Elephantine is the border between Egypt proper and the land of Nubia; the boundary is marked by a particularly nasty cataract region filled with granite rocks. To get to Nubia we go overland for a few miles and join our boat, which has been towed over the rocks, below the cataract. We get on board opposite a big island which will one day be called Philae.
The next part of the trip is not as interesting; the land is poor and not so green with growing crops. Insofar as the monuments go, however, we might still be in Egypt. We pass temples built in the traditional style at half a dozen places, and at least half of them were built by Ramses, a not immodest pharaoh. His most impressive enterprise is at Abu Simbel, which we reach on the eighth day after leaving Aswan. The temple itself is cut into the rock; on the facade are four enormous statues of Ramses, sixty-six feet high.
One of the passengers on our boat is a scribe, who will leave us at Abu Simbel. He carries a bag of scrolls with the texts which he is going to copy onto the walls of the temple, and he tells us that the king wants to revise—once again—the inscriptions that describe his great victories over the Hittites, that presumptuous group of people far away in the north. The scribe is a middle-aged man, run to fat a trifle around the waistline, as scribes usually are; his face has the blank amiability of the trained bureaucrat of any age. But we think we see a twitch at the corner of his mouth as he refers, respectfully, to the king’s famous victory. We too know a few things about the battle of Kadesh, but we are just as tactful as the scribe.
To purists the statues at Abu Simbel seem too big, and rather stumpy. The facade of the temple looks overloaded, with the four colossi, a complicated sculptured group over the doorway, and a row of carved apes on top of the whole thing. It is impressive, though, in keeping with the ambitions of the king. The smaller, adjoining temple is dedicated to the king’s wife, Nefertari, but hers is not the only image to appear there. You can guess who predominates. Beautiful or not, it is certainly solid. As the captain says, it will surely endure as long as the pyramids of Giza.
A further two days’ travel brings us to the Second Cataract, where the river descends in a series of rapids and a chaos of glistening black boulders, wet with foam. Above the gorge is our destination, and it is quite a sight: a massive fort, with battlements and ramparts. Our messages are for the commander of Buhen, where we are welcomed by a crowd which consists of most of the inhabitants of the fort. It is a dull life, and they are always glad to see someone from home.
Buhen is a good place to stop on this trip, for it marks the end of the area which has been under Egyptian control for so long that it is Egyptian in manners and customs—Lower Nubia, or Wawat, as it was known in those days. Anyhow, the rapids of the Second Cataract are dangerous; few vessels attempt to pass them. There are forty miles of rapids, with more forts along the way. The region to the south, Upper Nubia, or Cush, was invaded by several warrior pharaohs, but it refused to stay conquered. We decide not to go on; we are five hundred years too early for the pyramids of Napata and Meroe, which will be built by the descendants of the wretched Cushites whom the commander of Buhen has just mentioned with such sneering condescension. He seems like a pleasant fellow; we need not tell him that within a few centuries the wretched Cushites will be on their way north to take over the throne of Egypt.
We have seen most of the Black Land now, and without so much as leaving the deck of the ship. Boat travel is pleasant; but as we turn from the Black Land to a quick survey of the Red, we can be thankful that our journey is only an imaginary one. We are going into the desert, and that requires fortitude.
The deserts—the Libyan on the west and the Arabian on the east—are high above the valley. In prehistoric times the river cut its way through a plateau which is composed of limestone in the north and sandstone in the south, so that by the pharaonic period, as today, the valley lay at the bottom of a trench whose cliffs are several hundred feet high.
If we were going into the eastern desert with the ancient Egyptians, we would probably backtrack down the Nile to Coptos, which lies on the eastward bend where the river comes closest to the Red Sea. Here we would fit out a caravan of donkeys—the camel will not be known for a long time yet—and start out along the Wadi Hammamat, heading due east.
The eastern plateau is full of these wadis, which are like small canyons or arroyos, and we follow them when we can. There are wells along this particular wadi, which has been a traveled route for millennia. Even so, it is a dreadful trip. The landscape is as barren and dead as a scene on the moon; high mountains parallel the coast, and at one point in our route we have to climb over a pass that rises to 2,500 feet above sea level. The sun is baking hot, and the short-lived spring flowers, products of the winter rains, have long since died. Remembering the cool gardens around the prince’s palace in Coptos, we wipe our streaming brows and wonder why anyone but a madman would venture into these purgatorial rocks. The clue lies, in part, in the ancient name of Coptos. It was called Nebet, and “Nebet” means “the Golden Place.”
Some of the gold that made Egypt great among the nations came from Nubia, but a goodly share of it was found in the desert east of Egypt proper. Some of the gold is still there. Corporations to rework the ancient mines were formed in the last century of our era, but the effort had to be abandoned after a few years because the ores were not worth the expense of extraction. This problem would not have worried the Egyptians; if they wanted something they were willing to put forth a degree of energy which we would consider prohibitive—as witness the pyramids. Perhaps, too, they got all the richer ores and left the rest.
In the Museum at Turin there is a particularly fascinating papyrus, perhaps the oldest treasure map in the world. It may have been drawn at about the time of this imaginary journey to ancient Egypt, and it shows the location of some of the gold mines of the eastern desert. Archaeologists are not sure which mines were meant, but they may have been the very mines that lie along the Hammamat route. These mines, those of Fawakir, are almost on Egypt’s front doorstep compared with some of the others. At some of the desolate, isolated sites there are ruins of ancient camps—stalls for cattle and for the miserable human cattle who worked the mines, barracks for the troops who kept them at a job none of them would have endured unless they had been forced to do it. Perhaps only criminals and prisoners of war were sent to these godforsaken spots; it would have been punishment to suit any crime.
There are jewels in this desert as well as gold—garnets, agate, chalcedony, jasper, rock crystal, carnelian—all prized by the Egyptians for ornaments. Apparently the ancients never discovered the beryls and emeralds, which were found later.
Hard stone was quarried in this barren landscape. True, all stones are hard, but some, I am told, are a lot harder than others. The limestone and sandstone of the valley cliffs, from which most temples were constructed, are soft stones. The Egyptians wanted finer material for special objects, such as the sarcophagus that held a king’s body and the statue that depicted his divine form. At Aswan they quarried red and black granite, from a quarry northeast of Cairo they obtained quartzite, and from the Wadi Hammamat they got the “beautiful bekhen stone,” a gray-blue graywacke prized for the mirrorlike polish it could take. Flint also came from the desert; the ancient mines have been located.
Under its forbidding surface, the desert was a treasure house. But the Egyptians had still another motive for venturing into it. Through the Wadi Hammamat, ancient caravans made their way to the Red Sea, and from ports on the coast they set sail on trading expeditions south to Africa. The products of the mysterious country the Egyptians called “God’s Land” are as poetic as the name itself—apes and ivory, gold and ebony, panther skins, ostrich feathers, frankincense and myrrh. The strange little dancing dwarfs, who made such popular royal “pets,” also came from God’s Land. We don’t know precisely where this exotic country was located, but we think it was somewhere near modern Somaliland.
Having made one jump from Elephantine to Coptos, let us make another one northward, to where the Delta spreads out green arms to east and west. The desert east of the Delta merges into the peninsula of Sinai, also a source of wealth and a high road to distant lands.
The discovery of how to mine and work copper was one of the great advances of early Egyptian culture. The pyramids were built with copper tools. There are a number of ancient mines in Sinai, most of them in the south of the peninsula. Some of the copper which was so essential to Egypt must have come from the eastern desert, although inscriptional evidence is scarce. It is also scarce with regard to the copper mines of Sinai, but it is a safe assumption that the Egyptians got a good deal of this essential mineral there. The miners who worked at Magharah and Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai left numerous inscriptions scratched on the rocks nearby, but these workmen were after turquoise. This semiprecious stone, popular in jewelry from the earliest times, was sacred to the goddess Hathor, one of whose epithets was Lady of Turquoise.
The rocky, sandy roads of northern Sinai led into Asia. The Egyptians got tin and silver, amber and lapis lazuli from the East, not to mention the famous cedar of Lebanon. Under the empire, when they conquered—and were conquered—they also acquired slaves, mercenary soldiers, cattle, and miscellaneous booty. Unfortunately, roads go two ways—if the Egyptians could get out, the Asiatics could get in. They could not get in so easily, since the Egyptians guarded the paths; by garrisoning the few wells they could pretty well control the goings and comings of the “wretched Asiatics.” Still, the Asiatics came, and at certain periods they came in a flood instead of a trickle. The hated Hyksos were Asiatics who brought to Egypt a national humiliation which was not wiped out until the warrior kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty drove the invaders back out into the deserts from which they had come. Even from the invaders the Egyptians got new and useful ideas, and at all periods contacts with the other civilized powers of the Near East—Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Mitanni, Hatti—led to important developments in Egyptian history and culture. The other great civilized powers with whom Egypt had trade relations were off in the middle of the “Great Green”—Crete, Cyprus, and, later, the Mycenean civilization.
The desert on the west of Egypt, the one we call the Libyan, was not so exciting as the eastern desert. It had some valuable minerals, notably diorite and amethyst, but its most distinguishing characteristic was the string of oases that ran in a line roughly paralleling the Nile. There are six oases, five of which were controlled by the ancient Egyptians. Kharga, the “southern oasis,” was one of the most important; it was famous for wine, as was Bahriyah, the “northern oasis.” Perhaps the most useful was the Wadi Natrun, the source of natron, the salt used by the Egyptians in embalming. Far to the northwest of the Wadi Natrun lay Siwa, the only one of the group which was probably not under Egyptian control until late. This was where Alexander the Great went to be recognized as king of Egypt by the great god Amon.
The water which makes the oases possible comes up in pools or springs, some of them thermal in nature. There is so much water that, ironically, the oases used to be quite unhealthy because of malarial fevers. Perhaps the ancient Egyptians were more skillful at handling their water supply than were the Arabs of the nineteenth century A.D., but it is interesting to note that the oases were dumping grounds for undesirables in pharaonic times—political enemies and criminals were exiled to them. The isolation of the oases did make them good prisons without bars; once you were there, there you stayed unless you could bribe the soldiers of the desert patrol to look the other way while you loaded a donkey caravan with food and water. But if the places were as unhealthy in ancient times as they were a century ago, they might also have been a slow sentence of death for anyone the king wanted to get rid of.
The original inhabitants of the oases may have been the wandering tribes the Egyptians called the Tjemehu and Tjehenu. These people had to live somewhere, and there is no place else to live in that area; a few days away from the oases the great sand sea of the Sahara begins. Other nomads lived up north, near the western side of the Delta. They were relatively primitive peoples compared with the Egyptians, who were constantly having to go out and “chastise” them. Living where and as they did, we can hardly blame the Libyan tribes for occasionally raiding one of the oases or a western Delta village. Eventually some of them migrated into Egypt itself and became “Egyptianized.”
In our armchair sail up the Nile, we have seen more of Egypt than most ancient Egyptians did. Even if they were adventurous travelers who had gone all the way from Coptos to Memphis, or Amarna to Elephantine, they still saw the same eternally unchanging landscape—the river and the valley, the high cliffs, the desert and the sown. In the heyday of the empire a commoner might see exotic foreign lands, but usually as a soldier. And even if he did not leave his bones in the unconsecrated soil of Asia or Cush, the Egyptian hated every minute away from home. For him the world was small and serene, and blessedly predictable; and that was just the way he wanted it to be.