CHAPTER XI. THE DOWNFALL OF THE NILE
Some thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our geological period, when the continents had taken, in the last great upheaval, almost the forms by which we now know them, and when the rivers began to trace their hesitating courses, it happened that the rains of a whole watershed of Africa were precipitated in one formidable torrent across the uninhabitable region which stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and is called the region of the deserts. And this enormous waterway, lost as it was in the sands, by-and-by regulated its course: it became the Nile, and with untiring patience set itself to the proper task of river, which in this accursed zone might well have seemed an impossible one. First it had to round all the blocks of granite scattered in its way in the high plains of Nubia; and then, and more especially, to deposit, little by little, successive layers of mud, to form a living artery, to create, as it were, a long green ribbon in the midst of this infinite domain of death.
How long ago is it since the work of the great river began? There is something fearful in the thought. During the 5000 years of which we have any knowledge the incessant deposit of mud has scarcely widened this strip of inhabited Egypt, which at the most ancient period of history was almost as it is to-day. And as for the granite blocks on the plains of Nubia, how many thousands of years did it need to roll them and to polish them thus? In the times of the Pharaohs they already had their present rounded forms, worn smooth by the friction of the water, and the hieroglyphic inscriptions on their surfaces are not perceptibly effaced, though they have suffered the periodical inundation of the summer for some forty or fifty centuries!
It was an exceptional country, this valley of the Nile; marvellous and unique; fertile without rain, watered according to its need by the great river, without the help of any cloud. It knew not the dull days and the humidity under which we suffer, but kept always the changeless sky of the immense surrounding deserts, which exhaled no vapour that might dim the horizon. It was this eternal splendour of its light, no doubt, and this easiness of life, which brought forth here the first fruits of human thought. This same Nile, after having so patiently created the soil of Egypt, became also the father of that people, which led the way for all others - like those early branches that one sees in spring, which shoot first from the stem, and sometimes die before the summer. It nursed that people, whose least vestiges we discover to-day with surprise and wonder; a people who, in the very dawn, in the midst of the original barbarity, conceived magnificently the infinite and the divine; who placed with such certainty and grandeur the first architectural lines, from which afterwards our architecture was to be derived; who laid the bases of art, of science, and of all knowledge.
Later on, when this beautiful flower of humanity was faded, the Nile, flowing always in the midst of its deserts, seems to have had for mission, during nearly two thousand years, the maintenance on its banks of a kind of immobility and desuetude, which was in a way a homage of respect for these stupendous relics. While the sand was burying the ruins of the temples and the battered faces of the colossi, nothing changed under this sky of changeless blue. The same cultivation proceeded on the banks as in the oldest ages; the same boats, with the same sails, went up and down the thread of water; the same songs kept time to the eternal human toil. The race of fellahs, the unconscious guardian of a prodigious past, slept on without desire of change, and almost without suffering. And time passed for Egypt in a great peace of sunlight and of death.
But to-day the foreigners are masters here, and have wakened the old Nile - wakened to enslave it. In less than twenty years they have disfigured its valley, which until then had preserved itself like a sanctuary. They have silenced its cataracts, captured its precious water by dams, to pour it afar off on plains that are become like marshes and already sully with their mists the crystal clearness of the sky. The ancient rigging no longer suffices to water the land under cultivation. Machines worked by steam, which draw the water more quickly, commence to rise along the banks, side by side with new factories. Soon there will scarcely be a river more dishonoured than this, by iron chimneys and thick, black smoke. And it is happening apace, this exploitation of the Nile - hastily, greedily, as in a hunt for spoils. And thus all its beauty disappears, for its monotonous course, through regions endless alike, won us only by its calm and its old-world mystery.
Poor Nile of the prodigies! One feels sometimes still its departing charm, stray corners of it remain intact. There are days of transcendent clearness, incomparable evenings, when one may still forget the ugliness and the smoke. But the classic expedition by dahabiya, the ascent of the river from Cairo to Nubia, will soon have ceased to be worth making.
Ordinarily this voyage is made in the winter, so that the traveller may follow the course of the sun as it makes its escape towards the southern hemisphere. The water then is low and the valley parched. Leaving the cosmopolitan town of modern Cairo, the iron bridges, and the pretentious hotels, with their flaunting inscriptions, it imparts a sense of sudden peacefulness to pass along the large and rapid waters of this river, between the curtains of palm-trees on the banks, borne by a dahabiya where one is master and, if one likes, may be alone.