May 9, 2012

Asyut and Explorations

Asyut and Explorations, 1836 
John Lloyd Stephens

Asyut stands about a mile and a half from the river, in one of the richest valleys of the Nile. At the season of inundation, when the river rolls down with all its majesty, the whole intermediate country is overflowed; and boats of the largest size, steering their course over the waste of waters by the projecting tops of the palm-trees, come to anchor under the walls of the city. A high causeway from the river to the city crosses the plain, a comparatively unknown and unnoticed, but stupendous work, which for more than three thousand years has resisted the headlong current of the Nile at its highest, and now stands, like the Pyramids, not so striking, but an equally enduring, and perhaps more really wonderful monument of Egyptian labour.

Asyut
A short distance before reaching the city, on the right, are the handsome palace and garden of Ibrahim Pasha. A stream winds through the valley, crossed by a stone bridge, and over this is the entrance-gate of the city. The governor’s palace, the most imposing and best structure 1 had seen since the Citadel at Cairo, standing first within the walls, seemed like a warder at the door. ... I do not believe that the contents of all the bazaars in Asyut, one of the largest towns in Egypt, were worth as much as the stocks of an ordinary dealer in dry goods in Broadway, New York. But these are not the things for which the traveller stops at Asyut. On the lofty mountains overlooking this richest valley of the Nile, and protecting it from the Libyan Desert, is a long range of tombs, the burial place of the ancient Egyptians; and looking for a moment at the little Mohamedan burying- ground, the traveller turns with wonder from the little city he has left, and asks: “Where is the great city which had its graves in the sides of yonder mountain? Where are the people who despised the earth as a burial-place, and made for themselves tombs in the eternal granite?”

The mountain is about as far from the city as the river, and the approach to it is by another strong causeway over the same beautiful plain. Leaving our donkeys at its foot, and following in the nimble footsteps of my little Arab girl, we climbed by a steep ascent to the first range of tombs. They were the first I had seen, and are but little visited by travellers and though afterward I saw all that were in Egypt, I still consider these well worth a visit. . . . The ceilings were covered with paintings, finished with exquisite taste and delicacy, and in some places fresh as if just executed; and on the halls were hieroglyphics enough to fill volumes. . . .

The back chambers were so dark, and their atmosphere was so unwholesome, that it was unpleasant, and perhaps unsafe, to explore them; if we went in far there was always a loud rushing noise, as if their innermost recesses might now be the abode of wild beasts. Wishing to see what caused the noise, and at the same time to keep out of harm’s way, we stationed ourselves near the back door of the entrance-chamber, and I fired my gun within; a stream of fire lighted up the darkness of the sepulchral chamber, and the report when grumbling and roaring into the innermost recesses, rousing their occupants to frenzy.

Nile River
There was the noise like the rushing of a strong wind; the light was dashed from my companion’s hand; a soft skinny substance struck against my face; and thousands of bats, wild with fright, came whizzing forth from every part of the tomb to the only avenue of escape. We threw ourselves down'and allowed the ugly frightened birds to pass over us, and then hurried out ourselves. For a moment I felt guilty; the beastly birds, driven to the light of day, were dazzled by the glorious sun, and, flying and whirling blindly about, were dashing themselves against the rocky side of the mountain and falling dead at its base.

Many of the travelers were also ‘sportsmen’ and duck shooting and hunting other game was great sport along the river

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