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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
CHAPTER IX -- THE RACE OF BRONZE
Traditional Egyptian life
A monotonous chant on three notes, which must date from the first
Pharaohs, may still be heard in our days on the banks of the Nile,
from the Delta as far as Nubia. At different places along the river,
half-made men, with torsos of bronze and voices all alike, intone it
in the morning when they commence their endless labours and continue
it throughout the day, until the evening brings repose.
Whoever has journeyed in a dahabiya up the old river will remember
this song of the water-drawers, with its accompaniment, in slow
cadence, of creakings of wet wood. It is the song of the "shaduf," and the "shaduf" is a primitive
rigging, which has remained unchanged since times beyond all
reckoning. It is composed of a long antenna, like the yard of a
tartan, which is supported in see-saw fashion on an upright beam, and
carries at its extremity a wooden bucket.
A man, with movements of
singular beauty, works it while he sings, lowers the antenna, draws
the water from the river, and raises the filled bucket, which another
man catches in its ascent and empties into a basin made out of the mud
of the river bank. When the river is low there are three such basins,
placed one above the other, as if they were stages by which the
precious water mounts to the fields of corn and lucerne. And then
three "shadufs," one above the other, creak together, lowering and
raising their great scarabaeus' horns to the rhythm of the same song.
All along the banks of the Nile this movement of the antennae of the
shadufs is to be seen. It had its beginning in the earliest ages and
is still the characteristic manifestation of human life along the
river banks. It ceases only in the summer, when the river, swollen by
the rains of equatorial Africa, overflows this land of Egypt, which it
itself has made in the midst of the Saharan sands.
The traditional "noria" irrigation system,
from "la Description de l'Egypte".
But in the winter,
which is here a time of luminous drought and changeless blue skies, it
is in full swing. Then every day, from dawn until the evening prayer,
the men are busy at their water-drawing, transformed for the time into
tireless machines, with muscles that work like metal bands. The action
never changes, any more than the song, and often their thoughts must
wander from their automatic toil, and lose themselves in some dream,
akin to that of their ancestors who were yoked to the same rigging
four or five thousands years ago. Their torsos, deluged at each rising
of the overflowing bucket, stream constantly with cold water; and
sometimes the wind is icy, even while the sun burns; but these
perpetual workers are, as we have said, of bronze, and their hardened
bodies take no harm.
These men are the fellahs, the peasants of the valley of the Nile--
pure Egyptians, whose type has not changed in the course of centuries.
In the oldest of the bas-reliefs of Thebes or Memphis you may see many
such, with the same noble profile and thickish lips, the same
elongated eyes shadowed by heavy eyelids, the same slender figure,
surmounted by broad shoulders.
The women who from time to time descend to the river, to draw water
also, but in their case in the vases of potters' clay which they
carry--this fetching and carrying of the life-giving water is the one
primordial occupation in this Egypt, which has no rain, nor any living
spring, and subsists only by its river--these women walk and posture
with an inimitable grace, draped in black veils, which even the
poorest allow to trail behind them, like the train of a court dress.
In this bright land, with its rose-coloured distances, it is strange
to see them, all so sombrely clothed, spots of mourning, as it were,
in the gay fields and the flaring desert. Machine-like creatures, all
untaught, they yet possess by instinct, as did once the daughters of
Hellas, a sense of nobility in attitude and carriage. None of the
women of Europe could wear these coarse black stuffs with such a
majestic harmony, and none surely could so raise their bare arms to
place on their heads the heavy jars filled with Nile water, and then,
departing, carry themselves so proudly, so upright and resilient under
The muslin tunics which they wear are invariably black like the veils,
set off perhaps with some red embroidery or silver spangles. They are
unfastened across the chest, and, by a narrow opening which descends
to the girdle, disclose the amber-coloured flesh, the median swell of
bosoms of pale bronze, which, during their ephemeral youth at least,
are of a perfect contour. The faces, it is true, when they are not
hidden from you by a fold of the veil, are generally disappointing.
The rude labours, the early maternity and lactations, soon age and
wither them. But if by chance you see a young woman she is usually an
apparition of beauty, at once vigorous and slender.
As for the fellah babies, who abound in great numbers and follow, half
naked their mammas or their big sisters, they would for the most part
be adorable little creatures, were it not for the dirtiness which in
this country is a thing almost prescribed by tradition. Round their
eyelids and their moist lips are glued little clusters of Egyptian
flies, which are considered here to be beneficial to the children, and
the latter have no thought of driving them away, so resigned are they
become, by force of heredity, to whatever annoyance they thereby
suffer. Another example indeed of the passivity which their fathers
show when brought face to face with the invading foreigners!
Passivity and meek endurance seem to be the characteristics of this
inoffensive people, so graceful in their rags, so mysterious in their
age-old immobility, and so ready to accept with an equal indifference
whatever yoke may come. Poor, beautiful people, with muscles that
never grow tired! Whose men in olden times moved the great stones of
the temples, and knew no burden that was too heavy; whose women, with
their slender, pale-tawny arms and delicate small hands, surpass by
far in strength the burliest of our peasants!
original plate by Geo Colucci.
Poor beautiful race of
bronze! No doubt it was too precocious and put forth too soon its
astonishing flower--in times when the other peoples of the earth were
till vegetating in obscurity; no doubt its present resignation comes
from lassitude, after so many centuries of effort and expansive power.
Once it monopolised the glory of the world, and here it is now--for
some two thousand years--fallen into a kind of tired sleep, which has
left it an easy prey alike to the conquerors of yesterday and to the
exploiters of to-day.
Another trait which, side by side with their patience, prevails amongst these true-blooded Egyptians of the countryside is their
attachment to the soil, to the soil which nourishes them, and in which
later on they will sleep. To possess land, to forestall at any price
the smallest portion of it, to reclaim patches of it from the shifting
desert, that is the sole aim, or almost so, which the fellahs pursue
in this world: to possess a field, however small it may be--a field,
moreover, which they till with the oldest plough invented by man, the
exact design of which may be seen carved on the walls of the tombs at
And this same people, which was the first of any to conceive
magnificence, whose gods and kings were formerly surrounded with an
over-powering splendour, contrives, to live to-day, pell-mell with its
sheep and goats, in humble, low-roofed cabins made out of sunbaked
mud! The Egyptian villages are all of the neutral colour of the soil;
a little white chalk brightens, perhaps, the minaret or cupola of the
mosque; but except for that little refuge, whither folk come to pray
each evening--for no one here would retire for the night without
having first prostrated himself before the majesty of Allah--
everything is of a mournful grey. Even the costumes of the people are
dull-coloured and wretched-looking. It is an East grown poor and old,
although the sky remains as wonderful as ever.
But all this past grandeur has left its imprint on the fellahs. They
have a refinement of appearance and manner, all unknown amongst the
majority of the good people of our villages. And those amongst them
who by good fortune become prosperous have forthwith a kind of
distinction, and seem to know, as if by birth, how to dispense the
gracious hospitality of an aristocrat. The hospitality of even the
humblest preserves something of courtesy and ease, which tells of
I remember those clear evenings when, after the peaceful
navigation of the day, I used to stop and draw up my dahabiya to the
bank of the river. (I speak now of out-of-the-way places--free as yet
from the canker of the tourist element--such as I habitually chose.)
It was in the twilight at the hour when the stars began to shine out
from the golden-green sky.
As soon as I put foot upon the shore, and
my arrival was signalled by the barking of the watchdogs, the chief of
the nearest hamlet always came to meet me. A dignified man, in a long
robe of striped silk or modest blue cotton, he accosted me with
formulae of welcome quite in the grand manner; insisted on my
following him to his house of dried mud; and there, escorting me,
after the exchange of further compliments, to the place of honour on
the poor divan of his lodging, forced me to accept the traditional cup
of Arab coffee.
To wake these fellahs from their strange sleep, to open their eyes at
last, and to transform them by a modern education--that is the task
which nowadays a select band of Egyptian patriots is desirous of
attempting. Not long ago, such an endeavour would have seemed to me a
crime; for these stubborn peasants were living under conditions of the
least suffering, rich in faith and poor in desire. But to-day they are
suffering from an invasion more undermining, more dangerous than that
of the conquerors who killed by sword and fire. The Occidentals are
there, everywhere, amongst them, profiting by their meek passivity to
turn them into slaves for their business and their pleasure. The work
of degradation of these simpletons is so easy: men bring them new
desires, new greeds, new needs,--and rob them of their prayers.
Yet, it is time perhaps to wake them from their sleep of more than
twenty centuries, to put them on their guard, and to see what yet they
may be capable of, what surprises they may have in store for us after
that long lethargy, which must surely have been restorative. In any
case the human species, in course of deterioration through overstrain,
would find amongst these singers of the shaduf and these laborers
with the antiquated plough, brains unclouded by alcohol, and a whole
reserve of tranquil beauty, of well-balanced physique, of vigour
untainted by bestiality.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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