domingo, 11 de marzo de 2012

THEBES TO ASSÛAN I-Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards

HURRYING close upon the serenest of Egyptian sunsets came a night of storms. The wind got up about ten. By midnight the river was racing in great waves, and our dahabeeyah rolling at her moorings like a ship at sea. The sand, driving in furious gusts from the Libyan desert, dashed like hail against our cabin windows. Every moment we were either bumping against the bank, or being rammed by our own felucca. At length, a little before dawn, a huge slice of the bank gave way, thundering like an avalanche upon our decks ; whereupon Reïs Hassan, being alarmed for the safety of the boat, hauled us up to a little sheltered nook a few hundred yards higher. Taking it altogether, we had not had such a lively night since leaving Benisouef.
The look-out next morning was dismal – the river running high in yeasty waves ; the boats all huddled together under the shore ; the western bank hidden in clouds of sand. To get under way was impossible, for the wind was dead against us ; and to go anywhere by land was equally out of the question. Karnak in a sand-storm would have been grand to see ; but one would have needed a diving helmet to preserve eyes and ears from destruction.
Towards afternoon, the fury of the wind so far subsided that we were able to cross the river and ride to Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum. As we achieved only a passing glimpse of these wonderful ruins, I will for the present say nothing about them. We came to know them so well hereafter that no mere first impression would be worth record.
A light but fitful breeze helped us on next day as far as Erment, the Ptolemaic Hermonthis, once the site of a goodly temple, now of an important sugar-factory. Here we moored for the night, and after dinner received a visit of ceremony from the Bey – a tall, slender, sharp-featured, bright-eyed man in European dress, remarkably dignified and well-bred – who came attended by his secretary, Kawass, and pipe-bearer. Now the Bey of Erment is a great personage in these parts. He is governor of the town as well as superintendent of the sugar-factory ; holds a military command ; has his palace and gardens close by, and his private steamer on the river ; and is, like most high officials in Egypt, a Turk of distinction. The secretary, who was the Bey's younger brother, wore a brown Inverness cape over a long white petticoat, and left his slippers at the saloon door. He sat all the time with his toes curiously doubled under, so that his feet looked like clenched fists in stockings. Both gentlemen wore tarbooshes, and carried visiting canes. The visiting cane, by the way, plays a conspicuous part in modern Egyptian life. It measures about two and a half feet in length, is tipped at both ends with gold or silver, and is supposed to add the last touch of elegance to the bearer.
We entertained our guests with coffee and lemonade, and, as well as we could, with conversation. The Bey, who spoke only Turkish and Arabic, gave a flourishing account of the sugar-works, and despatched his pipe-bearer for a bundle of fresh canes and some specimens of raw and candied sugars. He said he had an English foreman and several English workmen, and that for the English as a nation he had the highest admiration and regard ; but that the Arabs "had no heads." To our inquiries about the ruins, his replies were sufficiently discouraging. Of the large Temple every vestige had long since disappeared ; while of the smaller one only a few columns and part of the walls were yet standing. They lay out beyond the town and a long way from the river. There was very little to see. It was all "sagheer" (small) ; "mooshtaïb" (bad) ; not worth the trouble of the walk. As for "anteekahs," they were rarely found here, and when found were of slight value.
A scarab which he wore in a ring was then passed round and admired. It fell to our Little Lady's turn to examine it last, and restore it to the owner. But the owner, with a bow and a deprecating gesture, would have none of it. The ring was a toy – a nothing – the lady's – his no longer. She was obliged to accept it, however unwillingly. To decline would have been to offend. But it was the way in which the thing was done that made the charm of this little incident. The grace, the readiness, the courtesy, the lofty indifference of it, were alike admirable. Macready in his best days could have done it with as princely an air ; but even he would probably have missed something of the Oriental reticence of the Bey of Erment.
He then invited us to go over the sugar-factory (which we declined on account of the lateness of the hour), and presently took his leave. About ten minutes after, came a whole posse of presents – three large bouquets of roses for the Sittàt (ladies), two scarabei, a small funereal statuette in the rare green porcelain, and a live turkey. We in return sent a complicated English knife with all sorts of blades, and some pots of English jam.
The wind rose next morning with the sun, and by breakfast-time we had left Erment far behind. All that day the good breeze served us well. The river was alive with cargo-boats. The Philæ put on her best speed. The little Bagstones kept up gallantly. And the Fostat, a large iron dahabeeyah full of English gentlemen, kept us close company all the afternoon. We were all alike bound for Esneh, which is a large trading town, and lies twenty-six miles south of Erment.
Now, at Esneh the men were to bake again. Great, therefore was Reïs Hassan's anxiety to get in first, secure the oven, and buy the flour before dusk. The Reïs of the Fostat and he of the Bagstones were equally anxious, and for the same reasons. Our men, meanwhile, were wild with excitement, watching every manœuvre of the other boats ; hanging on to the shoghool like a swarm of bees ; and obeying the word of command with unwonted alacrity. As we neared the goal, the race grew hotter. The honour of the boats was at stake, and the bread question was for the moment forgotten. Finally all three dahabeeyahs ran in abreast, and moored side by side in front of a row of little open cafés just outside the town.
Esneh (of which the old Egyptian civil name was Sni, and the Roman name Latopolis) stands high upon the mounds of the ancient city. It is a large place – as large, apparently, as Minieh, and like Minieh, it is the capital of a province. Here dragomans lay in provision of limes, charcoal, flour, and live stock, for the Nubian journey ; and crews bake for the last time before their return to Egypt. For in Nubia food is scarce, and prices are high, and there are no public ovens.
It was about five o'clock on a market-day when we reached Esneh, and the market was not yet over. Going up through the usual labyrinth of windowless mud-alleys where the old men crouched, smoking, under every bit of sunny wall, and the children swarmed like flies, and the cry for bakhshîsh buzzed incessantly about our ears, we came to an open space in the upper part of the town, and found ourselves all at once in the midst of the market. Here were peasant folk selling farm-produce ; stall-keepers displaying combs, looking-glasses, gaudy printed handkerchiefs and cheap bracelets of bone and coloured glass ; camels lying at ease and snarling at every passer-by ; patient donkeys ; ownerless dogs ; veiled women ; blue and black robed men ; and all the common sights and sounds of a native market. Here, too, we found Reïs Hassan bargaining for flour ; Talhamy haggling with a charcoal-dealer ; and the M. B.'s buying turkeys and geese for themselves and a huge store of tobacco for their crew. Most welcome sight of all, however, was a dingy chemist's shop about the size of a sentry-box, over the door of which was suspended an Arabic inscription ; while inside, robed all in black, sat a lean and grizzled Arab, from whom we bought a big bottle of rose water to make eye-lotion for L.'s ophthalmic patients.
Meanwhile there was a Temple to be seen at Esneh ; and this Temple, as we had been told, was to be found close against the market-place. We looked round in vain, however, for any sign of pylon or portico. The chemist said it was "kureiyib," which means "near by." A camel-driver pointed to a dilapidated wooden gateway in a recess between two neighbouring houses. A small boy volunteered to lead the way. We were greatly puzzled. We had expected to see the Temple towering above the surrounding houses, as at Luxor, and could by no means understand how any large building to which that gateway might give access, should not be visible from without.
The boy, however, ran and thumped upon the gate, and shouted "Abbas! Abbas!" Mehemet Ali, who was doing escort, added some thundering blows with his staff, and a little crowd gathered, but no Abbas came.
The bystanders, as usual, were liberal with their advice ; recommending the boy to climb over, and the sailor to knock louder, and suggesting that Abbas the absent might possibly be found in a certain neighbouring café. At length I somewhat impatiently expressed my opinion that there was "Mafeesh Birbeh" (no Temple at all) ; whereupon a dozen voices were raised to assure me that the Birbeh was no myth – that it was "kebîr" (big) – that it was "kwy-ees" (beautiful) – and that all the "Ingleez" came to see it.
In the midst of the clamour, however, and just as we are about to turn away in despair, the gate creaks open ; the gentlemen of the Fostat troop out in puggeries and knickerbockers ; and we are at last admitted.
This is what we see – a little yard surrounded by mud-walls ; at the farther end of the yard a dilapidated doorway ; beyond the doorway, a strange-looking, stupendous mass of yellow limestone masonry, long, and low, and level, and enormously massive. A few steps farther, and this proves to be the curved cornice of a mighty Temple – a Temple neither ruined nor defaced, but buried to the chin in the accumulated rubbish of a score of centuries. This part is evidently the portico. We stand close under a row of huge capitals. The columns that support them are buried beneath our feet. The ponderous cornice juts out above our heads. From the level on which we stand to the top of that cornice may measure about twenty-five feet. A high mud-wall runs parallel to the whole width of the façade, leaving a passage of about twelve feet in breadth between the two. A low mud-parapet and a hand-rail reach from capital to capital. All beyond is vague, cavernous, mysterious – a great shadowy gulf, in the midst of which dim ghosts of many columns are darkly visible. From an opening between two of the capitals, a flight of brick steps leads down into a vast hall so far below the surface of the outer world, so gloomy, so awful, that it might be the portico of Hades.
Going down these steps we come to the original level of the Temple. We tread the ancient pavement. We look up to the massive ceiling, recessed, and sculptured, and painted, like the ceiling at Denderah. We could almost believe, indeed, that we are again standing in the portico of Denderah. The number of columns is the same. The arrangement of the intercolumnar screen is the same. The general effect and the main features of the plan are the same. In some respects, however, Esneh is even more striking. The columns, though less massive than those of Denderah, are more elegant, and look loftier. Their shafts are covered with figures of gods, and emblems, and lines of hieroglyphed inscription, all cut in low relief. Their capitals, in place of the huge draped Hathor-heads of Denderah, are studied from natural forms – from the lotus-lily, the papyrus-blossom, the plumy date-palm. The wall-sculpture, however, is inferior to that at Denderah, and immeasurably inferior to the wall-sculpture at Karnak. The figures are of the meanest Ptolemaic type, and all of one size. The inscriptions, instead of being grouped wherever there happened to be space, and so producing the richest form of wall-decoration ever devised by man, are disposed in symmetrical columns, the effect of which, when compared with the florid style of Karnak, is as the methodical neatness of an engrossed deed to the splendid freedom of an illuminated manuscript.
The steps occupy the place of the great doorway. The jambs and part of the cornice, the intercolumnar screen, the shafts of the columns under whose capitals we came in, are all there, half-projecting from, and half-imbedded in the solid mound beyond. The light, however, comes in from so high up, and through so narrow a space, that one's eyes need to become accustomed to the darkness before any of these details can be distinguished. Then, by degrees, forms of deities familiar and unfamiliar emerge from the gloom.
The Temple is dedicated to Knum or Kneph, the Soul of the World, whom we now see for the first time. He is ram-headed, and holds in his hand the "ankh," or emblem of life.1 Another new acquaintance is Bes,2 the grotesque god of mirth and jollity.
by Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892) A thousand Miles up the NIle.

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