. and the Little Lady, eager to buy some of the basket-work for which the place is famous, looked blank. Talhamy, anxious to lay in a store of fresh eggs and vegetables, looked blanker.
We landed. Before us lay an open space, at the farther end of which, facing the river, stood the Governor's palace ; the said palace being a magnified mud hut, with a frieze of baked bricks round the top, and an imposing stone doorway. In this doorway, according to immemorial usage, the great man gives audience. We saw him – a mere youth, apparently – puffing away at a long chibouque, in the midst of a little group of greybeard elders. They looked at us gravely, immovably ; like smoking automata. One longed to go up and ask them if they were all transformed to black granite from the waists to the feet, and if the inhabitants of Derr had been changed into blue stones.
Still bent on buying baskets, if baskets were to be bought, – bent also on finding out the whereabouts of a certain rock-cut temple which our books told us to look for at the back of the town, we turned aside into a straggling street leading towards the desert. The houses looked better built than usual ; some pains having evidently been bestowed in smoothing the surface of the mud, and ornamenting the doorways with fragments of coloured pottery. A cracked willow-pattern dinner-plate set like a fanlight over one, and a white soup-plate over another, came doubtless from the canteen of some English dahabeeyah, and were the pride of their possessors. Looking from end to end of this street – and it was a tolerably long one, with the Nile at one end, and the desert at the other – we saw no sign or shadow of moving creature. Only one young woman, hearing strange voices talking a strange tongue, peeped out suddenly from a half-opened door as we went by ; then, seeing me look at the baby in her arms (which was hideous and had sore eyes) drew her veil across its face, and darted back again. She thought I coveted her treaure, and she dreaded the Evil Eye.
All at once we heard a sound like the far-off quivering cry of many owls. It shrilled – swelled – wavered – dropped – then died away, like the moaning of the wind at sea. We held our breath and listened. We had never heard anything so wild and plaintive. Then suddenly, through an opening between the houses, we saw a great crowd on a space of rising ground about a quarter of a mile away. This crowd consisted of men only – a close, turbaned mass some three or four hundred in number ; all standing quite still and silent ; all looking in the same direction.
Hurrying on to the desert, we saw the strange sight at which they were looking.
The scene was a barren sandslope hemmed in between the town and the cliffs, and dotted over with graves. The actors were all women. Huddled together under a long wall some few hundred yards away, bareheaded, and exposed to the blaze of the morning sun, they outnumbered the men by a full third. Some were sitting, some standing ; while in their midst, pressing round a young woman who seemed to act as leader, there swayed and circled and shuffled a compact phalanx of dancers. Upon this young woman the eyes of all were turned. A black Cassandra, she rocked her body from side to side, clapped her hands above her head, and poured forth a wild declamatory chant, which the rest echoed. This chant seemed to be divided into strophes, at the end of each of which she paused, beat her breast, and broke into that terrible wail that we had heard just now from a distance.
Her brother, it seemed, had died last night ; and we were witnessing his funeral.
The actual interment was over by the time we reached the spot ; but four men were still busy filling the grave with sand, which they scraped up, a bowlful at a time, and stamped down with their naked feet.
The deceased being unmarried, his sister led the choir of mourners. She was a tall, gaunt young woman of the plainest Nubian type, with high cheekbones, eyes slanting upwards at the corners, and an enormous mouth full of glittering teeth. On her head she wore a white cloth smeared with dust. Her companions were distinguished by a narrow white fillet, bound about the brow, and tied with two long ends behind. They had hidden their necklaces and bracelets, and wore trailing robes and shawls, and loose trousers of black or blue calico.
We stood for a long time watching their uncouth dance. None of the women seemed to notice us ; but the men made way civilly and gravely, letting us pass to the front, that we might get a better view of the ceremony.
By and by an old woman rose slowly from the midst of those who were sitting, and moved with tottering uncertain steps towards a higher point of ground, a little apart from the crowd. There was a movement of compassion among the men ; one of whom turned to the Writer and said gently : "His mother."
She was a small, feeble old woman, very poorly clad. Her hands and arms were like the hands and arms of a mummy, and her withered black face looked ghastly under the mask of dust. For a few moments, swaying her body slowly to and fro, she watched the gravediggers stamping down the sand ; then stretched out her arms, and broke into a torrent of lamentations. The dialect of Derr2 is strange and barbarous ; but we felt as if we understood every word she uttered. Presently the tears began to make channels down her cheeks – her voice became choked with sobs – and falling down in a sort of helpless heap, like a broken-hearted dog, she lay with her face to the ground, and there stayed.
Meanwhile, the sand being now filled in and mounded up, the men betook themselves to a place where the rock had given way, and selected a couple of big stones from the débris. These they placed at the head and foot of the grave ; and all was done.
Instantly – perhaps at an appointed signal, though we saw none given – the wailing ceased ; the women rose ; every tongue was loosened ; and the whole became a moving, animated, noisy throng dispersing in a dozen different directions.
We turned away with the rest, the Writer and the Painter rambling off in search of the temple, while the other three devoted themselves to the pursuit of baskets and native jewellery. When we looked back presently, the crowd was gone ; but the desolate mother still lay motionless in the dust.
It chanced that we witnessed many funerals in Nubia ; so many that one sometimes felt inclined to doubt whether the Governor of Assûan had not reported over-favourably of the health of the province. The ceremonial, with its dancing and chanting, was always much the same ; always barbaric, and in the highest degree artificial. One would like to know how much of it is derived from purely African sources, and how much from ancient Egyptian tradition. The dance is most probably Ethiopian. Lepsius, travelling through the Sûdan in A.D. 1844,3 saw something of the kind at a funeral in Wed Medineh, about half-way between Sennaar and Khartûm. The white fillet worn by the choir of mourners is, on the other hand, distinctly Egyptian. We afterwards saw it represented in paintings of funeral processions on the wall of several tombs at Thebes,4 where the wailing women are seen to be gathering up the dust in their hands and casting it upon their heads, just as they do now. As for the wail – beginning high, and descending through a scale divided, not by semi-tones, but thirds of tones, to a final note about an octave and a half lower than that from which it started – it probably echoes to this day the very pitch and rhythm of the wail that followed the Pharaohs to their sepulchres in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings. Like the zaghareet, or joy-cry, which every mother teaches to her little girls, and which, it is said, can only be acquired in very early youth, it has been handed down from generation to generation through an untold succession of ages. The song to which the Fellâh works his shâdûf, and the monotonous chant of the sakkieh-driver, have perhaps as remote an origin. But of all old, mournful, human sounds, the death-wail that we heard at Derr is perhaps one of the very oldest – certainly the most mournful.
The Temple here, dating from the reign of Ramses II, is of rude design and indifferent execution. Partly constructed, partly excavated, it is approached by a forecourt, the roof of which was supported by eight square columns. Of these columns only the bases remain. Four massive piers against which once stood four colossi, upheld the roof of the portico and gave admission by three entrances to the rock-cut chambers beyond. That portico is now roofless. Nothing is left of the colossi but their feet. All is ruin; and ruin without beauty.
Seen from within, however, the place is not without a kind of gloomy grandeur. Two rows of square columns, three at each side, divide the large hall into a nave and two aisles. This hall is about forty feet square, and the pillars have been left standing in the living rock, like those in the early tombs at Siût. The daylight, half blocked out by the fallen portico, is pleasantly subdued, and finds its way dimly to the sanctuary at the farther end. The sculptures of the interior, though much damaged, are less defaced than those of the outer court. Walls, pillars, doorways, are covered with bas-reliefs. The King and Ptah, the King and Ra, the King and Amen, stand face to face, hand in hand, on each of the four sides of every column. Scenes of worship, of slaughter, of anointing, cover the walls ; and the blank spaces are filled in as usual with hieroglyphic inscriptions. Among these Champollion discovered an imperfect list of the sons and daughters of Rameses the Second. Four gods once sat enthroned at the upper end of the sanctuary ; but they have shared the fate of the colossi outside, and only their feet remain. The wall sculptures of this dark little chamber are, however, better preserved, and better worth preservation, than those of the hall. A procession of priests, bearing on their shoulders the bari, or sacred boat, is quite unharmed ; and even the colour is yet fresh upon a full-length figure of Hathor close by.
TEMPLE OF DERR, NUBIA.
But more interesting than all these – more interesting because more rare – is a sculptured palm-tree against which the king leans while making an offering to Amen-Ra. The trunk is given with elaborate truthfulness ; and the branches, though formalised, are correct and graceful in curvature. The tree is but an accessory. It may have been introduced with reference to the date-harvests which are the wealth of the district ; but it has no kind of sacred significance, and is noticeable only for the naturalness of the treatment. Such naturalness is unusual in the art of this period, when the conventional persea, and the equally conventional lotus are almost the only vegetable forms which appear on the walls of the Temples. I can recall, indeed, but one similar instance in the bas-relief sculpture of the New Empire – namely, the bent, broken, and waving bulrushes in the great lion-hunting scene at Medinet Habu, which are admirably free, and studied apparently from nature.
Coming out, we looked in vain along the courtyard walls for the battle-scene in which Champollion was yet able to trace the famous fighting lion of Rameses the second, with the legend describing him as "the Servant of His Majesty rending his foes in pieces." But that was forty-five years ago. Now it is with difficulty that one detects a few vague outlines of chariot-wheels and horses.
There are some rock-cut tombs in the face of the cliffs close by. The Painter explored them while the Writer sketched the interior of the Temple ; but he reported of them as mere sepulchres, unpainted and unsculptured.
The rocks, the sands, the sky, were at a white heat when we again turned our faces toward the river. Where there had so lately been a great multitude there was now not a soul. The palms nodded ; the pigeons dozed ; the mud town slept in the sun. Even the mother had gone from her place of weeping, and left her dead to the silence of the desert.
We went and looked at his grave. The fresh-turned sand was only a little darker than the rest, and but for the trampled foot-marks round about, we could scarcely have been able to distinguish the new mound from the old ones. All were alike nameless. Some, more cared for than the rest, were bordered with large stones and filled in with variegated pebbles. One or two were fenced about with a mud wall. All had a bowl of baked clay at the head. Wherever we saw a burial-ground in Nubia, we saw these bowls upon the graves. The mourners, they told us, mourn here for forty days ; during which time they come every Friday and fill the bowl with fresh water, that the birds may drink from it. The bowls on the other graves were dry and full of sand ; but the new bowl was brimming full, and the water in it was hot to the touch.
We found L. and the Happy Couple standing at bay with their backs against a big lebbich tree, surrounded by an immense crowd and far from comfortable. Bent on "bazaaring," they had probably shown themselves too ready to buy ; so bringing the whole population, with all the mats, baskets, nose-rings, finger-rings, necklaces, and bracelets in the place about their ears. Seeing the straits they were in, we ran to the dahabeeyah and despatched three or four sailors to the rescue, who brought them off in triumph.
Even in Egypt, it does not answer, as a rule, to go about on shore without an escort. The people are apt to be importunate, and can with difficulty be kept at a pleasant distance. But in Nubia, where the traveller's life was scarcely safe fifty years ago, unprotected Ingleezeh are pretty certain to be disagreeably mobbed. The natives, in truth, are still mere savages au fond – the old war-paint being but half disguised under a thin veneer of Mohammedanism.
Some of the women who followed our friends to the boat, though in complexion as black as the rest, had light blue eyes and frizzy red hair, the effect of which was indescribably frightful. Both here and at Ibrim there are many of these "fair" families, who claim to be descended from Bosnian fathers stationed in Nubia at the time of the conquest of Sultan Selim in A.D. 1517. They are immensely proud of their alien blood, and think themselves quite beautiful.
All hands being safe on board, we pushed off at once, leaving about a couple of hundred disconsolate dealers on the bank. A long-drawn howl of disappointment followed in our wake. Those who had sold, and those who had not sold, were alike wronged, ruined, and betrayed. One woman tore wildly along the bank, shrieking and beating her breast. Foremost among the sellers, she had parted from her gold brow-pendant for a good price ; but was inconsolable now for the loss of it.
It often happened that those who had been most eager to trade, were readiest to repent of their bargains. Even so, however, their cupidity outweighed their love of finery. Moved once or twice by the lamentations of some dark damsel who had sold her necklace at a handsome profit, we offered to annul the purchase. But it invariably proved that, despite her tears, she preferred to keep the money.
The palms of Derr and of the rich district beyond, were the finest we saw throughout the journey. Straight and strong and magnificently plumed, they rose to an average height of seventy or eighty feet. These superb plantations supply all Egypt with saplings, and contribute a heavy tax to the revenue. The fruit, sun-dried and shrivelled, is also sent northwards in large quantities.
The trees are cultivated with strenuous industry by the natives, and owe as much of their perfection to laborious irrigation as to climate. The foot of each separate palm is surrounded by a circular trench into which the water is conducted by a small channel about fourteen inches in width. Every palm-grove stands in a network of these artificial runlets. The reservoir from which they are supplied is filled by means of a Sakkieh, or water-wheel – a primitive and picturesque machine consisting of two wheels, the one set vertically to the river and slung with a chain of pots ; the other a horizontal cog turned sometimes by a camel, but more frequently in Nubia by a buffalo. The pots (which go down empty, dip under the water, and come up full) feed a sloping trough which in some places supplies a reservoir, and in others communicates at once with the irrigating channels. These sakkiehs are kept perpetually going ; and are set so close just above Derr, that the Writer counted a line of fifteen within the space of a single mile. There were probably quite as many on the opposite bank.
The sakkiehs creak atrociously ; and their creaking ranges over an unlimited gamut. From morn till dewy eve, from dewy eve till morn, they squeak, they squeal, they grind, they groan, they croak. Heard after dark, sakkieh answering to sakkieh, their melancholy chorus makes night hideous. To sleep through it is impossible. Being obliged to moor a few miles beyond Derr, and having lain awake half the night, we offered a sakkieh-driver a couple of dollars if he would let his wheel rest till morning. But time and water are more precious than even dollars at this season ; and the man refused. All we could do, therefore, was to punt into the middle of the river, and lie off at a point as nearly as possible equidistant from our two nearest enemies.
SAKKIEH, OR WATER-WHEEL.
The native dearly loves the tree which costs him so much labour, and thinks it the chef-d'oeuvre of creation. When Allah made the first man, says an Arab legend, he found he had a little clay to spare ; so with that he made the palm. And to the poor Nubian, at all events, the gifts of the palm are almost divine ; supplying food for his children, thatch for his hovel, timber for his water-wheel, ropes, matting, cups, bowls, and even the strong drink forbidden by the Prophet. The date-wine is yellowish-white, like whisky. It is not a wine, however, but a spirit ; coarse, fiery, and unpalatable.
Certain trees – as for instance the perky little pine of the German wald – are apt to become monotonous ; but one never wearies of the palm. Whether taken singly or in masses, it is always graceful, always suggestive. To the sketcher on the Nile, it is simply invaluable. It breaks the long parallels of river and bank, and composes with the stern lines of Egyptian architecture as no other tree in the world could do.
"Subjects indeed!" said once upon a time an eminent artist to the present Writer ; "fiddlesticks about subjects! Your true painter can make a picture out of a post and a puddle."
Substitute a palm, however, for a post ; combine it with anything that comes first – a camel, a shadoof, a woman with a water-jar upon her head – and your picture stands before you ready made.
Nothing more surprised me at first than the colour of the palm-frond, which painters of eastern landscape are wont to depict of a hard, bluish tint, like the colour of a yucca leaf. Its true shade is a tender, bloomy, sea-green grey ; difficult enough to match, but in most exquisite harmony with the glow of the sky and the gold of the desert.
The palm-groves kept us company for many a mile, backed on the Arabian side by long level ranges of sandstone cliffs horizontally stratified, like those of the Thebaid. We now scarcely ever saw a village – only palms, and sakkiehs, and sandbanks in the river. The villages were there, but invisible ; being built on the verge of the desert. Arable land is too valuable in Nubia for either the living to dwell upon it or the dead to be buried in it.
At Ibrim – a sort of ruined Ehrenbreitstein on the top of a grand precipice overhanging the river – we touched for only a few minutes, in order to buy a very small shaggy sheep which had been brought down to the landing-place for sale. But for the breeze that happened just then to be blowing, we should have liked to climb the rock, and see the view and the ruins – which are part modern, part Turkish, part Roman, and little, if at all, Egyptian.
There are also some sculptured and painted grottoes to be seen in the southern face of the mountain. They are, however, too difficult of access to be attempted by ladies. Alfred, who went ashore after quail, was drawn up to them by ropes ; but found them so much defaced as to be scarcely worth the trouble of a visit.
We were now only thirty-four miles from Abou Simbel ; but making slow progress, and impatiently counting every foot of the way. The heat at times was great ; frequent and fitful spells of Khamsîn wind alternating with a hot calm that tried the trackers sorely. Still we pushed forward, a few miles at a time, till by and by the flat-topped cliffs dropped out of sight and were again succeeded by volcanic peaks, some of which looked loftier than any of those about Dakkeh or Korosko.
Then the palms ceased, and the belt of cultivated land narrowed to a thread of green between the rocks and the water's edge ; and at last there came an evening when we only wanted breeze enough to double two or three more bends in the river.
"Is it to be Abou Simbel to-night?" we asked, for the twentieth time before going down to dinner.
To which Reïs Hassan replied, "Aiwah" (certainly).
But the pilot shook his head, and added, "Bûkra" (to-morrow).
When we came up again, the moon had risen, but the breeze had dropped. Still we moved, impelled by a breath so faint that one could scarcely feel it. Presently even this failed. The sail collapsed ; the pilot steered for the bank ; the captain gave the word to go aloft – when a sudden puff from the north changed our fortunes, and sent us out again with a well-filled sail into the middle of the river.
None of us, I think, will be likely to forget the sustained excitement of the next three hours. As the moon climbed higher, a light more mysterious and unreal than the light of day filled and overflowed the wide expanse of river and desert. We could see the mountains of Abou Simbel standing as it seemed across our path, in the far distance – a lower one first ; then a larger ; then a series of receding heights, all close together, yet all distinctly separate.
That large one – the mountain of the Great Temple – held us like a spell. For a long time it looked a mere mountain like the rest. By and by, however, we fancied we detected a something – a shadow – such a shadow as might be cast by a gigantic buttress. Next appeared a black speck no bigger than a porthole. We knew that this black speck must be the doorway. We knew that the great statues were there, though not yet visible ; and that we must soon see them.
For our sailors, meanwhile, there was the excitement of a chase. The Bagstones and three other dahabeeyahs were coming up behind us in the path of the moonlight. Their galley fires glowed like beacons on the water ; the nearest about a mile away, the last a spark in the distance. We were not in the mood to care much for racing to-night ; but we were anxious to keep our lead and be first at the mooring-place.
To run upon a sandbank at such a moment was like being plunged suddenly into cold water. Our sail flapped furiously. The men rushed to the punting poles. Four jumped overboard, and shoved with all the might of their shoulders. By the time we got off, however, the other boats had crept up half a mile nearer ; and we had hard work to keep them from pressing closer on our heels.
At length the last corner was rounded, and the Great Temple stood straight before us. The façade, sunk in the mountain-side like a huge picture in a mighty frame, was now quite plain to see. The black speck was no longer a porthole, but a lofty doorway.
Last of all, though it was night and they were still not much less than a mile away, the four colossi came out, ghost-like, vague, and shadowy, in the enchanted moonlight. Even as we watched them, they seemed to grow – to dilate – to be moving towards us out of the silvery distance.
It was drawing on towards midnight when the Philæ at length ran in close under the Great Temple. Content with what they had seen from the river, the rest of the party then went soberly to bed ; but the Painter and the Writer had no patience to wait till morning. Almost before the mooring-rope could be made fast, they had jumped ashore and begun climbing the bank.
They went and stood at the feet of the colossi, and on the threshold of that vast portal beyond which was darkness. The great statues towered above their heads. The river glittered like steel in the far distance. There was a keen silence in the air ; and towards the east the Southern Cross was rising. To the strangers who stood talking there with bated breath, the time, the place, even the sound of their own voices, seemed unreal. They felt as if the whole scene must fade with the moonlight, and vanish before morning.
1 A city of Ethiopia, identified with the ruins at Gebel Barkal. The worship of Amen was established at Napata towards the end of the XXth Dynasty, and it was from the priests of Thebes who settled at that time in Napata, that the Ethiopian conquerors of Egypt (XXIIIrd Dynasty) were descended.
2 The men hereabout can nearly all speak Arabic ; but the women of Nubia know only the Kensee and Berberee tongues, the first of which is spoken as far as Korosko.
3 Lepsius's Letters from Egypt, Ethiopia, etc., Letter xviii. p. 184. Bohn's ed. A.D. 1853.
4 See the interesting account of funereal rites and ceremonies in Sir G. Wilkinson's Ancient Egyptians, vol. ii. ch. x., Lond. 1871. Also woodcuts Nos. 493 and 494 in the same chapter of the same work.