CHAPTER IV. On the Abyssinian border. A new school of medicine - Sacred shrines and epidemics.

We left the camp of Abou Sinn on the morning of July 25th, and in a few rapid marches arrived at Tomat, a lovely spot at the junction of the Atbara with the Settite.

The Settite is the river par excellence, as it is the principal stream of Abyssinia, in which country it bears the name of "Tacazzy." Above the junction the Athara does not exceed two hundred yards in width. Both rivers have scooped out deep and broad valleys throughout their course. This fact confirmed my first impression that the supply of soil had been brought down by the Atbara to the Nile. The country on the opposite or eastern bank of the Atbara is contested ground. In reality it forms the western frontier of Abyssinia, of which the Atbara River is the boundary; but since the annexation of the Nubian provinces to Egypt there has been no safety for life or property upon the line of frontier; thus a large tract of country actually forming a portion of Abyssinia is uninhabited.

Upon our arrival at Sofi we were welcomed by the sheik, and by a German, Florian, who was delighted to see Europeans. He was a sallow, sickly-looking man, who with a large bony frame had been reduced from constant hard work and frequent sickness to little but skin and sinew. He was a mason, who had left Germany with the Austrian mission to Khartoum, but finding the work too laborious in such a climate, he and a friend, who was a carpenter, had declared for independence, and they had left the mission. They were both enterprising fellows, and sportsmen; therefore they had purchased rifles and ammunition, and had commenced life as hunters. At the same time they employed their leisure hours in earning money by the work of their hands in various ways.

I determined to arrange our winter quarters at Sofi for three months' stay, during which I should have ample time to gain information and complete arrangements for the future. I accordingly succeeded in purchasing a remarkably neat house for ten piastres (two shillings). The architecture was of an ancient style, from the original design of a pill-box surmounted by a candle extinguisher. I purchased two additional huts, which were erected at the back of our mansion, one as the kitchen, the other as the servants' hall.

In the course of a week we had as pretty a camp as Robinson Crusoe himself could have coveted. We had a view of about five miles in extent along the valley of the Atbara, and it was my daily amusement to scan with my telescope the uninhabited country upon the opposite side of the river and watch the wild animals as they grazed in perfect security. We were thoroughly happy at Sofi. There was a delightful calm and a sense of rest, a total estrangement from the cares of the world, and an enchanting contrast in the soft green verdure of the landscape before us, to the many hundred weary miles of burning desert through which we had toiled from Lower Egypt.

Time glided away smoothly until the fever invaded our camp. Florian became seriously ill. My wife was prostrated by a severe attack of gastric fever, which for nine days rendered her recovery almost hopeless. Then came the plague of boils, and soon after a species of intolerable itch, called the coorash. I adopted for this latter a specific I had found successful with the mange in dogs, namely, gunpowder, with one fourth sulphur added, made into a soft paste with water, and then formed into an ointment with fat. It worked like a charm with the coorash.

Faith is the drug that is supposed to cure the Arab; whatever his complaint may be, he applies to his Faky or priest. This minister is not troubled with a confusion of book-learning, neither are the shelves of his library bending beneath weighty treatises upon the various maladies of human nature; but he possesses the key to all learning, the talisman that will apply to all cases, in that one holy book, the Koran. This is his complete pharmacopoeia: his medicine chest, combining purgatives, blisters, sudorifies, styptics, narcotics, emetics, and all that the most profound M.D. could prescribe. With this "multum in parvo" stock-in-trade the Faky receives his patients. No. 1 arrives, a barren woman who requests some medicine that will promote the blessing of childbirth. No. 2, a man who was strong in his youth, but from excessive dissipation has become useless. No. 3, a man deformed from his birth, who wishes to become straight as other men. No. 4, a blind child. No. 5, a dying old woman, carried on a litter; and sundry other impossible cases, with others of a more simple character.

The Faky produces his book, the holy Koran, and with a pen formed of a reed he proceeds to write a prescription - not to be made up by an apothecary, as such dangerous people do not exist; but the prescription itself is to be SWALLOWED! Upon a smooth board, like a slate, he rubs sufficient lime to produce a perfectly white surface; upon this he writes in large characters, with thick glutinous ink, a verse or verses from the Koran that he considers applicable to the case; this completed, he washes off the holy quotation, and converts it into a potation by the addition of a little water; this is swallowed in perfect faith by the patient, who in return pays a fee according to the demand of the Faky.

As few people can read or write, there is an air of mystery in the art of writing which much enhances the value of a scrap of paper upon which is written a verse from the Koran. A few piastres are willingly expended in the purchase of such talismans, which are carefully and very neatly sewn into small envelopes of leather, and are worn by all people, being handed down from father to son.

The Arabs are especially fond of relics; thus, upon the return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the "hadji" or pilgrim is certain to have purchased from some religious Faky of the sacred shrine either a few square inches of cloth, or some such trifle, that belonged to the prophet Mahomet. This is exhibited to his friends and strangers as a wonderful spell against some particular malady, and it is handed about and received with extreme reverence by the assembled crowd. I once formed one of a circle when a pilgrim returned to his native village. We sat in a considerable number upon the ground, while he drew from his bosom a leather envelope, suspended from his neck, from which he produced a piece of extremely greasy woollen cloth, about three inches square, the original color of which it would have been impossible to guess. This was a piece of Mahomet's garment, but what portion he could not say. The pilgrim had paid largely for this blessed relic, and it was passed round our circle from hand to hand, after having first been kissed by the proprietor, who raised it to the crown of his head, which he touched with the cloth, and then wiped both his eyes. Each person who received it went through a similar performance, and as ophthalmia and other diseases of the eyes were extremely prevalent, several of the party had eyes that had not the brightness of the gazelle's; nevertheless, these were supposed to become brighter after having been wiped by the holy cloth. How many eyes this same piece of cloth had wiped, it would be impossible to say, but such facts are sufficient to prove the danger of holy relics, that are inoculators of all manner of contagious diseases.

I believe in holy shrines as the pest spots of the world. We generally have experienced in Western Europe that all violent epidemics arrive from the East. The great breadth of the Atlantic boundary would naturally protect us from the West, but infectious disorders, such as plague, cholera, small-pox, etc., may be generally tracked throughout their gradations from their original nests. Those nests are in the East, where the heat of the climate acting upon the filth of semi-savage communities engenders pestilence.

The holy places of both Christians and Mahometans are the receptacles for the masses of people of all nations and classes who have arrived from all points of the compass. The greater number of such people are of poor estate, and many have toiled on foot from immense distances, suffering from hunger and fatigue, and bringing with them not only the diseases of their own remote counties, but arriving in that weak state that courts the attack of any epidemic. Thus crowded together, with a scarcity of provisions, a want of water, and no possibility of cleanliness, with clothes that have been unwashed for weeks or months, in a camp of dirty pilgrims, without any attempt at drainage, an accumulation of filth takes place that generates either cholera or typhus; the latter, in its most malignant form, appears as the dreaded "plague." Should such an epidemic attack the mass of pilgrims debilitated by the want of nourishing food, and exhausted by their fatiguing march, it runs riot like a fire among combustibles, and the loss of life is terrific. The survivors radiate from this common centre, upon their return to their respective homes, to which they carry the seeds of the pestilence to germinate upon new soils in different countries. Doubtless the clothes of the dead furnish materials for innumerable holy relics as vestiges of the wardrobe of the Prophet. These are disseminated by the pilgrims throughout all countries, pregnant with disease; and, being brought into personal contact with hosts of true believers, Pandora's box could not be more fatal.

Not only are relics upon a pocket scale conveyed by pilgrims and reverenced by the Arabs, but the body of any Faky who in lifetime was considered unusually holy is brought from a great distance to be interred in some particular spot. In countries where a tree is a rarity, a plank for a coffin is unknown; thus the reverend Faky, who may have died of typhus, is wrapped in cloths and packed in a mat. In this form he is transported, perhaps some hundred miles, slung upon a camel, with the thermometer above 130 degrees Fah. in the sun, and he is conveyed to the village that is so fortunate as to be honored with his remains. It may be readily imagined that with a favorable wind the inhabitants are warned of his approach some time before his arrival.

Happily, long before we arrived at Sofi, the village had been blessed by the death of a celebrated Faky, a holy man who would have been described as a second Isaiah were the annals of the country duly chronicled. This great "man of God," as he was termed, had departed this life at a village on the borders of the Nile, about eight days' hard camel-journey from Sofi; but from some assumed right, mingled no doubt with jobbery, the inhabitants of Sofi had laid claim to his body, and he had arrived upon a camel horizontally, and had been buried about fifty yards from the site of our camp. His grave was beneath a clump of mimosas that shaded the spot, and formed the most prominent object in the foreground of our landscape. Thither every Friday the women of the village congregated, with offerings of a few handfuls of dhurra in small gourd-shells, which they laid upon the grave, while they ATE THE HOLY EARTH in small pinches, which they scraped like rabbits, from a hole they had burrowed toward the venerated corpse. This hole was about two feet deep from continual scratching, and must have been very near the Faky.

Although thus reverent in their worship, the Arab's religion is a sort of adjustable one. The wild boar, for instance, is invariably eaten by the Arab hunters, although in direct opposition to the rules of the Koran. I once asked them what their Faky would say if he were aware of such a transgression. "Oh!" they replied, "we have already asked his permission, as we are sometimes severely pressed for food in the jungles. He says, `If you have the KORAN in your hand and NO PIG, you are forbidden to eat pork; but if you have the PIG in your hand and NO KORAN, you had better eat what God has given you.'"