A TOWN PROMPTLY EMBELLISHED
Eight years and a line of railway have sufficed to accomplish its metamorphosis. Once in Upper Egypt, on the borders of Nubia, there was a little humble town, rarely visited, and wanting, it must be owned, in elegance and even in comfort.
Not that it was without picturesqueness and historical interest. Quite the contrary. The Nile, charged with the waters of equatorial Africa, flung itself close by from the height of a mass of black granite, in a majestic cataract; and then, before the little Arab houses, became suddenly calm again, and flowed between islets of fresh verdure where clusters of palm-trees swayed their plumes in the wind.
And around were a number of temples, of hypogea, of Roman ruins, of ruins of churches dating from the first centuries of Christianity. The ground was full of souvenirs of the great primitive civilisations. For the place, abandoned for ages and lulled in the folds of Islam under the guardianship of its white mosque, was once one of the centres of the life of the world.
And, moreover, in the adjoining desert, some three or four thousand years ago, the ancient history of the world had been written by the Pharaohs in immortal hieroglyphics—well-nigh everywhere, on the polished sides of the strange blocks of blue and red granite that lie scattered about the sands and look now like the forms of antediluvian monsters.
Yes, but it was necessary that all this should be co-ordinated, focused as it were, and above all rendered accessible to the delicate travellers of the Agencies. And to-day we have the pleasure of announcing that, from December to March, Assouan (for that is the name of the fortunate locality) has a “season” as fashionable as those of Ostend or Spa.
In approaching it, the huge hotels erected on all sides—even on the islets of the old river—charm the eye of the traveller, greeting him with their welcoming signs, which can be seen a league away. True, they have been somewhat hastily constructed, of mud and plaster, but they recall none the less those gracious palaces with which the Compagnie des Wagon-Lits has dowered the world. And how negligible now, how dwarfed by the height of their facades, is the poor little town of olden times, with its little houses, whitened with chalk, and its baby minaret.
The cataract, on the other hand, has disappeared from Assouan. The tutelary Albion wisely considered that it would be better to sacrifice that futile spectacle and, in order to increase the yield of the soil, to dam the waters of the Nile by an artificial barrage: a work of solid masonry which (in the words of the Programme of Pleasure Trips) “affords an interest of a very different nature and degree” (sic).
But nevertheless Cook & Son—a business concern glossed with poetry, as all the world knows—have endeavoured to perpetuate the memory of the cataract by giving its name to a hotel of 500 rooms, which as a result of their labours has been established opposite to those rocks—now reduced to silence—over which the old Nile used to seethe for so many centuries. “Cataract Hotel!”—that gives the illusion still, does it not?—and looks remarkably well at the head of a sheet of notepaper.