"Chapter XVII: The Second Cataract." 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. 311-324.
A FRESH breeze, a full sail, and the consciousness of a holiday well earned, carried us gaily along from Abou Simbel to Wady Halfeh. We started late in the afternoon of the first day, made about twelve miles before the wind dropped, and achieved the remaining twenty-eight miles before noon the next day. It was our last trip on the Nile under canvas. At Wady Halfeh the Philæ was doomed to be dismantled. The big sail that had so long been our pride and delight would there be taken down, and our good boat, her grace and swiftness gone at one fell swoop, would become a mere lumbering barge, more suggestive of civic outings on the Thames than of Cleopatra's galley.
For some way beyond Abou Simbel, the western bank is fringed by a long line of volcanic mountains, as much alike in height, size, and shape, as a row of martello towers. They are divided from one another by a series of perfectly uniform sand-drifts ; while on the rounded top of each mountain, thick as the currants on the top of a certain cake, known to school-boys by the endearing name of "black-caps," lies a layer of the oddest black stones in the world. Having more than once been to the top of the rock of Abshek (which is the first large mountain of the chain, and strewn in the same way) we recognised the stones, and knew what they were like. In colour they are purplish black, tinged here and there with dull red. They ring like clinkstone when struck, and in shape are most fantastic. L. picked up some like petrified bunches of grapes. Others are twisted and writhen like the Vesuvian lava of 1871. They lie loose upon the surface, and are of all sizes ; some being as small as currants, and others as large as quartern loaves. Speaking as one having no kind of authority, I should say that these stones are unquestionably of fiery parentage. One seems to see how, boiling and bubbling in a state of fusion, they must have been suddenly checked by contact with some cooler medium.
Where the chain ends, about three or four miles above Abou Simbel, the view widens, and a host of outlying mountains are seen scattered over an immense plain reaching for miles into the western desert. On the eastern bank, Kalat Adda,1 – a huge, rambling Roman citadel, going to solitary ruin on the last water-washed precipice to the left – brings the opposite range to a like end, and abuts on a similar plain, also scattered over with detached peaks. The scene here is desolately magnificent. A large island covered with palms divides the Nile in two branches, each of which looks as wide as the whole river. An unbounded distance opens away to the silvery horizon. On the banks there is no verdure ; neither is there any sign of human toil. Nothing lives, nothing moves, save the wind and the river.
Of all the strange peaks we have yet seen, the mountains hereabout are the strangest. Alone or in groups, they start up here and there from the deserts on both sides, like the pieces on a chess-board. They are for the most part conical ; but they are not extinct craters, such as are the volcanic cones of Korosko and Dakkeh. Seeing how they all rose to about the same height, and were alike capped with that mysterious couche of shining black stones, the Writer could not help fancying that, like the isolated Rocher de Corneille and Rocher de St. Michel at Puy, they might be but fragments of a rocky crust, rent and swept away at some infinitely remote period of the world's history, and that the level of their present summits might represent perhaps the ancient level of the plain.
As regards form, they are weird enough for the wildest geological theories. All taper more or less towards the top. One is four-sided, like a pyramid ; another, in shape a truncated cone, looks as if crowned with a pagoda summer-house ; a third seems to be surrounded by a mosque and cupola ; a fourth is scooped out in tiers of arches ; a fifth is crowned, apparently, with a cairn of piled stones ; and so on with variations as endless as they are fantastic. A geologist might perhaps account for these caprices by showing how fire, and earthquake, and deluge, had here succeeded each other ; and how, after being first covered with volcanic stones and then split into chasms, the valleys thus opened had by and by been traversed by torrents which wore away the softer parts of the rock and left the harder standing.
Some way beyond Kalat Adda, when the Abou Simbel range and the palm island have all but vanished in the distance, and the lonely peak, called the Mountain of the Sun (Gebel esh-Shems), has been left far behind, we come upon a new wonder – namely, upon two groups of scattered tumuli, one on the eastern, one on the western bank. Not volcanic forms these ; not even accidental forms, if one may venture to form an opinion from so far off. They are of various size ; some little, some big ; all perfectly round and smooth, and covered with a rich greenish-brown alluvial soil. How did they come there? Who made them? What did they contain? The Roman ruin close by – the 240,0002 deserters who must have passed this way – the Egyptian and Ethiopian armies that certainly poured their thousands along these very banks, and might have fought many a battle on this open plain, suggest all kinds of possibilities, and fill one's head with visions of buried arms, and jewels, and cinerary urns. We are more than half-minded to stop the boat and land that very moment ; but are content on second thoughts with promising ourselves that we will at least excavate one of the smaller hillocks on our way back.
And now, the breeze freshening and the dahabeeyah tearing gallantly along, we leave the tumuli behind and enter upon a still more desolate region, where the mountains recede farther than ever, and the course of the river is interrupted by perpetual sandbanks.
On one of these sandbanks, just a few yards above the edge of the water, lay a log of drift-wood, apparently a battered old palm trunk, with some remnants of broken branches yet clinging to it ; such an object, in short, as my American friends would very properly call a "snag."
Our pilot leaned forward on the tiller, put his finger to his lip, and whispered : –
The Painter, the Idle Man, the Writer, were all on deck, and not one believed him. They had seen too many of these snags already, and were not going to let themselves again be excited about nothing.
The pilot pointed to the cabin where L. and the Little Lady were indulging in that minor vice called afternoon tea.
"Sittèh!" said he, "call Sittèh! Crocodilo!"
We examined the object through our glasses. We laughed the pilot to scorn. It was the worst imitation of a crocodile that we had yet seen.
All at once the palm-trunk lifted up its head, cocked its tail, found its legs, set off running, wriggling, undulating down the slope with incredible rapidity, and was gone before we could utter an exclamation.
We three had a bad time when the other two came up and found that we had seen our first crocodile without them.
A sandbank which we passed next morning was scored all over with fresh trails, and looked as if it had been the scene of a crocodile-parliament. There must have been at least twenty or thirty members present at the sitting ; and the freshness of the marks showed that they had only just dispersed.
A keen and cutting wind carried us along the last thirty miles of our journey. We had supposed that the farther south we penetrated, the hotter we should find the climate ; yet now, strange to say, we were shivering in seal-skins, under the most brilliant sky in the world, and in a latitude more southerly than that of Mecca or Calcutta. It was some compensation, however, to run at full speed past the dullest of Nile scenery, seeing only sandbanks in the river ; sand-hills and sand-flats on either hand ; a disused shadoof or a skeleton boat rotting at the water's edge ; a wind-tormented Dôm-palm struggling for existence on the brink of the bank.
At a fatal corner about six miles below Wady Halfeh, we passed a melancholy flotilla of dismantled dahabeeyahs – the Fostât, the Zenobia, the Alice, the Mansoorah – all alike weather-bound and laid up helplessly against the wind. The Mansoorah, with Captain and Mrs. E. on board, had been three days doing these six miles : at which rate of progress they might reasonably hope to reach Cairo in about a year and a month.
The palms of Wady Halfeh, blue with distance, came into sight at the next bend ; and by noon the Philæ was once more moored alongside the Bagstones under a shore crowded with cangias, covered with bales and packing cases, and, like the shores of Mahatta and Assûan, populous with temporary huts. For here it is that traders going by water embark and disembark on their way to and fro between Dongola and the First Cataract.
There were three temples – or at all events three ancient Egyptian buildings – once upon a time on the western bank over against Wady Halfeh. Now there are a few broken pillars, a solitary fragment of brick pylon, some remains of a flight of stone steps leading down to the river, and a wall of enclosure overgrown with wild pumpkins. These ruins, together with a rambling native Khan and a noble old sycamore, form a picturesque group backed by amber sand-cliffs, and mark the site of a lost city3 belonging to the early days of Usurtesen III.
The Second, or Great Cataract, begins a little way above Wady Halfeh and extends over a distance of many miles. It consists, like the First Cataract, of a succession of rocks and rapids, and is skirted for the first five miles or so by the sand-cliff ridge which, as I have said, forms a background to the ruins just opposite Wady Halfeh. This ridge terminates abruptly in the famous precipice known as the Rock of Abusîr. Only adventurous travellers bound for Dongola or Khartûm go beyond this point ; and they, for the most part, take the shorter route across the desert from Korosko. L. and the Writer would fain have hired camels and pushed on as far as Semneh ; which is a matter of only two days' journey from Wady Halfeh, and, for people provided with sketching tents, is one of the easiest of inland excursions.
One may go to the Rock of Abusîr by land or by water. The Happy Couple and the Writer took two native boatmen versed in the intricacies of the Cataract ; and went in the felucca. L. and the Painter preferred donkeying. Given a good breeze from the right quarter, there is, as regards time, but little to choose between the two routes. No one, however, who has approached the Rock of Abusîr by water, and seen it rise like a cathedral front from the midst of that labyrinth of rocky islets – some like clusters of basaltic columns, some crowned with crumbling ruins, some bleak and bare, some green with wild pomegranate trees – can doubt which is the more picturesque.
Landing among the tamarisks at the foot of the cliff, we come to the spreading skirts of a sand-drift steeper and more fatiguing to climb than the sand-drift at Abou Simbel. We do climb it, however, though somewhat sulkily, and finding the donkey-party perched upon the top, are comforted with draughts of ice-cold lemonade, brought in a kullah from Wady Halfeh.
The summit of the rock is a mere ridge, steep and overhanging towards east and south, and carved all over with autographs in stone. Some few of these are interesting ; but for the most part they record only the visits of the illustrious-obscure. We found Belzoni's name ; but looked in vain for the signatures of Burckhardt, Champollion, Lepsius, and Ampère.
Owing to the nature of the ground and the singular clearness of the atmosphere, the view from this point seemed to me to be the most extensive I had ever looked upon. Yet the height of the rock of Abusîr is comparatively insignificant. It would count but as a mole-hill, if measured against some Alpine summits of my acquaintance. I doubt whether it is as lofty as even the Great Pyramid. It is, however, a giddy place to look down from, and seems higher than it is.
It is hard, now that we are actually here, to realise that this is the end of our journey. The cataract – an immense multitude of black and shining islets, among which the river, divided into hundreds of separate channels, spreads far and wide for a distance, it is said, of more than sixteen miles, – foams at our feet. Foams, and frets, and falls ; gushing smooth and strong where its course is free ; murmuring hoarsely where it is interrupted ; now hurrying ; now loitering ; here eddying in oily circles ; there lying in still pools unbroken by a ripple ; everywhere full of life, full of voices ; everywhere shining to the sun. Northwards, where it winds away towards Abou Simbel, we see all the fantastic mountains of yesterday on the horizon. To the east, still bounded by out-liers of the same disconnected chain, lies a rolling waste of dark and stony wilderness, trenched with innumerable valleys through which flow streams of sand. On the western side, the continuity of the view is interrupted by the ridge which ends with Abusîr. Southwards, the Libyan desert reaches away in one vast undulating plain ; tawny, arid, monotonous ; all sun ; all sand ; lit here and there with arrowy flashes of the Nile. Farthest of all, pale but distinct, on the outermost rim of the world, rise two mountain summits, one long, one dome-like. Our Nubians tell us that these are the mountains of Dongola. Comparing our position with that of the Third Cataract as it appears upon the map, we come to the conclusion that these ghost-like silhouettes are the summits of Mount Fogo4 and Mount Arambo – two apparently parallel mountains situate on opposite sides of the river about ten miles below Hannek, and consequently about 145 miles, as the bird flies, from the spot on which we are standing.
In all this extraordinary panorama, so wild, so weird, so desolate, there is nothing really beautiful, except the colour. But the colour is transcendent. Never, even in Egypt, have I seen anything so tender, so transparent, so harmonious. I shut my eyes, and it all comes before me. I see the amber of the sands ; the pink and pearly mountains ; the Cataract rocks, all black and purple and polished ; the dull grey palms that cluster here and there upon the larger islands ; the vivid verdure of the tamarisks and pomegranates ; the Nile, a greenish brown flecked with yeasty foam ; over all, the blue and burning sky, permeated with light, and palpitating with sunshine.
I made no sketch. I felt that it would be ludicrous to attempt it. And I feel now that any endeavour to put the scene into words is a mere presumptuous effort to describe the indescribable. Words are useful instruments ; but, like the etching needle and the burin, they stop short at form. They cannot translate colour.
If a traveller pressed for time asked me whether he should or should not go as far as the Second Cataract, I think I should recommend him to turn back from Abou Simbel. The trip must cost four days ; and if the wind should happen to be unfavourable either way, it may cost six or seven. The forty miles of river that have to be twice traversed are the dullest on the Nile ; the cataract is but an enlarged and barren edition of the Cataract between Assûan and Philæ ; and the great view, as I said, has not that kind of beauty which attracts the general tourist.
It has an interest, however, beyond and apart from that of beauty. It rouses one's imagination to a sense of the greatness of the Nile. We look across a world of desert, and see the river still coming from afar. We have reached a point at which all that is habitable and familiar comes abruptly to an end. Not a village, not a bean-field, not a shâdûf, not a sakkieh, is to be seen in the plain below. There is no sail on those dangerous waters. There is no moving creature on those pathless sands. But for the telegraphic wires stalking, ghost-like, across the desert, it would seem as if we had touched the limit of civilisation, and were standing on the threshold of a land unexplored.
Yet for all this, we feel as if we were at only the beginning of the mighty river. We have journeyed well-nigh a thousand miles against the stream ; but what is that to the distance which still lies between us and the Great Lakes? And how far beyond the Great Lakes must we seek for the Source that is even yet undiscovered?
We stayed at Wady Halfeh but one night, and paid but one visit to the Cataract. We saw no crocodiles, though they are still plentiful among these rocky islets. The M. B.'s, who had been here a week, were full of crocodile stories, and of Alfred's deeds of arms. He had stalked and shot a monster, two days before our arrival ; but the creature had rushed into the water when hit, waving its tail furiously above its head, and had neither been seen nor heard of since.
Like Achilles, the crocodile has but one vulnerable spot ; and this is a small unarmoured patch behind the forearm. He will take a good deal of killing even there, unless the bullet finds its way to a vital part, or is of the diabolical kind called "explosive." Even when mortally wounded, he seldom drops on the spot. With his last strength, he rushes to the water and dies at the bottom.
After three days the carcase rises and floats, and our friends were now waiting in order that Alfred might bag his big game. Too often, however, the poor brute either crawls into a hole, or, in his agony, becomes entangled among weeds and comes up no more. For one crocodile bagged, a dozen regain the river and after lingering miserably under water, die out of sight and out of reach of the sportsman.
While we were climbing the Rock of Abusîr, our men were busy taking down the big sail and preparing the Philæ for her long and ignominious journey down stream. We came back to find the mainyard laid along like a roof-tree above our heads ; the sail rolled up in a huge ball and resting on the roof of the kitchen ; the small aftersail and yard hoisted on the mainmast ; the oars lashed six on each side ; and the lower deck a series of yawning chasms, every alternate plank being taken up so as to form seats and standing places for the rowers.
Thus dismantled, the dahabeeyah becomes, in fact, a galley. Her oars are now her chief motive power ; and a crew of steady rowers (having always the current to their favour) can do thirty miles a day. When, however, a good breeze blows from the south, the small sail and the current are enough to carry the boat well along ; and then the men reserve their strength for rowing by night, when the wind has dropped. Sometimes, when it is a dead calm and the rowers need rest, the dahabeeyah is left to her own devices, and floats with the stream – now waltzing ludicrously in the middle of the river ; now drifting sidewise like Mr. Winkle's horse ; now sidling up to the east bank ; now changing her mind and blundering over to the west ; making upon an average about a mile and a half or two miles an hour, and presenting a pitiful spectacle of helpless imbecility. At other times, however, the head wind blows so hard that neither oars nor current avail ; and then there is nothing for it but to lie under the bank and wait for better times.
This was our sad case in going back to Abou Simbel. Having struggled with no little difficulty through the first five-and-twenty miles, we came to a dead lock about half-way between Faras and Gebel-esh-Shems. Carried forward by the stream, driven back by the wind, buffeted by the waves, and bumped incessantly by the rocking to and fro of the felucca, our luckless Philæ, after oscillating for hours within the space of a mile, was run at last into a sheltered nook, and there left in peace till the wind should change or drop.
Imprisoned here for a day and a half, we found ourselves, fortunately, within reach of the tumuli which we had already made up our minds to explore. Making first for those on the east bank, we took with us in the felucca four men to row and dig, a fire-shovel, a small hatchet, an iron bar, and a large wicker basket, which were the only implements we possessed. What we wanted both then and afterwards, and what no dahabeeyah should ever be without, were two or three good spades, a couple of picks, and a crowbar.
Climbing to the top of one of the highest of these hillocks, we began by surveying the ground. The desert here is firm to the tread, flat, compact, and thickly strewn with pebbles. Of the fine yellow sand which characterises the Libyan bank, there is little to be seen, and that little lies like snow in drifts and clefts and hollows, as if carried thither by the wind. The tumuli, however, are mounded of pure alluvial mould, smooth, solid, and symmetrical. We counted thirty-four of all sizes, from five to about five-and-thirty feet in height, and saw at least as many more on the opposite side of the river.
Selecting one of about eight feet high, we then set the sailors to work ; and although it was impossible, with so few men and such insufficient tools, to cut straight through the centre of the mound, we at all events succeeded in digging down to a solid substratum of lumps of crude clay, evidently moulded by hand.
Whether these formed only the foundation of the tumulus, or concealed a grave excavated below the level of the desert, we had neither time nor means to ascertain. It was something, at all events, to have convinced ourselves that the mounds were artificial.5
As we came away, we met a Nubian peasant trudging northwards. He was leading a sorry camel ; had a white cockerel under his arm ; and was followed by a frightened woman, who drew her shawl over her face and cowered behind him, at sight of the Ingleezeh.
We asked the man what the mounds were, and who made them ; but he shook his head, and said they had been there "from old time." We then inquired by what name they were known in these parts ; to which, urging his camel forward, he replied hesitatingly that they had a name, but that he had forgotten it.
Having gone a little way, however, he presently turned back, saying that he now remembered all about it, and that they were called "The Horns of Yackma."
More than this we could not get from him. Who Yackma was, or how he came to have horns, or why his horns should take the form of tumuli, was more than he could tell or we could guess.
We gave him a small bakhshîsh, however, in return for this mysterious piece of information, and went our way with all possible speed ; intending to row across and see the mounds on the opposite bank before sunset. But we had not calculated upon the difficulty of either threading our way among a chain of sandbanks, or going at least two miles farther north, so as to get round into the navigable channel at the other side. We of course tried the shorter way, and after running aground some three or four times, had to give it up, hoist our little sail, and scud homewards as fast as the wind would carry us.
The coming back thus, after an excursion in the felucca, is one of the many pleasant things that one has to remember of the Nile. The sun has set ; the afterglow has faded ; the stars are coming out. Leaning back with a satisfied sense of something seen or done, one listens to the old dreamy chant of the rowers, and to the ripple under the keel. The palms, meanwhile, glide past, and are seen in bronzed relief against the sky. Presently the big boat, all glittering with lights, looms up out of the dusk. A cheery voice hails from the poop. We glide under the bows. Half-a-dozen smiling brown faces bid us welcome, and as many pairs of brown hands are outstretched to help us up the side. A savoury smell is wafted from the kitchen ; a pleasant vision of the dining-saloon, with table ready spread and lamps ready lit, flashes upon us through the open doorway. We are at home once more. Let us eat, drink, rest, and be merry ; for to-morrow the hard work of sight-seeing and sketching begins again.
THE ROCK OF ABUSÎR.
1 "A castle, resembling in size and form that of Ibrim ; it bears the name of Kalat Adda ; it has been abandoned many years, being entirely surrounded by barren rocks. Part of its ancient wall, similar in construction to that of Ibrim, still remains. The habitations are built partly of stone, and partly of bricks. On the most elevated spot in the small town, eight or ten grey granite columns of small dimensions lie on the ground, with a few capitals near them of clumsy Greek architecture." – Burckhardt's Travels in Nubia, 1819, p. 38.
In a curious Arabic history of Nubia written in the tenth century A.D. by one Abdallah ben Ahmed ben Solaïm of Assûan, fragments of which are preserved in the great work of Makrizy, quoted by Burckhardt and E. Quatremere (see footnote, p. 224), there occurs the following remarkable passage : "In this province (Nubia) is situated the city of Bedjrasch, capital of Maris, the fortress of Ibrim, and another place called Adwa, which has a port, and is, they say, the birthplace of the sage Lokman and of Dhoul Noun. There is to be seen there a magnificent Birbeh." – ("On y voit un Berba magnifique.") – Mémoires Géographiques sur l'Egypte, etc. E. QUATREMERE, Paris, 1811 ; vol. ii. p. 8.
If Adwa and Adda are one and the same, it is possible that in this passage we find preserved the only comparatively modern indication of some great rock-cut temple, the entrance to which is now entirely covered by the sand. It is clear that neither Abou Simbel (which is on the opposite bank, and some three or four miles north of Adda) nor Ferayg (which is also some way off, and quite a small place) can here be intended. That another temple exists somewhere between Abou Simbel and Wady Halfeh, and is yet to be discovered, seems absolutely certain from the tenor of a large stela sculptured on the rock a few paces north of the smaller temple at Abou Simbel. This stela, which is one of the most striking and elaborate there, represents an Egyptian gateway surmounted by the winged globe, and shows Rameses II enthroned, and receiving the homage of a certain Prince whose name, as translated by Rosellini, is Rameses-Neniscti-Habai. The inscription, which is in sixteen columns and perfectly preserved, records the titles and praises of the King, and states how "he hath made a monumental abode for Horus, his father, Lord of Ha'm, excavating in the bowels of the rock of Ha'm to make him a habitation of many ages." We know nothing of the Rock of Ha'm (rendered Sciam by Rosellini), but it should no doubt be sought somewhere between Abou Simbel and Wady Halfeh. "Qual sito precisamente dinotisi in questo nome di Sciam, io non saprei nel presente stato delle cose determinare : credo peraltro secondo varie luoghi delle iscrizioni che lo ricordano, che fosse situato sull' una o l'altra sponda del Nilo, nel paese compreso tra Wadi-halfa e Ibsambul, o poco oltre. E qui dovrebbe trovarsi il nominato speco di Horus, fino al presente occulto a noi." – ROSELLINI, Letterpress to Monumenti Storici, vol. iii. part ii. p. 184. It would hence appear that the Rock of Ha'm is mentioned in other inscriptions.
The distance between Abou Simbel and Wady Halfeh is only forty miles, and the likely places along the banks are but few. Would not the discovery of this lost Temple be an enterprise worthier the ambition of tourists, than the extermination of such few crocodiles as yet linger north of the Second Cataract?
2 See footnote, p. 290.
3 "Un Second Temple, plus grand, mais tout aussi détruit que le précédent, existe un peu plus au sud, c'était le grand temple de la ville Egyptienne de Béhéni, qui exista sur cet emplacement, et qui d'après l'étendu des débris de poteries répandus sur la plaine aujourdhui déserte, parait avoir été assez grande." – Champollion, Lettres écrites d'Egypte, etc., ed. 1868 ; Letter ix.
4 Mount Fogo, as shown upon Keith Johnston's map of Egypt and Nubia, would seem to be identical with the Ali Bersi of Lepsius.
5 On referring to Col. H. Vyse's Voyage into Upper Egypt, etc., I see that he also opened one of these tumuli, but "found no indication of an artificial construction." I can only conclude that he did not carry his excavation low enough. As it is difficult to suppose the tumuli made for nothing, I cannot help believing that they would repay a more systematic investigation.