May 23, 2012

From the Holy Mountain, 1879 | Walking Through Egypt

From the Holy Mountain, 1879
Isabella Bird

Sinai Desert
I was three-quarters of an hour in climbing this peak. For how many years from early childhood upwards, have I thought and dreamed about this mountain top, and have imagined its aspect! It is like and unlike like in absolute desolation, but unlike in its grandeur and majesty. The summit is very small and shivered into boulders, and leaves little space for aught but two rude buildings, and a mosque built out of the ruins of an earlier convent. Beneath the mosque is a cave in which Mahometan tradition says that Moses passed the forty days and forty nights. Quite near is a cleft in the rock to which my Bedaween pointed and said something in Arabic, which I have since learned is the name signifying ‘cleft in the rock’ in which Moses was hid when the glory of God passed by. An empty champagne bottle profaned the summit, and I threw it with indignation over the southern precipice more than a thousand feet in depth. ... I stayed two hours on the top of Jebel Musa, and was loath to leave it, never more while the earth lasts to visit its awful solitudes again. It is worth all the desert heat and dreariness, the raging thirst, the relentless hot wind, the burning glare the many torments of the journey here, and all the prospective misery of the journey back. Apart from all association, it is the grandest mountain view I have ever seen and of mountains of which colours run wild: red, crimson, black, green, orange, brown-grey, blue-grey, all invested with a beauty not to be described by the blue atmosphere which bathed them all, and which carried the enchanted vision over the whole sea of peaks to the south of the peninsula, over deep wadis and reddened levels, to a far distance where the blue horizon was an ocean bluer than the land. Distance meant only a tenderer blue, not outlines less definite; nearness meant depths of violet shadow °f infinite coolness. Everywhere granite, syenite, gneiss, micro-schist, and their varieties of basalt and porphyry, disported themselves in audacious freaks of colour which I dare not attempt to describe, flaming and flaring it would have been but for the softening effect of atmosphere. The huge mountain masses, crowned by the massive single pile ofjebel Serbal and the imposing peaks of jebel Katarina and Jebel Zebur, both over 8500 feet in height, naked, harsh and arid, were all glorified by this exquisite medium, and their rude rocks represented not granite of every kind, but sapphire, ruby, turquoise, aqua-marine, and a whole catalogue of precious stones.

It was completely silent, unutterably lonely, awfully solemn. Every mountain of that wilderness of peaks has the same characteristic of being shivered. In reading their brief recorded history, it did not seem a great stretch of imagination to suppose that their summits were riven when they “trembled at the presence of God”.

The Suez Canal was opened on Tuesday, November 6, 1869 by Ismail, Khedive of Egypt and Eugenie, Empress of France. Thomas Cook took a tour group to witness the great occasion. Isabel, Lady Burton, sailed toward India through the Suez Canal with her husband, Richard. Constance Sitwell too was sailing to India and stood in the bow of the ship in the evening as they went through the Canal after coaling at Port Said.

Passing through Egypt, 1783 
James Capper
The voyage from Tor to Suez may easily be performed in one day with a fair wind, but at any rate in five. Immediately as a ship appears in sight of Suez, a boat is sent on board to enquire the purpose of her coming; and the officer generally brings a present from the Governor consisting of a sheep or two, some small flat cakes of bread, ajar of water, and a small quantity of fruit, particularly oranges, which are juicy and of a very delicate flavour. As the messenger is a man of some rank, it is usual to salute him with coffee, tobacco, sweetmeats, etc. When he returns on shore he will carry a letter for you to any person at Cairo, and it will be forwarded by express the same evening together with an account of your arrival to the principal Bey of Cairo. It would not be prudent to write any secrets in the letter, but you may send instructions concerning your journey, and directions to have a vessel prepared for you at Alexandria.

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