Fragrance in Travel Literature-Egypt and Nubia, their scenery and their people by St. John, James Augustus

Egypt and Nubia, their scenery and their people
St. John, James Augustus, 1801-1875


From
the centre of the glazed cupola depends a magnificent chandelier, which in
the evening, when the ladies of the harem generally bathe, casts a dazzling
splendour over the waters ; and on these occasions, when a number of
beautiful forms are seated unadorned in those cool refreshing recesses,
sporting in the waves, talking, laughing, singing, or listening to some wild
tale related by their handmaidens, the fictions of the Arabian Nights appear
to be realised. The female bath occupies the centre of the edifice, and is
surrounded by a long suite of dressing-rooms, elegantly furnished, where,
after bathing, the ladies sip coffee or sherbet, seated on English chairs, or
reposing on soft divans, while they are shampooed, fanned, or perfumed
with essences by their women. In all these apartments the divans, though
tasteful and elegant, are less sumptuous than in the palaces of Cairo, being
covered with gay chintzes of Egyptian manufacture.

In the gardens of Shoubra there is a
small alcove, where the Pasha, during his brief visits to that palace, will
frequently sit, about eleven or twelve o'clock at night, and, dismissing from
about him all his courtiers and attendants, remain for an hour or so. From
this alcove two long vistas, between cypress, orange, and citron trees,
diverge and extend the whole length of the grounds ; and in the calm
bright nights of the East, by moon or starlight, when the air is perfumed
by the faint odours of the most delicate flowers, a more delicious or romantic
station could hardly be found.

At this season Egypt assumes a character of beauty
altogether its own ; for though the Ganges and the Indus overflow their
banks, and present frequently a much vaster surface of water to the eye,
they want those rocky barriers on either hand, which here confine the flood,
and are reflected in all their grandeur from its surface. Nor does the beauty
of these arid ridges consist in their height and precipitous cliffs only.
Flooded morning and evening by the oblique rays of the sun, they present
an infinite variety of brilliant colours to the eye, assuming at every instant,
as the luminary rises or descends, fresh hues which, blending differently
produce the most gorgeous effect in the world. And on this spectacle how
delightful it is to gaze in the freshness of the dawn, or toward the close of
evening! Overhead an amethystine sky; in the distance, on all sides,
towering forests of palm- trees, mingling with mosques, domes, and minarets,
and the broad and majestic Nile at your feet, converted into a golden
expanse by the illusions of light ! The atmosphere, too, impregnated with
delicious perfume, lends its influence to complete the intoxication, while
the notes of music, rude but joyous, burst from each village as your boat
sails by; for even despotism itself cannot wholly repress the Arab's buoyant
spirits.

The beginning of this building
was in a fortunate horoscope. After that he had finished it, be covered it
with coloured satin from the top to the bottom ; and be appointed a solemn
festival, at which were present all the inhabitants of his kingdom. Then
be built in the western Pyramid thirty treasuries, filled with store of riches
and utensils, and with signatures made of precious stones, and with instru-
ments of iron, and vessels of earth, and with arms which rust not, and
with glass, which might be bended and yet not broken, and with strange
spells, and with several kinds of alakakirs, single and double, and with
deadly poisons, and with other things besides. He made, also, in the east
Pyramid, divers celestial spheres and stars, and what they severally operate,
in their aspects, and the perfumes which are to be used to them, and the
books which treat of these matters. He also put in the coloured Pyramid
the commentaries of the priests, in chests of black marble, and with every
priest a book in which were the wonders of his profession, and of bis
actions, and of bis nature, and what was done in bis time ; and what is,
and what shall be, from the beginning of time to the end of it.

Thence we proceeded to the Hair-oil Bazaar. It seems an extraordinary
name, but it is a very veracious one, for nothing is sold here but scents,
oils, and gold-lace, for the hair. We dismounted at the entrance ; for the
path between the shops is only just wide enough for one person to walk ;
and where it is necessary to pass another, the squeezing is quite ridiculous.
Yet I should think it is full half a mile long, and is covered in. I came
with the intention of making some purchases, as my stock of the commodity
was almost exhausted ; but somehow or another, although I tried at every
shop, I could not satisfy my fastidious fancy. It is true, every variety of
perfume was offered to my notice, and many were very delicious, yet still
they were so unlike anything I had smelt before, and, above all, so un-English,
that visions of grey, or at least bumt-tiphnir,* flitted before my imagination,
and I was afraid of choosing, not withstanding the many fair young forms
who were busy around me, fearlessly making their selections.
But to return to the bazaars. It may easily be conceived that aromatic
odour was almost overpowering, when I say that every other shop
was devoted to hundreds of scented bottles, and the intervening ones to
exquisite perfumed head-dresses, consisting of braids of ribbon and gold-
lace, which, when worn, reach to the ground. On each divan sat one or
more Muslim coiffeurs^ whose profession was stamped on their delicately-
turned moustache, and glossy silken beards.

The gardens of Shoubra are certainly among the finest I have anywhere
seen. They cover, perhaps, thirty or forty acres of ground, and arc laid
out in squares, parallelograms, triangles, &:c., divided from each other by
long straight alleys, formed, in many cases, with a hard kind of cement ; in
others, paved with pebbles of different colours, disposed in mosaics, like
those in the grottoes of the Isola Bella, and representing various objects of
nature or art, as plants, flowers, sabres, &c. In some places there are
trellissed arbours and marble fountains. The different compartments of
the gardens are surrounded by railings, surmounting a broad stone base-
ment, upon which are ranged, in pots, innumerable exotic flowers, of the
richest fragrance and most brilliant colours. The choicest, perhaps, of these
were clustered round that tasteful alcove, where the Pasha sometimes
spends an hour or two in the calm summer nights. Flowering shrubs and
odoriferous plants, with lemon, orange, citron, and pomegranate trees,
loaded with golden fruit, deeply impregnated the whole air with perfume,
and recalled by their beauty the fabled gardens of the Ilesperides, which,
like these, were situated in the sands of Africa. Great taste and judgment
have been exhibited in the laying out of these grounds. The vistas are
exquisite. Rows of cypresses, the favourites of the Egyptian Pan, on one
hand ; mimosas, the growth of the Arabian wilderness, on the other. Here
dark evergreens extend their heavily-laden boughs, tempting the eye with
the most delicate fruit ; there, shrubs, coveted solely for their beauty,
delight the senses with their rich and fragrant blossoms. These gardens,
as well as those at Ilhoda, are intersected by numerous small canals. The
principal ones are of hewn stone, but the subordinate branches are merely
cut with the spade ; and from these the water is made to overflow, or
diverted into new channels, by damming them up with the foot.*

But, as I have said, description is vain ; it would require a pen dipped
in rainbow hues to write it. Everywhere gaudy-coloured butterflies and
gauzy-winged dragon-flies were sipping and fluttering among the sweets
that surrounded them, while myriads of birds chanted forth their orisons
from the leafy branches above. Sometimes a hoopoe, with its glossy black
and white plumage, started uj) close to our feet from a neighbouring
thicket ; then a lively little blue bunting flew out from some flower-shrub,
and twittered around us almost within our grasp; immediately afterwards,
a crested-wren, perhaps, would cross our path. Everything appeared
replete with life and beauty in this favoured spot, and our senses of sight,
smell, and hearing, were equally gratified.
In a short time I had collected an exquisite bouquet of geraniums, roses,
pomegranates, and numerous other sweet;*, interspersed with myrtle. No
over-curious and lynx-eyed gardener forbids one to partake and carry away
a gleaning of those beauties so profusely scattered around. On the con-
trary, a young man, who was evidently entitled to do so by his office, came
forward, when he saw us, and presented me with a nosegay, composed of
the most choice plants of the garden. We had been wandering amongst a
plantation of olive-trees, when suddenly the narrow path we were following
opened upon the crystal stream I have before described, just at a point
where a handsome stone bridge was thrown over it. The material it was
composed of was almost hidden from view by a profusion of flowering
creepers, while aloes, planted by the water's edge, were rearing their gigantic
flower-stalks eleven and twelve feet in height above it, throwing the lemon
perfume of their petals into the already scented air. We crossed this
bridge, and found ourselves in a large open space, carpeted with turf, sur-
rounded by a walk, and a grove of pomegranate trees in full bloom. In
the centre of the lawn was a lofty flowering shrub, which I took at first
for the laburnum, but on approaching nearer found I was mistaken, although
the flower strongly resembles it ; it is exactly the same colour, but each
bunch of blossom is at least four or five times as long and full, and the
seedpods, some of which we gathered, were a foot and a half in length.
This open spot fronts a kiosk, or country-house, now building for the
Pasha.

Still further to the west was a wood of the same trees, but
with their intervals so completely filled up by an undergrowth of acacias,
tamarisks, and mimosas, that the whole appeared, at a distance, like the rich
masses of verdure of an English forest. Night and mooring time approach-
ing, we struck into a narrow pathway leading to the Nile. It was a
lovely evening, soft and balmy as June, the south wind having died away
to a gentle breeze, which wafted far and wide the perfume of the bean-fields,
now in full blossom, mingling with the mild fragrance of the ripe dhourra,
which the husbandmen were threshing with long sticks in the fields. A
rich old Turk, mounted on a well-fed black donkey, and followed by an
attendant with a fine led horse, travelled with us for several hours

The weather, though mild, was all this day gloomy, the sun scarcely
appearing at all, while low misty clouds rolled continually along the pinnacles
of the mountains ; yet the fields resounded with the songs of the skylarks,
and the scent of wild flowers perfumed the air. Extensive plantations of
sugar-cane, fields of wheat, lupines in flower, peas eighteen inches high,
rich clover, &c., cover the whole surface of the country with a variegated
carpet of verdure, exceeding in beauty the poetical descriptions of Fenelon.

Scarcely could paradise itself be more delightful than the land now before
us ; the whole atmosphere being perfumed faintly, but deliciously, by the
scent of many flowers, while every object which presented itself to the eye
was clothed with inimitable freshness and beauty. The weather was such
as we sometimes enjoy in England during the month of June, when the
sun's heat is tempered by light clouds which alternately admit and intercept
its beams. To enjoy it we slackened our pace ; Abydos and its Mem-
norium were, for the moment, forgotten, and the beauties of the landscape
were greatly enhanced by the buoyancy of my spirits and the indescribable
delights of health. I could now comprehend why the Romans sent their
consumptive patients, and the Turks their men grown prematurely old, to
the banks of the Nile, for nowhere on earth could they, in winter, find a
more congenial climate than that of Thebaid.

The evenings on the Nile are the most splendid I have witnessed ; from
these I, of course, exclude the storms which, in these regions, seem to take
the place of our northern snow-drifts. It is extremely hot during the day,
and the scorching rays of the sun are reflected with much intensity from the
surface of the water, the limestone rocks, and the sand of the desert. The
sun sinks behind the Libyan mountains, which lie enamelled in the darkest
blue, while the rays of light play, as on a prism, upon the opposite chain
of the Arabian mountains, tinging them with the brightest hues of gems, and
flowers, and butterflies ; the large detached masses resembling flaming
roses, while the long drawn chains look like bandeaux of amethyst in golden
settings ; and the calm waters give back the reflected radiance, shrouded
in a veil of transparent mist. The air is redolent with all the perfumes
of spring; the fields of rape seed, beans, lupines, vetch, and cotton, are in
full bloom, the wheat and the barley bow before the breeze ; acacia and
other trees, with parasite plants, bearing rich wine and lilac blossoms,
grow around the water-wheels, called Sakias, which are continually at
Avork to irrigate the fields ; or you find them flourishing naturally along
the uncultivated parts of the bank.

During our walk we observed, while proceeding through a thicket near
the river, that the air was impregnated with a faint but exquisite perfume,
the cause of which we in vain sought to discover. There was a small
myrtle-leafed tree, growing in the midst of several other unknown shrubs,
from which we at first supposed it to proceed ; but the leaves, on being
pressed, yielded no perceptible scent. Perhaps the date-palm here already
begins to feel the influence of spring, and diffuses its genial perfume through
the atmosphere.

Our path lay over the yellow sand,
where we sometimes sunk up to the ankle. Here ascending and descend-
ing among the hillocks, and emerging at intervals to the edge of the high
precipitous bank of the Nile, we traversed several circular basins, sur-
rounded by arenacious hills, which exhibit a singularly romantic aspect.
Thickly covered with tamarisks, interspersed with silk-trees, doum palms,
and copses of low bushes with beautiful foliage, and carpeted with grass
and fragrant wild flowers, they are precisely the spots the Bedouins would
choose to encamp in, affording both shelter from the winds and browsing for
their camels ; and here, in an atmosphere perfumed by nature, enjoying
the cool shade, silence, and the most perfect tranquillity, the traveller may
for the moment taste the sweetness of a desert life, free from the sordid
views and degrading sentiments which, in those who habitually lead it,
too frequently, it is to be feared, place them upon a level with the least
estimable portion of civilized society.

This sweet balsamic fragrance reminds me of the delicious scents which
our own woods and fields send forth in the finest of our seasons, the month
of June. The wild pigeons rock themselves on the long palm branches, or
coo in playful mood, like sportive children, among the bushes : shoals of
water-fowl, some white as alabaster, others dark as ravens, are congregated
in large flocks, chirping their monotonous evening hymn, which they
seem to have caught from the uniform ripple of the water which they
inhabit. Sometimes a large heron flies across the whole breadth of the
river, or a pelican, with its heavy wing, dives in pursuit of a fish. When
the sun has set and the twilight has faded away, the south is often
re-illumined by a dark and less brilliant twilight, which once more tinges
the fading mountains with its rosy hue. Meantime, the first stars begin
to appear; Venus, as an evening star, more glorious than any other planet
in the firmament. The bold hunter, Orion, ascends slowly over the moun-
tains of Arabia ; and still later, in the far south-east, the constellation of
Canopus, which, I believe, is never visible in Europe.

The country in the immediate neighbourhood of Tameia consists of a
rich alluvial soil, which would repay the labours of the husbandman
with abundant harvests, but it seems to have been long abandoned, and
was now in an entirely uncultivated state. We very soon entered,
however, upon a plain smiling and fertile, intersected by innumerable
small canals, along the banks of which ran high causeways, serving as
roads, and forming the only links of communication between the villages
during the time of the inundation. In many places the water still
remained in small pools, bordered with rushes and tufted reeds, consti-
tuting an interesting feature in a plain of matchless beauty, clothed with
vegetation ; — tender young corn, wheat in the ear, lupines, clover, beans, all
in flower, enamelling the fields, and impregnating the whole air with
fragrance. Towards the right, through breaks in the date forests, and the
thick undergrowth of tamarisks and mimosas, we occasionally, in riding
along, caught hasty glimpses of the calm shining surface of the lake, with
the sterile crags and wide wastes of sand which form its northern shore.
Never, at any period of my life, — except, perhaps, on the day that saw nie
wandering among the barren mountains of Messenia in the Peloponnesus, —
did I derive, from the presence of mere inanimate objects, a delight so
perfect, so capable of absorbing the thoughts and filling tlie whole mind,
so replete with poetical enjoyment, so intense and rapturous, as I expe-
rienced during this morning's ride.

Quitting, about sunrise, the dwelling of the sheikh, we continued our
journey over a plain of extraordinary fertility and beauty. Thousands of
spring flowers, red, yellow, white, purple, and blue, enamelled the greensward
by the wayside, while a magnificent expanse of bright verdure extended on
one hand to the Nile, on the other to the desert. Numerous mimosa-
trees in blossom, budding palms and odoriferous shrubs and plants, diffused
a fragrance through the air, rendered soft and balmy by the genial influence
of spring.