Item 156 - Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

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PETH/7/156

Title

Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Date(s)

  • [3 Jan.–c. 20 Jan. 1905] (Creation)

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1 slip, 9 sheets

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Scope and content

Concludes her account of her visit to Egypt.

—————

Transcript

10th Letter.

{1} A new life begins for us on the last day of the year, when in the darkness before the dawn we turned out of the train at Ouasta, & upon a piece of waste ground a few minutes from the station, seen bulking blackly against the sky, a group of 11 camels & 12 men, who are to carry us and to guard us on {2} our belongings on our journeyings for the next three weeks. Enani, Ali, Mursi, & the Cook had travelled down from Luxor in our train—so that our party now numbers 20 in all—this is the tribe of the “Sheikh Ibrahim”. The breakfast tent is quickly put up, and tea & omelette served—& one or two hours spent in a sort of Parliament between Enani & various members of his family, who had come to meet him & give us a send off—but eventually the baggage is placed on the protesting camels, and we mount our dromedaries, whose language would certainly not bear repetition. To mount a camel is a very simple & ordinary bit of routine, when you get used to it—but the first time you wonder what is going to happen. Your beast is lying down with his legs doubled right up under him—when you have settled yourself in the saddle, you give him the signal, & with a vehement swear-word, he throws himself up on his front knees, & then throws up his behind legs & finally stands four square. Then he has three movements, a walk, an amble, both fairly comfortable as long as both are slow, & a fast trot or run, for which you rise in your stirrups as on horseback—this is very comfortable & the faster he goes the jollier it is; a dromedary (i.e. running camel) easily outpaces a horse, even in a short journey—& can go a far greater distance in a day.

We set our heads straight for the Desert, which we see, in the distance beyond the bounds of cultivation,—a world of gold and amber.

We reach it before the halt for lunch—and the tents are pitched in the midst of the glistening expanse of sand & tiny sea-shells. No sign of footprint, except our own, the pure untrodden sand, rippling to the horizon, is like a great sea. The sun as it sinks touches the innumerable wave ridges with glory & fills every one of the tiny hollows with purple—every little pebble, every shell has a shining face—purple shadow. The colour shifts & changes; long after the sky is darkened the desert glows—then the stars rise and the lanterns are lit & hung about the tents. Now the shadows of something moving, is seen just outside the radius of the light—it is a wild jackal prowling round in the chance of food. The men suggest making a “Fantasie”—and they gather in a big circle outside our dining-tent, their faces lit by the lanterns—two of the men have wonderful voices, rich & resonant, & one has all the bedawin poetry by heart, & several are dancers, so we see all the dances & hear all the songs of the desert, while in the background the camels contentedly chew the cud & ocassionally† swear at one another, in a mild way.

The next morning comes serenely. We are not moving camp today, but we ride out in our dromedaries to see the Medoum Pyramid, the oldest building known in the world—taking our lunch with us & coming back to tea.

The next day we move to Edwa; & the next day send to Medinet for our letters, & “laze” all day in the shadow of the tents, and watch the sun as he runs his race, grows to his full majesty of strength, lingers to embrace his world, & bids his passionate farewell. Our walk in the evening brings us to a spot that must once have been a burial place, for the sand is strewn with human sculls† & bones.

Yielding to the programme made for us by our major domo, Enani, we, on the next day leave the desert & enter into the Fayoum to see Medinet the cheif† town—but we refuse to camp near the town & make tracks the same day back to the desert. But before we can get out of the area of cultivation we come in for a night’s rain & a consequent delay, as the wet tents cannot be packed up. The Sheikh Ibrahim gives his men a sheep wherewith to make merry, and at night a great bonfire is made & we sit round it in a circle—a dancing girl comes from the nearest town, with her kinsfolk; and a great Fantasie is held. The Bedawin rifle-dances & sword dances of the men are much more interesting than those of the woman. Enani dances with perfection of agility & grace—now & then to relieve the feelings, a rifle is fired off or a revolver—a weird scene by the fitful blaze of the bonfire. At last the woman & her people ride away on their donkeys, and the fire is kept alight all night by the watchmen, the voices die down & there is silence in the camp.

How glad we are the next morning to see the sun again & to make tracks for the desert betimes. A long day’s journey brings us out of the system of canals which makes the Fayoum a triumph of artificial irrigation, the last bridge is crossed & just before sunset the rolling sand spaces are reached & the tents are pitched. Fred & Marie, Hetty & I go for a long walk, fascinated by the beauty & the colour—in the distance a caravan passes through the purple shadow of sunset & men are prostrating themselves on the ground & praying. The faint crescent of the new moon is visible for a short space before it follows the sun beneath the horizon. It is nearly dark before we get back to the tents, & Enani & Ali have come out to meet us, each with a gun—ever-watchful, ever alert. Day after day the journey is continued. Only once, for about 24 hours do we get really out of reach of water. That is a wonderful night we spend on the high desert; with the sand-hills about us, & between them the foot tracks of the wolf, the jackal & the gazelle. We lie at night on the side of a cone hillock of sand and watch the stars rise & swing across the heavens, while Enani tells us stories from the Koran, and we recall & relate some of the old world stories; until Silence with a beating heart comes & sits in our midst and we are folded up in night & space and sky. It is from the top of this same hill that we watch the sun rise glorious in the morning & scatter before him the hoar frost of the night, and shine upon the white salt rock & pebbles of cornelian stone. A call from Mursi that breakfast is ready brings us back to the tent for an early start has to be made for this our longest desert journey—we have about 20 miles to do. We travel slowly as {3} first with the caravan; all the party keeping together in the same track; Enani playing his flute & the men singing & clapping hands, & some of them doing a fantastic dance with their rifles. We are alone in the midst of the high desert with a boundless distance. After about three hours or four, we halt for lunch beside a ruined pyramid, & let the luggage camels & men go forward. What a lunch!

[At this point occurs the following cancelled passage, the substance of which is repeated later:

We are escorted back about 5 & fetched again at 6 o’clock, & have a great dinner—an enormous turkey, stuffed with raisins & nuts, pigeons, half a sheep, & other dishes—everything of the very best. Only the Sheikh himself partakes of this meal with us, the other men feast outside, & afterwards when the room has been cleared, they troop in & sit round & the evening is spent telling stories. The Sheikh Ibrahim reads his arabic story, exciting expressions of infinite wonder & admiration—& then the Sitt Gebir reads her story of Big Claws & Little Claws. We ride home about 11 o’clock o’clock† after a very jolly evening, everybody very pleasant.

The whole of the next day is spent in seeing some of the wonders of Sakkarah, the tombs of the Kings]

served by Enani & Ali—& what appetites! & what ever new delight & joy that unfailing “one more pot of apricot jam” gives, that is like the widow’s curse {4}. How does Enani manage to procure it every day? And then after lunch the rest—while Enani plays his flute or makes the stones sing as he throws them through the air. But we must not delay too long—the baggage camels are already far away—we mount & quicken our dromedaries to a fast trot. On & on we go but no sight of the caravan—we seem to have lost all trace of human life; but suddenly we see a track again & Enani recognises the foot print of Halifa’s camel—slightly deformed that foot is with corns, the bare foot of Halifa himself keeping abreast with it. He tells us a thrilling story of his last expedition in the unexplored far desert in the Soudan—with the French traveller & his wife, who went where no white man had ever been, & wearing the dress of Algerian pashas. Once, when in the midst of the desert, they let the baggage camels & caravan go forward as we had done today—a sand storm came & obliterated the tracks & presently they realized that they were lost.

To lose your caravan when many days’ journey from the nearest habitation is to lose your life. Enani in an rage of dismay, levelled his rifle at the head of the guide who had been taken on for this stage of the journey—“You have lost the way, you lose your life”. The French lady began to cry—poor little Pasha!—the gentleman interposed with the reminder that the main hope of ever finding the caravan lay with the guide if he would keep his head. Just then Enani looking all round, picked up a bit of flint newly struck off, & following this clue came presently on more traces of the caravan & ultimately sighted it in the distance—to the great joy of all. The hours of the afternoon slip by & we push on—the sun is getting low, and still we see neither caravan or camp. The sun is already setting before we sight our tents which have been set up, & the camels are lying down relieved of their burdens—& best of all, tea is ready as we ride up tired & hungry.

The next day’s journey brings us to Sakkarah with the wonder of its Pyramids & Tombs. We have scarcely pitched our Camp & had our tea, before we receive a visit from the Sheikh of the village, & his kinsfolk. Sheikh Mohamed is the brother in law & friend of Enani, his family generations before had discovered the buried treasures of the ancient kings; amongst other things a banana tree, made of gold, and many gold vessels & ornaments, and became rich, & now own a greater part of the village. The Sheikh is a man of substance with houses & lands, flocks & herds, wives & children. He is a tall dignified man with a gentle face, slightly deaf & therefore somewhat slow in conversation—but full of courtesy & kindliness: he has come to bid us welcome & to invite us to a Feast which he proposes to make in our honour. We all sit round & drink coffee together & exchange cigarettes, and after awhile† the guests retire though they spend the night with Enani in the Camp & come from time to time to salute us. We are invited to the Feast at 3 o’clock, but stipulate for a return to Camp for an hour’s rest before the evening. Punctually at 3 o’clock, the Sheikh Mohamed arrives with the Cheif† men of the village to escort us to his house. He brings his beautiful arab horse for our “Sheikh Ibrahim” to ride; we, (the three wives) ride on camels & the procession starts. We feel like a circus as we go along making a sensation in the village street. We arrive at the house, enter the courtyard on our camels, dismount & are shown into the Guest-chamber, a large stone square building with tall windows, fitted with divans & a carpet. Here we are served with tea, and after we have finished, the sheikh & his family drink tea—& then the men of importance file into the room & the talk begins—of the wonder of London, of the wonder of the Nile, the Maker of Egypt & of irrigation, of grains & harvests, of sheep & cattle & horses—their relative sizes & weights in this country & our own; then we are taken to see the garden, and Marie, Hetty & I are invited into the Women’s quarters, to see the cheif† wife first, Enani’s sister, a pretty girl who receives us shyly & entertains us, serving coffee & asking us questions about our journey—later on, we are introduced to the other wives & their children.

We now return to the Camp, for a short interval, being escorted back & duly fetched again. We sit down to a great feast, which only the Sheikh himself & Enani at our invitation partake with us—an enormous turkey stuffed with nuts & raisins, pigeons, half & sheep & various other dishes; everything of the very best & thoroughly well dressed. We are able to do our duty, having saved up all day on purpose that we might not fail. Turkish coffee in tiny cups concluding the meal, the room is cleared & then the men pile in & sit round the room, & stories are told by one & another—and “the Sheikh Ibrahim” reads his story which he has prepared & written in arabic, amidst universal expressions & {5} admiration & wonder, & “the Sitt Gebir” follows with Big Claws & Little Claws—and about 11 o’clock, we are once more escorted home, having spent a most interesting & delightful time, and everybody highly pleased & satisfied with everybody else.

The next day is given up to seeing some of the wonders of Sakkarah—we ride into Memphis to see the two recumbent colossal figures of Rameses the Great—which are the all that is left of a great temple. One figure lies on his back on a slight eminence, the other is built over by a rude hut & lies prone. A wooden flight of steps spans it, so that one can climb & look down upon the face, which is strong, gentle & full of great calm—in every line of the body, in the tightly clenched hands, in the forward thrust of the knee there is majestic decision. This is the Pharaoh that first began to oppress the Children of Israel & his personality touches me still, through the limestone block fashioned to his image. Mounting again we ride out of the village & up on the desert to see the tomb of Thy,—4500 years old. Thy was the royal architect & manager of the Pyramids in the time of the Pharoahs of the 5th dynasty—and his tomb is full of interest. The masonry is carefully pointed & the walls covered with mural reliefs—drawings of men & animals cut into the stone, the attitude & characteristic expression of the animals especially is wonderful. There are pictures of men feeding cranes, & fattening geese, of men building ships, reaping, winnowing, shipbuilding, fishing, ploughing, sailing ships, fighting—all full of vigour & humour & life. We also saw the Tombs of the sacred bulls. This was an awful place, the heat was stifling. These tombs are hewn out of the solid rock, there are galleries with chambers 26 ft high, which contain the huge stone coffins in which the mummies of these sacred bulls were laid. These monster coffins are made of a solid block of granite 65 tons in weight, & must have been fetched from Assuan more than 600 miles away. I was glad to get out of these underground galleries, heated & evil smelling, the weird darkness made visible by the light of one or two guttering candles—& reach the blessed sunshine & sweet air of the upper world again.

And now the last day of our caravan journey dawns. From Sakkarah, we see the distant Pyramids of Ghizeh, the “Great Pyramids”, & there is our last halting place. Once more we approach the greatest miracle of Man—the divine Thing made by Man in his own image—the Sphinx. In spite of our regret that our journey is nearly over, hearts beat high with happy excitement. It is a sort of homecoming. All the landmarks become familiar. At last one sees the hollow in the sand where the Sphinx rests, with that odd thrill—half fear, half eagerness one always feels at that sight.

But She is not for us—not yet: surrounded (as we come nearer, we see the crowd) by noisy sightseers. We pitch our Camp, and that evening when “dinner” has called that crowd home, we go to pay our homage to the great Being whose body is the foundation rock of the world, & whose soul is the soul of the universe. The silence & shadow of night deepens on the desert—and a great wind is born of the darkness—sweeps upon our tents—and some strange excitement is in the air which drives sleep away & sets the life-currents running quick & warm in blood & brain. With the first glimmer of dawn we are up—and Freddy makes by the aid of our little spirit lamp 4 cups of arrowroot, which we carry off & eat by spoonfuls as we go, to see the glow of morning brighten in those wonderful eyes & the sun rise upon the face so rapturously patient, that has been raised to greet day and night with all their changes, with the same glorious acceptance for more than 6000 years.

This day our camp life ends.

Once more we ride up on the high desert for a last run on the dromedaries. The glistening stretch of sand & pebbles shine and stretch away into seemingly infinite distance: there is a high wind & great purple shadows fly after us & sweep us up in their robes. The afternoon is spent in farewells & in packing. Before sunset the tents are all down, & now we mount “Sabeah” & “Rameses” & their brethren & procede† in cavalcade to Mena House—where we dismount—and after handshakings & lengthy farewells—which (we comfort ourselves with the thought) are after all not final farewells, we are ready to enter the ‘House Beautiful’ & return to civilization again. There is delight and wonder in that change—and a new realization of the victory gained by man over the limitations set by Nature. Water, pure water in a big white bath, filling it up to the brim, hot water too—no limit to it! Electric light! wardrobes! dinner in evening dress, with the music of violins!

But in the moonlight out there in the Desert is the great Reality, and we are lured to leave music & light behind—& draw near to the Silence & Simplicity of that Presence which is the Everlasting Yea. Evening by evening all {4} the following week finds us there—driven by a longing to have that peace, that certainty, that divine acceptance, that vision stamped indelibly on mind & memory. On the night before we leave for England—the moon is wrapt away in thick clouds & the rain is falling, but the face of the Sphinx is lifted expectantly towards the new Day.

—————

A few alterations have been made to the punctuation of the original.

{1} ‘Dec. 30th’ has been struck through at the head of the letter.

{2} A slip for ‘and’.

{3} A slip for ‘as’.

{4} This word is indistinct.

{5} A slip for ‘of’.

† Sic.

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