THE VALLEY OF THE NILE, BY JACOB ABBOTT Cleopatra



THE VALLEY OF THE NILE.

The parentage and birth of Cleopatra.--Cleopatra's residence in
Egypt.--Physical aspect of Egypt.--The eagle's wings and
science.--Physical peculiarities of Egypt connected with the laws of
rain.--General laws of rain.--Causes which modify the quantity of
rain.--Striking contrasts.--Rainless regions.--Great rainless region of
Asia and Africa.--The Andes.--Map of the rainless region.--Valley of the
Nile.--The Red Sea.--The oases.--Siweh.--Mountains of the Moon.--The
River Nile.--Incessant rains.--Inundation of the Nile.--Course of the
river.--Subsidence of the waters.--Luxuriant vegetation.--Absence of
forests.--Great antiquity of Egypt.--Her monuments.--The Delta of the
Nile.--The Delta as seen from the sea.--Pelusiac mouth of the Nile.--The
Canopic mouth.--Ancient Egypt.--The Pyramids.--Conquests of the Persians
and Macedonians.--The Ptolemies.--Founding of Alexandria.--The Pharos.

The story of Cleopatra is a story of crime. It is a narrative of the
course and the consequences of unlawful love. In her strange and
romantic history we see this passion portrayed with the most complete
and graphic fidelity in all its influences and effects; its
uncontrollable impulses, its intoxicating joys, its reckless and mad
career, and the dreadful remorse and ultimate despair and ruin in which
it always and inevitably ends.

Cleopatra was by birth an Egyptian; by ancestry and descent she was a
Greek. Thus, while Alexandria and the Delta of the Nile formed the scene
of the most important events and incidents of her history, it was the
blood of Macedon which flowed in her veins. Her character and action are
marked by the genius, the courage, the originality, and the
impulsiveness pertaining to the stock from which she sprung. The events
of her history, on the other hand, and the peculiar character of her
adventures, her sufferings, and her sins, were determined by the
circumstances with which she was surrounded, and the influences which
were brought to bear upon her in the soft and voluptuous clime where the
scenes of her early life were laid.

Egypt has always been considered as physically the most remarkable
country on the globe. It is a long and narrow valley of verdure and
fruitfulness, completely insulated from the rest of the habitable world.
It is more completely insulated, in fact, than any literal island could
be, inasmuch as deserts are more impassable than seas. The very
existence of Egypt is a most extraordinary phenomenon. If we could but
soar with the wings of an eagle into the air, and look down upon the
scene, so as to observe the operation of that grand and yet simple
process by which this long and wonderful valley, teeming so profusely
with animal and vegetable life, has been formed, and is annually
revivified and renewed, in the midst of surrounding wastes of silence,
desolation, and death, we should gaze upon it with never-ceasing
admiration and pleasure. We have not the wings of the eagle, but the
generalizations of science furnish us with a sort of substitute for
them.

The long series of patient, careful, and sagacious observations, which
have been continued now for two thousand years, bring us results, by
means of which, through our powers of mental conception, we may take a
comprehensive survey of the whole scene, analogous, in some respects, to
that which direct and actual vision would afford us, if we could look
down upon it from the eagle's point of view. It is, however, somewhat
humiliating to our pride of intellect to reflect that long-continued
philosophical investigations and learned scientific research are, in
such a case as this, after all, in some sense, only a sort of substitute
for wings. A human mind connected with a pair of eagle's wings would
have solved the mystery of Egypt in a week; whereas science, philosophy,
and research, confined to the surface of the ground, have been occupied
for twenty centuries in accomplishing the undertaking.

It is found at last that both the existence of Egypt itself, and its
strange insulation in the midst of boundless tracts of dry and barren
sand, depend upon certain remarkable results of the general laws of
rain. The water which is taken up by the atmosphere from the surface of
the sea and of the land by evaporation, falls again, under certain
circumstances, in showers of rain, the frequency and copiousness of
which vary very much in different portions of the earth. As a general
principle, rains are much more frequent and abundant near the equator
than in temperate climes, and they grow less and less so as we approach
the poles. This might naturally have been expected; for, under the
burning sun of the equator, the evaporation of water must necessarily go
on with immensely greater rapidity than in the colder zones, and all the
water which is taken up must, of course, again come down.

It is not, however, wholly by the latitude of the region in which the
evaporation takes place that the quantity of rain which falls from the
atmosphere is determined; for the condition on which the falling back,
in rain, of the water which has been taken up by evaporation mainly
depends, is the cooling of the atmospheric stratum which contains it;
and this effect is produced in very various ways, and many different
causes operate to modify it. Sometimes the stratum is cooled by being
wafted over ranges of mountains, sometimes by encountering and becoming
mingled with cooler currents of air; and sometimes, again, by being
driven in winds toward a higher, and, consequently, cooler latitude. If,
on the other hand, air moves from cold mountains toward warm and sunny
plains, or from higher latitudes to lower, or if, among the various
currents into which it falls, it becomes mixed with air warmer than
itself, its capacity for containing vapor in solution is increased, and,
consequently, instead of releasing its hold upon the waters which it has
already in possession, it becomes thirsty for more. It moves over a
country, under these circumstances, as a warm and drying wind. Under a
reverse of circumstances it would have formed drifting mists, or,
perhaps, even copious showers of rain.

It will be evident, from these considerations, that the frequency of the
showers, and the quantity of the rain which will fall, in the various
regions respectively which the surface of the earth presents, must
depend on the combined influence of many causes, such as the warmth of
the climate, the proximity and the direction of mountains and of seas,
the character of the prevailing winds, and the reflecting qualities of
the soil. These and other similar causes, it is found, do, in fact,
produce a vast difference in the quantity of rain which falls in
different regions. In the northern part of South America, where the land
is bordered on every hand by vast tropical seas, which load the hot and
thirsty air with vapor, and where the mighty Cordillera of the Andes
rears its icy summits to chill and precipitate the vapors again, a
quantity of rain amounting to more than ten feet in perpendicular height
falls in a year. At St. Petersburg, on the other hand, the quantity thus
falling in a year is but little more than one foot. The immense deluge
which pours down from the clouds in South America would, if the water
were to remain where it fell, wholly submerge and inundate the country.
As it is, in flowing off through the valleys to the sea, the united
torrents form the greatest river on the globe--the Amazon; and the
vegetation, stimulated by the heat, and nourished by the abundant and
incessant supplies of moisture, becomes so rank, and loads the earth
with such an entangled and matted mass of trunks, and stems, and twining
wreaths and vines, that man is almost excluded from the scene. The
boundless forests become a vast and almost impenetrable jungle,
abandoned to wild beasts, noxious reptiles, and huge and ferocious birds
of prey.

Of course, the district of St. Petersburg, with its icy winter, its low
and powerless sun, and its twelve inches of annual rain, must
necessarily present, in all its phenomena of vegetable and animal life,
a striking contrast to the exuberant prolificness of New Grenada. It is,
however, after all, not absolutely the opposite extreme. There are
certain regions on the surface of the earth that are actually rainless;
and it is these which present us with the true and real contrast to the
luxuriant vegetation and teeming life of the country of the Amazon. In
these rainless regions all is necessarily silence, desolation, and
death. No plant can grow; no animal can live. Man, too, is forever and
hopelessly excluded. If the exuberant abundance of animal and vegetable
life shut him out, in some measure, from regions which an excess of heat
and moisture render too prolific, the total absence of them still more
effectually forbids him a home in these. They become, therefore, vast
wastes of dry and barren sands in which no root can find nourishment,
and of dreary rocks to which not even a lichen can cling.

The most extensive and remarkable rainless region on the earth is a vast
tract extending through the interior and northern part of Africa, and
the southwestern part of Asia. The Red Sea penetrates into this tract
from the south, and thus breaks the outline and continuity of its form,
without, however, altering, or essentially modifying its character. It
divides it, however, and to the different portions which this division
forms, different names have been given. The Asiatic portion is called
Arabia Deserta; the African tract has received the name of Sahara; while
between these two, in the neighborhood of Egypt, the barren region is
called simply _the desert_. The whole tract is marked, however,
throughout, with one all-pervading character: the absence of vegetable,
and, consequently, of animal life, on account of the absence of rain.
The rising of a range of lofty mountains in the center of it, to produce
a precipitation of moisture from the air, would probably transform the
whole of the vast waste into as verdant, and fertile, and populous a
region as any on the globe.



As it is, there are no such mountains. The whole tract is nearly level,
and so little elevated above the sea, that, at the distance of many
hundred miles in the interior, the land rises only to the height of a
few hundred feet above the surface of the Mediterranean; whereas in New
Grenada, at less than one hundred miles from the sea, the chain of the
Andes rises to elevations of from ten to fifteen thousand feet. Such an
ascent as that of a few hundred feet in hundreds of miles would be
wholly imperceptible to any ordinary mode of observation; and the great
rainless region, accordingly, of Africa and Asia is, as it appears to
the traveler, one vast plain, a thousand miles wide and five thousand
miles long, with only one considerable interruption to the dead monotony
which reigns, with that exception, every where over the immense expanse
of silence and solitude. The single interval of fruitfulness and life is
the valley of the Nile.

There are, however, in fact, three interruptions to the continuity of
this plain, though only one of them constitutes any considerable
interruption to its barrenness. They are all of them valleys, extending
from north to south, and lying side by side. The most easterly of these
valleys is so deep that the waters of the ocean flow into it from the
south, forming a long and narrow inlet called the Red Sea. As this inlet
communicates freely with the ocean, it is always nearly of the same
level, and as the evaporation from it is not sufficient to produce rain,
it does not even fertilize its own shores. Its presence varies the
dreary scenery of the landscape, it is true, by giving us surging waters
to look upon instead of driving sands; but this is all. With the
exception of the spectacle of an English steamer passing, at weary
intervals, over its dreary expanse, and some moldering remains of
ancient cities on its eastern shore, it affords scarcely any indications
of life. It does very little, therefore, to relieve the monotonous
aspect of solitude and desolation which reigns over the region into
which it has intruded.

The most westerly of the three valleys to which we have alluded is only
a slight depression of the surface of the land marked by a line of
_oases_. The depression is not sufficient to admit the waters of the
Mediterranean, nor are there any rains over any portion of the valley
which it forms sufficient to make it the bed of a stream. Springs issue,
however, here and there, in several places, from the ground, and,
percolating through the sands along the valley, give fertility to little
dells, long and narrow, which, by the contrast that they form with the
surrounding desolation, seem to the traveler to possess the verdure and
beauty of Paradise. There is a line of these oases extending along this
westerly depression, and some of them are of considerable extent. The
oasis of Siweh, on which stood the far-famed temple of Jupiter Ammon,
was many miles in extent, and was said to have contained in ancient
times a population of eight thousand souls. Thus, while the most
easterly of the three valleys which we have named was sunk so low as to
admit the ocean to flow freely into it, the most westerly was so
slightly depressed that it gained only a circumscribed and limited
fertility through the springs, which, in the lowest portions of it,
oozed from the ground. The third valley--the central one--remains now to
be described.

The reader will observe, by referring once more to the map, that south
of the great rainless region of which we are speaking, there lie groups
and ranges of mountains in Abyssinia, called the Mountains of the Moon.
These mountains are near the equator, and the relation which they
sustain to the surrounding seas, and to currents of wind which blow in
that quarter of the world, is such, that they bring down from the
atmosphere, especially in certain seasons of the year, vast and
continual torrents of rain. The water which thus falls drenches the
mountain sides and deluges the valleys. There is a great portion of it
which can not flow to the southward or eastward toward the sea, as the
whole country consists, in those directions, of continuous tracts of
elevated land. The rush of water thus turns to the northward, and,
pressing on across the desert through the great central valley which we
have referred to above, it finds an outlet, at last, in the
Mediterranean, at a point two thousand miles distant from the place
where the immense condenser drew it from the skies. The river thus
created is the Nile. It is formed, in a word, by the surplus waters of a
district inundated with rains, in their progress across a rainless
desert, seeking the sea.

If the surplus of water upon the Abyssinian mountains had been constant
and uniform, the stream, in its passage across the desert, would have
communicated very little fertility to the barren sands which it
traversed. The immediate banks of the river would have, perhaps, been
fringed with verdure, but the influence of the irrigation would have
extended no farther than the water itself could have reached, by
percolation through the sand. But the flow of the water is not thus
uniform and steady. In a certain season of the year the rains are
incessant, and they descend with such abundance and profusion as almost
to inundate the districts where they fall. Immense torrents stream down
the mountain sides; the valleys are deluged; plains turn into morasses,
and morasses into lakes. In a word, the country becomes half submerged,
and the accumulated mass of waters would rush with great force and
violence down the central valley of the desert, which forms their only
outlet, if the passage were narrow, and if it made any considerable
descent in its course to the sea. It is, however, not narrow, and the
descent is very small. The depression in the surface of the desert,
through which the water flows, is from five to ten miles wide, and,
though it is nearly two thousand miles from the rainy district across
the desert to the sea, the country for the whole distance is almost
level. There is only sufficient descent, especially for the last
thousand miles, to determine a very gentle current to the northward in
the waters of the stream.

Under these circumstances, the immense quantity of water which falls in
the rainy district in these inundating tropical showers, expands over
the whole valley, and forms for a time an immense lake, extending in
length across the whole breadth of the desert. This lake is, of course,
from five to ten miles wide, and a thousand miles long. The water in it
is shallow and turbid, and it has a gentle current toward the north. The
rains, at length, in a great measure cease; but it requires some months
for the water to run off and leave the valley dry. As soon as it is
gone, there springs up from the whole surface of the ground which has
been thus submerged a most rank and luxuriant vegetation.

This vegetation, now wholly regulated and controlled by the hand of man,
must have been, in its original and primeval state, of a very peculiar
character. It must have consisted of such plants only as could exist
under the condition of having the soil in Which they grew laid, for a
quarter of the year, wholly under water. This circumstance, probably,
prevented the valley of the Nile from having been, like other fertile
tracts of land, encumbered, in its native state, with forests. For the
same reason, wild beasts could never have haunted it. There were no
forests to shelter them, and no refuge or retreat for them but the dry
and barren desert, during the period of the annual inundations. This
most extraordinary valley seems thus to have been formed and preserved
by Nature herself for the special possession of man. She herself seems
to have held it in reserve for him from the very morning of creation,
refusing admission into it to every plant and every animal that might
hinder or disturb his occupancy and control. And if he were to abandon
it now for a thousand years, and then return to it once more, he would
find it just as he left it, ready for his immediate possession. There
would be no wild beasts that he must first expel, and no tangled forests
would have sprung up, that his ax must first remove. Nature is the
husbandman who keeps this garden of the world in order, and the means
and machinery by which she operates are the grand evaporating surfaces
of the seas, the beams of the tropical sun, the lofty summits of the
Abyssinian Mountains, and, as the product and result of all this
instrumentality, great periodical inundations of summer rain.

For these or some other reasons Egypt has been occupied by man from the
most remote antiquity. The oldest records of the human race, made three
thousand years ago, speak of Egypt as ancient then, when they were
written. Not only is Tradition silent, but even Fable herself does not
attempt to tell the story of the origin of her population. Here stand
the oldest and most enduring monuments that human power has ever been
able to raise. It is, however, somewhat humiliating to the pride of the
race to reflect that the loftiest and proudest, as well as the most
permanent and stable of all the works which man has ever accomplished,
are but the incidents and adjuncts of a thin stratum of alluvial
fertility, left upon the sands by the subsiding waters of summer
showers.

The most important portion of the alluvion of the Nile is the northern
portion, where the valley widens and opens toward the sea, forming a
triangular plain of about one hundred miles in length on each of the
sides, over which the waters of the river flow in a great number of
separate creeks and channels. The whole area forms a vast meadow,
intersected every where with slow-flowing streams of water, and
presenting on its surface the most enchanting pictures of fertility,
abundance, and beauty. This region is called the Delta of the Nile.

The sea upon the coast is shallow, and the fertile country formed by the
deposits of the river seems to have projected somewhat beyond the line
of the coast; although, as the land has not advanced perceptibly for the
last eighteen hundred years, it may be somewhat doubtful whether the
whole of the apparent protrusion is not due to the natural conformation
of the coast, rather than to any changes made by the action of the
river.

The Delta of the Nile is so level itself, and so little raised above the
level of the Mediterranean, that the land seems almost a continuation of
the same surface with the sea, only, instead of blue waters topped with
white-crested waves, we have broad tracts of waving grain, and gentle
swells of land crowned with hamlets and villages. In approaching the
coast, the navigator has no distant view of all this verdure and beauty.
It lies so low that it continues beneath the horizon until the ship is
close upon the shore. The first landmarks, in fact, which the seaman
makes, are the tops of trees growing apparently out of the water, or the
summit of an obelisk, or the capital of a pillar, marking the site of
some ancient and dilapidated city.

The most easterly of the channels by which the waters of the river find
their way through the Delta to the sea, is called, as it will be seen
marked upon the map, the Pelusiac branch. It forms almost the boundary
of the fertile region of the Delta on the eastern side. There was an
ancient city named Pelusium near the mouth of it. This was, of course,
the first Egyptian city reached by those who arrived by land from the
eastward, traveling along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. On
account of its thus marking the eastern frontier of the country, it
became a point of great importance, and is often mentioned in the
histories of ancient times.

The westernmost mouth of the Nile, on the other hand, was called the
Canopic mouth. The distance along the coast from the Canopic mouth to
Pelusium was about a hundred miles. The outline of the coast was
formerly, as it still continues to be, very irregular, and the water
shallow. Extended banks of sand protruded into the sea, and the sea
itself, as if in retaliation, formed innumerable creeks, and inlets, and
lagoons in the land. Along this irregular and uncertain boundary the
waters of the Nile and the surges of the Mediterranean kept up an
eternal war, with energies so nearly equal, that now, after the lapse of
eighteen hundred years since the state of the contest began to be
recorded, neither side has been found to have gained any perceptible
advantage over the other. The river brings the sands down, and the sea
drives them incessantly back, keeping the whole line of the shore in
such a condition as to make it extremely dangerous and difficult of
access to man.

It will be obvious, from this description of the valley of the Nile,
that it formed a country which in ancient times isolated and secluded,
in a very striking manner, from all the rest of the world. It was wholly
shut in by deserts, on every side, by land; and the shoals, and
sand-bars, and other dangers of navigation which marked the line of the
coast, seemed to forbid approach by sea. Here it remained for many ages,
under the rule of its own native ancient kings. Its population was
peaceful and industrious. Its scholars were famed throughout the world
for their learning, their science, and their philosophy.

It was in these ages, before other nations had intruded upon its
peaceful seclusion, that the Pyramids were built, and the enormous
monoliths carved, and those vast temples reared whose ruined columns are
now the wonder of mankind. During these remote ages, too, Egypt was, as
now, the land of perpetual fertility and abundance. There would always
be corn in Egypt, wherever else famine might rage. The neighboring
nations and tribes in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria, found their way to
it, accordingly, across the deserts on the eastern side, when driven by
want, and thus opened a way of communication. At length the Persian
monarchs, after extending their empire westward to the Mediterranean,
found access by the same road to Pelusium, and thence overran and
conquered the country. At last, about two hundred and fifty years before
the time of Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, when he subverted the
Persian empire, took possession of Egypt, and annexed it, among the
other Persian provinces, to his own dominions. At the division of
Alexander's empire, after his death, Egypt fell to one of his generals,
named Ptolemy. Ptolemy made it his kingdom, and left it, at his death,
to his heirs. A long line of sovereigns succeeded him, known in history
as the dynasty of the Ptolemies--Greek princes, reigning over an
Egyptian realm. Cleopatra was the daughter of the eleventh in the line.

The capital of the Ptolemies was Alexandria. Until the time of
Alexander's conquest, Egypt had no sea-port. There were several
landing-places along the coast, but no proper harbor. In fact Egypt had
then so little commercial intercourse with the rest of the world, that
she scarcely needed any. Alexander's engineers, however, in exploring
the shore, found a point not far from the Canopic mouth of the Nile
where the water was deep, and where there was an anchorage ground
protected by an island. Alexander founded a city there, which he called
by his own name. He perfected the harbor by artificial excavations and
embankments. A lofty light-house was reared, which formed a landmark by
day, and exhibited a blazing star by night to guide the galleys of the
Mediterranean in. A canal was made to connect the port with the Nile,
and warehouses were erected to contain the stores of merchandise. In a
word, Alexandria became at once a great commercial capital. It was the
seat, for several centuries, of the magnificent government of the
Ptolemies; and so well was its situation chosen for the purposes
intended, that it still continues, after the lapse of twenty centuries
of revolution and change, one of the principal emporiums of the commerce
of the East.

Fuente: Proyecto gutenberg
 www.gutenberg.net

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