May 19, 2012

At the Second Cataract, 1927 | Walking Through Egypt

At the Second Cataract, 1927
Constance Sitwell


The naked black boys run panting across the sand and up the slope toward us. They have been swimming and shooting the rapids of the second cataract, and now, having each been given a coin, they fling themselves down for a rest.

I, too, lie outstretched in a patch of shade on the top of a great rock that stands high above the surrounding country. Jim and Philip, their eyes shut, are resting in the shadow of another ledge. We made our start many hours ago, at break of dawn, to avoid the heat of the day. For part of the way our boatman rowed, and sometimes they had to tow the boat along, but there were spells when they could sit and sing while the boat beat its way up the river under sail. At last we reached these curious rocks sticking up out of the broad flood that swirls around them black rocks, rounded and glistening like gigantic lumps of coal.

From my place here I can see our boat tied up to the bank far below; it is gaily bedecked with flags, and at the top of the mast one long pennon with the star and crescent hangs limp in the lifeless air. On deck lies a dog, asleep, with lolling tongue. As far as I can see the Nubian crew, squatting on the shore, are still as busy as ever talking. Their voices do not reach me, but I can see their gesticulations. So dead black is their skin that they look as if they had been rubbed over with blacklead and then polished like a grate; their hair is glistening with castor oil. They talk and talk, but here there is silence except for the far-off sound of the water rushing, leaping and dashing amongst the rocks.

I have to shut my eyes at last because of the glare, and when I open them again it is to watch a beetle crawling over the glittering flakes of stone. It is a shiny and fantastic creature with glassy wings and a silver body spotted with bronze. It moves slowly among a host of ants that are hurrying in and out between the hot boulders. Idly I look at them and their setdement full of stirs; ant jostles ant in the narrow ways, and they are all black as black as those Nubian boatmen down below. Here is a city of Ethiopians a miniature city that with one brush of my hand I could sweep way. Ethiopia! How rich and hot the name sounds; but it tells of a glory which is fled. . . .

Ethiopia lies there before me; on one side of the Nile its sand is ashen grey, on the other a tawny gold. And this terrible waterless desert stretches away eastward to the coast; beyond there heaves the Red Sea. Southward and eastward it shimmers in the heat-haze, and somewhere beyond the horizon there roam dapple giraffes fairy-tale creatures with velvety skins and liquid eyes. I wonder, are they frightened of the lions? The Kings of Ethiopia used to hunt with lions. . . . Kings with lions at their side! Ethiopia, once great, your glory has indeed been swept away! Where are the emeralds and the gold, where are the gums, and resins, and fragrant woods that once you poured forth? How long ago is it since travelling companies of tall merchantmen brought their riches to Egypt over these blazing sands their white ivory, white wool and white ostrich plumes, their ebony and slaves like ebony. Bunched feathers of bright colours, and small bewildered Negro boys were offered to the great ladies of Thebes and Heliopolis.

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