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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.
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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