1850 - Florence Nightingale
Up and Down the First Cataract
Letter from Assuan
Well, the great feat is over; the British flag floated proudly up the last steps of the staircase at half past one today, and found herself in a position where she never had been before; and we came up stairs to another world. It was a grand sight. I would not have missed it for the world. Everybody at Cairo dissuaded us from it; but let nobody come to Egypt without going up the Cataracts: they have never seen such an exhibition before, and never will again. It is quite as interesting, in its way, as Karnak in another, or Cairo in a third, as the most wonderful development of instinct I suppose the world contains. I thought it quite beautiful; and tears fill one's eyes when one sees the provision of God for the preservation of life, always answering exactly to its need in every country. In Europe, the intellectual developments are quite enough to preserve life, and accordingly we see instinct undeveloped. In America, the wild Indian tracks his way through a trackless forest, by an instinct to us quite as miraculous as clairvoyance, or anything we are pleased to call impossible; and in Egypt the wild Nubian rides on the wave, and treads upon the foam, quite as securely as the Indian in his forest. The strife of man the elements - wind, earth, and water, - and his overcoming was a grand an epic poem as any I ever read in Homer or Milton. I should have expected to find the Triad of the Cataracts. Physical Skill, Strength, and Rapidity.
Here the poor Arab is in his element, and, instead of the sensual, debased creature you see him in his idle moments, he seems the god of the winds and the whirlpool. I think riding up the Cataract was one of the most delightful moments of my life. The inward excitement of European life is so great, its outward excitement so small, that a violent external call upon our senses and instincts to us is luxury and peace: the sense of power over the elements, of danger successfully overcome, is (to us, at least, the excitement of whose inner life has been so great) one of the keenest delights and reliefs.
We were four hours and a half surmounting the Cataracts. We left Syene at nine o'clock this morning. with all the "bigs" on board, viz. the Sheikhs, consisting of the "Great Father", his four sons, their children, and their grandchildren, four generations, and passed through "the opening" (which the name means), i.e. the rocky portals of Nubia, formed by Elephantina and Asouan. We wound our way, with a fair wind, to the foot of the First Rapid, about a mile from Asouan. Here were men posted on every rock to receive us, and we threw out our first rope. To me it would be the most interesting thing to go through every rapid with you; to describe the unerring aim with which the rope was thrown from the poop, - the man on the rock standing in the attitude of an Apollo Belvidere, watching the direction of the arrow, to receive it, his keen eye glistening with the eagerness of his watch. When a sunken rock came in view, twenty eyes had already seen it, and a dozen men had thrown themselves out upon it and were pushing the boat off by main force, their feet only against the rock, their backs against the boat; or had plunged upon an opposite bank, and, throwing themselves upon their backs, were pulling the rope towards them. On they sprang, from rock to rock, like chamois: l did not see one false step upon the shiny, slippery Syenite; one expected them to be dashed to pieces every moment. So the boat surmounted the First Rapid. Our rope was not strong enough, and if it had not been for a sudden puff of wind, which came exactly at the right moment, we should not have got through with our large boat; so Mr. B. said.
At the Second Rapid more men came: the divers sprang into the water, not head foremost, as ours do, but sitting, on their feet (for you must remember there is no question of sand banks here, but all hard granite), with the rope in their mouths, or under one shoulder and over the other, crossed a current which would have carried down an alligator, swam to a rock, made fast the rope round the rock, sitting on the noose, and holding it with their feet, while they kept their hands ready for action. Then all hands on board the boat pulled at the rope; and so we got through the Second, Third, and Fourth Rapids, which are short and straight, and the angle of pulling does not require altering. At dawn of day in the morning our decks had been cleared for action; everything carried into the cabins which could be moved, to leave space for the men; and the pantry, larder, still-room, and scullery piled up in a heap on deck, on which we were made to stand. Between every rapid comes a dead mill-pond, where old Nile rests from his labours, and where all the men came on board, they sat (as birds stand) upon the gunwale, not holding on by their toes, but the whole weight resting upon the back sinews of their legs, and balancing themselves by their ankles. They touch with nothing but their heels, and seem perfectly comfortable. I never saw such a feat; they look exactly like cormorants: our old Reis [captain] perched in the flukes of the anchor, which had been brought and laid on deck.
They do not swim as we do, but with their shoulders and arms out of the water, beating the water with their arms; and when they make a great effort, the head goes down under water, and they spring like porpoises. To see these men dive into the middle of a whirlpool, and go down where the bottom of the river is all granite, is to us like a feat of an Indian juggler going into the fire, almost incredible: or to see them come riding down a rapid upon a log, with their clothes on their heads! They come on board trembling, and their teeth chattering, where a companion receives them and wraps them in a sheet as tenderly as a bathing-woman, gives them a rub, and drags them to the fire kept burning on the bows, while Mr. B. administers the brandy. To see them watching the exact moment at which, and at no other, it will do to let the rope go, with all their senses, eyes, ears, touch, in a state as perfect as a dog's, is the most beautiful instinct I ever saw at work.
But there is a great deal beside this: the skill to seize the whirlpool exactly where, and as far as, it will carry the boat on; to profit by a counter current, and the moment it ceases to serve, and there is danger of the boat being whirled back - up with the sail, out with the ropes, forty hands overboard: - an instant, or, as Paolo calls it, a "lampo", and it would be too late. We approached the Fifth Rapid, and it seemed impossible that we could be going through that - the passage so narrow, the current so rapid, the rocks so sharp. We threw out two ropes, one on each side, for here our line of tactics altered: the rapid was too winding, the angles too numerous for us to pull to a stone; we had a line of men on each side to pull at us, and, of course, the fixed point wanting, the difficulty was greater. Crash went something: the right hand rope had broken, and the boat whirled round; but our bows caught upon the opposite rock. The other rope held, at which sixty men were pulling: the "bigs" worked like heroes, in the water - out of the water; it reminded one of the time when chiefs were chosen for their bodily prowess, their strength in throwing, or swiftness in running - the “podokes Achilleus” - and we pulled through. By this time the rocks were lined with natives, many carrying spears and clubs. The wildness of the place is beyond expression, - not a palm, not a blade of grass; an expanse of heaps of Syenite, with rapids between them; the rocks hollowed out into the most inconceivable shapes, - some like bowls, some like boilers, some like boot-jacks, some like Etruscan vases, where little whirlpools must have established themselves in inundations. It is the most beautiful red Syenite: veins of quartz running through, mica and hornblende sparkling; sometimes layers of pure red pebbles set in rows in the mixed granite.
And here I must confess that the deafening, dizzying din of the crews takes away very much from the idea of the power. As for the "bigs" giving orders, it was out of the question; they were only understood by their gestures. One would have thought the consciousness of power would have been calm; one thinks of strength as so gentle: but I suppose it is only the intellectual that is still; and it is to remind us of the wide difference which lies between intellectual or moral power, and physical, that the latter is made so turbulent. However that be, the wild cries of these gods of the waves make the scene most grotesque, but not more impressive. At the Sixth Rapid - which is a long winding bay, where the wind fails in its help, and nothing is to be done but by sheer strength - we were put ashore, partly to see the other English boat, who, as Paolo said, "had got a stocked" (a stick, a blow), "and he leak". At the last rapid, our Sheikh had got out his new, his best rope, when the other broke: and now, with 120 (!) men pulling at this, and another rope to the stern to regulate the angle, slowly and steadily we saw her pulled up, and we floated into still water.
A mile further down we had seen a boat lost, her back broken, her yard just out of the water.
Abundance of salaams followed; we parted with our Sheikhs of four generations, and set our sail for Nubia. A mile further on, we came in sight of Philoe. There! there! look! it stole upon our sight gently and softly from behind its grey rocks, - such a contrast to Elephantina! It was the sleep of calm and lovely death, instead of the agony of convulsion. It was all that I had hoped and expected. The wind was not high, and we stole upon the rest of "Him who sleeps in Philoe" like whisperers, on tiptoe, just as one ought to do. But, alas! the envious wind freshened, and oh, we did not stop! I was so disappointed. But as we wore round her, for we took the Eastern passage, I saw long trains of camels, asses, and horses, with scarlet housings, on the river banks, and on the river four great boats full of worshippers, crossing over to carry these offerings; and high upon the island itself, a long procession of gaily-coloured robes, moving to the Hypsaethral Temple. It was the worship of Osiris restored. We had come up stairs into the old world of 4000 years ago …
If the going up the Cataracts was strange, it was nothing to the coming down. We set off before sunrise, as it is necessary to have no breath of wind, with the "bigs" and all their men on board. Our boat is the largest that has ever been up the Cataracts, and we came down a passage which is very rarely used, as the tossing rapid would swamp a smaller boat. It was widened for Ibrahim Pacha's steamer. S. went on shore, but I stuck by the old boat, and truly it was a sight worth seeing how she gradually accelerated her speed as she approached the rapid, which, foaming and tossing, with scarcely two feet on either side our oars, seemed as if no boat could live in it, then took the leap like a racehorse, so gallantly, and went riding down the torrent as if she enjoyed it. Three times her bows dived under water (I don't mean that the waves broke over the boat, - that they did all the time, and half filled her with water, and all our biscuit, too, which was of more consequence), but three times she dived under water up to the kitchen, and rose again; twice she struck, but gallantly triumphed over all her enemies, and long before l have written this one line we were at the bottom, and swung round at the end of the rapid - the first time this feat has been tried, as boats are generally run ashore on the bank at the foot of the Cataract, as the only alternative. Of course, everything depends on the steering, and the oldest "big" of all, the "Great Father", mounted on the poop by his steersman, whence they did steer like masters. The boat obeyed, and we verged not an inch to the right or the left. S., who watched us from the shore, thought that we could not be going down that place, that the boat had not minded its rudder, and that they had run her down there as the only resource. I suppose such a feat of steering is without parallel in any other country. The Cataract by which we came down runs into the main stream at right angles, like water out of a cock; we were steered on the edge of the gush, on the left edge, so that when we came to the bottom, by the motion of the rudder and a vigorous pull of the oars on one side (our men were rowing with their whole might all through the descent), the bows were got out of the current on the left, which caught the stern, and the boat turned on her centre like a pivot, and swung round into still water; this is a new feat.
Mr. B. and I sat on the pantry, embracing our water jar, on the top of which we received the congratulations of all the "bigs" and of all their men, who all shook hands with us, and cried "Salaam!" the moment it was over. There was but one more little rapid to pass, and when we arrived at Syene, and were quietly at breakfast, the great "big" came in, and then the pilots, and solemnly applied my hand to his lips and forehead, and kissed Mr. B. on the top of his head, and then asked for Baksheesh. The dignity with which an Arab shakes hands with you and begs is charming.
Letters from Egypt
London 1854; reprint New York 1987