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Isis


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.

two men work a shaduf.
Shaduf

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.

A bull turning a geared waterwheel.
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.

Women, in white gowns, carry water in earthern pots on their heads.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 their burden.

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!

Gracefully women carry water jugs on their heads.
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 Memphis.

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 breed.

An Egyptian man and woman relax in the shade of the Temple of Amun in Thebes.
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.

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