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A DAY IN THE DESERT.
WE will ask our kind readers for a brief season to forget wars and rumours of wars, and leave far behind them the continent of Europe, with its hills and vales, forests and meadows, its rivers and streams, towns and villages. We will hurry across the heaving sea which separates sunny Italy from the black mountains of Albania, and hold a southeastern course to the African continent. Even Alexandria, with its world-famous Cleopatra's Needle, and its Pompey's Pillar, with its catacombs and graves, and the new town, offering so much that is strange to the astonished traveller in its motley mixture of Eastern and Western life, is left behind, and we will finally halt between the 31st and 32nd degrees of latitude on an Egyptian dahabiyah, near the Arabic village of Terraneh. But we shall require some rest after such a long trajet, and we will therefore enjoy it with truly Eastern far niente, on the deck of the vessel during an Egyptian February night in 1854.
In the bows of the dahabiyah the silence of night is suddenly interrupted by the melody of a national song, in which a young Arab sailor is imparting his woes to his only friend, the night. He produces simple sounds from the darabuke, the earthen drum of Eastern singers, and finally concludes his chant in the usual fashion of all Arab love-songs: Ja léle! ja léle! ja chabibti, ja léle!
Oh night! oh night! my own, my lovely night!
Suddenly the dark forms of his sleeping comrades on deck are seen moving, for the magic power of the words ja lele reaches the heart of an Arab even in sleep. The repeated ejaculation "Allah!" "Allah!" and deep-drawn sighs, the usual symbols of applause among the Orientals, reward the amatory singer, who hangs the darabuke on a pin in the mast, wraps himself up in his camel-hair cloak, and lays himself down to enjoy a refreshing sleep by the side of his comrades.
Just in front of the vessel four swarthy old fellows are cowering, crosslegged, among the reeds on shore. A white turban covers the smoothlyshaven head, and the thick, broad-striped abaje protects the lean, sunburnt body from the unusual freshness of the February breeze. burnt fire of durra branches throws a flickering glare upon them. Only rarely do they remove the Arab's inseparable companion, the glowing schibuk, from their mouth, to carry on a short conversation about the gins, or evil spirits, that sit at the cross-roads and mock the good Moslem; or about the Franks, who have come so great a distance to pay them a visit; or about other strange things which fill the head of the smoking Arab with utter confusion, while not forgetting to praise the singer and his ballad. Four lances, adorned at the top with a short tuft of black ostrich feathers, are fixed in the ground near the old men, and prove their owners to be the guardians of the vessel.
Gradually the Great Bear draws near the verge of the nocturnal horizon, and shows that the midnight hour is already past. The sound of men and animals moving rapidly is heard from the neighbouring village. It draws nearer; a shot is fired, and flashing torches of wood Aug.-VOL. CIV. NO. CCCCXVI.
illumine a grotesque congregation with their blood-red glare. The hand-shakings continually exchanged between the new arrivals and our four watchmen, and a repeated “Salam alêik ja achûje, taibîn ?” ("Peace be with thee, O my brother! Art thou well?") calm our apprehensions as to the designs of the strangers, which are anything but hostile. They have come to escort us as expected friends on a tour through the Lybian Desert to the valley of the Natron Lakes, for the road is unsafe, and predatory Beduins carry on their plundering trade on the caravan route, especially before midnight.
The occupiers of the vessel are aroused, and the huge stable lantern, in whose flame hundreds of large and small buzzing musquitoes terminate their brief existence, throws a dull light over the deck of the dahabiyah. Three Europeans leave the vessel, armed with guns and pistols to the teeth, and join the motley group, where they are reverentially greeted by the Fellahin and the Sons of the Desert. The latter, a Beduin tribe, which lives in peace and amity with the inhabitants of the village of Terraneh, have solemnly pledged themselves to provide for our safety; and the old Schech of the caravan route, who also escorts us, has offered his life as a guarantee for ours. They are tall, handsome fellows, of a swarthy complexion, beardless, with small twinkling eyes, caused by the blending rays of the sun, all young men, and full of the highest spirits. A simple white cotton robe covers their hardened bodies as an undergarment; a broad cloak, slung round the head and neck, protects them from wind and cold. They are armed with flint firelocks above six feet in length, and carry powder and ball in a leathern pouch, while others bear in addition long lances, like those already described. The animals they have provided for our excursion consist of the three most useful representatives of the animal world which modern Egypt can produce of four long-pacing camels, a good-tempered, much-enduring horse, and ten donkeys. The camels are dragged down to the ground by means of the neck-rope; they are then laden with instruments, portfolios, provisions for three days, and, above all, with water-skins. With ear-piercing yells, their thick tongues protruding from their dripping mouths, the ships of the desert receive their burden in a kneeling posture. The European swings himself into the cushioned Turkish saddle of the only horse which Terraneh can offer, thrusting his feet into the comfortable crescent stirrups, and seizing the rope which serves as bridle to the noble animal. The remainder of our party and a portion of the Beduins try with a clever leap to reach the back of the little swift-footed donkeys, whose proverbial laziness is belied in Egypt. But we are worse off than if we had to perform our travels on foot through the desert. A rough, tremendously broad cushion occupies the place of the saddle. The donkey goes wherever it pleases, unless the Frank is acquainted with the extraordinary method of guiding it, which is also applied to the camel. A little bent stick, with which the animal is struck either on the right or left of the neck, is the bridle which directs it. A more careful study of our donkeys, for which our desert ride affords us ample time and leisure, leads us to the remarkable observation that they may be divided into three categories—the long-eared, the short-eared, and the intermediate. This strange definition will be readily comprehended, if we add the remark, that whenever an Egyptian
catches a strange donkey in flagrante delicto grazing on his pasturage, he cuts off the upper part of the ear; in case of repetition, performs the same operation on the other ear; and, on the third occasion, kills the sinner. I was allotted a grey donkey, with both ears lopped, which its owner recommended to me with a remark I did not understand at first, “Hua charâmi kebir, lakin maschi taïb." ("He's a great scoundrel, but he is a good one to go.")
The procession is gradually arranged. The camels in front, we Franks in the centre, surrounded by the armed Sons of the Desert, march in the darkness from the bank of the river up an acclivity towards the desert. It is about four in the morning, the air seems terribly cold, a penetrating mist thoroughly drenches the cloaks in which we had shivering wrapped ourselves. Suddenly, an obstacle checks the course of the silentlymoving caravan. A broad canal, cut to carry the waters of the Nile to the higher lands at the period of the inundation, appears an insurmountable difficulty. There is no bridge, so nothing is left us but to wade through it. We clamber with difficulty on the tall backs of the camels, or mount upon the Arabs; the Beduins cleverly wrap their garment like a turban round their heads, and with noisy shouts men and animals enter the cold element. Upon the other side of the canal we find that the luxuriant display of organic life has deserted us, and with solemn reflections we cross the desolate border of an immense tract utterly devoid of vegetation, and thrice the size of the Mediterranean.
Gradually the night, with its sea of stars, disappears; but for a long while a dense mist prevents the desired prospect of the desert, and we are only able to distinguish that the rarely-trodden road beneath our feet is composed of pebbles, from which at rare intervals a scrubby bush, more prickly than leaves, laboriously forces its way into daylight, to have its brief existence cut shorter by a long-haired camel or hungry donkey. Suddenly a pale strip of light on the eastern horizon lightens up the dark earth, and long, bright, grey shadows precede the caravan. But these soon disappear in turn, and a dazzlingly bright orb rises above the white strips of mist, surrounded by coruscating beams, like the head of a saint with a brilliant gloriole. It is the sun, which has gained the victory over night. For the first time we salute it in the desert, and for the first time it displays to us the picture of the desert in all its horror. Not a tree to cheer the anxiously-seeking eye with even a slight mark of vegetative life, not a verdant spot inviting us to rest and refresh ourselves, but, as far as the eye can reach over the dead scene, only desolate fields of boulders and pebbles, which seem to us like the surface of a petrified ocean. The desert plateau, itself from one to two hundred feet above the level of the sea, frequently rises in elevations of two hundred to three hundred feet, then sinks into deep ravines, through which timid herds of active black-eyed gazelles bound away, or a band of black snorting buffaloes rushes, with their tails high in the air. Our idea, that the desert was a plain covered foot-deep with a layer of soft sand, is soon found to be erroneous, for it is in fact a mountainous country, with a hard stony soil, on which the shifting sand only collects in parts protected from the action of the wind. Furrows of a foot in breadth, ten or twelve of them side by side, and not unlike the tramways of a railroad, run along in a winding direction, and traverse the desert diagonally
from one point on the horizon to another. These are the sole marks of a road, the sole consolatory witnesses of humanity in these deserts. Here and there we come upon a pile of stones, or the bleached bones of fallen camels, which serve as sign-posts to the Beduin; at times the eagle-traps (nisbe e'nisr), artificially arranged piles of stones, with the carcase of a donkey in the centre, serve to measure distances, which he is wont to calculate by malaquas, as the boatman on the Nile does his by birkes.
The mid-day sun is at its zenith. Its burning beams pierce through the white cloths that shield the brow, and its dazzling glare at length utterly wearies the smarting eye. At the same time, transparent mists rise from the ground, and play around us in immense circles. They are the children of the sunbeams, which rise from the heated ground, and float restlessly above the surface, rising and sinking irregularly. Utter prostration at length seizes on the wearied body, arms and legs are affected with a spasmodic trembling movement, and the parched tongue pants for water. But the caravan does not halt yet, and the "lissa schueisse" ("a little further only ") of the Beduins no longer satisfies the impatient inquirer. But see! at some distance in front of us, close to the horizon, what a glorious scene presents itself to our delighted eyes! A lovely lake with its blue waters is extended before us, shady trees grow on its banks, on which human forms are moving back and forwards. With renewed strength and fresh courage we begin to hasten towards the sea; but the child of the desert knows it better than we do, and remarks, with a smile: "No, lord, that is no lake, but only Satan's waters — moije Scheitân." One of the frequent mirages in the desert has bitterly deceived us.
Our young Arabs hardly share at all in our fatigue, for they step out heartily over the burning soil, and sing separately, or in chorus, verses from the Koran, or love and war-songs. The last consist of a short triumphal paan, generally ending with the verse, "The tents of the foe are destroyed!" At the same time they execute their war-dance, in which they twirl their long guns round their head like their reeds, and with a shout of joy fire a salvo into the air. Above all, we most admire the merriment of a Beduin about seventeen or eighteen years of age (for in the true Arab fashion he is ignorant of his own age), the son of our caravan Schech, who puts no bounds to his love-songs, which he causes the desert to re-echo with in a loud, harmonious voice. He is about to visit his second wife, who is staying with her father in the Natron Valley, while he has left the other behind in Terraneh.
About one o'clock we halt in a ravine. After a hurried, frugal meal, we start afresh, and, after going up and down hill till four in the afternoon, we at last mount a steep acclivity, after a march of about fifty miles. There, in a long, narrow valley, whose opposite wall rises almost perpendicularly, we see six lakes, with dark blue glistening water, before us, surrounded by a dense belt of reed and grasses, and in this hollow, some distance apart, four long buildings resembling fortresses, which seem to invite us to seek repose within their walls. What a cheerful, smiling scene, in comparison to the melancholy desert! And yet the vegetation even here is so uniform, so scanty! Herds of buffaloes traverse the valley; and a motley mass of voiceless birds-chief of all, the long
legged flamingoes, with their gaudy plumage-congregate on the shores of the lakes to quench their thirst with brackish water.
We descend slowly to the plain, and soon after a dense forest of reeds (carix cyperus) impedes the progress of our stumbling animals. The ground creaks beneath their feet, for it is covered with a thick coating of salt, which bears a great resemblance to hoar-frost. This salt, which effloresces from the ground by capillary attraction for miles around the lakes, is the Natron, which has given a name to the whole district. We approach the largest of the Natron Lakes. Several Arabs, who live here in this boundless desert as watchmen, receive us with a well-intentioned fantasia-as they term it-of gun-shots, and greet our Beduin companions with real Arabic flowers of eloquence. There is an unending questioning and unanswering, a repetition which makes our heads giddy. "O my brother," one asks the other, "how are thy father and thy mother, thy son, and thy horse, thy ass and thy goat." And if they are on very friendly terms, the long query is terminated with the otherwise improper remark, " And how is the mystery of the people of thy house ?" which is a somewhat extraordinary paraphrase of the simple "How's your wife?" But we survive this scene with true Arab patience, and are quartered in an old boarded salt-room, without a door, in which reed mats are stretched out upon the sandy soil. We have hence a view of the lakes, whose shores are covered with a number of large and strangelyformed logs of petrified wood.
We pass a restless night in our Natron room. The camels, ruminating with a loud noise, and with their knees fastened together, donkeys and horses, with their fore-feet hobbled, lie in company with the smoking Beduins before our room. But in what condition does the next morn find us? Stung and bitten by fleas and buzzing musquitoes, and two other members of the insect family, which the Bible quotes among the plagues of Egypt, and which, at the present day, French wit in the land of the Pharaohs designates "light and heavy cavalry," we can hardly discover a square inch of surface on our bodies unattacked.
The beauty of the morning soon dispels any melancholy reminiscences of the past night of horror. We talk with the watchmen about the nature of the Natron Lakes, whose fall and rise is in an inverse ratio to the inundations of the Nile, noticing at the same time that their stagnant and salt water is dyed of a blood-red hue when near, probably by infusoria, but at some distance off appears dark blue, and when set in motion by the wind produces crimson waves. And, in conclusion, we visit the ruins of a small Roman fort at no great distance from the lakes. At three in the afternoon the caravan starts afresh, to visit the largest of the four ancient Coptic monasteries, which is situated about fifteen miles further on. A leave-taking, rich in words, accompanied by the tinkling reward of Backshish, that magic word which buzzes in the traveller's ear for years after his return home, separates us for a lifetime from the Natron-guarding Arabs. We surmount a rather steep acclivity, and see from the broad crest of the hill three monasteries before us, bathed in the yellow light of the setting sun, in the centre the one which is the object of our expedition. They appear to us so near that we can clearly distinguish the different parts of the buildings, and even the tops of the palms, which rise from the garden above the lofty walls. While