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Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER XIX -- A TOWN PROMPTLY EMBELLISHED
tourism comes to Aswan

Eight years and a line of railway have sufficed to accomplish its metamorphosis. Once in Upper Egypt, on the borders of Nubia, there was a little humble town, rarely visited, and wanting, it must be owned, in elegance and even in comfort.

Not that it was without picturesqueness and historical interest. Quite the contrary. The Nile, charged with the waters of equatorial Africa, flung itself close by from the height of a mass of black granite, in a majestic cataract; and then, before the little Arab houses, became suddenly calm again, and flowed between islets of fresh verdure where clusters of palm-trees swayed their plumes in the wind.

And around were a number of temples, of hypogea, of Roman ruins, of ruins of churches dating from the first centuries of Christianity. The ground was full of souvenirs of the great primitive civilisations. For the place, abandoned for ages and lulled in the folds of Islam under the guardianship of its white mosque, was once one of the centres of the life of the world.

And, moreover, in the adjoining desert, some three or four thousand years ago, the ancient history of the world had been written by the Pharaohs in immortal hieroglyphics--well-nigh everywhere, on the polished sides of the strange blocks of blue and red granite that lie scattered about the sands and look now like the forms of antediluvian monsters.

Yes, but it was necessary that all this should be co-ordinated, focused as it were, and above all rendered accessible to the delicate travellers of the Agencies. And to-day we have the pleasure of announcing that, from December to March, Assouan (Aswan), for that is the name of the fortunate locality, has a "season" as fashionable as those of Ostend or Spa.

boats on the Nile and Elephantine Island.
Elephantine Island, just north of Aswan, Egypt
by David Roberts, 1839.


In approaching it, the huge hotels erected on all sides--even on the islets of the old river--charm the eye of the traveller, greeting him with their welcoming signs, which can be seen a league away. True, they have been somewhat hastily constructed, of mud and plaster, but they recall none the less those gracious palaces with which the Compagnie des Wagon-Lits has dowered the world. And how negligible now, how dwarfed by the height of their facades, is the poor little town of olden times, with its little houses, whitened with chalk, and its baby minaret.

The cataract, on the other hand, has disappeared from Assouan. The tutelary Albion wisely considered that it would be better to sacrifice that futile spectacle and, in order to increase the yield of the soil, to dam the waters of the Nile by an artificial barrage: a work of solid masonry which (in the words of the Programme of Pleasure Trips) "affords an interest of a very different nature and degree" (sic).

But nevertheless Cook & Son--a business concern glossed with poetry, as all the world knows--have endeavoured to perpetuate the memory of the cataract by giving its name to a hotel of 500 rooms, which as a result of their labours has been established opposite to those rocks-- now reduced to silence--over which the old Nile used to seethe for so many centuries. "Cataract Hotel!"--that gives the illusion still, does it not?--and looks remarkably well at the head of a sheet of notepaper.

Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.) have even gone so far as to conceive the idea that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain cachet of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces (in imitation, of course--but then you must not expect the impossible) the interior of one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour it is one of the prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy cupola, all the little tables crowded with Cook's tourists of both sexes, the while a concealed orchestra strikes up the "Mattchiche."

The dam, it is true, in suppressing the cataract has raised some thirty feet or so the level of the water upstream, and by so doing has submerged a certain Isle of Philae, which passed, absurdly enough, for one of the marvels of the world by reason of its great temple of Isis, surrounded by palm-trees.

But between ourselves, one may say that the beautiful goddess was a little old-fashioned for our times. She and her mysteries had had their day. Besides, if there should be any chagrined soul who might regret the disappearance of the island, care has been taken to perpetuate the memory of it, in the same way as that of the cataract. Charming coloured postcards, taken before the submerging of the island and the sanctuary, are on sale in all the bookshops along the quay.

Philae Temple curves with the bend in the river.
A well known view of Philae Temple
by David Roberts, 1839.


Oh! this quay of Assouan, already so British in its orderliness, its method! Nothing better cared for, nothing more altogether charming could be conceived. First of all there is the railway, which, passing between balustrades painted a grass-green, gives out its fascinating noise and joyous smoke. On one side is a row of hotels and shops, all European in character--hairdressers, perfumers, and numerous dark rooms for the use of the many amateur photographers, who make a point of taking away with them photographs of their travelling companions grouped tastefully before some celebrated hypogeum.

And then numerous cafes, where the whisky is of excellent quality. And, I ought to add, in justice to the result of the Entente Cordiale, you may see there, too, aligned in considerable quantities on the shelves, the products of those great French philanthropists, to whom indeed our generation does not render sufficient homage for all the good they have done to its stomach and its head. The reader will guess that I have named Pernod, Picon and Cusenier.

It may be indeed that the honest fellahs and Nubians of the neighbourhood, so sober a little while ago, are apt to abuse these tonics a little. But that is the effect of novelty, and will pass. And anyhow, amongst us Europeans, there is no need to conceal the fact-- for we do not all make use of it involuntarily?--that alcoholism is a powerful auxiliary in the propagation of our ideas, and that the dealer in wines and spirits constitutes a valuable vanguard pioneer for our Western civilisation. Races, insensibly depressed by the abuse of our "appetisers," become more supple, more easy to lead in the true path of progress and liberty.

On this quay of Assouan, so carefully levelled, defiles briskly a continual stream of fair travellers ravishingly dressed as only those know how who have made a tour with Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.). And along the Nile, in the shade of the young trees, planted with the utmost nicety and precision, the flower-beds and straight-cut turf are protected efficaciously by means of wire-netting against certain acts of forgetfulness to which dogs, alas, are only too much addicted.

Here, too, everything is ticketed, everything has its number: the donkeys, the donkey-drivers, the stations even where they are allowed to stand--"Stand for six donkeys, stand for ten, etc."

Some very handsome camels, fitted with riding saddles, wait also in their respective places and a number of Cook ladies, meticulous on the point of local colour, even when it is merely a question of making some purchases in the town, readily mount for some moments one or other of these "ships of the desert."

And at every fifty yards a policeman, still Egyptian in his countenance, but quite English in his bearing and costume, keeps a vigilant eye on everything--would never suffer, for example, that an eleventh donkey should dare to take a place in a stand for ten, which was already full.

Certain people, inclined to be critical, might consider, perhaps, that these policemen were a little too ready to chide their fellow- countrymen; whereas on the contrary they showed themselves very respectful and obliging whenever they were addressed by a traveler in a cork helmet. But that is in virtue of an equitable and logical principle, derived by them from the high places of the new administration--namely, that the Egypt of to-day belongs far less to the Egyptians than to the noble foreigners who have come to brandish there the torch of civilisation.

In the evening, after dark, the really respectable travellers do not quit the brilliant dining saloons of the hotels, and the quay is left quite solitary beneath the stars. It is at such a time that one is able to realise how extremely hospitable certain of the natives are become. If, in an hour of melancholy, you walk alone on the bank of the Nile, smoking a cigarette, you will not fail to be accosted by one of these good people, who misunderstanding the cause of the unrest in your soul, offers eagerly, and with a touching frankness, to introduce you to the gayest of the young ladies of the country.

In the other towns, which still remain purely Egyptian, the people would never practise such an excess of affability and good manners, which have been learnt, beyond all question from our beneficent contact.

Assouan possesses also its little Oriental bazaar--a little improvised, a little new perhaps; but then one, at least, was needed, and that as quickly as possible, in order that nothing might be wanting to the tourists.

The shopkeepers have contrived to provision themselves (in the leading shops, under the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli) with as much tact as good taste, and the Cook ladies have the innocent illusion of making bargains every day. One may even buy there, hung up by the tail, stuffed with straw and looking extremely real, the last crocodiles of Egypt, which, particularly at the end of the season, may be had at very advantageous prices.

a group of crocodiles relax by the Nile river.
Near Wadi Dabod, by David Roberts, 1839.


Even the old Nile has allowed itself to be fretted and brought up to date in the progress of evolution.

First, the women, draped in black veils, who come daily to draw the precious water, have forsaken the fragile amphorae of baked earth, which had come to them from barbarous times--and which the Orientalists grossly abused in their picture; and in their stead have taken to old tin oil-cans, placed at their disposal by the kindness of the big hotels. But they carry them in the same easy graceful manner as erstwhile the discarded pottery, and without losing in the least the gracious tanagrine outline.

And then there are the great tourist boats of the Agencies, which are here in abundance, for Assouan has the privilege of being the terminus of the line; and their whistlings, their revolving motors, their electric dynamos maintain from morning till night a captivating symphony.

It might be urged perhaps against these structures that they resemble a little the washhouses on the Seine; but the Agencies, desirous of restoring to them a certain local colour, have given them names so notoriously Egyptian that one is reduced to silence. They are called Sesostris, Amenophis or Ramses the Great.

And finally there are the rowing boats, which carry passengers incessantly backwards and forwards between the river-banks. So long as the season remains at its height they are bedecked with a number of little flags of red cotton-cloth, or even of simple paper. The rowers, moreover, have been instructed to sing all the time the native songs which are accompanied by a derboucca player seated in the prow. Nay, they have even learnt to utter that rousing, stimulating cry which Anglo-Saxons use to express their enthusiasm or their joy: "Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" and you cannot conceive how well it sounds, coming between the Arab songs, which otherwise might be apt to grow monotonous.

But the triumph of Assouan is its desert. It begins at once without transition as soon as you pass the close-cropped turf of the last square. A desert which, except for the railroad and the telegraph poles, has all the charm of the real thing: the sand, the chaos of overthrown stones, the empty horizons--everything, in short, save the immensity and infinite solitude, the horror, in a word which formerly made it so little desirable. It is a little astonishing, it must be owned, to find, on arriving there, that the rocks have been carefully numbered in white paint, and in some cases marked with a large cross "which catches the eye from a greater distance still"(sic). But I agree that the effect of the whole has lost nothing.

In the morning before the sun gets too hot, between breakfast and luncheon to be precise, all the good ladies in cork helmets and blue spectacles (dark-coloured spectacles are recommended on account of the glare) spread themselves over these solitudes, domesticated as it were to their use, with as much security as in Trafalgar Square or Kensington Gardens. Not seldom even you may see one of them making her way alone, book in hand, towards one of the picturesque rocks--No. 363, for example, or No. 364, if you like it better--which seems to be making signs to her with its white ticket, in a manner which, to the uninitiated observer, might seem even a little improper.

But what a sense of safety families may feel here, to be sure! In spite of the huge numbers, which at first sight look a little equivocal, nothing in the least degree reprehensible can happen among these granites; which are, moreover, in a single piece, without the least crack or hole into which the straggler could contrive to crawl.

No. The figures and the crosses denote simple blocks of stones, covered with hieroglyphics, and correspond to a chaste catalogue where each Pharaonic inscription may be found translated in the most becoming language.

This ingenious ticketing of the stones of the desert is due to the initiative of an English Egyptologist.

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La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

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