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Charles Dudley Warner:
Up the Cataracts of the Nile, 1875

AT twelve o'clock we are ready to push off. The wind is strong from the north. The cataract men swarm on board, two or three sheikhs and thirty or forty men. They take command and possession of the vessel, and our reïs and crew give way. We have carefully closed the windows and blinds of our boat, for the cataract men are reputed to have long arms and fingers that crook easily. The Nubians run about like cats; four are at the helm, some are on the bow, all are talking and giving orders; there is an indescribable bustle and whirl as our boat is shoved off from the sand, with the chorus ot "Ha! Yalesah. Ha! Yalesah!" and takes the current. The great sail, shaped like a bird's wing, and a hundred feet long, is shaken out forward, and we pass swiftly on our way between the granite walls. The excited howadji are on deck feeling to their finger ends the thrill of expectancy.

The first thing the Nubians want is something to eat---a chronic complaint here in this land of romance. Squatting in circles all over the boat they dip their hands into the bowls of softened bread, cramming the food down their throats, and swallow all the coffee that call be made for them, with the gusto and appetite of simple men who have a stomach and no conscience. While the Nubians are chattering and eating, we are gliding up the swift stream, the granite rocks opening a passage for us; but at the end of it our way seems to be barred. The only visible opening is on the extreme left, where a small stream struggles through the boulders. While we are wondering if that can be our course, the helm is suddenly put hard about, and we then shoot to the right, finding our way amid whirlpools and boulders of granite, past the head of Elephantine Island; and before we have recovered from this surprise we turn sharply to the left into a narrow passage, and the cataract is before us.

It is not at all what we have expected. In appearance this is a cataract without any falls and scarcely any rapids. A person brought up on Niagara or Montmorency feels himself trifled with here. The fisherman in the mountain streams of America has come upon many a scene that resembles this---a river-bed strewn with boulders. Only, this is on a grand scale. We had been led to expect at least high precipices, walls of lofty rock, between which we should sail in the midst of raging rapids and falls; and that there would be hundreds of savages on the rocks above dragging our boat with cables, and occasionally plunging into the torrent in order to carry a life-line to the top of some seagirt rock. But of this we did not see; but yet we have more respect of the cataract before we get through it than when it it came in sight.

What we see immediately before us is a basin, it may be a quarter of a mile, it may be half a mile broad, and two miles long; a wild expanse of broken granite rocks and boulders strewn haphazard, some of them showing the red of the syenite and others black and polished and shining in the sun; a field of rocks, none of them high, of fantastic shapes; and through this field the river breaksin a hundred twisting passages and chutes, all apparently small, but the water in them is foaming and leaping and flashing white; and the air begins to be pervaded by the multitudinous roar of rapids. On the east, the side of the land-passage between Aswan and Philae, were high and jagged rocks in odd forms, now and then a palm tree, and here and there a mud-village. On the west the basin of the cataract is hemmed in by the desert hills, and the yellow Libyan sand drifts over them in shining waves and rifts, which in some lights have the almost maroon color that we see in Gerome's pictures. To the south is an impassable barrier of granite and sand---mountains of them---beyond the glistening fields of rocks and water through which we are to find our way.

The difficulty of this navigation is not one cataract to be overcome by one heroic effort, but a hundred little cataracts or swift tortuous sluice-ways, which are much more formidable when we get into them than they are when seen at a distance. The dahabeahs which attempt to wind through them are in constant danger of having holes knocked in their hulls by the rocks. The wind is strong and we are sailing swiftly on. It is impossible to tell which one of the half-dozen equally uninviting channels we are to take. We guess, and of course point out the wrong one. We approach, with sails still set, a narrow passage through which the water pours in what is a very respectable torrent; but it is not a straight passage, it has a bend in it; if we get through it, we must make a sharp turn to the left or run upon a ridge of rocks, and even then we shall be in a boiling surge; and if we fail to make head against the current we shall go whirling down the cauldron, bumping on the rocks---not a pleasant thing for a dahabeah one hundred and twenty feet long with a cabin in it as large as a hotel. The passage of a boat of this size is evidently an event of some interest to the cataract people, for we see groups of them watching us from the rocks, and following along the shore. And we think that seeing our boat go up from the shore might be the best way of seeing it.

We draw slowly in, the boat trembling at the entrance of the swift water; it enters, nosing the current, feeling the tug of the sail, and hesitates. Oh, for a strong puff of wind! There are five watchful men at the helm; there is a moment's silence, and the boat still hesitates. At this critical instant, while we hold our breath, a naked man, whose name I am sorry I cannot give to an admiring American public, appears on the bow with a rope in his teeth; he plunges in and makes for the nearest rock. He swims hand over hand, swinging his arms from the shoulders out of water and striking them forward splashing along like a side-wheeler---the common way of swimming in the heavy water of the Nile. Two other black figures follow him and the rope is made last to the point of the rock. We have something to hold us against the stream.

And now a terrible tumult arises on board the boat which is seen to be covered with men; one gang is hauling on the rope to draw the great sail close to its work; another gang is hauling on the rope attached to the rock, and both are singing that wild chanting chorus without which no Egyptian sailors pull an ounce or lift a pound; the men who are not pulling are shouting and giving orders; the sheikhs, on the upper deck where we sit with American serenity exaggerated amid the Babel, are jumping up and down in a frenzy of excitement, screaming and gesticulating. We hold our own; we gain a little; we pull forward where the danger of a smash against the rocks is increased. More men appear on the rocks, whom we take to be spectators of our passage. No; they lay hold of the rope. With the additional help we still tremble in the jaws of the pass. I walk aft, and the stern is almost upon the rocks; it grazes them; but in the nick of time the bow swings round, we turn short off into an eddy; the great wing of a sail is let go, and our cat-like sailors are aloft, crawling along the slender yard, which is a hundred feet in length, and furling the tugging canvas. We breathe more freely, for the first danger is over. The first gate is passed.

In this lull there is a confab with the sheikhs. We are at the island of Sehayl, and have accomplished what is usually the first day's journey of boats. It would be in harmony with the Oriental habit to stop here for the remainder of the day and the night. But our dragoman has in mind to accomplish, if not the impossible, what is synonymous with it in the East, the unusual. The result of the inflammatory stump-speeches on both sides is that two or three gold pieces are passed into the pliant hand of the head sheikh, and he sends for another sheikh and more men.

For some time we have been attended by increasing processions of men and boys on shore: they cheered us as we passed the first rapid; they came out from the villages, from the crevices of the rocks, their blue and white gowns flowing in the wind, and make a sort of holiday of our passage. Less conspicuous at first are those without gowns---they are hardly distinguishable from the black rocks amid which they move. As we lie here, with the rising roar of the rapids in our ears, we can see no further opening for our passage. But we are preparing to go on. Ropes are carried out forward over the rocks. More men appear, to aid us. We said there were fifty. We count seventy; we count eighty; there are at least ninety. They come up by a sort of magic. From whence are they, these black forms? They seem to grow out of the rocks at the wave of the sheikh's hand; they are of the same color, shining men of granite. The swimmers and divers are simply smooth statues hewn out of the syenite or the basalt. They are not unbaked clay like the rest of us. One expects to see them disappear like stones when they jump into the water. The mode of our navigation is to draw the boat along, hugged close to the shore rocks, so closely that the current cannot get full hold of it, and thus to work it round the bends.

We are crawling slowly on in this manner, clinging to the rocks, when unexpectedly a passage opens to the left. The water before us runs like a millrace. If we enter it, nothing would seem to be able to hold the boat from dashing down amidst the breakers. But the bow is hardly let to feel the current before it is pulled short round, and we are swinging in the swift stream. Before we know it we are in the anxiety of another tug. Suppose the rope should break! In an instant the black swimmers are overboard striking out for the rocks; two ropes are sent out, and secured; and, the gangs hauling on them, we are working inch by inch through, everybody on board trembling with excitement. We look at our watches; it seems only fifteen minutes since we left Aswan; it is an hour and a quarter. Do we gain in the chute? It is difficult to say; the boat hangs back and strains at the cables; but just as we are in the pinch of doubt, the big sail unfurls its wing with exciting suddenness, a strong gust catches it, we feel the lift, and creep upward, amid an infernal din of singing and shouting and calling on the Prophet from the gangs who haul in the sail-rope, who tug at the cables attached to the rocks, who are pulling at the hawsers on the shore. We forge ahead and are about to dash into a boiling caldron before us, from which there appears to be no escape, when a skillful turn of the great creaking helm once more throws us to the left, and we are again in an eddy with the stream whirling by us, and the sail is let go and is furled.

The place where we lie is barely long enough to admit our boat; its stern just clears the rocks, its bow is aground on hard sand. The number of men and boys on the rocks has increased; it is over one hundred, it is one hundred and thirty; on a re-count it is one hundred and fifty. An anchor is now carried out to hold us in position when we make a new start; more ropes are taken to the shore, two hitched to the bow and one to the stern. Straight before us is a narrow passage through which the water comes in foaming ridges with extraordinary rapidity. It seems to be our way; but of course it is not. We are to turn the corner sharply, before reaching it; what will happen then we shall see.

There is a slight lull in the excitement, while the extra hawsers are got out and preparations are made for the next struggle. The sheikhs light their long pipes, and squatting on deck gravely wait. The men who have tobacco roll up cigarettes and smoke them. The swimmers come on board for reinforcement. The poor fellows are shivering as if they had an ague fit. The Nile may be friendly, though it does not offer a warm bath at this time of the year, but when they come out of it naked on the rocks the cold north wind sets their white teeth chattering. The dragoman brings out a bottle of brandy. It is none of your ordinary brandy, but must have cost over a dollar a gallon, and would burn a hole in a new piece of cotton cloth. He pours out a tumblerful of it, and offers it to one of the granite men. The granite man pours it down his throat in one flow, without moving an eye winker, and holds the glass out for another. His throat must be lined with zinc. A second tumblerful follows the first. It is like pouring liquor into a brazen image.

I said there was a lull, but this is only in contrast to the preceding fury. There is still noise enough, over and above the roar of the waters, in the preparations going forward, the din of a hundred people screaming together, each one giving orders, and elaborating his opinion by a rhetorical use of his hands. The waiting crowd scattered over the rocks disposes itself picturesquely, as an Arab crowd always does, and probably cannot help doing, in its blue and white gowns and white turbans. In the midst of these preparations, and unmindful of any excitement or confusion, a sheikh, standing upon a little square of sand amid the rocks, and so close to the deck of the boat that we can hear his "Allah Akbar" (God is most Great), begins his kneelings and prostrations towards Mecca, and continues at his prayers, as undisturbed and as unregarded as if he were in a mosque, and wholly oblivious of the Babel around him. So common has religion become in this land of its origin! Here is a half-clad Sheikh of the desert stopping, in the midst of his contract to take the howadji up the cataract, to raise his forefinger and say, "I testify that there is no deity but God; and I testify that Moharnmed is his servant and his apostle."

Judging by the eye, the double turn we have next to make is too short to admit our long hull. It does not seem possible that we can squeeze through; but we try. We first swing out and take the current as if we were going straight up the rapids. We are held by two ropes from the stern, while by four ropes from the bow, three on the left shore and one on an islet to the right, the cataract people are tugging to draw us up. As we watch almost breathless the strain on the ropes, look! there is a man in the tumultuous rapid before us swiftly coming down as if to his destruction. Another one follows, and then another, till there are half a dozen men and boys in this jeopardy, this situation of certain death to anybody not made of cork. And the singular thing about it is that the men are seated upright, sliding down the shining water like a boy, who has no respect for his trousers, down a snow-bank. As they dash past us, we see that each man is seated on a round log about five feet long; some of them sit upright with their legs on the log, displaying the soles of their feet, keeping the equilibrium with their hands. These are smooth slimy logs that a white man would find it difficult to sit on if they were on shore, and in this water they would turn with him only once---the log would go one way and the man another. But these fellows are in no fear of the rocks below; they easily guide their barks out of the rushing floods, through the whirlpools and eddies, into the slack shore-water in the rear of the boat, and stand up like men and demand backsheesh. These logs are popular ferryboats in the Upper Nile; I have seen a woman crossing the river on one, her clothes in a basket and the basket on her head---and the Nile is nowhere an easy stream to swim.

Far ahead of us the cataract people are seen in lines and groups, half-hidden by the rocks, pulling and stumbling along; black figures are scattered along lifting the ropes over the jagged stones, and freeing them so that we shall not be drawn back, as we slowly advance; and severe as their toil is, it is not enough to keep them warm when the chilly wind strikes them. They get bruised on the rocks also, and have time to show us their barked shins and request backsheesh. An Egyptian is never too busy or too much in peril to forget to prefer that request at the sight of a traveler. When we turn into the double twist I spoke of above, the bow goes sideways upon a rock, and the stern is not yet free. The punt-poles are brought into requisition; half the men are in the water; there is poling and pushing and grunting, heaving, and "Yah Mohammed, Yah Mohammed," with all which noise and outlay of brute strength, the boat moves a little on and still is held close in hand. The current runs very swiftly. We have to turn almost by a right angle to the left and then by the same angle to the right; and the question is whether the boat is not too long to turn in the space. We just scrape along the rocks, the current growing every moment stronger, and at length get far enough to let the stern swing. I run back to see if it will go free. It is a close fit. The stern is clear; but if our boat had been four or five feet longer, her voyage would have ended then and there. There is now before us a straight pull up the swiftest and narrowest rapid we have thus far encountered.

Our sandal---the rowboat belonging to the dahabeah that becomes a felucca when a mast is stepped into it---which has accompanied us fitfully during the passage, appearing here and there tossing about amid the rocks, and aiding occasionally in the transport of ropes and men to one rock and another, now turns away to seek a less difficult passage. The rocks all about us are low, from three feet to ten feet high. We have one rope out ahead, fastened to a rock, upon which stand a gang of men, pulling. There is a row of men in the water under the left side of the boat, heaving at her with their broad backs, to prevent her smashing on the rocks. But our main dragging force is in the two long lines of men attached to the ropes on the left shore. They stretch out ahead of us so far that it needs an opera-glass to discover whether the leaders are pulling or only soldiering. These two long struggling lines are led and directed by a new figure who appears upon this operatic scene. It is a comical sheikh who stands upon a high rock at one side and lines out the catch-lines of a working refrain, while the gangs howl and haul, in a surging chorus. Nothing could be wilder or more ludicrous, in the midst of this roar of rapids and strain of cordage. The sheikh holds a long staff which he swings like the baton of the leader of an orchestras quite unconscious of the odd figure he cuts against the blue sky. He grows more and more excited, he swings his arms, he shrieks, but always in tune and in time with the hauling and the wilder chorus of the cataract men, he lifts up his right leg, he lifts up his left leg, he is in the very ecstasy of the musical conductor, displaying his white teeth, and raising first one leg and then the other in a delirious swinging motion, all the more picturesque on account of his flowing blue robe and his loose white cotton drawers. He lifts his leg with a gigantic pull, which is enough in itself to draw the boat onward, and every time he lifts it, the boat gains on the current. Surely such an orchestra and such a leader was never seen before. For the orchestra is scattered over half an acre of ground, swaying and pulling and singing in rhythmic show, and there is a high wind and a blue sky, and rocks and foaming torrents, and an African village with palms in the background, amid the debris of the great convulsion of nature which has resulted in this chaos. Slowly we creep up against the stiff boiling stream, the good Moslems on deck muttering prayers and telling their beads, and finally make the turn and pass the worst eddies; and as we swing round into an oxbow channel to the right, the big sail is again let out and hauled in, and with cheers we float on some rods and come into a quiet shelter, a stage beyond the journey usually made the first day. It is now three o'clock.

We have come to the real cataract, to the stiffest pull and the most dangerous passage. A small freight dahabeah obstructs the way, and while this is being hauled ahead, we prepare for the final struggle. The chief cataract is called Bab Abu Rabbia, [Gate of Abu Rabbia] from one of Mohammed Ali's captains who some years ago vowed that he would take his dahabeah up it with his own crew and without aid from the cataract people. He lost his boat. It is also sometimes called Bab Inglese from a young Englishman, named Cave, who attempted to swim down it early one morning, in imitation of the Nubian swimmers, and was drawn into the whirlpools, and not found for days after. For this last struggle, in addition to the other ropes, an enormous cable is bent on, not tied to the bow, but twisted round the cross-beams of the forward deck, and carried out over the rocks. From the shelter where we lie we are to push out and take the current at a sharp angle. The water of this main cataract sucks down from both sides above through a channel perhaps one hundred feet wide, very rapid and with considerable fall, and with such force as to raise a ridge in the middle. To pull up this hill of water is the tug; if the ropes let go we shall be dashed into a hundred pieces on the rocks below and be swallowed in the whirlpools. It would not be a sufficient compensation for this fate to have this rapid hereafter take our name.

The preparations are leisurely made, the lines are laid along the rocks and the men are distributed. The fastenings are carefully examined. Then we begin to move. There are now four conductors of this gigantic orchestra (the employment of which as a musical novelty I respectfully recommend to the next Boston Jubilee), each posted on a high rock, and waving a stick with a white rag tied to it. It is now four o'clock. An hour has been consumed in raising the curtain for the last act. We are now carefully under way along the rocks which are almost within reach, held tight by the side ropes, but

pushed off and slowly urged along by a line of half-naked fellows under the left side, whose backs are against the boat and whose feet walk along the perpendicular ledge. It would take only a sag of the boat, apparently, to crush them. It does not need our eyes to tell us when the bow of the boat noses the swift water. Our sandal has meantime carried a line to a rock on the opposite side of the channel, and our sailors haul on this and draw us ahead. But we are held firmly by the shore lines. The boat is never suffered, as I said, to get an inch the advantage, but is always held tight in hand.

As we appear at the foot of the rapid, men come riding down it on logs as before, a sort of horseback feat in the boiling water, steering themselves round the eddies and landing below us. One of them swims round to the rock where a line is tied, and looses it as we pass; another, sitting on the slippery stick and showing the white soles of his black feet, paddles himself about amid the whirlpools. We move so slowly that we have time to enjoy all these details, to admire the deep yellow of the Libyan sand drifted over the rocks at the right, and to cheer a sandal bearing the American flag which is at this moment shooting the rapids in another channel beyond us, tossed about like a cork. We see the meteor flag flashing out, we lose it behind the rocks, and catch it again appearing below. "Oh, star spang"---but our own orchestra is in full swing again. The comical sheikh begins to swing his arms and his stick back and forth in an increasing measure, until his whole body is drawn into the vortex of his enthusiasm, and one leg after the other, by a sort of rhythmic hitch, goes up displaying the white and baggy cotton drawers. The other three conductors join in, and a deafening chorus from two hundred men goes up along the ropes while we creep slowly on amid the suppressed excitement of those on board who anxiously watch the straining cables, and with a running fire, of "backsheesh, backsheesh," from the boys on the rocks close at hand. The cable holds; the boat nags and jerks at it in vain; through all the roar and rush we go on, lifted I think perceptibly every time the sheikh lifts his leg.

At the right moment the sail is again shaken down; and the boat at once feels it. It is worth five hundred men. The ropes slacken; we are going by the wind against the current; haste is made to unbend the cable; line after line is let go until we are held by one alone; the crowd thins out, dropping away with no warning; and before we know that the play is played out, the cataract people have lost all interest in it and are scattering over the black rocks to their homes. A few stop to cheer; the chief conductor is last seen on a rock, swinging the white rag, hurrahing and salaaming in grinning exultation; the last line is cast off, and we round the point and come into smooth but swift water, and glide into a calm mind. The noise, the struggle, the tense strain, the uproar of men and waves for four hours are all behind; and hours of keener excitement and enjoyment we have rarely known. At 12:20 we left Aswan; at 4:45 we swung round the rocky bend above the last and greatest rapid. I write these figures, for they will be not without a melancholy interest to those who have spent two or three days or a week in making this passage.


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 250-264.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


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© Paul Halsall, October 1998
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