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Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER XI -- THE DOWNFALL OF THE NILE
traveling the ancient river

Some thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our geological period, when the continents had taken, in the last great upheaval, almost the forms by which we now know them, and when the rivers began to trace their hesitating courses, it happened that the rains of a whole watershed of Africa were precipitated in one formidable torrent across the uninhabitable region which stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and is called the region of the deserts.

And this enormous waterway, lost as it was in the sands, by-and-by regulated its course: it became the Nile, and with untiring patience set itself to the proper task of river, which in this accursed zone might well have seemed an impossible one. First it had to round all the blocks of granite scattered in its way in the high plains of Nubia; and then, and more especially, to deposit, little by little, successive layers of mud, to form a living artery, to create, as it were, a long green ribbon in the midst of this infinite domain of death.

How long ago is it since the work of the great river began? There is something fearful in the thought. During the 5000 years of which we have any knowledge the incessant deposit of mud has scarcely widened this strip of inhabited Egypt, which at the most ancient period of history was almost as it is to-day.

And as for the granite blocks on the plains of Nubia, how many thousands of years did it need to roll them and to polish them thus? In the times of the Pharaohs they already had their present rounded forms, worn smooth by the friction of the water, and the hieroglyphic inscriptions on their surfaces are not perceptibly effaced, though they have suffered the periodical inundation of the summer for some forty or fifty centuries!

It was an exceptional country, this valley of the Nile; marvellous and unique; fertile without rain, watered according to its need by the great river, without the help of any cloud. It knew not the dull days and the humidity under which we suffer, but kept always the changeless sky of the immense surrounding deserts, which exhaled no vapour that might dim the horizon. It was this eternal splendour of its light, no doubt, and this easiness of life, which brought forth here the first fruits of human thought.

This same Nile, after having so patiently created the soil of Egypt, became also the father of that people, which led the way for all others--like those early branches that one sees in spring, which shoot first from the stem, and sometimes die before the summer. It nursed that people, whose least vestiges we discover to-day with surprise and wonder; a people who, in the very dawn, in the midst of the original barbarity, conceived magnificently the infinite and the divine; who placed with such certainty and grandeur the first architectural lines, from which afterwards our architecture was to be derived; who laid the bases of art, of science, and of all knowledge.

Later on, when this beautiful flower of humanity was faded, the Nile, flowing always in the midst of its deserts, seems to have had for mission, during nearly two thousand years, the maintenance on its banks of a kind of immobility and desuetude, which was in a way a homage of respect for these stupendous relics.

While the sand was burying the ruins of the temples and the battered faces of the colossi, nothing changed under this sky of changeless blue. The same cultivation proceeded on the banks as in the oldest ages; the same boats, with the same sails, went up and down the thread of water; the same songs kept time to the eternal human toil. The race of fellahs, the unconscious guardian of a prodigious past, slept on without desire of change, and almost without suffering. And time passed for Egypt in a great peace of sunlight and of death.

But to-day the foreigners are masters here, and have wakened the old Nile--wakened to enslave it. In less than twenty years they have disfigured its valley, which until then had preserved itself like a sanctuary. They have silenced its cataracts, captured its precious water by dams, to pour it afar off on plains that are become like marshes and already sully with their mists the crystal clearness of the sky.

The ancient rigging no longer suffices to water the land under cultivation. Machines worked by steam, which draw the water more quickly, commence to rise along the banks, side by side with new factories. Soon there will scarcely be a river more dishonoured than this, by iron chimneys and thick, black smoke. And it is happening apace, this exploitation of the Nile--hastily, greedily, as in a hunt for spoils. And thus all its beauty disappears, for its monotonous course, through regions endless alike, won us only by its calm and its old-world mystery.

Poor Nile of the prodigies! One feels sometimes still its departing charm, stray corners of it remain intact. There are days of transcendent clearness, incomparable evenings, when one may still forget the ugliness and the smoke. But the classic expedition by dahabiya, the ascent of the river from Cairo to Nubia, will soon have ceased to be worth making.

a peaceful evening, the boatmen prepare their boats for the night.
On the Nile
By David Roberts, 1839.


Ordinarily this voyage is made in the winter, so that the traveler may follow the course of the sun as it makes its escape towards the southern hemisphere. The water then is low and the valley parched. Leaving the cosmopolitan town of modern Cairo, the iron bridges, and the pretentious hotels, with their flaunting inscriptions, it imparts a sense of sudden peacefulness to pass along the large and rapid waters of this river, between the curtains of palm-trees on the banks, borne by a dahabiya where one is master and, if one likes, may be alone.

At first, for a day or two, the great haunting triangles of the pyramids seem to follow you, those of Dashur and that of Sakkarah succeeding to those of Gizeh. For a long time the horizon is disturbed by their gigantic silhouettes. As we recede from them, and they disengage themselves better from neighbouring things, they seem, as happens in the case of mountains, to grow higher. And when they have finally disappeared, we have still to ascend slowly and by stages some six hundred miles of river before we reach the first cataract. Our way lies through monotonous desert regions where the hours and days are marked chiefly by the variations of the wonderful light. Except for the phantasmagoria of the mornings and evenings, there is no outstanding feature on these dull-coloured banks, where may be seen, with never a change at all, the humble pastoral life of the fellahs. The sun is burning, the starlit nights clear and cold. A withering wind, which blows almost without ceasing from the north, makes you shiver as soon as the twilight falls.

One may travel for league after league along this slimy water and make head for days and weeks against its current--which glides everlastingly past the dahabiya, in little hurrying waves--without seeing this warm, fecundating river, compared with which our rivers of France are mere negligible streams, either diminish or increase or hasten.

And on the right and left of us as we pass are unfolded indefinitely the two parallel chains of barren limestone, which imprison so narrowly the Egypt of the harvests: on the west that of the Libyan desert, which every morning the first rays of the sun tint with a rosy coral that nothing seems to dull; and in the east that of the desert of Arabia, which never fails in the evening to retain the light of the setting sun, and looks then like a mournful girdle of glowing embers.

Sometimes the two parallel walls sheer off and give more room to the green fields, to the woods of palm-trees, and the little oases, separated by streaks of golden sand. Sometimes they approach so closely to the Nile that habitable Egypt is no wider than some two or three poor fields of corn, lying right on the water's edge, behind which the dead stones and the dead sands commence at once. And sometimes, even, the desert chain closes in so as to overhang the river with its reddish-white cliffs, which no rain ever comes to freshen, and in which, at different heights, gape the square holes leading to the habitations of the mummies. These mountains, which in the distance look so beautiful in their rose-colour, and make, as it were, interminable back-cloths to all that happens on the river banks, were perforated, during some 5000 years, for the introduction of sarcophagi and now they swarm with old dead bodies.

And all that passes on the banks, indeed, changes as little as the background.

First there is that gesture, supple and superb, but always the same, of the women in their long black robes who come without ceasing to fill their long-necked jars and carry them away balanced on their veiled heads. Then the flocks which shepherds, draped in mourning, bring to the river to drink, goats and sheep and asses all mixed up together. And then the buffaloes, massive and mud-coloured, who descend calmly to bathe. And, finally, the great labour of the watering: the traditional noria, turned by a little bull with bandaged eyes and, above all, the shaduf, worked by men whose naked bodies stream with the cold water.

sail boats and water drawing on the Nile.
Hadjar Silsilis, North of Kom Ombo
By David Roberts, 1839.


The shadufs follow one another sometimes as far as the eye can see. It is strange to watch the movement--confused in the distance--of all these long rods which pump the water without ceasing, and look like the swaying of living antennae. The same sight was to be seen along this river in the times of the Ramses. But suddenly, at some bend of the river, the old Pharaonic rigging disappears, to give place to a succession of steam machines, which, more even than the muscles of the fellahs, are busy at the water-drawing. Before long their blackish chimneys will make a continuous border to the tamed Nile.

Did one not know their bearings, the great ruins of this Egypt would pass unnoticed. With a few rare exceptions they lie beyond the green plains on the threshold of the solitudes. And against the changeless, rose-coloured background of these cliffs of the desert, which follow you during the whole of this tranquil navigation of some 600 miles, are to be seen only the humble towns and villages of to-day, which have the neutral colour of the ground.

Some openwork minarets dominate them--white spots above the prevailing dullness. Clouds of pigeons whirl round in the neighbourhood. And amongst the little houses, which are only cubes of mud, baked in the sun, the palm-trees of Africa, either singly or in mighty clusters, rise superbly and cast on these little habitations the shade of their palms which sway in the wind.

Not long ago, although indeed everything in these little towns was mournful and stagnant, one would have been tempted to stop in passing, drawn by that nameless peace that belonged to the Old East and to Islam. But, now, before the smallest hamlet--amongst the beautiful primitive boats, that still remain in great numbers, pointing their yards, like very long reeds, into the sky--there is always, for the meeting of the tourist boats, an enormous black pontoon, which spoils the whole scene by its presence and its great advertising inscription: "Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.)."

And, what is more, one hears the whistling of the railway, which runs mercilessly along the river, bringing from the Delta to the Soudan the hordes of European invaders. And to crown all, adjoining the station is inevitably some modern factory, throned there in a sort of irony, and dominating the poor crumbling things that still presume to tell of Egypt and of mystery.

And so now, except at the towns or villages which lead to celebrated ruins, we stop no longer. It is necessary to proceed farther and for the halt of the night to seek an obscure hamlet, a silent recess, where we may moor our dahabiya against the venerable earth of the bank.

And so one goes on, for days and weeks, between these two interminable cliffs of reddish chalk, filled with their hypogea and mummies, which are the walls of the valley of the Nile, and will follow us up to the first cataract, until our entrance into Nubia. There only will the appearance and nature of the rocks of the desert change, to become the more sombre granite out of which the Pharaohs carved their obelisks and the great figures of their gods.

The endless flow of the Nile river.
The Nile,
original plate by Geo Colucci.


We go on and on, ascending the thread of this eternal current, and the regularity of the wind, the persistent clearness of the sky, the monotony of the great river, which winds but never ends, all conspire to make us forget the hours and days that pass. However deceived and disappointed we may be at seeing the profanation of the river banks, here, nevertheless, isolated on the water, we do not lose the peace of being a wanderer, a stranger amongst an equipage of silent Arabs, who every evening prostrate themselves in confiding prayer.

And, moreover, we are moving towards the south, towards the sun, and every day has a more entrancing clearness, a more caressing warmth, and the bronze of the faces that we see on our way takes on a deeper tint.

And then too one mixes intimately with the life of the river bank, which is still so absorbing and, at certain hours, when the horizon is unsullied by the smoke of pit-coal, recalls you to the days of artless toil and healthy beauty. In the boats that meet us, half-naked men, revelling in their movement, in the sun and air, sing, as they ply their oars, those songs of the Nile that are as old as Thebes or Memphis.

When the wind rises there is a riotous unfurling of sails, which, stretched on their long yards, give to the dahabiyas the air of birds in full flight. Bending right over in the wind, they skim along with a lively motion, carrying their cargoes of men and beasts and primitive things. Women are there draped still in the ancient fashion, and sheep and goats, and sometimes piles of fruit and gourds, and sacks of grain. Many are laden to the water's edge with these earthenware jars, unchanged for 3000 years, which the fellaheens know how to place on their heads with so much grace--and one sees these heaps of fragile pottery gliding along the water as if carried by the gigantic wings of a gull.

And in the far-off, almost fabulous, days the life of the mariners of the Nile had the same aspect, as is shown by the bas-reliefs on the oldest tombs; it required the same play of muscles and of sails; was accompanied no doubt by the same songs, and was subject to the withering caress of this same desert wind. And then, as now, the same unchanging rose coloured the continuous curtain of the mountains.

But all at once there is a noise of machinery, and whistlings, and in the air, which was just now so pure, rise noxious columns of black smoke. The modern steamers are coming, and throw into disorder the flotillas of the past; colliers that leave great eddies in their wake, or perhaps a wearisome lot of those three-decked tourist boats, which make a great noise as they plough the water, and are laden for the most part with ugly women, snobs and imbeciles.

Poor, poor Nile! which reflected formerly on its warm mirror the utmost of earthly splendour, which bore in its time so many barques of gods and goddesses in procession behind the golden barge of Amen, and knew in the dawn of the ages only an impeccable purity, alike of the human form and of architectural design!

What a downfall is here! To be awakened from that disdainful sleep of twenty centuries and made to carry the floating barracks of Thomas Cook & Son, to feed sugar factories, and to exhaust itself in nourishing with its mud the raw material for English cotton-stuffs.

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La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

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