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- IN THE HEART OF AFRICA - 3/42 -
Mahomet! D--n Mahomet! I wish he were dead, or back in Cairo, this brute Mahomet!" The irascible dragoman would then beat his own head unmercifully with his fists, in a paroxysm of rage.
To comfort him I could only exclaim, "Well done, Mahomet! thrash him; pommel him well; punch his head; you know him best; he deserves it; don't spare him!" This advice, acting upon the natural perversity of his disposition, generally soothed him, and he ceased punching his head. This man was entirely out of his place, if not out of his mind, at certain moments, and having upon one occasion smashed a basin by throwing it in the face of the cook, and upon another occasion narrowly escaped homicide by throwing an axe at a man's head, which missed by an inch, he became a notorious character in the little expedition.
We left Berber in the evening, and about two hours after sunset of the following day reached the junction of the Nile and Atbara. The latter presented a curious appearance. In no place was it less than four hundred yards in width, and in many places much wider. The banks were from twenty-five to thirty feet deep, and had evidently been overflowed during floods; but now the river bed was dry sand, so glaring that the sun's reflection was almost intolerable. The only shade was afforded by the evergreen dome palms; nevertheless the Arabs occupied the banks at intervals of three or four miles, wherever a pool of water in some deep bend of the dried river's bed offered an attraction. In such places were Arab villages or camps, of the usual mat tents formed of the dome- palm leaves.
Many pools were of considerable size and of great depth. In flood-time a tremendous torrent sweeps down the course of the Atbara, and the sudden bends of the river are hollowed out by the force of the stream to a depth of twenty or thirty feet below the level of the bed. Accordingly these holes become reservoirs of water when the river is otherwise exhausted. In such asylums all the usual inhabitants of this large river are crowded together in a comparatively narrow space. Although these pools vary in size, from only a few hundred yards to a mile in length, they are positively full of life; huge fish, crocodiles of immense size, turtles, and occasionally hippopotami, consort together in close and unwished-for proximity. The animals of the desert-- gazelles, hyenas, and wild asses--are compelled to resort to these crowded drinking-places, occupied by the flocks of the Arabs equally with the timid beasts of the chase. The birds that during the cooler months would wander free throughout the country are now collected in vast numbers along the margin of the exhausted river; innumerable doves, varying in species, throng the trees and seek the shade of the dome-palms; thousands of desert grouse arrive morning and evening to drink and to depart; while birds in multitudes, of lovely plumage, escape from the burning desert and colonize the poor but welcome bushes that fringe the Atbara River.
After several days' journey along the bank of the Atbara we halted at a spot called Collodabad, about one hundred and sixty miles from the Nile junction. A sharp bend of the river had left a deep pool about a mile in length, and here a number of Arabs were congregated, with their flocks and herds.
On the evening of June 23d I was lying half asleep upon my bed by the margin of the river, when I fancied that I heard a rumbling like distant thunder. I had not heard such a sound for months, but a low, uninterrupted roll appeared to increase in volume, although far distant. Hardly had I raised my head to listen more attentively when a confusion of voices arose from the Arabs' camp, with a sound of many feet, and in a few minutes they rushed into my camp, shouting to my men in the darkness, "El Bahr! El Bahr!" (the river! the river!)
We were up in an instant, and my interpreter, Mahomet, in a state of intense confusion, explained that the river was coming down, and that the supposed distant thunder was the roar of approaching water.
Many of the people were asleep on the clean sand on the river's bed; these were quickly awakened by the Arabs, who rushed down the steep bank to save the skulls of two hippopotami that were exposed to dry. Hardly had they descended when the sound of the river in the darkness beneath told us that the water had arrived, and the men, dripping with wet, had just sufficient time to drag their heavy burdens up the bank.
All was darkness and confusion, everybody talking and no one listening; but the great event had occurred; the river had arrived "like a thief in the night". On the morning of the 24th of June, I stood on the banks of the noble Atbara River at the break of day. The wonder of the desert! Yesterday there was a barren sheet of glaring sand, with a fringe of withered bushes and trees upon its borders, that cut the yellow expanse of desert. For days we had journeyed along the exhausted bed; all Nature, even in Nature's poverty, was most poor: no bush could boast a leaf, no tree could throw a shade, crisp gums crackled upon the stems of the mimosas, the sap dried upon the burst bark, sprung with the withering heat of the simoom. In one night there was a mysterious change. Wonders of the mighty Nile! An army of water was hastening to the wasted river. There was no drop of rain, no thunder-cloud on the horizon to give hope. All had been dry and sultry, dust and desolation yesterday; to-day a magnificent stream, some five hundred yards in width and from fifteen to twenty feet in depth, flowed through the dreary desert! Bamboos and reeds, with trash of all kinds, were hurried along the muddy waters. Where were all the crowded inhabitants of the pool? The prison doors were broken, the prisoners were released, and rejoiced in the mighty stream of the Atbara.
The 24th of June, 1861, was a memorable day. Although this was actually the beginning of my work, I felt that by the experience of this night I had obtained a clew to one portion of the Nile mystery, and that, as "coming events cast their shadows before," this sudden creation of a river was but the shadow of the great cause. The rains were pouring in Abyssinia! THESE WERE SOURCES OF THE NILE!
The journey along the margin of the Atbara was similar to the route from Berber, through a vast desert, with a narrow band of trees that marked the course of the river. The only change was the magical growth of the leaves, which burst hourly from the swollen buds of the mimosas. This could be accounted for by the sudden arrival of the river, as the water percolated rapidly through the sand and nourished the famishing roots.
At Gozerajup, two hundred and forty-six miles from Berber, our route was changed. We had hitherto followed the course of the Atbara, but we were now to leave that river on our right, while we travelled about ninety miles south-east to Cassala, the capital of the Taka country, on the confines of Abyssinia, and the great depot for Egyptian troops.
The entire country from Gozerajup to Cassala is a dead flat, upon which there is not one tree sufficiently large to shade a full-sized tent. There is no real timber in the country; but the vast level extent of soil is a series of open plains and low bush of thorny mimosa. There is no drainage upon this perfect level; thus, during the rainy season, the soakage actually melts the soil, and forms deep holes throughout the country, which then becomes an impenetrable slough, bearing grass and jungle. No sooner had we arrived in the flooded country than my wife was seized with a sudden and severe fever, which necessitated a halt upon the march, as she could no longer sit upon her camel. In the evening several hundreds of Arabs arrived and encamped around our fire. It was shortly after sunset, and it was interesting to watch the extreme rapidity with which these swarthy sons of the desert pitched their camp. A hundred fires were quickly blazing; the women prepared the food, and children sat in clusters around the blaze, as all were wet from paddling through the puddled ground from which they were retreating.
No sooner was the bustle of arrangement completed than a gray old man stepped forward, and, responding to his call, every man of the hundreds present formed in line, three or four deep. At once there was total silence, disturbed only by the crackling of the fires or by the cry of a child; and with faces turned to the east, in attitudes of profound devotion, the wild but fervent followers of Mahomet repeated their evening prayer. The flickering red light of the fires illumined the bronze faces of the congregation, and as I stood before the front line of devotees, I tools off my cap in respect for their faith, and at the close of their prayer made my salaam to their venerable Faky (priest); he returned the salutation with the cold dignity of an Arab.
On the next day my wife's fever was renewed, but she was placed on a dromedary and we reached Cassala about sunset. The place is rich in hyenas, and the night was passed in the discordant howling of these disgusting but useful animals. They are the scavengers of the country, devouring every species of filth and clearing all carrion from the earth. Without the hyenas and vultures the neighborhood of a Nubian village would be unbearable. It is the idle custom of the people to leave unburied all animals that die; thus, among the numerous flocks and herds, the casualties would create a pestilence were it not for the birds and beasts of prey.
On the following morning the fever had yielded to quinine, and we were enabled to receive a round of visits --the governor and suite, Elias Bey, the doctor and a friend, and, lastly, Malem Georgis, an elderly Greek merchant, who, with great hospitality, insisted upon our quitting the sultry tent and sharing his own roof. We therefore became his guests in a most comfortable house for some days. Here we discharged our camels, as our Turk, Hadji Achmet's, service ended at this point, and proceeded to start afresh for the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia.
Egypt's rule of the Soudan--Corn-grinding in the Soudan--Mahomet meets relatives--The parent of Egypt--El Baggar rides the camel.
Cassala was built about twenty years before I visited the country, after Taka had been conquered and annexed to Egypt. The general annexation of the Soudan and tile submission of the numerous Arab tribes to the Viceroy have been the first steps necessary to the improvement of the country. Although the Egyptians are hard masters, and do not trouble themselves about the future well-being of the conquered races, it must be remembered that, prior to the annexation, all the tribes were at war among themselves. There was neither government nor law; thus the whole country was closed to Europeans. At the time of my visit to Cassala in 1861 the Arab tribes were separately governed by their own chiefs or sheiks, who were responsible to the Egyptian authorities for the taxes due from their people. Since that period the entire tribes of all denominations have been placed under the authority of that grand old Arab patriarch, Achmet Abou Sinn, to be hereafter mentioned. The iron hand of despotism has produced a marvellous change among the Arabs, who are rendered utterly powerless by the system of government adopted by the Egyptians; unfortunately, this harsh system has the effect of paralyzing all industry.
The principal object of Turks and Egyptians in annexation is to increase their power of taxation by gaining an additional number of subjects. Thus, although many advantages have accrued to the Arab provinces of Nubia through Egyptian rule, there exists very much mistrust between the governed and the governing. Not only are the camels, cattle, and sheep subjected to a tax, but every attempt at cultivation is thwarted by the authorities, who impose a fine or tax upon the superficial area of the cultivated land. Thus, no one will cultivate more than is absolutely necessary, as he dreads the difficulties that broad acres of waving
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