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ALEXANDRIA TO CAIRO.
BY ALBERT SMITH.
Travelling on the Nile is not one continuous poetic dream, when you do not come near any relics of antiquity. If you lose the Overland mail transit steamer, as I did, from being kept in quarantine through a mistake, and have to hire a kandjia to go from Pompey's Pillar to the Pyramids, you must make up your mind to be bored, for five or six days and nights, beyond all endurance.
On Monday morning, the 8th of October, 1849, finding that there would be no steamer for ten days, I determined to get up to Cairo as I could, and went down with my servant (a clever Piedmontese, attached to Rey's Hotel) to the water - side to select a boat. There are many always waiting to be hired here; and we selected one tolerably new and clean, fashioned something like a small city barge, but with two masts, fore and aft, and said to be a good sailer. The reis, or captain, asked four hundred piastres (a little more than four pounds) for the journey, but immediately took two hundred and fifty, with a promise of backsheesh if he and his crew behaved well. All the afternoon we were looking up our stores for the journey, which we packed in the useful, light, palm-wood crates, or cafasses, of Egypt. These consisted of the commonest knives, forks, plates, dishes, and glasses, a clay fireplace, a fryingpan, a coffee-pot, a wool mattress, and the crates full of fowls, eggs, and vegetables.
We had also some luxuries, such as sardines, tea, two dozen of pale ale, and a bottle of cognac.
Giovanni the dragoman added two fine old, long-muzzled, hard-kicking guns; and all these things, being heaped upon a truck, were taken down by a guard of sun-baked, screaming little Arab boys, to the quay. We joined the boat just below Pompey's Pillar, and pushed off from shore about seven in the evening.
Alexandria is connected with the Nile by the Mahmoudieh Canal—a channel between high banks, forty miles long, terminating at the village of Atfeh. The story of the formation of this canal is an oft-told tale, but I suppose I shall not be the last, by many, to relate it. It was excavated by order of Mahomed Ali, and a terrible undertaking it proved. With the impetuosity which distinguished all his acts, he dragged two hundred and fifty thousand of the wretched Egyptian peasantry - men, women, and children — from the villages on the Nile, and set them to work to dig this canal, or rather to scoop it out with their hands, for they had no implements to assist them. The poor creatures had only brought provisions with them for one month's consumption; and Mahomed Ali, determined not to allow them any more when these were gone, kept them at work, under the lashes and pikes of his soldiery, until the blood streamed down their limbs, even of the children of four or five years old. Maddened by pain and famine, they tore up the ground with an energy that only desperation could have given them; and the canal was made, forty miles long, in the incredibly short space of six weeks; but, averaging the accounts of different writers, more than thirty thousand of the labourers perished, in this period, from torture and starvation. The bodies were thrown up with the clay by their fellow-sufferers, and assisted to form the banks; so that the whole of the Mahmoudieh, between Alexandria and Atfeh, may be considered as one huge and ghastly cemetery.
As we pushed off, four of the Arabs — there were seven in the crew, with the captain - sat in pairs on the deck, taking up some boards to drop their feet into, and began to row. They also sang a monotonous chant. The captain gave a word or two, and the others added a refrain : it was to the effect that there was a fair wind, we were travelling famously, and everything was “all right.” The wind was dead against us, and we were just moving : however, the East is said to be all romance.
We occupied the first half-hour of our journey in stowing away our goods. Every time we moved a board or a box, a great black spider scuffled out, and instantaneously disappeared down some favourite crevice; and drawing the wooden blinds of the windows disturbed dozens.
We were not long in getting clear of the crowd of boats that form the “pool” of Alexandria; and then the Arabs left off singing, and began to tow. When they met with another kandjia, or came to two or three moored against the shore, they threw off their long blue shirts, and plunged into the canal, swimming dog.fashion, or throwing out their arms alternately, until they had carried the rope round; and then they went on again. There was nothing to see during this part of the journey: one might as well have travelled in a railway cutting of dry dusky mud. About half-past nine the sail went up, on turning a corner, and then we began to move; and, not being particularly amused, I “ turned in,” in nautical phrase, which consisted in taking off my coat and lying down upon a thin mattress placed on a broad shelf; and then I dozed for about two hours. I was waked up at midnight by the intense stifling heat, and, looking up to the window, I saw a rat, larger than an average-sized kitten, perched on the sill immediately over my head. He did not move when I sat up, and I had nothing to throw at him but my boots; so I pulled up the blind very suddenly, and thus frightened him so that he leapt into the
water. And now a nuisance far more irritating arose : the mosquitoes came in such legions that I was nearly eaten alive. Clothes appeared to be no protection ; and when I got up at last, half mad, and went and sat upon deck, they attacked me with tenfold spite. The moon was shining with a brightness I had never witnessed in England; and, in its light, the deck and cabins appeared swarming with horrible things,-cockroaches, beetles, spiders, and centipedes. Any more sleep was out of the question; and I sat upon a crate until morning, when the greater part of these abominations shrunk from the heavy fog into their fastnesses, and then I tried to get a little more sleep.
Tuesday, 9th. A dead calm, and the boat made very little way. The high, dingy banks still continued; and I was glad when Giovanni contrived, from his rude kitchen, to turn out a wonderful breakfast of cutlets, fowl, and rice, potatoes, toast, and coffee. A wild dog, having smelt the cooking, followed us for miles ; but, with the exception of a boy on a ragged camel, he was the only living thing we saw on the banks for three or four hours. The crew still threw off their clothes and tumbled into the canal on the least occasion, but were singularly quiet; they did not appear to speak to one another all day long. I occupied myself in fitting up my cabin, driving pegs into the cracks to hang my watch, looking-glass, lantern, and “housewife” on, and running down the spiders, until two o'clock, when we passed some trees and arrived at Atfeh. This was a village of mud huts, on either side of the canal, thatched with grass and fodder, without windows, but having irregular holes for the inmates to crawl in and out. Some had round mud towers built on them, swarming with pigeons. Half-naked women, and children entirely so, were selling coarse bread, under huge umbrellas ; Arabs were idling about in the dust and sun, which they seemed to prefer; and there was a complete “jam” of the most incomprehensible boats I ever saw, of which all the crews were screaming and swearing at the top of their voices, banging one another with poles, breaking each other's rigging, or going coolly down to prayers in the middle of all the uproar. We had to wait more than two hours for some sort of passport, and, at last, got clear of the entangled thicket of boats, and, passing through the locks, swung out into the Nile.
I could see nothing ahead, astern, or around, but one boundless rapid current of reddish, clay-coloured water, for the inundation was scarcely subsiding ; but the expanse was a great relief after the confined, pestilent canal. The stream was so strong that, before we got up our sails, we were carried a long way down. However, there was a brisk north wind, and we soon began to rush through the water. Opposite to Atfeh we passed Fooah, a town with minarets and domes, which looked well in the afternoon haze, rising as it were from a mighty lake. Here the country got very desolate again, with a flat Essexmarsh sort of look-out on either side; and at dark the wind fell, and we pulled up under a bank for the night, if necessary. One advantage over yesterday was, that we had got rid of the mosquitoes. There were several ordinary gnats and flies, but I set a trap for them with great effect ; this was very simple, and was formed by opening the door of the lantern, and hanging it near an open window: in the morning the bottom was half an inch deep in semi-consumed corpses.
Wednesday, 10th. I found, on awaking, that we had been creeping on, almost imperceptibly, nearly all night; and at six in the morning we were nearly thirty miles above Atfeh. As the Arabs tumbled into the water, upon the kandjia running aground, I tumbled in too, and had a good long swim. It was utterly contemptible, however, trying to compete with them : they shot through the water like wager-boats. All day we kept gliding on, passing many more villages of mud houses, looking