May 3, 2012

By Train to Cairo

By Train to Cairo, 1883 
Gabriel Charmes

I return to Alexandria, to take the train there which is to conduct me to Cairo. Hardly have we crossed the Lake Mareotis, where are produced on fine days the most fairy-like mirages, when we find ourselves really in Egypt. Vast plains, richly cultivated, spread out on all sides as far as the horizon, not closed by a single hill. Canals intersect them everywhere. On the banks of these canals, fellah, with or without costume, raise water by means of a chadouf and nattaleh.

Train to Cairo
The shelving banks serve for roads, and a considerable crowd may be seen there moving on. Sometimes it is an Arab who is fleeing on horseback at full gallop; sometimes a fellah walking slowly, leaning on a long staff; sometimes a woman covered with a black veil, her head bearing a heavy burthen, which does not hinder her from carrying on her raised hand a gargoulette filled with water, and holding a naked child astride her shoulders. A file of camels, with the head of each tied to the tail of the one that precedes, moves on solemnly. Black buffaloes graze in the fields on the giant trefoil called bersim. A child watches them while a flock of herons fly around them, and pitch, without ceremony, on their hardened backs.

A series of towns and villages are met with: Damanhour, which the soldiers in Bonaparte’s expedition imagined to be a city of the Thousand and One Nights, Tel-el-Barout, Kafr-el-Zaiat, Tantah, whose fair recalls the most scandalous saturnalia of antiquity, etc.

The wide river rolls its yellow waves under a sky of azure through an endless plain covered with the richest products. The temperature changes abruptly; it becomes sensibly warmer; now, we indeed enter Egypt.

By degrees the valley gets narrower; the yellow line of the desert appears; the Pyramids, rose tinted in the morning light, rise in the horizon; at last the mosque of Mehemet Ali, which commands Cairo, lifts its cupola and two-pointed minarets on the summit of the hill of Mokkatam. A forest of cupolas and minarets rise everywhere. We are arrived.

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