June 5, 2012

Into the Desert to the Oasis and Beyond | Egyptian Deserts

Into the Desert to the Oasis and Beyond, 1834
Mohammed Ibn Umar

Oasis and Beyond
When the camels were at length laden, we struck into the desert, and on the evening of the fifth day reached Khaijeh, the Theban oasis. This place is planted with date-trees that surround it as the anklets surround the ankles, or as the two arms of a lover surround the neck of his mistress, on whom he sheds a kiss. These date-trees were laden with splendid dates, the aspect of which charmed our eyes, and which were exceedingly cheap. We remained there five days; but on the morning of the sixth preceded, and, after hard travelling, on the third day reached Abyrys. This country has been ruined by the exactions of its governors; all its population, formerly so happy, is now dispersed; the date-trees are destroyed, and all the brilliance of the scenery has been tarnished.

After two days of rest we pushed on two other days to Boulac, a country also desolated, and nearly without inhabitants. Most of its houses are ruined. What surprised me was the extreme smallness of the date-trees, under which we could lie and pick the fruit with our hands. The name of Boulac recalled to me the Boulac of Cairo, and some natural tears fell from my eyes as I thought of the place where I had been brought up.

But there is little time for regret in the desert. We pushed on hastily and arrived in the evening at Maks, to which this verse may be applied: “The country has no inhabitants except the gazelles and caravans that traverse it.” It is related that Maks had formerly a large population, which perished by the hand of Him who destroyed the last eagle of Lockman; all the inhabitants have disappeared not a man is left. Scarcely at present remain there a few trees, some tamarisks, and thorny bushes. We tarried there two days, and having filled our water skins, departed.

We now entered a desert completely arid. For five days we marched through silent solitudes, over grim plains, where here and there the wandering eye could scarcely discover some stunted plants of the same colour as the ground; there was not a tree to cast a hand’s-breadth of shadow. During this part of the journey we were compelled to cook our food with the dry dung of camels, which the servants collected.

On the evening of the fifth day we reached a place called Es-Shebb, situated in the midst of mountains that seemed like vast cones of sand. An unpleasant wind blew over them; but we remained there two days to rest, and then went on again for four more, until we reached the wells of Selineh, near which are the ruins of ancient buildings. It is situated at the foot of a mountain which bears the same name. We remained there two days to rest. This place is a delightful one for the traveller; but that which astonished me chiefly was that the young men of the caravan, having ascended the mountain, struck certain blocks of stone with switches, and caused them to yield a sound exactly resembling that of a tambourine. The cause of this curious circumstance is unknown. Are there hollows in these stones, or are they placed over caverns? Glory be to God, who knows the truth! At any rate the people of the caravan told me that, on a certain night, which they specified the night of Friday, I believe there is heard from the mountain the playing of a tambourine, as if a marriage festival were going on. The origin of these nocturnal musical entertainments is also unknown.

On the third day we filled our water-skins, and leaving Selineh entered upon the desert, and having travelled for five whole days, during which we met a caravan of Amaim Arabs coming from the natron lakes, reached Laguyeh, where we again rested two days and departed for Zaghawy. We now met a courier, mounted on a dromedary, coming from Darfur, and announcing the death of the just and glorious prince, Sultan Abd-er-Rahman-er-Rashid, sovereign of Darfur and its dependent provinces. The courier was going to Cairo to renew the state seal, no one in that country being capable of engraving it. The caravan testified its grief at this melancholy news; all feared that some disturbance might arise in the country, for the Sultan who had just died was an equitable and generous prince, loving science and those who possessed it, and the declared enemy of ignorance.

We continued our route for five days more, when at length our camels knelt at the natron lakes of Zaghawy. From thence to the frontiers of Darfur there are still ten days of travel, making forty days in all. We remained at this place eleven days, pasturing our beasts of burthen in order to prepare them for the frightful desert before us. Some camels were slaughtered at this station, and their flesh was distributed to the caravan. There came to us some Bedawin Arabs of Darfur who offered for sale camel-milk and butter. They had come to fetch salt and natron from that place.

We now sent forward a courier mounted on a dromedary, with letters for the government, and others for the relations of the caravan folks, announcing our speedy arrival. I also wrote to my father, kissing his venerable hands, and relating how Achmet Bedawi had cared for me. Indeed I had reason to be thankful; of all the journeys I had ever performed this was the pleasantest; for so soon as we quitted Beni-Ady my protector ordered his slaves to prepare for me a kind of tent on a quiet camel, and he himself assisted me to mount, and held the bridle until I was settled in my seat. He gave me, also, a great leathern bottle, to hold water, and bade all his servitors to be at my beck and call. He had with him seven middle- aged slaves and one young one, eight hired domestics, and sixty-eight camels. With him were five concubines, and a sixth woman who was his cousin, Sitti Jamal of ravishing beauty. He had also a black Dongola horse, with a saddle of green velvet.

Achmet treated me with all the kindness of a father. When the caravan halted I used to doze away, fatigued by the swinging of the camel and the heat of the sun; he would allow me to sleep until the hour of supper arrived, when he would wake me gently and bring me water, that I might wash. At meals he guided my hand to the dish, and sometimes put the morsels into my mouth.

When we left the wells of Zaghawy we marched for ten days hastily, starting before dawn and trenching on the night. On the eleventh morning we came to Mazroob, a well situated on the confines of Darfur, and in a few hours the Arabs came down to us, bringing large skins of water and little skins full of milk. We congratulated ourselves on the happy termination of our journey, and solaced ourselves at the well during the whole of that day.

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