THE DAWN OF A CENTURY OF DISCOVERY
Burckhardt's first excursion was limited to the borders of the Nile, a narrow space made up of little valleys, which debouched into the river. The traveller estimated the population of the country at 100,000, distributed over a surface of fertile land 450 miles in length, by a quarter of a mile in width.
"The men," says the narrative, "are, as a rule, muscular, rather shorter than the Egyptians, having little beard or moustache, usually merely a pointed beard under the chin. They have a pleasant expression, are superior to the Egyptians in courage and intelligence, and naturally inquisitive. They are not thieves. They occasionally pick up a fortune by dint of hard work, but they have little enterprise. Women share the same physical advantages, are pretty as a rule, and well made; their appearance is gentle and pleasing, and they are modest in behaviour. M. Denon has underrated the Nubians, but it must not be forgotten that their physique varies in different districts. Where there is much land to cultivate, they are well developed; but in districts where arable land is a mere strip, the people diminish in vigour, and are sometimes walking skeletons."
The whole country groaned under the yoke of the Kashefs, who were descendants of the commander of the Bosniacs, and paid only a small annual tribute to Egypt, which, however, was sufficient to serve as a pretext for oppressing the unfortunate fellaheen. Burckhardt cites a curious example of the insolence with which the Kashefs behaved.
"Hassan Kashef," he says, was in need of barley for his horses. Accompanied by his slaves, he walked into the fields, and there met the owner of a fine plot of barley. "How badly you cultivate your land," said he. "Here you plant barley in a field where you might have reaped an excellent crop of water-melons of double the value. See, here are some melon-seeds (offering a handful to the peasant proprietor); sow your field with these; and you, slaves, tear up this bad barley and bring it to me."
In March, 1814, after a short rest, Burckhardt undertook a fresh exploration, not this time of the banks of the Nile, but of the Nubian desert. Justly conceiving poverty to be his surest safe guard, he dismissed his servant, sold his camel, and contenting himself with one ass, joined a caravan of poor traders. The caravan started from Daraou, a village inhabited partly by fellahs and partly by Ababdéh Arabs. The traveller had good reason to complain of the former, not because they recognized him as a European, but because they imagined him to be a Syrian Turk, come to share the commerce in slaves of which they had the monopoly.
It would be useless to enumerate the names of the bridges, hills, and valleys in this desert. We will rather summarize the traveller's report of the physical aspect of the country.
Bruce, who had explored it, paints it in too gloomy colours, and exaggerates the difficulties of the route. If Burckhardt is to be credited, the country is less barren than that between Aleppo and Bagdad, or Damascus and Medina. The Nubian desert is not merely a plain of sand, where nothing interrupts the dreary monotony. It is interspersed with rocks, some not less than 300 feet in height, and shaded by thickets of acacias or date-trees. The shelter of these trees is, however, unavailing against the vertical rays of the sun, which explains an Arabic proverb, "Rely upon the favour of the great and the shade of an acacia."
At Ankheyre, or Wady-Berber, the caravan reached the Nile, after passing Shigre, one of the best mountain springs. One danger only is to be feared in crossing the desert; that of finding the wells at Nedjeym dry; and, unless the traveller should lose his way, which, however, with trustworthy guides, is little likely to happen, no serious obstacle arises.
It would appear, therefore, that the sufferings experienced by Bruce must have been greatly exaggerated, although the narrative of the Scotch traveller is generally trustworthy. The natives of the province of Berber appear to be identical with the Barbarins of Bruce, the Barabas mentioned by D'Anville, and the Barauras spoken of by Poncet. They are a well-made race, and different in feature from the negroes. They maintain their purity of descent by marrying only with the women of their own or of kindred tribes. Curious as is the picture Burckhardt draws of the character and manners of this tribe, it is not at all edifying. It would be difficult to convey an idea of the corruption and degradation of the Berbers. The little town of Wady-Berber, a commercial centre, the rendezvous for caravans, and a depôt for slaves, is a regular resort of banditti.
Burckhardt, who had trusted to the protection of the merchants of Daraou, found that he had made a great mistake in so doing. They sought every means of plundering him, chased him out of their company, and forced him to seek refuge with the guides and donkey-drivers, who cordially welcomed him.
Upon the 10th of April a fine was levied upon the caravan by the Mek of Damer, which lies a little south of the tributary Mogren (called Mareb by Bruce). This is a well-kept and cleanly Fakir village, which contrasts agreeably with the ruins and filth of Berber. The Fakirs give themselves up to the practices of sorcery, magic, and charlatanism. One of them, it is said, could even make a lamb bleat in the stomach of the man who had stolen and eaten it! These ignorant people have entire faith in such fables, and it must be reluctantly admitted that the fact contributes not a little to the peace of the town and the prosperity of the country.