James Bell Forsyth.

A few months in the East : or, A glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas online

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Sea. Accordingly, we started next morning, at six
o'clock, and in the course of half an hour were in the
desert, crossing it in nearly the identical route which
tradition gives to the children of Israel. Passing over
the desert in a comfortable railway-carriage, and at
railway speed, dispels in a great measure the poetical
feeling associated with reminiscences of the caravan
and the camel, going over the ground at the rate of
three miles an hour. But who would, now, in these
days of rapid transit, prefer going from London
and Edinburgh in a post-chaise, or carriage and
four, the aristocratic mode of passing between these
two capitals a very few years ago ?

The desert is seen from the windows of the
railway-car, as satisfactorily as can be desired ; for
what, in reality, is to be seen ? All is lifeless and
herbless, except when, here and there, may be des-
cried a string of camels, wending their way, like
" Ships of the Desert," as they are called. And yet
occasionally, though it is scarcely possible to discern
a blade of grass around, the traveller is struck by


espying a shepherd, with a large flock of sheep and
goats, carefully leading them along, recalling to mind
the figurative language of Scripture, in which the
Great Shepherd is described as the leader of His
people. We were also reminded, in the course of
the day, of another scriptural allusion, and, thereby,
of the extremely slight change in the customs of the
East : we saw " two women grinding at the mill."
At every step some text of Scripture is recalled to
mind ; and certainly, among my souvenirs of this
journey, one of the most agreeable arises from the
illustrations, which might be gathered in confirmation
of the truthfulness of the Bible.

The wind blew a gale, and the sand was like
drifting snow, but it did not last long ; otherwise we
should have been delayed, as is frequently the case,
between Cairo and Suez. We reached Suez at noon,
and a short time sufficed to see the miserable mud-
huts which compose the town. Shepherd has an
excellent house here, as well as at Cairo, situated
immediately on the shores of the Red Sea. The spot,
to which tradition points as the locality of the passage
of the Children of Israel, is at some distance from
this site. The Eed Sea is, as every one knows, very
long compared with its breadth ; and from Suez it
has much the appearance of a river, especially to
those who are familiar with the broad St. Lawrence


and the rivers of the American continent. But after
my introductory remarks, the reader will not expect
me to transcribe from hand-books or the polemical
treatises of learned writers and travellers, the details
connected with the extent or history of this renowned

I promised, in the title-page, to give a glimpse
of three memorable seas, and I shall literally fulfil
my promise by giving, as I have now done, a bird's-
eye view of one of them.





Suez, in itself, is certainly a wretched village, and
would not attract more of the public attention than
any other small Egyptian town, were it not for the
peculiarity of its site, the circumstance of its giving
a name to the celebrated Isthmus, which connects
Asia and Africa, and more especially, at present, for
the attempts which are made towards the accomplish-
ment of that great project the construction of a
canal to connect the Red Sea with the waters of the
Mediterranean. In this respect it assumes consi-
derable importance ; and although I do not, by any
means, entertain the sanguine opinions expressed by
Alison on this exciting topic, yet I cannot resist
quoting his eloquent remarks, having a few plain


words to add in connection with the subject, and on
the selection of the most desirable route from the
British Islands to the East. In the twenty-fifth
chapter of his History of Europe, the enthusiastic
historian has these remarks :

" When in the revolution of ages, civilization shall have returned
to its ancient cradle, when the desolation of Mahommedan rule
shall have ceased, and the light of religion illumined the land of
its birth, Egypt will again become one of the great centres of
human industry ; the invention of steam will restore the commu-
nication with the East to its original channel, and the nation,
which shall revive the canal of Suez, and open a direct communi-
cation between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, will pour into
its bosom those streams of wealth, which in every age have consti-
tuted the principal sources of European opulence. The great
Leibnitz, in the time of Louis XIV, addressed to that great
monarch a memorial, which is one of the noblest monuments of
political foresight : ' Sire, (said he,) it is not at home that you
will succeed in subduing the Dutch; you will not cross their
dikes, and you will rouse Europe to their assistance. It is in
Egypt, that the real blow is to be struck. There you will find the
true commercial route to India; you will wrest that lucrative
commerce from Holland, you will secure the eternal dominion of
France in the Levant, you will fill Christianity with joy.' These
ideas, however," (adds the historian,) "were beyond the age; and
they lay dormant till revived by the genius of Napoleon."

That similar views were, in fact, ardently enter-
tained by Napoleon the First, is now a matter of
history ; nor is it doubtful that his nephew cherishes


like aspirations, and eagerly desires and plans to
secure an effectual footing in Egypt. The nature of
the desert, intervening between the Eed Sea and
the low marshy shores of the Mediterranean, in the
vicinity of Alexandria, renders the construction of a
canal almost an impossibility, without taking into
consideration the immense expenditure, which must,
under any circumstances, be incurred. This is the
opinion of scientific men, who were sent specially to
report upon the practicability of the project. It is
certainly impossible to imagine how the quicksand
can be mastered. Whether Mr. Lesseppes actually
thinks that it may, and sincerely believes that the
project is practicable, I will not undertake to assert :
he undoubtedly finds the design highly popular in
France, and (if we are to judge from the expendi-
ture) not altogether unprofitable to himself.

It is highly probable that the work will be com-
menced in good earnest, for the enterprise enjoys
the warm support of the French government. Whe-
ther it will be prosecuted with energy, may be
reasonably doubted ; but one cannot help thinking,
that it is intended as an important political move.
Money enough will be spent in order to render some
protection to French interests requisite ; and then,
on some sudden emergency, before England or Eu-
rope can well be aware of what is going on, a French


force may be sent to Egypt, as has recently been the
case in Syria. And thus, with the Gallic eagles in
Algeria, Egypt and Syria, the Mediterranean may,
with good reason, come to be styled "a French

From these considerations naturally arises the
propriety of arguing a very important question : "Is
Egypt the only line of speedy communication with
India and the far East? Assuredly the project of
forming a continuous line of railway across the
northern continent of America, from the shores of
the Atlantic to the Pacific, acquires, in such a dis-
cussion, a most prominent importance. The comple-
tion of such an immense work would bring China,
with the eastern coast and islands of Asia, within
thirty days of London, Liverpool and Glasgow, even
for heavy merchandise ; nor would Calcutta be much
farther distant, in point of time, by this route, than
it is by the present so-called Overland-route.

A Canadian on his travels may be allowed, at
such a place as Suez, to enter into a few minute
particulars connected with the discussion of this
subject : The Jesuits, during their early discoveries
in Canada, conceived (it is well-known) the mag-
nificent idea, that a western communication by water
with Asia would be found to exist in this direction ;


and thus, while pursuing their course along the
waters of the broad St. Lawrence, they arrived at
the expanse, where Ottawa unites with the main
Canadian artery, about nine or ten miles above the
city of Montreal : they were so convinced of their
having fallen in with the desired passage, that they
named the place LaCKine, a name which it retains
to this day. If this vast idea, which so forcibly
struck these zealous explorers, were now to be carried
out by railway, instead of water, England might care
less anxiously who had predominant possession in the
Mediterranean. There would naturally follow a con-
siderable saving in the navy estimates, there being
fewer fleets to maintain, and the fleet on the Halifax
station within ten days' call of the authorities at home.

About two years ago, at a public dinner given by
some of the leading citizens of Quebec to Lord
Bury, who had come from England to British North
America, for the promotion of an object in connec-
tion with this question, the writer of these pages was
one of the Vice-Presidents, and took the opportunity
of delivering his views on the subject, in a speech, a
report of which will be found in an Appendix, for
the perusal of those who take an interest in such
matters. Since that time, the very cordial reception
given by the citizens of the United States to His
Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, on his visit to


(-his continent, has made him change his opinion as
to the desirability of having an Atlantic and Pacific
railroad constructed solely on British territory. For,
certainly, it would prove a powerful guarantee, for
the general maintenance of peace, to have the British
empire and the United States even should there be
two or more Confederations in their stead bound
together by their united interest in a highway, which
might justly be considered as the most important in
the world. It seems to me rather extraordinary,
that so few public men, in England and Canada,
give to this great measure that attention and support
which it so eminently appears to deserve. The
writer, when President of the Board of Trade in
Quebec, signed a petition to the Provincial Legis-
lature on the subject, but could not even succeed
in getting a committee appointed to report there-
upon ; and when in London, last winter, he vainly
essayed to induce one or two friends in the House of
Commons to bring forward the project, as one worthy
of Imperial consideration and support. It certainly
might be accomplished, on pledging the value of the
results which would accrue from the mineral produce
of Columbia and the Principality of Vancouver's
Island ; for, undoubtedly, this island, with its excel-
lent harbours, its extensive coal-fields, its abundant
mineral productions, and other natural advantages,


would soon acquire a just title to such a denomina-
tion. But so great, in these days, is the dread of
public opinion and ridicule, that no member, either
in the Provincial or Imperial Legislature, has had
the courage to come forward, and introduce the
discussion of a measure, fraught with the highest
importance to the world. In fact, I am not quite
certain, whether the member, to whom the petition
was entrusted in our Provincial Parliament, had the
hardihood (!) to present it.

The distance, still to be spanned over, is great,
and the cost would be very formidable in the eyes of
most nations ; but, to the British empire and the
United States difficulties should vanish, when it is
considered that such a highway would give to them
the control of the greater part of the trade to the
far West and East, and would set the two great
branches of the Anglo-Saxon race, in a great mea-
sure, beyond or above the influence of European
powers in congress. Destined, as they are, to be
the great civilizers of the countless masses in India,
China, and the adjacent countries, they might well be
justified in regarding the completion of the Atlantic
and Pacific railway as the great fact of the age.

If public men and capitalists in England would
seriously turn their attention to this important ques-


tion, and boldly look it in the face in all its bearings,
they would enter as heartily into the great project as
the people of the United States now do. Lord Bury
and Judge Haliburton ought to be mentioned with
distinction for the attention which they have given
to this subject, and for the interest which they have
taken in the whole question.* With regard to the
expense, the annual saving in the navy estimates,
although by no means, at present, a popular consi-
deration in England, would (as I have already
hinted) cover the outlay. There are, of course, as
in all similar undertakings, engineering difficulties in
the way, but these cannot be regarded as insur-
mountable in the present day. The Report of the
party lately sent, under the guidance of Mr. Palisser,
to examine the Rocky Mountains and explore the
practicable Passes, will be anxiously looked for by
those who feel an interest in the subject ; and who
should not ?

But I begin to fear that even my patient readers
will imagine that it is out of place for me, being in
the east, to refer so pointedly, and at such length,
to the far-west ; yet the subject concerns not only
British North America, in all its immense extent,

* Since these pages have been in type, an exceedingly good
Editorial has appeared in the London Illustrated News, of the
16th February, strongly advocating this great work.


and the British Islands themselves, but also the
whole Empire, and the world in general. I
must, however, admit, that the digression has been
rather long ; and I fear that, unless I make haste,
the return train from Suez will have started, and I
may be left alone in this village of mud-dwellings.

When at Suez, I felt a strong desire to proceed to
Madras, having a son in the 60th Regiment, then
stationed at that Presidency ; but my time was
limited, and my visit to India would necessarily
have been so short, that the pleasure of meeting
would have been sadly counterbalanced by an almost
immediate separation.



The Egyptian railway is admirably managed, and
has a neat and clean appearance, the sleepers being
of iron, instead of wood, as usual. The speed attained
over the one hundred and forty-two miles, stoppages
included, averages about twenty miles an hour. The
engineers are mostly Scotch, though occasionally a
native may be seen on duty, an arrangement calcu-
lated to excite an unpleasant feeling. It is in con-
templation to carry on the railway towards Aden, at
the mouth of the Red Sea ; this would shorten the
overland-route, and lessen the time now required, by
four or five days, besides avoiding the risk incurred
in navigating the gulf, from coral-reefs of great

^On our arrival at Shepherd's excellent hotel, we
were enabled to make arrangements for starting, the



following morning, on a visit to the Pyramids. Ac-
cordingly after an early breakfast, Mrs. Gordon, Mr.
Murray, young Denny and myself, went together,
in a carriage, to old Cairo. On the way we passed
the spot where (as tradition hands down) the infant
Moses was taken from among the bulrushes.

We crossed the Nile in a ferry, and found donkeys
awaiting us on the farther side ; speedily mounting,
we were off at a gallop, accompanied by Arab boys,
shouting most vociferously, and, every here and there,
making a fresh rush on us for backsheesh. We speedi-
ly crossed the wood of palm-trees, and were soon on
the spacious plain, where the great battle of the
Pyramids was fought in 1798, and where the M amelukes
were so completely routed. The words addressed by
Napoleon to his troops, before the engagement, occur-
red to our minds as singularly adapted, on such a
scene, to inspire his soldiers with more than wonted
ardour: "Remember, that, from the summit of these
Pyramids, forty centuries contemplate your action !"

The Pyramids strike all travellers with feelings of
wonder and admiration, which are increased in in-
tensity the more nearly these huge monuments are
approached. The height of the chief pyramid, ascribed
to Cheops, is 477 feet, being 40 feet higher than St.
Peter's cupola at Rome, and 133 feet higher than


St. Paul's in London, while the length of the base is
720 feet ; of the second pyramid, the perpendicular
height is 456 feet, the slanting height 568, and the
side of the base 684. These dimensions are larger
than have been usually assigned, but this is accounted
for from their being taken by Belzoni from the base
cleared of the sand and rubbish.

"When viewed from the ground, the stones forming
the graduated steps seem so small to the gazer up-
wards, that a doubt arises in his mind, whether they
will be sufficiently large to sustain the point of his
shoe. Many visitors are consequently deterred from
attempting the ascent ; but suddenly three or four
Arabs seize the hesitating adventurer, and urge him
upwards in a rather compulsory manner one taking
hold of each hand, and one or two pushing behind.

The blocks of stone are regular, about three feet
deep, and as many wide ; so that persons ascending,
on perceiving that the steps do not diminish in size,
gradually lose the idea of danger, gain confidence,
and, after some twenty minutes of pretty severe exer-
cise, reach the top, a plain surface about thirty feet

From this eminence there is a magnificent and
altogether a most interesting view. The Nile, vary-
ing in width, is seen meandering through the desert;


and it has the appearance of a green snake, with the
desert on either side, all dull and dreary. Cairo,
with its mosques and minarets, seems to lie at your
feet ; the Delta, so famous for its rich and fertile soil,
forming the dead level towards the Mediterranean ;
the Pyramids of Sakkara ; Memphis, and the Libyan
desert are all in sight.

The process, however, of being pulled and pushed
up by the Arabs, is, after all, not very pleasant, and
something more than a joke. They treat the adven-
turer under their hands as if he were a bale of goods ;
and the wonder is, how he can escape without having
his arms dislocated. They all know a little English
now-a-days, and are fond of singing. " I have a
donkey, and he would not go !" was one of the first
exclamations that greeted the ear on our arrival in
Alexandria ; but, at the Pyramids, the refrain was :

" Englishman very good man,
Englishman gentle-man,

Backsheesh ! "

In fact, backsheesh is their constant cry, ever in
their throats and on their lips ; and it is not so
wonderful, perhaps, when we take into consideration,
that it is their only means of earning a livelihood, or
rather their sole resource of raising a revenue. And
when they get the traveller to the top of the pyramid,


they practise extortion to the utmost; and induce
many to give them all the money which they have
about them. One would hardly grudge an extra half
crown, on the summit of the great pyramid ; but a
distinct agreement, previously made through the
dragoman, respecting the charge for going up and
coming down, will afford sufficient protection ; for
there is always a Sheikh, or Head of the tribe, on
the spot, and he will prevent imposition and see
justice maintained.

By whom were the Pyramids built, and for what
purpose? These are questions, which do not fall
within my present scope ; and they have exercised the
ingenuity and learning of ancient sages, as well as of
modern philosophers and travellers. The following
lines by Kirke White, on this subject, are as strik-
ingly apposite, as they are remarkable for their beauty
and truth:

" Who lies inhumed in the terrific gloom
Of the gigantic pyramid ? Or who
Reared its huge walls ? Oblivion laughs and says,
The prey is mine ; they sleep, and never more
Their names shall strike upon the ear of man,
Their memory burst its fetters."

On approaching the Pyramids, an object is visible,
which (on first sight) might be taken for a large
boulder. On asking what it might be, I heard, to


my surprise, that it was the Sphinx. A feeling of
disappointment followed for the moment ; but this
wore away as we drew nearer and became more fully
aware of its colossal size. The head and shoulders
only are seen, and are, to a certain extent, immersed
in sand ; and the face is so weather-beaten, that ere
long it will be difficult to trace the lineaments. The
features, however, are still strongly marked, and are
purely Coptic ; so strikingly was this the case, that
Mr. Murray could not help remarking, that the little
boy, who stood near us with a water-jug, might (as
far as likeness was concerned) be justly taken for
the sculptured monster's grandson. The little fellow
understood English, and immediately cried : " Yes,
that is my grandmother !" there certainly was a
decided resemblance.

On our return to Cairo, we visited the celebrated
Mosque of Mahommed Ali, with its large court and
its fountains. The mosque is built of alabaster ; and
the large court is paved with the same material, inlaid
here and there with marble. Near this spot is the
Citadel, and likewise the Court where the Mamelukes
were massacred. The fearful leap taken by Emir
Bey, the sole survivor, is still pointed out ; he
escaped, but his gallant charger was killed by the


Christians are tolerated, but not welcomed, as
visitors in the mosques. Master Denny, of our party,
had strayed from us ; and, after some time, I found
him sitting cross-legged on the floor, while a fanatical
Turk was meditating some signal punishment on the
truant ; however, on my reproaching the youngster
with the breach of propriety and etiquette, the Turk
withdrew. A fortnight afterwards, in the same
mosque, a disgraceful outrage was committed by
some forty or fifty Englishmen, which was subse-
quently commented on in both Houses of Parliament
with great severity; and most deservedly so, for such
conduct, in addition to other results, would soon
render the mosques as difficult of access as they al-
ways had been till within the last few years. A Court
Martial has been sitting in Calcutta on some of the
leaders of this unwarrantable insult ; and doubtless
all concerned now lament their having conducted
themselves in such an ungentlemanly and scandalous
manner on the occasion in question, (4th April, I860,)
in mocking and insulting certain dervishes and other
worshippers, while engaged in their devotions in this
great mosque of Cairo, and in outraging the feelings
of the Mahommedan inhabitants of this city, during
a religious festival.

On our return from the mosque, as it was the first
day of their great festival, the Eamadan, we visited,


in the course of the evening, a tent, which we had
previously seen during the day. A party of dancing
dervishes were here exhibiting ; but as some ladies
had come with us, a few seconds of the sight sufficed
to satisfy their curiosity, and we withdrew.

Next day we rode to the Petrified Forest, where
the trees wear the appearance of having been quite
recently cut ; so white and fresh do the chips look,
that one could easily imagine the axe had been
used the same morning. On our return, we passed
through the tombs of the Caliphs beautiful structures
at a distance ; they have been well illustrated by
photographs taken on the spot, one of which I am
enabled to give. Gracefully Saracenic, in point of
architecture, with their domes and minarets, they
appear perfectly beautiful till they are reached ; and
then a ride through the solitary City of the Dead
becomes a melancholy occupation ; for those struc-
tures, which seem so fair at a distance, are found
crumbling to decay. The domes are covered with
elegant tiles, which apparently resist the destroying
hand of time, as it spreads desolation around :
" data sunt ipsis quoquefata sepulchris"

One day, I happened to take luncheon in the tomb
lately discovered near the great pyramid of Cheops,
and was moralizing on the very inconsistent use made



**-<?.- |; J K$ f {"'



of that splendid mausoleum, with its beautiful pillars
and proportions, yet spacious enough to make a mag-
nificent dining-room. On this occasion, perceiving
several beautiful specimens of beetles, I was reminded
of a promise which I had made to a young lady of
Montreal, the daughter of an esteemed friend, that I

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Online LibraryJames Bell ForsythA few months in the East : or, A glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas → online text (page 3 of 10)