Read CHAPTER XI - THE NILE of As Seen By Me, free online book, by Lilian Bell, on

In travelling abroad there are some things which you wish to do more than others. There are certain treasures you particularly desire to see, certain scenes your mind has pictured, until the dream has almost become a reality. The ascent of the Nile was one of my Meccas, and now that it is over the reality has almost become a dream.

In Egypt the weather is so nearly perfect during the season that it was no surprise to find the day of our departure a cloudless one. I seldom worry myself to arrange beforehand for the creature comforts of a journey, trusting to the beneficent star which seems to hover over the unworthy to shine upon my pathway. But this time I had so dreamed of and brooded over and longed for the Nile that I went so far as to investigate the different lines of boats, and we chose the moonlight time of the month, and we hurried through Russia and Turkey and Greece with but one aim in view, and that was to have our feet on the deck of the Mayflower on the 19th of February. And we succeeded.

Ah, it was a dream well worth realizing! Twenty-one days of rest. Three glorious weeks of smooth sailing over calm waters. Three weeks of warmth and sunshine by day, and of poetry and starlight by night. Three weeks of drifting in the romance which surrounds the name of that great sorceress, that wonderful siren, that consummate coquette, that most fascinating woman the world has ever known. Three weeks of steeping one’s soul in the oldest, most complete and satisfactory ruins on the face of the earth. Here, in delving into the past, we would have no use for the comparative word “hundreds.” We could boldly use the superlative word “thousands.” What memories! what dreams! what fragments of half-forgotten history and romance came floating through the brain! I have, generally, little use for guide-books except, afterwards, to verify what I have seen. But I admit that I had an especial longing to reach the temple of Denderah, which was said to contain the most famous relief of Cleopatra extant. I was anxious to see if her beauty or her charm or anything which accounted for her sorceries were reproduced. “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been changed.” How far away she seemed! How near she would become!

On the terrace at Shepheard’s the morning of our departure you could see by people’s faces how they were going to make this journey. Some had Stanley helmets on, and were laden with cushions and steamer-chairs and fruits as if for an ocean voyage. Others were clutching their Baedeker, and their Amelia Edwards, and their “Kismet,” and their note-books, and wore a do-or-die expression of countenance. One or two others floated around aimlessly, with dreamy eyes, as if they were already lost in the past which now pressed so closely at hand. Then the coach from the Gehzireh Palace rolled by in a cloud of dust, and people hurried down the steps of Shepheard’s and took their places in our coach, and the dragománs in their gorgeous costumes followed with wraps, and the porters bustled about stowing away hand-luggage, and Arabs crowded near, thrusting their violets and roses and amber necklaces and beaded fly-brushes into your very face, and the old man who sells turquoises made his last effort to sell you a set for shirt-studs, and the Egyptians and East-Indians from the bazaars opposite came to the door and looked on with the perennial interest and friendliness of the Orient, and a swarm of beggars pleaded, with the excitement of a last chance, for backsheesh, and there was a babel of tongues French, English, Italian, German, and Arabic, all hurtling about your ears like so many verbal bullets in a battle, when suddenly the door slammed, the driver cracked his whip, the coach lurched forward, the children scattered and we were off.

Everybody knows when a boat starts up the Nile, and everybody is interested and nods and waves to everybody else. There was a short drive to the river amid polite calls of “good-bye” and “bon voyage,” and there lay the Mayflower, like a great white bird with comfortably folded wings. Nobody seemed to hurry much, for a Nile boat does not start until her passengers are all on board. An hour or so makes no difference.

You go down the bank of the Nile to go on board a boat upon steps cut in the earth, and if your hands are full and you cannot hold up your dress, you sweep some three inches of fine yellow dust after you. But you don’t care. The man ahead scuffed his dust in your face, and the woman behind you is sneezing in yours, and everything and everybody are a little yellowish from it, but nobody stops to brush it off. It is too exciting to hurry up on deck and place your steamer-chair and fling your things into your stateroom and rush out again for fear that you will miss something. There were Italians, French, English, Poles, Swedes, and Americans on board. Some of them had titles. Some had only bad manners, with nothing to excuse them. But, after all, everybody was nice, I got through the whole three weeks without hating anybody and with only wanting to drown one passenger. What better record of amiability could you ask?

But one thing marred the start. This Anglo-American line of boats is the only line in Egypt which flies the American flag. That was the final inducement they offered which decided my choice of the Mayflower. But while we knew that she was obliged to fly the British flag also, we were indignant beyond words to see a huge Union Jack floating at the top of the forward flagstaff and beneath it a toy American flag about the size of a cigar-box. Beneath the English flag! I nearly wept with rage. The owner of the line was at hand, and I did not wait to draw up a petition or to consult my fellow-Americans. I just said: “Have the goodness to haul down that infant American flag, will you? I have no objection to sailing under both, but I do object to such an insulting disparity in size. Besides that, you seem to have forgotten that the American flag never flies below any other flag on God’s green earth!”

He made some apologies, and gave the order at once. The baby was hauled down amid the smiles of the English passengers. But at Assiout we were avenged when an enormous American flag arrived by rail and was hoisted to the main flagstaff, twenty feet higher than the British. When I came out on deck that Sunday morning, and saw that blessed flag waving above me, everything blurred before my eyes, and I do assure you that it was the most beautiful sight I saw in all of that European continent. You may talk about your temples and your ruins and your old masters! Have you ever seen “Old Glory” flying straight out from a flagstaff in a foreign country seven thousand miles away from home?

The Nile is much broader than I expected to find it, and, like the Missouri and the Golden Horn, it is always muddy. The Mayflower carries only fifty passengers, which is of the greatest advantage for donkey-rides and for seeing the ruins, a larger party being unwieldy. She draws but two feet of water, having been built expressly for Nile service, so we had the proud satisfaction of seeing one of the big Rameses boats stuck on a sand-bank for eighteen hours, while we tooted past her blowing whistles of defiance and derision. Whenever we felt ourselves going aground on a sand-bank we just reversed the engines and backed off again, or else put on extra steam and ground our way through it. In the whole three weeks we were not aground five minutes, although we passed one wreck settling in the water, with the bedding and stores piled up on the bank, and the passengers sailing away in the swallow-winged feluccas, which had swooped down to their rescue like so many compassionate birds.

Afternoon tea on the Nile is an unforgetable function. Everybody comes on deck and sits under the awning and watches the sun go down. Each day the sunsets grow more beautiful. Each day they differ from all the rest. Such yellows and purples! Such violet shadows on the golden water! Such a marvellously sudden sinking of the sun in a crimson flame behind the flat brown hills! And then the stillness of the Nile in the opal aftermath! Those sunsets are something to carry in the memory forever and a day.

At night the sailors lower the side awnings, crawling along the railings with their naked prehensile feet. The captain, a Nubian, on a salary of eighty-five cents a day, selects a suitable spot on the bank where the boat may remain all night. Then the bow of the boat heads for the shore and digs her nose in the soft mud. The sailors pitch the stakes and mallets out on to the bank and spring ashore. Then with Arab songs which they always sing when rowing, hauling ropes, scrubbing the decks, or doing any sort of work, the stern is gradually hauled alongside the bank, and there we stay until morning in a stillness so absolute that even the cry of the jackals seems in harmony with the loneliness of it.

I dreaded the first excursion. It was to Memphis and Sakhara, eighteen miles in all, and I never had been on a donkey in my life. I am not afraid of horses, but donkeys are so much like mules. My friends encouraged me all they could. They said that I would have a donkey-boy all to myself, that the donkey never went out of a walk, and wound up by the cheerful assurance that if he did pitch me over his head I would not have far to fall.

The donkey-boys of the Nile deserve a book all to themselves. Such craft! Such flattery! Such knowledge of human nature! With unerring sagacity they discover your nationality and give your donkey names famous in your own country. Never will an Englishman find himself astride “Yankee Doodle” or “Uncle Sam,” or an American upon “John Bull.” They pick you up in their arms to put you on or take you from your donkey as if you were a baby. They run beside you holding your umbrella with one hand, and with the other arm holding you on if you are timid. Staid, dignified women who teach Sunday-school classes at home, who would not permit a white manservant to touch them, lean on their donkey-boys as if they were human balustrades.

My first donkey-boy was an enchanting rascal. He looked like a handsome bronze statue. My donkey was a pale, drab little beast, woolly and dejected. He looked as though if you hurled contemptuous epithets at him for a week they would all fit his case. My companion’s was more jaunty. He had been clipped in patterns. His legs were all done in hieroglyphics, and he held his ears up while mine trailed his in the sand.

Nevertheless, I was so deadly afraid of him that I saw my forty-nine fellow-passengers leave me, one after the other, while I still hesitated and eyed him suspiciously. Perhaps I never would have mounted had not Imam, the dragoman, with the frank unceremoniousness of the East, caught me up in his arms and landed me on my donkey before I could protest. And in the face of his childish smile of confidence I could only gasp. We moved off with the majesty of a funeral procession.

“What’s the name of my donkey?” asked my companion.

“Cleveland,” came the answer like a flash.

We were enchanted.

“And what’s the name of mine?” I asked.


Then we shouted. You have no idea how funny it sounded to hear those two familiar names in such strange surroundings. We nearly tumbled off in our delight, and so quick are those clever little donkey-boys to watch your face and divine your mood that in a second they gave that Weird, long-drawn donkey call, “Oh-h-ah-h!” and my companion’s donkey swung into a gentle trot, with her donkey-boy running behind, beating him with a stick and pinching him in the legs.

At that McKinley, not to be outdone by any Democratic donkey, pricked up his ears. I heard a terrific commotion behind me. The string of bells around McKinley’s neck deafened me, and I remember then and there losing all confidence in the administration, for McKinley was a Derby winner. He was a circus donkey. He broke into a crazy gallop, then into a mad run. I shrieked but my donkey-boy thought it was a sound of joy, and only prodded him the more. In less than two minutes I had shot past every one of the party; and for the whole day McKinley and I headed the procession. I only saw my companion at a distance through a cloud of dust, and she does not trust me any more. Thus have I to bear the sins of Mohammed Ali, my perfidious donkey-boy, who forced me to lead the van on that dreadful first day at Sakhara.

Everywhere you go you hear the insistent, importunate cry for backsheesh. Old men, women, children, dragománs, guides, merchants, and street-venders all sorts and conditions of men beg for it. They teach even babies to take hold of your dress and cry for it. And to toss backsheesh over to the crowd on the bank as the steamer moves away is to see every one of them roll over in the dirt and fight and scratch like cats over half a piaster. There is no such thing as self-respect among the natives. They are governed by blows and curses, and even the eyes of sheiks and native police glisten at the word “backsheesh.”

At Assiout one night we heard some one calling from the bank in English: “Lady, lady, give me some English books. I am a Christian. I can read English. Give me a Bible. I go to the American college. I want to be a preacher.” I leaned over the railing and discerned a very black boy, whose name, he said, was Solomon. I was so surprised to hear “Bible” instead of “backsheesh” that I investigated. He said his mother and father were dead; that he had only been to college a year; that he wanted to be a preacher, and that he would pray God for me if I would give him a Bible. I was touched. He spelled America, and I gave him backsheesh. He told me the population of the United States, and I gave him more backsheesh. He sang “Upidee” with an accent which threw me into such ecstasies that it brought the whole boat to hear him, and we all gave him backsheesh. But his piety was what captivated us. I heard afterwards that no fewer than ten of us privately resolved to give him Bibles. He begged us to visit the college; so the next day eight of us gave up the tombs and went to the American college, which was floating the Stars and Stripes because it was Washington’s birthday. We spoke to Dr. Alexander, the president, of our friend Solomon. He told us that he was an absolute fraud, but one of the cleverest boys in the college. He was not an orphan. His father took a new wife every year, and his mother also had an assorted collection of husbands. He had been to school five years instead of one. He had no end of Bibles. People gave them to him and he sold them. He had been in jail for stealing, and on the whole his showing was not such as to encourage us to help him to preach. Such was Solomon, a typical Egyptian, an equally accurate type of the Arab. They are the cleverest and most consummate liars in the world. I wonder that the noble men and women who are giving their lives to teaching in that wonderful mission college have the courage to go on with it, the material is so unpromising. Yet Arabic acuteness makes it interesting, after all. A pretty little water-carrier named Fatima, who wore a blue bead in the hole bored in her nose, and only one other garment besides, ran beside me at Denderah, calling me “beautiful princess,” and kissing my hand until she made my glove sticky. None of us were too old or too hideous in our Nile costumes to be called beautiful and good. My donkey-boy at Karnak assured me that I was his father and his mother. He touched his forehead to my hand, then showed me how his dress was “broken,” and begged his new father-and-mother to give him a new one.

They are creatures of a different race. You treat them as you would treat affectionate dogs. You beat them if they pick your pockets, as they do every chance they get, and then they offer to show you the boy who did it. I never got to the point of personally beating mine, but Imam beat a few of them every day. On one occasion my donkey-boy, Hassan, was angry with me because I would not let him buy feed for the donkey, Ammon Ra, and refused to bring him up when I wanted to mount. I called to the dragoman, and said:

“Imam, Hassan won’t bring up my donkey.”

Imam looked at him a moment in silence, then with a lightning slap on the cheek he laid him flat in the sand. I was horrified. But to my amazement Hassan hopped up and began to kiss my sleeve and to apologize, saying, “Very good lady. Bad donkey-boy. Hassan sorry. Very good lady.”

We have had three Christmases this year. The first was in Berlin, the second in Russia, and the third on the Nile the day after the fast of Ramazan is ended. Ramazan lasts only thirty days instead of forty, like our Lent. The thirty-first is a holiday. They present each other with gifts, do no work, and picnic in the graveyards.

Between Esneh and Luxor we passed a steamer with some English officers on board, and their steamer was towing two flat-boats containing their regiments, all going to Kitchener in the Soudan. I used the field-glass on-them, while my companion photographed them. We waved to them, and they waved to us and swung their hats and saluted. At Edfou they caught up with us, and passed so close to our boat that the gentlemen talked to them and asked what their regiments were. They said the Twenty-first Lancers and the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders. Then their boat was gone. How could we know that those gallant officers of the Twenty-first Lancers would so soon lead that daring cavalry charge at Omdurman, and possibly one of those who saluted so gayly was the one killed on the awful day? It touched us very much, however, to think that they might be going to their death, and we were glad they did not belong to us, little dreaming that the blowing-up of the Maine, of which we had just heard, would so soon plunge our own dear country into war, and that our own fathers and brothers and friends would be marching and sailing away to defend that same “Old Glory” whose stars and stripes were floating over our heads, and whose gallant colors would succor the oppressed and avenge insult with equal promptness and equal dignity.

The temple of Denderah is not, to my mind, more beautiful than those of Luxor and Karnak; in fact, both of those are more majestic, but the mural decorations of Denderah are in a state of marvellous preservation. I own, after seeing that in some places even the original colors remained, that I quite held my breath as we approached the famous figure of Cleopatra. The sorceress of the Nile! The favorite of the goddess Hathor herself! The siren who could tempt an emperor to forsake his empire or a general to renounce fame and honor more easily than a modern woman could persuade a man to break an engagement to dine with her rival! Queen of the Lotus! Empress of the Pyramids! What grace, what charm I anticipated! I wondered if she would be portrayed floating down to meet Antony, with her purple and perfumed sails, her cloth of gold garments, her peacocks, her ibex, her lotus-blooms, and if all her mysterious fascinations would be spread before the delighted gaze of her humble worshipper.

What I found is shown in the frontispiece to this volume. Beauty unadorned with a vengeance! From this time on I shall question the taste of Antony. I only wish he could have lived to see some American girls I know.

We saw Karnak and Philae by moonlight, and we lunched in the tombs of the kings, with hieroglyphics thousands of years old looking down upon our pickled onions and cold fowl, and we ploughed through the sands at Assouan and saw the naked Nubians, with a silver ear-ring in the top of their left ear, shoot the rapids of the first cataract. We stood, too, in the temple of Luxor, before the altar of Hathor, with the sunset on one side and the moonrise on the other, and heard what her votaries say to the Goddess of Beauty. It was so mystical that we almost joined in the worship of the Egyptian Venus Aphrodite. It was so still, so majestic, so aloof from everything modern and new.

The Nile is essentially a river of silence and mystery. The ibis is always to be seen, standing alone, seemingly absorbed in meditation. The camels turn their beautiful soft eyes upon you as if you were intruding upon their silence and reserve. Never were the eyes in a human head so beautiful as a camel’s. There is a limpid softness, an appealing plaintiveness in their expression which drags at your sympathies like the look in the eyes of a hunchback. It means that, with your opportunities, you might have done more with your life. Your mother looks at you that way sometimes in church, when the sermon touches a particularly raw nerve in your spiritual make-up. I always feel like apologizing when a camel looks at me.

One moonlight night was so bright that our boat started about three o’clock instead of waiting for daylight, and the start swung my state-room door open. It was so warm that I let it remain, and lay there hearing the gentle swish of the water curling against the side of the steamer, and seeing the soft moonlight form a silver pathway from the yellow bank across the river to my cabin door. The machinery made no noise. There was no more vibration than on a sail-boat. And there was the whole panorama of the Nile spread before my eyes, with all its romance and all its mystery bathed in an enchanting radiance. Occasionally a raven croaked. Sometimes a jackal howled. An obelisk made an exclamation-point against the sky, or the ruins of a temple fretted the horizon. It was the land of Ptolemy, of Rameses, of Hathor, of Horus, of Isis and Osiris, of Herodotus and Cleopatra, of Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses. It was the silence of the ages which fell upon me, and then and there, in that hour of absolute stillness and solitude and beauty unspeakable, all my dreams of the Nile came true.