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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
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
This ingenious ticketing of the stones of the desert is due to the initiative of an English Egyptologist.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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