Did one not know their bearings, the great ruins of this Egypt would pass unnoticed. With a few rare exceptions they lie beyond the green plains on the threshold of the solitudes. And against the changeless, rose-coloured background of these cliffs of the desert, which follow you during the whole of this tranquil navigation of some 600 miles, are to be seen only the humble towns and villages of to-day, which have the neutral colour of the ground. Some openwork minarets dominate them—white spots above the prevailing dullness. Clouds of pigeons whirl round in the neighbourhood. And amongst the little houses, which are only cubes of mud, baked in the sun, the palm-trees of Africa, either singly or in mighty clusters, rise superbly and cast on these little habitations the shade of their palms which sway in the wind. Not long ago, although indeed everything in these little towns was mournful and stagnant, one would have been tempted to stop in passing, drawn by that nameless peace that belonged to the Old East and to Islam. But, now, before the smallest hamlet—amongst the beautiful primitive boats, that still remain in great numbers, pointing their yards, like very long reeds, into the sky—there is always, for the meeting of the tourist boats, an enormous black pontoon, which spoils the whole scene by its presence and its great advertising inscription: “Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.).” And, what is more, one hears the whistling of the railway, which runs mercilessly along the river, bringing from the Delta to the Soudan the hordes of European invaders. And to crown all, adjoining the station is inevitably some modern factory, throned there in a sort of irony, and dominating the poor crumbling things that still presume to tell of Egypt and of mystery.
And so now, except at the towns or villages which lead to celebrated ruins, we stop no longer. It is necessary to proceed farther and for the halt of the night to seek an obscure hamlet, a silent recess, where we may moor our dahabiya against the venerable earth of the bank.
And so one goes on, for days and weeks, between these two interminable cliffs of reddish chalk, filled with their hypogea and mummies, which are the walls of the valley of the Nile, and will follow us up to the first cataract, until our entrance into Nubia. There only will the appearance and nature of the rocks of the desert change, to become the more sombre granite out of which the Pharaohs carved their obelisks and the great figures of their gods.
We go on and on, ascending the thread of this eternal current, and the regularity of the wind, the persistent clearness of the sky, the monotony of the great river, which winds but never ends, all conspire to make us forget the hours and days that pass. However deceived and disappointed we may be at seeing the profanation of the river banks, here, nevertheless, isolated on the water, we do not lose the peace of being a wanderer, a stranger amongst an equipage of silent Arabs, who every evening prostrate themselves in confiding prayer.